In once-brutal war zone, a model arises

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.

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."

For a decade, opportunistic forces came in the form of the RUF. In 1991, RUF rebels initiated their campaign to topple the government and gain control of the country's vast diamond wealth. Three peace deals were signed and then ignored by the rebels.

Previous elections were marred by violence. In 1996, the RUF rejected the ballot. Rebels attacked voters and cut off their hands. Throughout the war, thousands of people were mutilated in RUF attacks that have left victims – mostly civilians – without arms, legs, ears, or lips.

The latest cease-fire was negotiated at the end of 2000, and in January of this year, the war was declared over.

Mr. Prendergast argues that when there is serious international engagement, combined with serious regional engagement as was the case in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s, "you have a recipe for potential success that can be replicated anywhere on the continent."

Prendergast says there is no "rational trip wire" that triggers international engagement or determines what type of engagement that will be. "It is very idiosyncratic," he says, pointing out, for example, that in Sudan and Zimbabwe, the international community has employed diplomatic efforts, not military ones. But during the Rwanda genocide, notoriously, little effort was made at all.

In Congo, meanwhile, another warring African country several times the size of tiny Sierra Leone, the UN has engaged militarily, but to a much smaller degree, sending in 5,500 UN peacekeeping troops, roughly the same number of international peacekeepers currently in Afghanistan.

Size matters

Factors that affect the international community's decision to engage in a certain conflict, says Prendergast, include viability of the mission; the size and political/economic importance of the country in question; the price tag of intervention; and whether an exit strategy can be crafted.

Other criteria, such as a historic connection with the country in question – as is the case for Britain and its former colony Sierra Leone – might also be deciding factors.

"Sierra Leone is bite-size," says Martin Collins, an expert adviser with the International Military Advisory Team (IMAT), a 140-strong body from Britain, the US, Canada, Bermuda, Australia, and France who are helping retrain the Sierra Leone military. "The country, in the past, has known stability, and the government and people were eager to regain that," he says. "This was a manageable-sized mission. We felt it was a potentially do-able operation and engaged. I don't know if it would work elsewhere."

While it is too early to say "our work is done here," says Margaret Novicky, spokeswoman for the UN mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), it seems the transition has been a success. "We will continue to follow events," she says. "But assuming everything continues to go well, we will gradually cut back on troops."

"We went through hell in Sierra Leone," says Idriss Jallau, a security guard at the airport. "My old granny had her leg cut off with a cutlass by three young boys. My dad cried when he saw this – and those evil boys laughed."

The war would never have ended, says Mr. Jallau, if it had not been for the assistance of the international community. But, he adds, now things are different. "Today, we can try standing by ourselves," he says. "Even if it is just on one leg."

"When the helpful foreigners all leave," pipes in officer Bangura, as she listens to the guard, "then I will smile ... because that is when I will be sure we are back to normal."

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