Security Council mission to West Africa - Ambassador Wittig's blog - Day 5: Sierra Leone
Wednesday 23 May, 2012
The last leg of our Africa tour led us to the former British colony Sierra Leone. The capital Freetown is beautifully located on green hills at the seashore. The 6 million Liberians are an extremely young people: 45 percent are under the age of 14. Unfortunately, youth unemployment is over 60 percent - a ticking timebomb in any conflict-prone country!
Sierra Leone - like the Ivory Coast and Liberia - was ravaged by a horrific civil war, which ended ten years ago. It was fueled by massive illicit diamond exploitation - the Liberian ex-president Charles Taylor was one of the worst perpetrators. He has just been found guilty of serious crimes by a special tribunal in The Hague. It is hard to forget the pictures of the ten year old child-soldiers and mutilated victims of this brutal war that went around the world at the time.
The small UN mission in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL) is not a bluehelmet-, but a peace building-operation of only 80 people. It focuses on election support, promoting dialogue and institution-building as well as on youth employment. UNISPIL is widely considered a success story for the UN. The former UN representative, the German national Michael von der Schulenburg, is credited with achieving the almost impossible: integrating the 17 different UN organisations on the ground and rallying them around a streamlined "joint vision of the UN family for Sierra Leone". This is what the often used catch-phrase "delivering as one UN" should signify!
We had a good interactive dialogue with President Koroma and his cabinet ministers. The prime focus was on the upcoming presidential und parliamentary elections in November 2012. That will be a litmus test for the recently found relative stability of Sierra Leone. The Security Council conveyed a clear message to the President (as it did later to the opposition parties): ensure a peaceful, free and fair electoral process! UNIPSIL told us that the chances for this to happen are not bad. Despite the deeply rooted rivalry and mistrust between the two main camps, all parties signed a pre-election code of conduct last week. But risks remain. Will the loser accept the results - in a region with a "winner takes it all" mentality?
The President outlined some other priorities: building a stronger private sector, fighting youth unemployment, reforming the security sector. Hopefully he can deliver! In a meeting with the leadership of army and police we learned that Sierra Leone had actually downsized its army to roughly 10.000 men - a good example for other African countries to follow.
The women groups we met told us about their achievements: a law to establish a compulsory 30 percent quorum of women in parliament and an actual voter-registration with 60 percent women. Many of their wishes however remain unfulfilled: one of them was to give the finance ministry to a woman - only then would corruption and mismanagement end. I think they have a good point!
The three post-conflict countries we visited share some common challenges: security sector reform, disarmament, reconciliation, political dialogue of antagonistically opposed political forces, high youth unemployment. Though still marred by destruction of its infrastructure, Sierral Leone is the most advanced of the three in many regards.
Leaving Sierra Leone was a bit of an adventure. The international airport is separated from Freetown by the sea. The ferry takes three hours. With our tight schedule we had to take a helicopter in a night flight (with special permission). Thunderstorms, heavy rain. The big Russian Mi-8 chopper looked as if it had already served in the Soviet-Afghanistan war. In a nutshell: not exactly what you would call a pleasure trip! But the pilot did a great job and we landed safely and in time for our plane to London and then on to New York.