Sierra Leone and the spectre of electoral violence

In which I hold forth about the situation in a country where I’ve spent a mere three months over five years. So this is tube-written opinionising not in depth, on the ground knowledge.

Sierra Leone is holding elections very soon and I was alerted to a fund raising campaign by  the Canadian NGO Journalists for Human Rights via Anthony Zacharzewski‘s post on the Demsoc blog. That’s an appeal to raise a not insignificant amount of money with the aim of supporting local media in order to prevent a return to violence.

Two things strike me about this.

Thing One

Compared to other post-conflict states Sierra Leone’s peace has been placid. Whilst there were tensions in 2008 this is a country where small arms ownership is low and a country that is no longer bordered by destabilising forces.

But the pattern of activity over the last 12 months suggests that something more serious could be brewing ($5m worth of heavy weapons is particularly disquieting).

This is more serious than NGOs trying to maintain their programmes by appealing to the spectre of conflict. This is not a lazy belief that ‘once a failed state, always on the brink of failing again’.

Thing Two

In 2007 I spent six weeks in Sierra Leone preparing the research for my dissertation. In it I wrestled with the relationship between localised, relational peace building and more formal, centralised activity and how that can turn ‘peace’ into something consumable rather than an ethereal idea. I was encouraged by what I saw.

…six years on from the conflict and with successful domestic elections behind them, the people of the country have shown they are capable of building a sustainable ‘peace’. Their next challenge is to tackle the difficulties of development… (Bridging the ‘peace gap’ in Sierra Leone (PDF), 2007)

Fives years later peace has persisted. The last election saw a peaceful transfer of power. This will be the third time the country goes to the polls. That’s a long period of post-war stability. At the same time there has been international attention, goodwill, focus and money.

If there is a genuine prospect of violence the country slipping back into conflict then what good all of that?

During the course of Hull City Council’s work with Freetown City Council (of which more soon) I saw a city struggling to keep its head above water. Infrastructure, logistics, waste, sanitation, water, etc were undermined by poor decision making (often by external forces). The recent cholera epidemic has been exacerbated by a failure to tackle the bread and butter of infrastructure. Sierra Leone is smaller than Scotland – those challenges should not be insurmountable.

If violence returns I don’t believe it will be part of any Civil War related grievance. If violence returns it will be because of a dissatisfaction with the fruits of peace. Because the promise of ‘peace done come’ will not have been met by a reality of transformed circumstances for its victims. If the fears of JHR are realised then serious, serious questions need to be asked about how we handle post-conflict development.

If it’s not possible to build lasting peace through development in a country this size then what has been going on for the past decade?

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...