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Rebuilding Lives and Regenerating War Torn Communities: Is Sierra Leone’s Peace Dividend now at Risk?

Abdul R Thomas

Editor -The Sierra Leone Telegraph

8 June 2010

Ten years of peace and political stability in Sierra Leone have brought enormous social and economic dividend and rewards, for a people that deserve much more than just food handouts from the international community to survive. For the people of Sierra Leone, coming to terms with the effects of the war has been painfully slow.

But political tension appears to be returning. Politicians are once again ratcheting the temperature. Is this the beginning of the end of the peace?

There are new and worrying threats of resumption of ‘political and tribal skirmishes,’ as the government decides to re-open investigations into the killing of its senior police officers, military personnel and civilians by the NPRC military junta, during the country’s civil war.

The hard won peace has been tortuously built and consolidated by a quartet comprising of the international community, the people of Sierra Leone and the three main political parties – the All People’s Congress (APC), the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), and the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC).

It would now seem that the peace dividend enjoyed thus far, is about to be put at risk, if events of the last week are not quickly and peacefully resolved by the government, the opposition political parties and more importantly – the international community, especially the UN.

The issue of re-opening investigations of crimes committed during the country’s civil war, at this critical stage in Sierra Leone’s political, social and economic cycle, must be a matter for the UN, and should be at the top of the UN Chief – Ban Ki Moon’s agenda when he does visit Sierra Leone in the next few weeks.

The UN in New York continues to promote and highlight Sierra Leone as a good example of the success of a nation state and its people working hard towards peace building and consolidation.

Billions of Dollars have been invested in Sierra Leone by the international community, especially through donor Aid and foreign direct investors. Two of the country’s main mineral mines have re-opened with Hundreds of Millions of Dollars invested by African Minerals Ltd., and the London Mining company, respectively.

Thousands of jobs are expected to be created in the next twelve months in the northern province of the country, which is expected to have a significant multiplier effect across the country's economy.

Investment in the country’s tourism industry is beginning to show encouraging signs of recovery, as new hotels are being constructed. The World Bank is investing in the refurbishment of the international airport at Lungi.

The African Development Bank, the Arab Bank and the European Union, have all invested in consolidating the fragile peace in Sierra Leone, by funding the construction of highway networks across the country, and the rehabilitation of feeder roads to ensure the free movement of goods and people.

The Japanese have invested Millions of Dollars in helping President Koroma’s government achieve its Energy provision agenda. New diesel powered electricity generators have been located at the Kingtom and Blackhall Road Power Stations in Freetown, to help cope with the intermittent supply of electricity  from Bumbuna - the country’s hydro-powered plant.

The work of Tony Blair’s Africa Governance Initiative, with funding support from the Bill Gates Foundation, the British government, the EU and the World Bank, have helped to promote the potential of Sierra Leone for foreign direct investments. A lot of work and effort has gone into helping government departments and ministries introduce good governance structures and systems.

The London Donor and Investors Conference in November 2009 highlighted the tremendous progress the peace quartet of Sierra Leone has achieved since the end of the war.

State and civil society institutions have been re-established. The return to full democracy and the strengthening of the rule of Law brought in a fresh and invigorating sense of civil liberty, freedoms of expression and political tolerance. Many countries in Africa would overzealously protect this remarkable peace dividend gained by Sierra Leone’s peace quartet.

The country’s soil, sand and sea are rich with natural resources. But poverty, youth unemployment, the global recession, and the recent steep rise in party political rhetoric – threats of settling old scores are now dangerously poised to derail the peace and destroy years of industrial investments.

Although the country’s economy, battered by the war, has been on a roller coaster since 2002 when GDP growth had hit a high of 27%, economic growth in the first quarter of 2010 fell to 4% compared to 5% in 2009.

President Koroma’s government will shortly be meeting with the IMF Mission to discuss progress and review the Extended Credit Facility (ECF) Arrangement. A second quarter decline in GDP is expected, as the country’s productive capacity continues to suffer from weak investment.

Government’s borrowing is currently running at Hundreds of Billions of Leones a month, as ministerial and departmental costs continue to rise above budget. Increase in government borrowing is further jeopardizing the economic recovery, with private sector investment hampered by high interest rates and poor economic climate.

Although the collection of taxes by the country’s national Revenue Authority improved significantly in the first quarter of 2010, there are further signs of slowdown in the business, consumer and personal tax receipts, as economic activity remain sluggish.

