Sitting on the terrace of her comfortable home overlooking this seaside capital and its white beaches, Agnes Kanu relishes the relative calm that elections and a cease-fire have brought her. A year ago she was struggling to shelter and feed some 40 relatives who'd fled their burned-out villages and come to stay with her. "Now, thanks be to God, I have half the amount gone," she says.
Sierra Leone was considered West Africa's most desperate case until neighboring Liberia's peace accord was broken earlier this year. Seven months after a presidential election few thought would happen, much less make a difference, the former British colony is pioneering a political and economic turnaround unprecedented in the region.
Though a final peace accord still hinges on two sticking points, a cease-fire negotiated shortly after the elections has more or less held. Its success may be due in part to the generosity President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah's government has shown rebels known for committing some of the most gruesome atrocities on the continent. Many ex-combatants of the Revolutionary United Front have been released unconditionally, while others are scheduled for vocational training. There is no talk of a war crimes tribunal.
"Taking them to court and jailing them or hanging them for all the evils is not really going to help us right now," says Omrie Michael Golley, an activist who helped bring the rebels and government together. "They've got to come out of the bush, and they've got to also play a responsible part in rebuilding our country."
Even the former military rulers who tried to rig the elections have been shown goodwill. In a gesture described as part of the peace process, the United Nations offered scholarships to several former top brass and they are now studying international relations in Britain.
ON the dusty streets of Freetown there is a new bustle as aid workers and development experts flood back into the country. Government ministers, mindful of their new-found favor with the international community, have taken up the mantra of reminding people that donor countries are watching. Recently the communications minister called a press conference to complain about a front-page photo in a local paper, an old picture which purported to show a government soldier beating a civilian. This was not only misleading, lamented the minister, it worked against government efforts to "heighten investor confidence."
With the same goal in mind, South African mercenaries who once waged battle against rebels are now used to ward off illegal digging at the government's potentially lucrative diamond mines. President Kabbah has also launched a unique anticorruption campaign: When a government survey found a main cause of corruption is people's desire to have enough money to build a home, officials came up with a scheme to make cheap housing available to low-income workers.
Still, plugging the budget gaps left by the previous regime while maintaining public support isn't easy. A recent hike in the gas tax produced widespread grumbling and put officials on the defensive.
UN Special Representative Berhanu Dinka blames unrealistic expectations. "People have to be patient, and have to understand that economic development happens not by changing governments, but by changing attitudes and working habits."
Lately, the government has also been facing an increasing number of cease-fire violations in the east, forcing officials to reclose roads and throwing doubt on the stalled peace process.
Yet sitting on her terrace Agnes Kanu is optimistic. "If only people can forget everything that has happened, and let's try to start all over again. Because, for example, all those people that have been killed, are we going to make them come back to life? It's not possible. So we just swallow up everything for now, and try to build Sierra Leone to something good for everybody."