Sierra Leone: From Swords into Ploughshares

sierra-leone-bio-koroma-election-civil-war“No Bio, no Salone!” shouted fervent supporters of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) as results were announced from the November 2012 presidential election. The party’s leader, Julius Maada Bio, had been defeated by incumbent President Ernest Bai Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC).

Salone, as locals affectionately call their homeland, returned temporarily to a state of political and social tension. In order to appease hostilities, Bio and Koroma appeared on television thereafter to announce the SLPP’s acceptance of the results. Nonetheless, in a capricious twist, Bio and his party later appealed to the Supreme Court to review the election results.

In April 2013, five months after the election, the Supreme Court adjourned the case indefinitely, and the elected president could finally begin his task of governing. After the period of turmoil, the country was left with a question: Is “Salone with no Bio” a viable prospect for peace and development in Sierra Leone?

The ghastly conflict

Just over a decade ago, Sierra Leone was still immersed in one of the most gruesome conflicts of modern times. A complex civil war ravaged the country between 1991 and 2002. Before 1991, Sierra Leone’s state structures were imploding, and the state barely reached into the provinces. The failures of the existing one-party system, combined with endemic corruption, created a toxic political, economic, and social climate.

Foday Sankoh, a former army corporal, was the first to take advantage of the crumbling state. He formed the Revolutionary United Front, an armed group that, in cooperation with the National Patriotic Front of Liberia led by Charles Taylor, aimed to overthrow Sierra Leone’s president. Their campaign began in 1991 with the seizure of a number of villages along Sierra Leone’s border with Liberia and marked the beginning of the civil war.

During the five years that followed, the civil war escalated and the conflict produced extraordinary acts of brutality. At the epicentre of some the most horrific atrocities was the struggle for control of the diamond mines, the source of the “blood diamonds” used to fund the activities of rebel groups.

By 1996, Sierra Leone’s central state was in ruins. Under these circumstances, Bio, then a brigadier general, prompted a coup d’état with the aim to reform the central state and transfer power to a civilian government. As the new head of state, Bio’s biggest achievement during his three-month tenure was to organize the first multi-party election since 1967, which was won by Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP.

However, peace was again short-lived. In 1997, a new coup d’état took place, which at last prompted the international community to take a stronger stand on the unfolding conflict. The Commonwealth of Nations was the first to react, and decided to suspend Sierra Leone from the organization. The United Nations Security Council followed suit and imposed severe sanctions on Sierra Leone. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decided to take more concrete measures and intervened militarily to restore Kabbah to power as the country’s democratically elected president.

Nevertheless, Kabbah’s return to power was immediately challenged by armed rebel groups. In the course of the following two years, these groups clashed violently with ECOWAS and army troops, leaving an increasingly horrific imprint on the seemingly endless civil war. It was only at the end of 1999 that Kabbah and his adversaries hammered out a peace deal that included the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNAMSIL) in Sierra Leone to police the agreement and replace ECOWAS troops.

At once, UNAMSIL attempted to seize the diamond fields to dry up the rebels’ financial resources. The immediate result was a considerable escalation of the conflict, where United Nations peacekeepers, international aid workers, and some newly arrived British troops were regularly taken hostage by rebel groups. However, international troops and the Sierra Leone army gained ground gradually and a new peace deal was signed in November of 2000.

Based on the principles of the new peace deal, UNAMSIL started its disarmament campaign in early 2001. On January 5, 2002, the UNAMSIL commander declared the official end of the civil war. By then, it was estimated that at least 50,000 people had died, hundreds of thousands had been affected by the violence, and around 2 million people had been displaced by the conflict.

The road to peace, democratic rule, and economic recovery

Following the end of the civil war, elections were held in May 2002. Kabbah won and focused his mandate on reconciliation, internal security, and economic recovery and reform. With substantial assistance from international donors, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, a Truth and Reconciliation Committee and a UN-sponsored war crimes tribunal were established in mid-2002. UNAMSIL made a commitment to have its troops on the ground until December 2005. Progressively, Sierra Leone embarked on the road to democratic rule and economic recovery.

In 2007, Sierra Leoneans were called again to the polls. In a break with the past, the APC gathered more votes than the SLPP, and Ernest Bai Koroma became the new president. The election outcome resulted from an SLPP split that led to the creation of a new party, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change, and the apparent will of the electorate to move away from the SLPP’s traditional hold on government.

Over the following five years, Sierra Leone set out on a distinct political and economic course. President Koroma focused on rebuilding national infrastructure, fighting corruption, and improving the national health system. Additionally, Koroma opted to open Sierra Leone’s markets in order to attract foreign investment. By doing so, Koroma combined significant assistance from traditional international donors with the opening of the Sierra Leonean market economy to its closest partners, countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and most recently, China.

By the time Sierra Leone began to prepare for the November 2012 elections, the dominant concern for both the country and the international community was how the elections could affect Sierra Leone’s peace and development process. Was Sierra Leone ready to continue down the path of reconciliation and reconstruction, or was the country going to awaken the ghosts of the recent past and bring peace and development to a halt? At the center of any possible outcome lay the link between politics and ethnicity, the behavior of the main political parties (SLPP and APC), and the strategic approach of each main candidate (Bio and Koroma) before, during, and following the elections.

