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In once-brutal war zone, a model arises

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 16, 2002


Satia Bangura, a stocky woman with a tight bun on her head and shiny black patent-leather shoes on her feet, never seems to smile. Her job, she snorts, does not require it.

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As chief immigration officer at Sierra Leone's international airport, she has seen thousands of foreigners file through over the past two years: the world's largest UN peacekeeping force (17,500 troops), development specialists, election monitors, and diplomats alike. "They all come to help us, and they are welcomed," says Ms. Bangura. "But this is a tough country, and we don't much feel like smiling."

Nonetheless, as war-weary Sierra Leoneans went to the polls this week, many found the corners of their mouths lifting upward almost involuntarily.

Ten years after the start of a brutal civil war, analysts argue that Sierra Leone is a model for what can be accomplished in Africa – or in any warring country – with sufficient international involvement.

"Sierra Leone is a clear test case of democracy," says Cecil Blake, minister of information here. "It took not only the resolve of the government, but the relationship struck with the international community. We could not have done it without them. At first we tried to resolve it alone, but this was not a just a civil war – this was a regional crisis. It became increasingly clear we needed help from outside."

Over the past decade, some 50,000 people were killed, thousands were mutilated, and more than a million were left homeless. But the orderly elections that took place Tuesday served as a benchmark for the success this poor country has had in transitioning from war to peace. And much of the credit for making this transition possible goes to those very foreigners waiting in line for Bangura's visa stamp.

Calm elections

The election results are to be officially announced today, but it is already clear from early returns that incumbent President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah has won. Nine parties fielded candidates, and 11 parties vied for 112 seats in Parliament. Election observers estimate that voter turnout was more than 80 percent of the country's 2.3 million registered voters.

The calm of the elections gives good reason to believe that all opposition groups – including the former Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels who fought the 10-year war – will accept the results.

For the past two years, the UN has had troops on the ground in Sierra Leone, overseeing the disarmament and demobilization of rebel groups, and helping to prepare for and run these elections. This is the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, costing an estimated $700 million a year.

The British, former colonizers of Sierra Leone, also have hundreds of soldiers and development agents in the country doing everything from retraining the national army, to setting up public radio stations and teaching good governance classes to civil servants.

All of this comes with a price tag of $60 million to $70 million a year. The US, EU, World Bank, African Development Bank, Islamic Development Bank, and others also have poured financial, technical, and moral support into the country.

"Many of the African crises continue to burn, because there is such little interest on the part of the international community," says John Prendergast, Africa director at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank. "This allows regional actors and opportunistic forces within those countries to prey upon instability for their own benefit, which in turn ensures no resolution is possible."