ICG Crisis Brief front page...
  Newsletter of the International Crisis Group Issue 1, May 1997     

by Charles Radcliffe

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Bosnia: peace effort falters
A Statement by the International Crisis Group

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Saving Lives from disaster
an obituary of Nicholas Hinton
by William Shawcross

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Chaos in Central Africa
by David Shearer

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Liberia: railroading peace
by Victor Tanner

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Hope and fear in Sierra Leone
by Charles Radcliffe

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Charles Radcliffe

Production Assistant:
Simon Sheehan

Unless otherwise stated, the views expressed in Crisisbrief are the personal opinions of the authors and do not necessarily represent the position of the International Crisis Group.


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Hope and fear in Sierra Leone

by Charles Radcliffe

Sierra Leone has come a long way in 18 months. Its success in shaking off thirty years of corrupt military dictatorship and laying the foundations for a peaceful and democratic future is impressive by any measure. The country once routinely written off as a "basket-case" has more recently been talked of as a possible new model for west Africa, "a beacon of hope" in an otherwise dim part of the continent. Promising as it is, however, Sierra Leone still has a long way to go.

ICG has had a front-row view of events in Sierra Leone since November 1995 when ICG field staff first arrived in the country. The organisation's evolving analysis of the situation, transmitted to concerned decision-takers both directly and via members of the ICG Board, has been helpful in shaping international policy at a number of critical moments.

In late 1995, for example, in the face of international controversy about the wisdom of going ahead with elections in Sierra Leone while civil war still raged, ICG threw the weight of its efforts behind the push for elections. ICG rejected the argument that elections should wait for peace, insisting instead that there could be no peace until a democratically-elected, legitimate national government was in place. ICG Board members urged western governments to support the elections and contribute financially to an election fund and to step up levels of humanitarian aid to help relieve the refugee crisis.

At the same time, in an effort to increase the scrutiny of the local leadership, ICG helped bring international television news journalists to Sierra Leone. In the months leading up to the elections, CNN as well as British, French, Canadian TV news crews were all stationed in Freetown and it is fair to say that the country received more international exposure during that period than it had in the previous thirty years. The effect was dramatic. The military leadership felt the eyes of the world upon it. Rumours of coups and counter-coups were held in check by the very public statements of the country's leaders to proceed with elections. The presence of the cameras effectively steadied nerves at a time when panic might easily have set in.

Sierra Leone elections, 1996
March 1996: Voters queue at a Freetown polling station to vote in Sierra Leone's first democratic elections for 30 years

Elections were successfully held in March 1996, marking the end of military rule and the installation of Sierra Leone's first democratically-elected government for thirty years. While the outcome was a triumph for democracy, ICG was keen to stress that it represented the beginning and not the end of the solution to the country's difficulties. The new government was at once fragile, inexperienced and in need of both support and scrutiny. So ICG stayed on, bringing together a group of local civic leaders to found a new NGO, the Campaign for Good Governance. Over the past year, the Campaign has spearheaded a nation-wide effort to turn around the whole culture of governance-among both Sierra Leone's political elite and the public at large. Seminars have been held for the country's new crop of politicians and senior bureaucrats stressing issues such as political accountability, the legislative process, the rule of law and citizens' rights. Training programs have also been run for local journalists. And, lately, the Campaign has launched a major civic education campaign to help raise democratic awareness among members of the public.

Today, Sierra Leone has travelled a long way down the path towards greater stability, democracy and economic activity. Many miles lie ahead, however, before it can be said with real confidence that the country is no longer at risk of regression. The country remains a conundrum of hope and fear. True, the government elected in March 1996 has performed relatively well, surviving intact over the last 14 months and with every prospect of lasting some time longer. But government corruption has not been stamped out and campaigners for greater openness and accountability in government, including leaders of the ICG-backed Campaign for Good Governance, warn of the risk of this government falling back into the bad old habits of its predecessors.

The other success of the last 18 months-the striking of a peace deal between the new government and the RUF rebel movement-is also looking shakier than might have been hoped. The RUF remains intransigent in negotiations on how the peace agreement should be implemented. Divisions within the RUF, compounded by the recent detention in Nigeria of the deposed but still-influential rebel leader Foday Sankoh, have deadlocked discussions. There are real fears that in the absence of a breakthrough, widespread, violent conflict could yet return to the country.

During 1997, ICG will retain a watching brief on Sierra Leone, gathering information and releasing detailed policy analyses on a regular basis. The organisation's current focus is on the state of the country's labour market and system of vocational education and training. ICG Board members will continue to be active in bringing important issues requiring action to the attention of international decision-takers.

Since this article was written, Sierra Leone has experienced a military coup and the majority of foreign aid workers and diplomats have left the country. Freetown remains in a state of fear, with reports of widespread looting, although the wider ramifications of the coup are as yet unclear.

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