Politics and ethnicity remain inseparable in Sierra Leone. Traditionally, the Temne and Limba ethnic groups from the North of the country support the APC, whereas the Mende from the South champion the SLPP. As a result, since independence, elections in Sierra Leone have consistently shown a similar divide in how the APC and the SLPP score in the polls, with the SLPP maintaining the upper hand and the APC largely playing the opposition role.

Due to the ethnic fabric of the country and the SLPP’s historical predominance in national politics, it appeared unlikely that the APC and Koroma could secure a second mandate in office. Bio appeared to build his electoral campaign based on those factors alone, in the belief that they would ultimately secure him victory in the polls. However, Koroma and his party displayed a more astute strategy in preparation for the 2012 elections. They focused their attention on promoting the massive registration of Temne and Limba voters, attracting swing voters, and campaigning hard in traditional SLPP strongholds. By doing so, they aimed to take Bio and the SLPP by surprise, and guarantee a second term for Koroma.

As the APC implemented its shrewd strategy and made use of its considerably larger campaign resources, Bio appeared to continue to rely excessively on the historical dominance of his party in Sierra Leone’s politics and on the traditional support it enjoyed across the country. As a result, he failed to promote the mass registration of Mende voters, attract swing voters, or make inroads in traditional APC strongholds. Furthermore, Bio did not appear to generate the level of enthusiasm and support within the SLPP party ranks enjoyed by previous candidates.

Following an impressive voter turnout, Koroma gathered 58.7 percent of the total vote, while Bio secured 37.4 percent. The reports of the leading international observation missions present in the country—the Carter Center, the U.S. Embassy, the European Union, and ECOWAS—promptly gave the presidential election a clean bill of health.

However, Bio and the SLPP rejected the election outcome at once. The party released a press statement on the day after announcement of the results. It claimed that the voting process had been marred by serious irregularities and malpractices, and urged its members to boycott all parliament and local council proceedings until further notice. As a result, tension rose considerably across Sierra Leone, and violent clashes erupted between SLPP and APC supporters, as well as between SLPP supporters and the police and military forces. The police imposed curfew on various cities across the country, and for some time tension continued to escalate.

With the ghosts of the recent past posing a significant threat to peace and development in Sierra Leone, a closed-door meeting between Bio and Koroma settled the emerging dispute. They confirmed the deal on December 3, 2012 in a press conference, broadcasted live on television. Together they attested to the SLPP’s acceptance of the outcome of the presidential election and the decision of the ACP and SLPP to cooperate politically in the upcoming years. The details of the agreement between Koroma and Bio remain unknown to the general public, but both candidates succeeded in appeasing their fervent supporters.

Nonetheless, the months following the two parties’ agreement saw further complications. Koroma thoroughly reshuffled the ministerial cabinet, a process that proved lengthy and complex, as his new ministers had to be interviewed and approved by parliament before they could be sworn into office. As a result, Koroma’s official inauguration ceremony did not take place until February 22, 2013. Meanwhile, Bio and the SLPP changed tactics, and in late February 2013 they decided to launch a petition in the Supreme Court to review the presidential election results. The Supreme Court’s official reaction came only in late April 2013, when it decided to adjourn the case indefinitely due to the accusing party’s non-compliance with Supreme Court’s rules.

For all these reasons, it was not until May 2013 that Koroma started to implement his mandate in earnest.

The path ahead

Following the Supreme Court’s decision and the forming of Koroma’s new ministerial cabinet, “Salone with no Bio” appears to provide a viable prospect for peace and development in the country. Nevertheless, Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries in the world, and a fragile post-conflict democracy characterized by a complex link between national politics and ethnicity. The maturing of peace and development in Sierra Leone will depend on Koroma’s governance agenda, renewed assistance from international donors, and the continuing attraction of foreign direct investment.

In the next five years, Koroma should promote ethnic inclusion, the maturing of the multi-party democratic system, the curbing of corruption, and additional development initiatives. In that way, he can move away from the exclusionary “winner takes all” approach that has characterised Sierra Leonean politics since independence. In its place, Koroma should stimulate ethnic and tribal inclusion as a means to improve social integration, governance, and development.

Throughout that process, Koroma and the APC party should remain tolerant of the opposition and refrain from using their power to move toward any political system other than a multi-party democratic system. The SLPP should reorganize and restructure itself to play a strong opposition role, to hold the government accountable for its actions and decisions, and to demand transparency.

Additionally, Koroma should balance the country’s assistance from international donors and the promotion of foreign direct investment. For that purpose, Koroma should continue to cooperate with international donors to reform and strengthen government institutions, the police, and military forces. At the same time, international donors such as the United States and the United Kingdom should respond positively by renewing their commitment to support Sierra Leone’s progress into one of the most stable and democratic countries in a volatile region.

Under these circumstances, Koroma can foster foreign direct investment and stimulate further development across the country. In so doing, he should concentrate on sectors that can provide the state with the largest returns, such as mineral extraction, agriculture, and fisheries. He should further generate long-term partnerships with foreign investors to continue to improve the country’s large-scale infrastructure and electricity supply. To ensure the success of these development initiatives, Koroma should continue to curb governmental and private sector corruption, which thus far remains endemic.

Tiago Faia is a researcher and consultant in international development cooperation, and author of the book Exporting paradise? EU Development Policy towards Africa Since the End of the Cold War. He served as an election observer with the Carter Center in Sierra Leone.