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Sierra Leone: Ripe for Elections?


The news is mostly good from Sierra Leone where significant strides are being made in the peace process. With the arrival of a Nepali battalion, the United Nations Mission (UNAMSIL) has nearly reached its force ceiling of 17,500. The disarmament process has been completed everywhere except the eastern districts of Kenema and Kailahun. It had stalled there for three weeks because the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel command was unhappy with the outcome of the 13-15 November National Consultative Conference (NCC) on the timeframe for presidential and parliamentary elections, which it felt – with some reason – had been stage-managed by the government. The RUF had also been strongly rebuffed by the international community when it returned for the first time in months to the demand that its leader, Foday Sankoh, be released from prison.

The RUF has little leverage right now because it is clearly losing strength as a military organisation. Many seasoned fighters who have not disarmed and accepted the programs on offer for reintegration into society are leaving to take up lucrative mercenary jobs with Charles Taylor, the hard-pressed president of Liberia, who has always been the group’s godfather. Significant splits are opening up between the RUF leadership and front line combatants in Kailahun. The RUF’s efforts to convert itself into a viable political party have not being going well either due to a serious lack of capacity and funding and despite training provided by the Nigerian government.

As the RUF crumbles, the government continues to extend its authority throughout the country. The army (SLA) has deployed along the border with Guinea and Liberia, though it has not yet secured the most troublesome sector (Kailahun). The police (SLP) are also consolidating their presence in many former RUF-held areas, though organised diamond mining by combatant groups persists in Kono and Kenema districts.

The events of the last few months have given the international community confidence that Sierra Leone has finally emerged from its decade-long civil war and can embark on the next stage in the peace process, a presidential and parliamentary election. This briefing paper, which continues recent ICG reporting on Sierra Leone’s efforts to break out of a cycle of violence that resulted in the death of at least 50,000 persons and destabilised a considerable portion of West Africa, examines the assumptions behind this confidence and the related strategy. It finds that it is far too early to declare the danger over. The security situation is still shaky, and the electoral course itself is fraught with uncertainty.

In his latest report to the Security Council, the UN Secretary General acknowledges that "the prevailing situation therefore calls for continued vigilance, as well as the concerted efforts of all concerned, to ensure that the elections are a success". Indeed, many reputable observers and participants fear that elections in spring 2002, as now planned, would be premature and could re-ignite the conflict. There is urgent need for the international community to play a more hands-on – even directly intrusive – role than it has indicated it is willing to do if the elections are in fact to mark a decisive turn toward peace and reconstruction in the devastated country.


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