A precarious peace in Sierra Leone

“You wouldn’t understand this country if you stayed here for five years. I don’t understand it,” says Nestor Cummings-John, the head of the Sierra Leone Women’s Movement (“faute de mieux,” he replies when I ask why the group is run by a man).

I take his point. After six weeks in Guinea-Bissau (plus a lot of background research), I felt I had a fairly good grasp of how the society worked, why things are as they are, and what the prospects are going forward. But after six weeks in Sierra Leone, my mind is full of confusion, as chaotic as Freetown’s deranged street markets. I can only hope that a few weeks of quiet reflection somewhere sane like Burkina Faso will help me sort through the jumble of impressions, fears, questions and competing explanations that are clattering around my head.

One of the questions I’m grappling with is whether Sierra Leone is knitting itself together after Siaka Stevens’ ruinous dictatorship and the even more damaging civil war, or if in fact the country is in danger of slipping back into conflict.

Tony Blair, who visited Freetown last year, believes Sierra Leone is “thriving.” The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on the other hand, which was set up to investigate the causes of the war, argues that the same levels of poverty, corruption and youth alienation pertain today as prevailed twenty years ago, before the war started. As Paul Collier showed in The Bottom Billion, moreover, most countries that go through one civil war endure another within a decade or two.

Blair’s view is buttressed by the fact that the country has been at peace for nine years, that it held uneventful elections in 2007 which were widely judged to be fair, and that dangerous neighbours like the Liberian thug Charles Taylor are off the scene. Exiles are returning, drawn by peace and the still-tantalising prospect of mineral riches. And many Sierra Leoneans have told me their compatriots have learned their lesson from the war and are extremely reluctant to go down that road again.

Not everyone is so sanguine, however. While the wealthy are generally quite optimistic about the future, the poor remain disgruntled, railing against the corruption of the rich and the ineffectiveness of government. “The poor don’t love their country,” says Joseph, a young Freetonian working with Amnesty International. Edward, an old man in a Freetown slum, says the poor have no reason to be patriotic. Most young people I’ve met have asked me to help them acquire visas for Britain.

Society, rent apart by the war, still seems deeply fractured. Just as the poor bemoan the greed of the rich, so the latter berate the lower classes for laziness, dishonesty and incompetence. In cities and villages, angry arguments in the street are nerve-gratingly regular. In an eastern village, a young teacher complains that “people don’t understand how to resolve disputes by dialogue: they always want to use violence.” Many of the secret societies that held rural communities together through slavery and colonialism, moreover, were destroyed by the civil war, in which rebel soldiers deliberately targeted the chiefs and elders who were the repositories of traditional knowledge.

The insurance and savings schemes of the dollar boys and market traders are all too rare examples of social capital being rebuilt (albeit by groups working illegally), as are village cleansing ceremonies for women abducted and raped in the war. Nestor’s Women’s Movement, on the other hand, used to have thousands of members but now has only ten. He can’t find a woman to take it over: “Joining this movement would require having ideals,” he explains plaintively, “but today people only think about their personal gain. They can’t see beyond themselves to issues.” Tales of efforts by jealous neighbours, friends or relatives to use witchcraft to prevent others attaining wealth, success, or happiness, meanwhile, are frighteningly common.

Nestor believes corruption and selfishness worked their way down to all levels of society from the highest echelons of Siaka Stevens’ government. They even infected the one significant social movement of the last thirty years – the Revolutionary United Front militia, which began as a justifiable response to inequality and venality but ended by causing terrible and wanton carnage.

There are a number of potential flashpoints that could precipitate a return to conflict. War in neighbouring Guinea could have serious repercussions for Sierra Leone, which is ill equipped to house a flood of refugees, or to root out combatants who base themselves in its border areas or target its diamond fields. The 2012 elections are an even greater threat: the SLPP ceded power peacefully in 2007, but may not have gone so quietly had its leader not been retiring. The APC may not yield so willingly in 2012, and there are rumours that it is preparing for possible defeat by training its own militias. And the pressures of Sierra Leone’s demography are unrelenting: huge numbers of young people, few jobs, little in the way of public services, and limited youth representation in power make for a potentially explosive cocktail, particularly in the chaotic, crowded capital.

In this judderingly unstable part of the world, other threats to stability may yet emerge – as one angry young dollar boy warned me with foreboding recently, “When there’s a pool of oil on the ground, you don’t know where the spark that sets fire to it will come from.”