Lessons from Sierra Leone

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"Sierra Leone: The State That Came Back from the Dead" by Michael Chege, in The Washington Quarterly (Summer 2002), Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1800 K St., N.W., Ste. 400, Washington, D.C. 20006.

Thanks to British and UN peacekeepers, Sierra Leone finally seems to have left civil war and anarchy behind. The country’s long ordeal offers two important lessons for would-be rescuers of failed states, argues Chege, director of the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

The first lesson is not to throw money at corrupt dictatorships that repeatedly break their promises to reform. The International Monetary Fund and other aid organizations increased their development assistance to Sierra Leone from $18 million in 1975 to $100 million in 1989, "effectively rewarding the making of a disaster," says Chege.

Sierra Leone’s descent began under President Siaka "Pa" Stevens (1968–85). "The 1973 global oil crisis coincided with a dip in diamond and iron ore prices, opening a deficit in external payments that should have been addressed by cuts in public spending, devaluation of the currency, and export diversification," explains Chege. "Stevens’s government did the exact opposite," borrowing lavishly and expanding state control over the economy. The inflation rate rose to 50 percent in the 1980s. "With swiftly declining real wages, Sierra Leone’s public servants, including the security forces, turned to graft and pilferage of government supplies." By the time Stevens handed the presidency over to his chosen successor, Joseph Momoh, in 1985, the state had already lost legitimacy.

The real trouble began in 1991, with the appearance of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), sponsored by President Charles Taylor of neighboring Liberia, who sold the rebels arms in exchange for diamonds from Sierra Leone’s mines. The long-neglected Sierra Leone armed forces soon capitulated, and the country fell into anarchy. Until earlier this year, "networks of warlords and shady external operators, some of them with links leading indirectly to Al Qaeda," flourished amid "one of the goriest civil wars in recent memory."

Chege’s second lesson is that the use of private security companies to prop up weak governments (tried twice in Sierra Leone) is a stopgap solution at best: "Western governments, multilateral development agencies, and private foundations have expended large amounts of aid to promote democratic elections, good governance, civil society, and the rule of law." But they need to support two more things: "professional military and police institutions under accountable, democratically elected governments."

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