Cassie Biggs helped facilitate the roundtable which looked at ‘Youth, Conflict and Donor Exit Strategies’, and followed it up with field trips to Lunsar and Makeni. She shares this report:
In the eyes of international donors, Sierra Leone is a success story. It has been more than ten years since the country was at war and former combatants have been successfully disarmed and demobilised. There have been three rounds of democratic elections in which power has changed hands between two main political parties, and the most recent election in 2012 was considered largely violence free. More children are in school than ever before, there has been a proliferation of civil society groups, activists and a free media, and local councils have been established to ensure that power and resources are not held in the hands of just a few in Freetown, the capital. Such “success” led last year to a reclassification of Sierra Leone by the IMF, from “fragile” to “low income”, a move the IMF representative said was cause for celebration.
Participants at the roundtable were not convinced that the reclassification reflected the reality on the ground, however. Sierra Leone remains “conflict prone”, warned Charles Lahai, Chairman of the Sierra Leone Youth Empowerment Organisation. Marcella Samba Sesay, the moderator and head of a local NGO, the Campaign for Good Governance, added that many of the same grievances which led youth into the ranks of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) back in 1991 have not been addressed. One of the commonly accepted underlying triggers of the 11-year conflict was the systematic exclusion and marginalisation of youth, she says, and this is still a key issue today.
A donor-driven peace process in Sierra Leone
In fact, participants felt there was little ownership of the peace process, the DDR process (Disarmament Demobilisation and Reintegration) or the institutions that implemented them. Many of the concessions which brought the RUF to the negotiating table were not wanted by the majority of people in Sierra Leone, but had been insisted upon by donors, they added. Participants cited the role in the government for Foday Sankoh, who had been head of the RUF, the trial and jailing of Samuel Hinga Norman, the head of the Civil Defense Forces, a local vigilante force which fought the RUF, and who was publically regarded as a “war hero”, and the providing of skills training and jobs for former combatants in a time of acute unemployment, as steps too far.
Persistent youth unemployment, marginalisation, and gangs
The focus on ending the violence through accommodation instead of justice and development, of negative peace rather than positive peace, has meant that the country has not only lingered at the bottom of the Human Development Index in the past decade, but also has not dealt with the legacy of one of Africa’s most brutal conflicts.
A police representative present at the event, said gang violence is a serious and growing problem, with more than 250 street gangs in Freetown alone. While Marcella Samba Sesay highlighted a worrying trend of violence against women, including rape and domestic abuse.
No one believes that the country is on the verge of another rural-based insurgency, but the participants feared that the grievances which led to the war have not been addressed, and that the outbursts of violence happening in the city and in the rural areas could spiral in to something bigger, especially if the government does not act in a responsible way.
Conflict over land and labour in mining areas
The mining communities are a good illustration. Protests have been happening in Kono District in the East, in Sierra Leone’s diamondiferous areas, but also closer to Freetown, where rutile and iron ore are being mined. Many communities are unhappy with the way in which deals have been struck with international mining companies over compensation for land taken. Some complain that the compensation is too little or that the deal was struck without their input. In the two mining communities visited, landowners say that half of the compensation goes to the paramount chief, the district council and the local MP; and in Makeni, landowners say the compensation does not cover the cost of crops lost to flooding of arable land or the repairs to houses damaged by blasting.
But it is not just about the money. Communities also criticise the mining companies for reneging on promises. In Lunsar, a town just three hours drive from Freetown, the secretary of the Land Owner’s Association said the mining company promised to employ 80% of the people in the community, but so far, only about 20% had jobs. He said that unemployed youth were also flocking to the town to seek jobs, and when they didn’t find any, were causing security problems. Several had been arrested for protesting against the mining company, calling for jobs and development.
Violence – the only way to draw attention to social problems?
Many of those we spoke to said they do not want to use violence, but they feel they are not being listened to and that the only way to get the attention of the authorities, and increasingly, the media, is to strike and protest. When people feel they have nowhere to turn to, violence becomes the only option.
As Charles Lahai of the Sierra Leone Youth Empowerment Organisation put it: “If the youth are not given a space, they will make one for themselves, often by violent means.”
Cassie Biggs was in Sierra Leone working on the IDS Addressing and Mitigating Violence programme. She is a former MA Governance and Development Student at IDS and now works for UNESCO in South Sudan, promoting women’s participation in media.
Check out our project page for more on IDS' work on mitigating and preventing routine violence in Sierra Leone.