23 March 2012
The head of the United Nations Peace Building Mission to Sierra Leone – Mr. Michael Schulenburg, who was withdrawn from the country by his bosses in New York, because he was ‘deemed unfit for office’ and hence declared ‘persona non grata’ by president Koroma’s government, has spoken publicly for the first time.
Speaking yesterday at a UN Security Council debate on the current volatile political development in Sierra Leone, Mr. Schulenburg expressed dismay at the decision of president to purchase large cache of high grade military weapons and ammunition – costing millions of pounds, for use by his newly enlarged and recomposed special paramilitary police force.
Elections are taking place in Sierra Leone in November and according to the opposition parties, the build up of arms by the government – signals the preparation for a possible deadly use of force, intended to intimidate or subvert the will of the people at the polls.
Mr. Schulenburg had already briefed the Security Council ‘informally’ early this month, about his premature and politically motivated recall from Sierra Leone.
Throughout his sojourning in Sierra Leone, his main focus was to ensure that peace is sustained and built upon by all communities, political parties and stakeholders.
In particular, his call for a free and fair conduct of the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections had been top of his agenda. His approach, the government says – was biased and in favour of the opposition.
Schulenburg strongly denies this accusation, but president Koroma’s disdain was impossible for the UN Chief – Ban Ki moon to ignore, as he catapulted to political pressure to remove Schulenburg from Sierra Leone.
Failing to address the accusation that the government of Sierra Leone arm twisted the UN to recall Schulenburg from Sierra Leone, Foreign Minister – J. B. Dauda told the
Security Council that the government was committed to ensuring peaceful, free, fair and transparent elections in November.
Dauda said that; “the government has demonstrated strong political will in dealing with issues of political violence in whatever shape or form and irrespective of party affiliation, and will continue to use the legal instruments to bring perpetrators of violence to justice.”
Philip Parham – Britain’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador, told reporters that the Security Council would discuss the decision to recall Schulenburg, with the U.N. Secretariat; “to ensure that as far as possible we avoid any sense that a host government can have a veto over the leadership of a U.N. mission for reasons that are not valid.”
It seems that the all too familiar UN’s culture of ‘quiet diplomacy’ has been ruffled by sections of the media and government ministers in Sierra Leone, whose objective is to score political points out of the crisis.
But it is the issue of president Koroma’s decision to purchase a large consignment of arms that the Security Council now finds troubling.
Yesterday in New York, Mr. Schulenburg said that although “Sierra Leone is under no arms embargo, however, given its progress in establishing peace and security throughout the country and its relatively low crime rate, it is not clear why the police would need such weapons.”
Urging the government to clarify the weapons shipment and explain the intended use of the arms, Schulenburg said: “The forthcoming elections in November will be the major
test for the country’s nascent democracy. Sierra Leone must pass this crucial test in its history without allowing the demons of the past to re-emerge.”
But political observers believe that the eruption of violence at the forthcoming elections is inevitable, given the heightened rhetoric and inflammatory political overtones adopted by political parties and parts of the media.
The recent violent assault on the opposition presidential candidate – Julius Maada Bio, allegations of electoral impropriety and the mobilisation of ex-combatants to register to vote in opposition held areas of the country, the arming of the special paramilitary police force – lends credible weight to fears of a possible eruption of violence at the polls.
Mr. Schulenburg informed the U.N. Security Council that, based on leaked shipping documents, weapons bought by president Koroma three months ago, included heavy machine guns and grenade launchers and the purchase was “of great concern.”
The list of weapons contained in the consignment, which landed at the seaport in Freetown, includes:
50 PKM heavy machine guns – 7.62X54mm; 100,000 rounds of ammunition for the heavy machine guns; 100 RPK light machine guns – 7.62X39mm; 20,000 rounds of light machine gun rounds; 100 40mm under-barrel grenade launchers for AK 47 with a range of 300 meters; 2,500 advanced new stock AK 47 assault rifles – 7.62X39mm; 225,000 rounds of 7.62X39mm ammunition; 200 9mm automatic pistols; and 50,000 brass case rounds of 9mm pistol ammunition.
Although many in Sierra Leone would agree with Schulenburg’s assessment that; “Sierra Leone has the potential to become a success story, but will need the continued support and vigilance of the Security Council – especially at this time of these elections,” – confidence in the government’s commitment to hold free and fair elections in November is waning, and the prognosis is beginning to look desperately dire.
Sierra Leone is teetering on the edge of yet again becoming a violent and politically unstable state.
With youth employment estimated at over 70% and poverty worsening, the fuse and powder kegs are simply waiting to be lit, by politicians who seem to care less about the plight of the people and more about lining their pockets.