“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 thick smoke from the weapons of war spiralled away at Lungi, in eastern Sierra Leone, he added: "The curfew is hereby lifted." Thousands of jubilant Sierra Leoneans filled the streets to celebrate the formal interment of a decade-old war that had killed 150,000 people and wrecked most of the country's social infrastructure.
A massive UN peacekeeping operation involving 17,000 troops (at the time, the largest in the world) 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 huge task of reconstruction on their own. The UN Security Council referred these concerns to the new UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC). Then in December 2006 the PBC approved $35 million to support programmes in Sierra Leone for capacity building, democracy, good governance, justice, security, youth employment and other tasks.
Sierra Leone was one of the commission's first beneficiaries. Established by the Security Council in December 2005, the PBC has a mandate to coordinate with international donors, financial institutions, governments and troop-contributing countries in helping to "marshal resources" and develop "integrated strategies for post-conflict peacebuilding and recovery." The commission is also expected to highlight any "gaps that threaten to undermine peace." It currently supports nearly 100 projects in 15 countries.
'Access to opportunities'
Countries that are emerging from conflict need peacebuilding, argues Michael von der 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 der Schulenburg explains in an interview with Africa Renewal.
The transition from peacekeeping to peacebuilding is often difficult, notes Mr. von der Schulenburg. But it is essential to enable the UN to better align its priorities with the socio-economic and political needs of a country after war.
Mr. von der Schulenburg believes that Sierra Leone has had an exemplary peacebuilding programme since the UN operation became a wholly civilian mission. A key achievement is security. "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 successfully implemented a community small-arms collection programme, to gather up weapons not handed in during the formal disarmament exercise. Other achievements, he adds, include a vibrant free press and the entrenchment of democracy — as demonstrated by periodic elections — as well as a growing economy.
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. It reports that 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.
From electricity to courtrooms
An emergency programme to support the energy sector, for example, 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 der 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 be a litmus test for Sierra Leone's nascent democracy. There are concerns that the elections could lead to violence. The 2007 parliamentary and presidential polls were generally peaceful, although there were isolated cases of violence, according to a report by European Union observers. Those observers also noted that the UN Integrated Office for Sierra Leone (UNIOSIL) played an important role in providing technical and logistical support.
Mr. von der Schulenburg maintains that concerns about violence and other irregularities in the next elections are justified, but manageable. He cites the success of a recent by-election in a diamond district with high unemployment.
Unemployment amidst wealth
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, investments in Africa have been mainly in the extractive sector, which produces few jobs (see Africa Renewal Online).
Mr. von der Schulenburg believes that managing the economy, especially the proceeds from the country's abundant natural resources, is Sierra Leone's greatest challenge. "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?"
Preparing Sierra Leone for an economic boom will be vital for preventing future conflicts. Currently, the data on the country's untapped wealth contrasts starkly with the poor state of its social development. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 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 der 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.