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Economic Empowerment: Key to Consolidating the Peace in Sierra Leone

Abdul R Thomas

Editor - The Sierra Leone Telegraph

31 March 2010

Since the end of a brutal ten year war which ravaged a nation that was once proud of its ethnic diversity, strong historical heritage and economic potential, Sierra Leone is slowly and painfully coming out of its war cladded shell. The bad men that instigated, propagated and led the war are either behind bars or dead, but the scars and emotional pains still remain. Will the healing process ever end and what will it take?

The people of Sierra Leone with the help of the international community and partners are trying hard to pick up the pieces, rebuild their lives and communities. But throughout this rebuilding process, since 2001, a lot of efforts led by the UN, with the financial support of donors - valued at Hundreds of Millions of Dollars, have gone into peace building.

Ten years on, no one can deny the positive results of the UN Peace Building Programme. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have been resettled; thousands of young ex-combatant men and women have been rehabilitated – although their mental trauma continues.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its Report – some of the key recommendations are yet to be implemented. A series of successive, relatively free and fair elections have been held. The Anti-Corruption Commission has started to leash some of the ‘sacred cows’. This is peace building success.

Despite this impressive record of achievement; worsening levels of poverty, illiteracy, poor health, unemployment and low level of economic activity, continues to pose a threat to the hard won peace. And as the saying goes - it is all too easy where there is good will on all sides to win the peace, but ever so painfully difficult to preserve it.

But Sierra Leone cannot be allowed to fail, nor can its people indulge themselves into regressing back into the bad old days of poor governance, regional and social marginalisation, political intolerance, prosperity for the few and not the many.

The challenge in ensuring that this does not happen is enormous, and must not rest on the shoulders of the international community alone. The government of President Koroma and his ruling party – the All People’s Congress, the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change, and others, must now bear the greatest responsibility for preserving the peace.

The central question posed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was: “How did a peace-loving nation become engulfed, seemingly overnight, in horror?”

It is by their utterances and actions, levels of political tolerance, respect for ethnic diversity and equality, the upholding of the rule of law and democratic principles – even in the face of the worst forms of provocation, that sustainable peace can be achieved. Political parties have an immense responsibility in preparation for the 2012 elections.

The international community and donors would no doubt continue to spend Millions of Dollars in buttressing the peace building process. But each time there is an election – local or parliamentary – resulting in violence, destruction of property, or break down of law and order, the further the nation edges toward anarchy and political instability. This is bad for investors, bad for the economy and bad for the poor people of Sierra Leone.                 

While there are few mindless politicians on all sides of the divide, who may relish the exploitation of ethnic bigotry, regional tension, political instability and social chaos, the majority would rather continue to work towards a peaceful and prosperous nation.

To accentuate this very point, the UN Secretary General - Ban Ki Moon, said that; while he is encouraged by some improvements in the country’s political climate, challenges to fostering political tolerance and promoting non-violence remains.

The Secretary General is appealing to the international community to fill the huge budgetary shortfall in donor funding for the implementation of President Koroma’s Agenda for Change. The Agenda focuses on the provision of reliable electricity supply, increasing productivity in agriculture and fisheries, improving the national transportation network, and boosting social services.

This appeal by the UN Chief is in recognition of the fact that economic empowerment must now take centre stage in moving the nation forward, from peace building to ‘peace preservation’.  

In 2008 the government of President Koroma estimated the total funding required for the implementation of the Agenda for Change at $30 Billion. This figure was subsequently revised by the government to $19 Billion, and then to $3 Billion on the eve of the Donor and Investors Conference held in London last November.

In 2009, the UNDP estimated total investment required for the delivery of the Agenda for Change at $19 Billion, with 60% of this needed for infrastructure development.

The UN Head Office in New York is now considering the request by the Head of the UN Integrated Peace Building Office (UNIPSIL) in Freetown, with the support of Sierra Leone’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, for a new budget package amounting to more than $200 Million. But there is a serious need to shift policy emphasis and strategic spending plans and priorities towards community cohesion programmes and actions, and the economic empowerment of people in their local communities.

The bulk of this new UN funding must now be used in direct support of local community initiatives, employment creation, job training and small business start-ups. Support for the country’s decentralisation process is now more than ever crucial in achieving this goal.

The goodwill of the UN together with political commitment on the part of President Koroma and his Ministers must be utilised to eradicate bureaucratic bottlenecks. The intransigence of some centralised civil servants who may feel threatened by the decentralisation process, needs to be assuaged.  

On 26 March 2010, UN delegates in New York discussed progress in delivering Sierra Leone’s peace building programme. The US Ambassador to the UN was particularly interested in the proposed $46 Million Joint Response to Youth Employment in Sierra Leone Programme. It will be funded by the World Bank, the German Technical Cooperation and the UN. It is hoped that this programme will create 160, 000 jobs for the country’s youths.

The US Ambassador also asked about efforts the Peace Building Commission will take to lever economic support for Sierra Leone, including foreign direct investments, especially in mining.

It is not certain whether the UN Office in New York will approve the increased funding of more than $200 Million requested by UNIPSIL - Freetown. But what is clear is the size of the Sierra Leone Foreign Minister’s shopping list.

If the Minister’s wish is granted and the funding is judiciously spent, it would make a significant difference in helping to ‘preserve the peace’ through the economic empowerment of the unemployed youths.

But would this new funding lead to more centralisation and the diversion of donor funds to other areas of economically inactive government programmes?   

Sierra Leone’s peace building programme has successfully come a long way. Democratic and civil society institutions, the judiciary, law and order, state security, and the Anti-corruption Commission are all flexing their muscles.

Laws have been strengthened, but the absence of a Freedom of Information Act continues to cast a shadow on civil liberty and government transparency. Elections are relatively peaceful, but talks of an upsurge in violence as the 2012 election draws near, are rife.

There is no doubt that as citizens are empowered to have a stake in their local communities through small business ownership and the provision of meaningful job opportunities, the less their propensity for violence and the destruction of their neighbourhoods. 

Thus investing in developing people’s capacity to exercise their enlightened self-interests as active citizens, is a much quicker way of not only consolidating the peace, but promoting respect for law and order, respect for equality and diversity, respect for the rights of others to self-determination, and the confidence to hold their government to account.

A decade of successful peace building is over. It is now time for peace preservation through economic empowerment: Youth employment, Job skills training, community enterprise, and private small business ownership.

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