The size of the country’s public sector as epitomized by the large number of ministries and departments must come under sharp focus, if the government’s structural deficit and borrowing is to be reduced. Sierra Leone’s public sector spending expansion will not bring about economic growth.

The international donors are contributing $300 Million in propping up the government’s finances. They are investing Hundreds of Millions of Dollars in supporting President Koroma’s free health care programme for lactating mothers, pregnant women and children under five years old. The question of sustainability of funding is now on the agenda.

The March 2010 IMF Review reported that; “In February 2010, inflation jumped to 17 percent, reflecting largely the challenges in implementing the new Goods and Services Tax in January, and higher domestic fuel prices.”

Inflation and rising food prices in particular is causing grave concern for the poor in Sierra Leone as Aid Agencies step up their efforts in averting hunger.

Last week, the European Union (EU) Representative to Sierra Leone, accompanied by two Representatives of the Ministry of Education, Youths and Sports and the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Country Representative, visited a EU funded Food Aid Programme being delivered at Kroobay - one of the country's many inhumane slumps situated in Freetown. This nationwide feeding programme is costing the EU 2.7 Million Euros.

The World Food Programme’s Christa Rader says that “this generous donation from the EU, which has largely been used to procure bulgur wheat, vegetable oil, corn-soya blend, salt, sugar and beans, enables WFP to work with the government and other partners to boost safety net interventions to urban areas and areas on the outskirts of cities in response to high food prices.”

The Kroobay School Feeding Programme is just one of the schools in Freetown that receives assistance from the World Food Programme since the start of the food price crisis, as farming production output in the country struggles to meet demand.

A total of 70,000 vulnerable communities in the Western Area as well as Port Loko and Moyamba districts are benefitting from this WFP safety net intervention in collaboration with the Government of Sierra Leone.

The Head of Delegation of the European Union to Sierra Leone, H.E Jean-Pierre Reymondet-Commoy, believes that the aim of the Food Programme is “to assist the most vulnerable women, children and youths of Sierra Leone to cope with the effects of high food prices, compounded by the recent economic crisis, and to help them remain productive.”

WFP commenced the delivery of two pilot cash for work projects in February this year, at a cost of US$ 700,000. The youths of various communities in Freetown are receiving cash in return for participating in vital community work programme activities, such as; road maintenance, drainage cleaning, compost pit construction and the making of ceramic water filters.

Sierra Leone’s economy is as fragile as its hard won peace. That the tax payers of richer nations have taken the risk to invest Hundreds of Billion of Dollars in re-building and regenerating war torn communities, and in consolidating the peace, is a testament of the faith they have in the people of Sierra Leone not to put that peace at risk.

The economy is suffering, as foreign direct investors continue to stay away. Poverty and youth unemployment is on the increase. Critics say that finding innovative solutions to reduce Sierra Leone’s massive structural deficit of more than Le 1 Trillion, should currently be regarded by President Koroma’s government as a key priority of state polity, rather than trying to open up old political wounds that may take even longer to heal once they are lanced.

There is no doubt that the thousands of lives lost in the civil war and all those killed during the interregnums are precious. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission had carried out its investigations, and the recommendation for forgiveness and reconciliation had been accepted by all parties to the conflict and the people of Sierra Leone.

The price of peace is always high and millions of people across the country continue in their own way to pay that price. But the results of ten years of peace and political stability are obvious for all to see. Many are arguing that the investigations must not be selective and should cover all politically motivated killings and extra-judicial executions that have taken place in Sierra Leone since the country’s achievement of independence. Where do you draw the line?

Most Sierra Leoneans may be disinclined towards another Commission of Enquiry into atrocities committed during the war, but would be more than happy to see those bearing the greatest responsibility for those atrocities, who are still alive, to reconcile with the families of all those that died whilst in the custody of the NPRC regime.

This reconciliation process should be facilitated by the UN Chief – Mr. Ban Ki Moon, as part of his itinerary when he arrives in Freetown shortly. The people of Sierra Leone have been traumatised enough. Politicians must continue to work towards saving the people from any further suffering.

The country’s economy is far too fragile to withstand the ratcheting of political instability, let alone another civil war. Western governments and their tax payers are enduring massive and painful public spending cuts, while they vow to maintain financial support for poor countries such as Sierra Leone.

Let us not throw away that goodwill and jeopardise the peace dividend that has been achieved by Sierra Leone's peace quartet: Presidents Koroma's government, the people, the main opposition parties, and the international community.

May common sense prevail.

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