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A Radical Blueprint for Stabilizing Sierra Leone

Experts propose a long-term trusteeship for the troubled West African nation, which is in danger of descending back into chaos.

April 21, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — This West African nation, where child soldiers once roamed the countryside in a grotesque civil war and militants chopped off limbs to terrorize the population, sometimes seems like a rare success in international efforts to rebuild failed states.

Peacekeepers disarmed 70,000 combatants and pulled out last year with the country at peace. The rebel leader is dead. The former president of a neighboring country, who is accused of having fomented much of the violence, is in jail awaiting trial by an international court.

But the streets of Freetown, the capital, pump with protest songs that capture the mood of a deeply unhappy population. Hip-hop stars taunt government officials with lyrics poking fun at bellies grown fat through corruption.

Not long ago, songs comparing the country's leaders to squirrels, mice and rats that gobble up everything on a farm might have landed musicians in jail -- or much worse. Now, they tap into a mood of anger and frustration that calls into question whether the international effort has accomplished enough to keep Sierra Leone from sliding back into chaos.

The stakes are high. Even before war-ravaged Afghanistan served as a training ground for the Sept. 11 hijackers, experts argued that states with ineffective or deeply corrupt governments could be magnets for terrorists and organized criminal gangs.

Many experts argue that peacekeeping missions, elections and massive short-term international aid, the methods development agencies most often use, are not enough in such extreme cases. They have called for more radical solutions, including a form of long-term trusteeship that involves wellfocused intervention for decades.

Initially floated in 1992 in an article by Gerald Helman, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in the Carter administration, and Steven Ratner, a law professor now at the University of Michigan, the idea is controversial because of its colonialist echoes.

But it has won some support, including in Sierra Leone's neighbor, Liberia. Emerging under the leadership of a former World Bank official from its own civil war, Liberia has cracked down on corruption and accepted international oversight of revenue collection and spending.

The Fund For Peace, an independent research organization, reported last year that 2 billion people live in countries that are vulnerable to failure. Twelve African nations were among the most critical cases, including Sierra Leone, Liberia and neighbors Guinea and Ivory Coast.

Sierra Leone's troubles began with a rebellion in 1991 by the Revolutionary United Front, led by Foday Sankoh. In 1997, army officers led a coup, ousting president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. It was not until January 2002 that the war was officially declared over, and Kabbah was reelected.

Sankoh died in U.N. custody in 2003, the year that Liberian President Charles Taylor, who was accused by an international tribunal of instigating much of the rebel violence in Sierra Leone, was exiled to Nigeria. Taylor was taken into custody March 29 of this year.

But peace has brought more bad governance and patchy reform in Sierra Leone. The broader intervention may be on a quiet shuffle toward failure.

During the civil war, Sierra Leone for seven years was last on a U.N. list of the world's poorest countries. It moved up one spot in 2005, managing to crawl back to its prewar position. The government relies on foreign aid for more than half of its budget and cannot provide basic services, according to a report by the International Crisis Group think tank.

Dutch author Linda Polman, who has written about the limitations of U.N. aid operations, said massive international humanitarian aid and peacekeeping resources were pumped rapidly into Sierra Leone, but were withdrawn before the country could rebuild or fully stabilize. This is a pattern often repeated around the world, she says.

Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission reported last year that the government had failed to break the cycle of poverty, cronyism and economic exclusion that caused many fighters to take up arms.

"Corruption remains rampant, and no culture of tolerance or inclusion in political discourse has yet emerged," the report says. "Many ex-combatants testified that the conditions that caused them to join the conflict persisted in the country and, if given the opportunity, they would fight again."

The elite still view political office as an opportunity for enrichment. As Sierra Leoneans put it: "Same car, different driver."

In the alleys of Freetown's slum districts, with their open sewers and lack of running water or electricity, young men in their underpants soap up and wash off at faucets in the street. It's hard to escape the song "Squirrel, Groundpig, Arata," by the Baw Waw Society, with its catchy Krio phrase, "Man den nor gladee," or "We are not happy."

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