In just two years’ time, elections in Sierra Leone will mark a decade since the end of the bloody civil war. Since the war was officially declared over, there have been some notable achievements. The country’s first peaceful and democratic handover of power from one political party to another took place in 2007. Free health care for all pregnant and breastfeeding women has been introduced to combat Sierra Leone’s alarming maternal mortality rate. Security sector reforms have taken place which enabled Sierra Leone to contribute troops to the peacekeeping missions in Darfur and also have allowed greatly improved civil-military relations. And Freetown residents can testify to the improvements in electricity supply to the nation’s capital city.
Yet, despite these advances, the peace in Sierra Leone requires work and accompaniment. Concurrent presidential, legislative and local elections in 2012 are seen as a flashpoint with the potential for violence. At the same time, the discovery of huge iron ore deposits in the Tonkolili District provides a welcome fillip to the nation’s economy, yet the curse of minerals is a tale Sierra Leone knows all too well. Added to Sierra Leone’s growing biofuel production, the challenge remains as to whether Sierra Leone’s vast resources will prove to be the stimulus to kickstart the country’s economy or will once again be a catalyst for unrest. All of this takes place in the context of high levels of youth unemployment and marginalisation which were among the factors which led to war in the first place. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated last year, ‘Youth unemployment remains Sierra Leone’s most acute concern’.
What remains clear is that as the country transitions from post-conflict status towards development, both Sierra Leoneans and the international community need to keep the peacebuilding torch burning to ensure that the lessons from the recent violent conflict are not forgotten in the stampede to reach Sierra Leone’s unattainable Millennium Development Goals and promote economic growth.
In August of this year, an International Alert delegation from London joined International Alert’s Gender Programme Officer in Freetown, Alicia Kamara, to review our recent work in Sierra Leone and assess where we can contribute to building sustainable peace going forward.
In recent years we have focused our efforts on southern Sierra Leone, building the capacity of women and youth to participate in political processes, and supporting civil society in tackling sexual and gender-based violence. Building on this work, we plan to broaden the programme to cover a wider geographical remit. Efforts will include working towards inclusive and democratic elections in 2012, recognising that peacebuilding interventions need to focus on the electoral cycle as a whole, not just a couple of months either side of the election dates. Alert also plans to focus on the extractive sector and contribute to ensuring that Sierra Leone’s economic development takes place in a manner that contributes to long-term sustainable peace.