Rolling Back Sierra Leone's Carpet of Conflict

December 28, 2005

On January 1st, 2006, one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations of its time will quietly depart Sierra Leone, handing over its responsibilities and legacies alike to the first ever UN integrated peacebuilding mission in a post-conflict context, UNIOSIL. I have been following the drawdown of the UN presence in Sierra Leone for some time now, both in my previous role analyzing economic agendas in civil wars and rule of law issues at the International Peace Academy, as well as here at CGD. Many deem the UN’s peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone a success. Yet the real challenge, that of sustained recovery and development , has yet to come. As Daudi Ngelautwa Mwakawago, head of the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), recently stated in the Reuters article, Blue helmets quit, but peace elusive:

If you imagine that UNAMSIL was spread over the country like a beautiful carpet, well now the time has come to roll that carpet back, and what you find underneath may not be very good.
This is an apt description indeed.At its peak, UNAMSIL commanded 17,000 troops and cost nearly $3 billion dollars. Huge financial and physical resources were expended to bring a notoriously brutal conflict to a close; nearly 75,000 combatants have been disarmed and demobilized, a national police force has been rebuilt, and elections both nationally and locally have been held.Yet, the peace may very well prove precarious. Sierra Leone has alternated rankings with Niger to claim last place on the Human Development Index for the last three years running. Unemployment hovers at 70%. Corruption remains rife, with Sierra Leone ranking near the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index in 2005, and only 50% of the diamond mines (which helped finance rebels during the war) are under government control. Two thirds of the population is illiterate, and life expectancy hovers at a horrendous 37 years. Even UNAMSIL’s end of mission press release (pdf) goes so far as to state:
While UNAMSIL has done much, Sierra Leone still faces many challenges: the country remains fragile and needs to take concrete steps to address the root causes of the conflict and cultivate a culture of human rights. The economy is heavily dependent on donor funds. A disproportionate share of income from diamond mining still finds its way into private hands, rather than Government coffers. Despite ongoing reintegration programmes, thousands of ex-combatants and youths—many of whom never went to school—are unemployed. In short, peace has yet to produce tangible economic dividends and social benefits for the majority of the population.
These are the very issues that UNIOSIL, an exceptionally lean 300-person office with an extraordinarily ambitious mandate, and donor governments will find as the peacekeepers fly home.With the adoption of the UN Peacebuilding Commission on December 19, 2005, the international community is helping to pave the road for a movement which asks donors to be in the business not just of ending wars, but also of building peace. Recently noted by CGD Research Fellow Stewart Patrick in the post A Good Week for Nation-Building.The Commission’s primary benefit is keeping the Security Council focused on the recovery of war-torn countries even after the urgent crisis phase passes. This is a critical step for success (half of all post-conflict countries revert to violence within several years.)Looking at West Africa’s history of turmoil, with Liberia’s rocky road to peace and instability in Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea, now is not the time for the international community to turn a cheek to Sierra Leone. Successful peacekeeping does not necessarily translate into a successful peace. The biggest challenge for the leaders of Sierra Leone and the international community lies in reaching for something beyond the present condition. This challenge can only be overcome through a meticulous, sustained effort aimed at addressing corruption and generating real development. Policymakers must confront these problems head on, as they no longer have the luxury of sweeping them under the carpet.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.