UN in post-war reconstruction: Sierra Leone’s success story

By Kingsley Ighobor and Michael Fleshman

“The war is over, go and enjoy life,” Sierra Leone’s former president, Ahmad Tejan

Kabbah, declared at a January 2002 symbolic burning of weapons and ammunition to mark the

end of the country’s civil war. As smoke from the weapons spiralled away at Lungi, in eastern

Sierra Leone, he added: “The curfew is hereby lifted.” Sierra Leoneans celebrated the end of a

decade-old war that had killed 150,000 people and wrecked the country’s social infrastructure.

A massive UN peacekeeping operation involving 17,000 troops had disarmed 45,000

combatants, including 6,774 child soldiers. In 2006, UN troops began to withdraw, despite

concerns that Sierra Leone’s weak national institutions could not undertake the task of

reconstruction on their own. The UN Security Council referred these concerns to the UN

Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). In December 2006 the PBC approved $35 million to

support programmes for capacity building, democracy, good governance, justice, security,

youth employment and other tasks.

Sierra Leone was one of the Commission’s first beneficiaries. The Security Council

established the Commission in December 2005 to coordinate with international donors,

financial institutions, governments and troop-contributing countries to “marshal resources” and

develop “integrated strategies for post-conflict peacebuilding and recovery.”

Countries emerging from conflict need peacebuilding, argues Michael Von

Schulenburg, the executive representative of the UN Secretary-General in Sierra Leone

and head of the country’s peacebuilding programme. “Peacebuilding is access to water, to

education, to basic health care — access to opportunities,” Mr. Von Schulenburg explains in an

interview with Africa Renewal.

The transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding is often difficult, notes Mr. Von

Schulenburg. But it is essential to enable the UN to better align its priorities with socio-

economic and political needs of a country after war.

Mr. Von Schulenburg believes that Sierra Leone has had an exemplary peacebuilding

programme. “We don’t have armed groups,” he says. “They are all integrated. And the

combatants have not become criminals, as so often happens.” The UN has also implemented a

community small-arms collection programme, to gather up weapons not handed in during the

formal disarmament exercise.

According to a 2009 evaluation of peacebuilding projects commissioned by the Sierra

Leonean government, the UN Integrated Office for Peacebuilding in Sierra Leone and the

Peacebuilding Support Office in New York, many of the key goals have been met. The UN

Development Programme, which managed most of the projects, achieved an 87 per cent

completion rate. “Measured on the scale of budget delivery, this is clearly a remarkable

performance,” states the evaluation.

An emergency programme to support the energy sector brought an increase in power

capacity from 25 megawatts to 31 megawatts in the capital, Freetown, and from 0.5 megawatts

to 5 megawatts in Bo and Kenema, two of Sierra Leone’s larger cities. A project aimed at

promoting youth empowerment through micro-credit benefited 4,500 young women, placed

1,000 unskilled youths in training institutions and 300 others in apprenticeship programmes in

official institutions.

To enhance capacity in the justice system, another project supported the training and

hiring of senior barristers, legal officers, state counsels, clerks and support staff. As a result,

a backlog of 700 cases was cleared within two years, and current court cases are being heard

much faster.

Mr. Von Schulenburg has recommended that peacebuilding operations in Sierra Leone

conclude in 2013. A decision on the end date will be taken by the Security Council. But even if

the peacebuilding activities wind down, regular UN agencies will continue their support for the

country’s development efforts, he adds.

The general elections in 2012 will test Sierra Leone’s nascent democracy. There are

concerns that the elections could lead to violence. Mr. Von Schulenburg maintains that such

concerns are justified, but manageable citing the success of a recent by-election in a diamond

district with high unemployment.

There is a huge unemployment challenge in Sierra Leone, however. In 2010 the World

Bank estimated Sierra Leone’s unemployment at 80 per cent. During a visit in 2007, UN

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also raised concerns about the country’s high unemployment.

Sierra Leone’s main income-generating sources are in the extractive sector — gold,

diamonds, bauxite and rutile. But as a 2011 report by experts of the United Nations Economic

Commission for Africa and the African Union pointed out, in Africa investments have been

mainly in the extractive sector, which produces few jobs (see Africa Renewal Online).

Preparing Sierra Leone for an economic boom will be vital for preventing future

conflicts. The country’s abundant natural resources include “Gold, iron ore, diamonds,

titanium, bauxite, you name it. Now oil and gas, potentially,” he notes. “So this country could

become very rich suddenly. And how do you manage these?”

Currently, the data on the country’s untapped wealth contrasts starkly with the poor

state of its social development. A 2011 World Bank report states that life expectancy in

Sierra Leone is 48 years, while the adult literacy rate is only 41 per cent. If used properly, the

proceeds from Sierra Leone’s natural resources can help alter such indicators.

If the Peacebuilding Commission closes shop in 2013, as Mr. Von Schulenburg

anticipates, the UN can lay claim to a number of achievements: disarming ex-combatants,

supporting the consolidation of democracy and promoting a growing economy. Next year,

the World Bank forecasts, the economy will grow by another 8.8 per cent. With the right

preparations, the anticipated economic boom may hold more lessons for countries that were

once torn apart by civil strife.

Africa Renewal www.un.org/africarenewal

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