39. A tale of two cities

Author: Prof Adekeye Adebajo
06 March, 2018
Guardian Nigeria
Image supplied by: 
mshahawy via Twenty20

Over the last two decades, it has been the best of times in the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown, and the worst of times in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Both capitals – where much of the population of West Africa’s tragic twins live – have symbolized contrasting fortunes.

While devastating civil wars broke out in the two countries by 1991 – killing an estimated 250,000 people in Liberia and 70,000 in Sierra Leone, before being stemmed by Nigerian-led regional peacekeepers – Sierra Leone’s civil war ended in 2002, and the country is headed for its fourth democratic election on 7 March.

Liberia’s civil war was, however, reignited in 2001 under warlord-turned-president, Charles Taylor, eventually ending only with Taylor’s exit into Nigerian exile two years later.

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected female president in Liberia in 2005, and handed over power in January to former football superstar, George Weah, after 12 years in office. On the positive side, the country’s external debt of $5.8 billion was forgiven through Johnson-Sirleaf’s prodigious networking. Over $16 billion in direct foreign investments (including by steel giant, ArcelorMittal) also flowed in, while an inherited $80 million budget had risen to $600 million by 2017.

United Nations peacekeepers, who guaranteed security in Liberia amid continuing ethnic and religious tensions, an insecure border, and a weak police force, have now mostly departed.

Most former combatants have, however, not been provided employment, leading to fears of future instability. Johnson-Sirleaf’s government was also accused of corruption and nepotism.

Though controversially awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 – a few days before presidential elections – and though adored by infatuated Western donors, her reputation in Liberia and West Africa is much more negative.

The real mystery is, however, why neighbouring diamond-rich Sierra Leone remained stable 12 years after UN peacekeepers left the country, and 16 years after the end of a devastating 11-year civil war. Though the world body had spent $5 billion in Sierra Leone over six years, much of this went towards its peacekeeping mission rather than to rebuild the shattered country.

Considering that many of the same conditions existed in post-war Sierra Leone as existed in Liberia – massive youth unemployment; poor governance and corruption; regional and ethnic divisions; and 70 percent of the population living in poverty – what factors explain the reasons why Sierra Leone did not slide back into conflict?

One crucial but often overlooked source of Sierra Leone’s stability has been its active civil society sector.

The country’s civic groups had opposed Siaka Stevens’ one-party rule between 1968 and 1985; they were instrumental in pressuring the military to leave power in 1996; and during Sierra Leone’s civil war, they sought to hold successive governments accountable. Before elections in 2007 and 2012, these groups held several peace marches throughout the country.

Sierra Leone’s associational life has historically also included long-standing church groups, Islamic fraternities, initiation societies, sports clubs, and credit clubs which have all demonstrated impressive resilience and resourcefulness in holding society together.

One sector that post-war governments in Freetown prioritised was the critical area of education, with 20% of expenditure going to this sector by 2006. As Sierra Leonean scholar, Ismail Rashid, also insightfully noted, while there has been widespread youth unemployment in post-war Sierra Leone, there has not been large-scale youth destitution.

The country’s youths have been resourceful at engaging in such activities as petty trading, street-hawking, and driving okada taxis.

Despite these positive developments, governmental corruption, has, however, remained rife, and politicians have periodically fanned ethnic divisions.

A plethora of international actors were involved in assisting Sierra Leone’s peacebuilding efforts. Led by the UN, these donors also included the African Development Bank, the World Bank, and Western governments.

Though the support provided by these partners was useful in keeping the fragile peace, the amounts provided were often derisory and clearly insufficient for transforming Sierra Leone’s institutions in ways that could ensure sustainable peace. The rhetoric of external donors has always been more impressive than their provision of resources.

For both Sierra Leone and Liberia to remain stable, serious financial support will need to be provided by regional and external actors to enable domestic actors to transform rather than merely stabilize their still fragile states.

Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa.