The Failures of Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Sierra Leone and The Threat to Peace

Christi F. Freeman

March, 2008

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

"...Many of the causes of conflict that prompted thousands of young people to join the war have still not been adequately addressed."[1]

Peace was elusive for nearly a decade in Sierra Leone. The civil war that began in 1991, as rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) invaded border towns, left a brutalized and devastated country in its wake. An end to the conflict was formally declared by President Kabbah in early 2002 and reconstruction was underway after being delayed by renewed fighting that followed the 1999 signing of the Lomé Peace Agreement[2]. Initially praised as a peace-building success, the international community is taking a closer look at the problems that continue to threaten Sierra Leone's fragile peace. Despite the largest United Nations peacekeeping mission ever deployed[3], as well as extensive external aid and reconstruction efforts by the United Kingdom, United States and UN, the root causes of the conflict have not been resolved. The international reconstruction effort in Sierra Leone has failed to address fundamental causes of the conflict, including institutional weakness and endemic corruption and the marginalization of youth. It is imperative for the international community to undertake measures to address the challenges that exist in each of these areas. The case of Sierra Leone provides invaluable lessons for international actors involved in state-building and peace-building.

The Causes of Conflict in Sierra Leone

The report released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Sierra Leone concluded that "it was years of bad governance, endemic corruption and the denial of basic human rights that created the deplorable conditions that made conflict inevitable."[4] There are many perceptions of the causes of conflict in Sierra Leone. Major General Jonathon P. Riley of the UK argues that the Revolutionary United Front began its campaign of terror in response to the abuses of the government, but that the RUF quickly was overtaken by criminals with no political or social objective. In the Major General's view, greed was the motivating factor for the use of violence.[5] A World Bank Study in 2005 sheds light on the causes of the conflict, noting, "[E]veryone we spoke to talked of the collapse of institutions as the root cause of the civil war, not diamonds."[6] Although many arguments have been made regarding the role of diamonds and greed in the Sierra Leonean conflict, a general consensus on several core causes of the conflict has emerged. These causes include: corruption and economic mismanagement, lack of opportunities for youth, and the underdevelopment of rural areas.[7]

Post-Conflict Areas of Risk

Post-conflict Sierra Leone has seen an influx of tremendous amounts of aid from the international community. Leading agencies, such as the UK DFID (Department for International Development), UNHCR, UNDP and UNASMIL (United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone), developed the four objectives of repatriation, reintegration, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. It is estimated that reconstruction cost the United Nations $16.4 billion a year and the British government £100 million per year.[8] The United States also spent $45 million reintegrating former combatants and improving control and management of the diamond sector.[9] Reconstruction efforts had great success in several areas, leading to the return of over 300,000 internally displaced persons and the disarmament of over 70,000 ex-combatants.[10] Extensive police training and military restructuring was led by the British. Clinics, schools and homes have been built, and free elections have taken place twice.[11] These efforts were critical for peace in the short term and should not be underestimated.

However, the citizens of Sierra Leone, even in the aftermath of widespread displacement, sexual violence, and terror, did not want to rebuild their society in the image of the pre-war state, which was one of undemocratic rule, repression, and corruption.[12] The billions of dollars invested in state-building in Sierra Leone have not succeeded in addressing the root causes of the conflict and have created a crisis of disillusionment among Sierra Leoneans who hoped that the involvement of the international community would help to resolve the issues that led to a decade of civil war.

Good — or Bad — Governance

"Democracy and the rule of law were dead."[13]

Recognizing that a lack of democratic governance results in the marginalization of citizens — who then pose a threat to peace and security — USAID has defined its main objective in Sierra Leone as the promotion of good governance and transparency.[14] Despite the best intentions of USAID and other organizations, governance in Sierra Leone remains plagued by corruption at all levels. In addition to corruption, rushed elections and the reconstruction of the Paramount Chief system have contributed to a lack of transparency and accountability in the government. Donors have tried to stem the tide of corruption in Sierra Leone with very little success. The creation of an Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) was the most recognizable effort to hold government officials accountable. Public Expenditure Tracking Surveys, corruption surveys, and better regulated accountancy systems within the Ministry of Finance have constituted additional anti-corruption measures. Thus far, though, the ACC has been particularly ineffective and by 2004, only 2 of 40 cases that were sent to the General Attorney's Office for prosecution had been concluded. The ACC's greatest challenge is a lack of cooperation from government and judicial officials. The Anti-Corruption Act of 2000 provides no penalties for refusing to comply with the Commission and its recommendations, and requests from the ACC are frequently ignored by government ministries and officials. For Sierra Leoneans, the luxurious lifestyles of government officials are evidence enough that corruption still remains embedded in the government and in the criminal justice system.[15]

The lifestyles of government officials are not the only evidence of corruption. The poor continue to suffer directly from corruption as well. The toll of poverty is exacerbated by extra payments demanded by local officials for health and education services. Bribes are required in order to gain access to the judicial system.[16] Sierra Leone's population is being deprived of basic services due to the redirection and siphoning of funding and revenues by government officials. If and when these services are provided, the people suffer yet again at the local level from corruption. The link between lasting peace and corruption is obvious, yet the political will of the international community to address this issue has been weak at best. If corruption continues, disillusionment and distrust will follow, particularly in light of the fact that Sierra Leone was promised democracy by the international community. In a society with a history of patrimonial and clientelist rulers, reconstruction must endeavor to prevent history from repeating itself.

A second area of governance threatening the peace in Sierra Leone is the Paramount Chief system. This local governance system was largely destroyed during the war, with many chiefs losing their lives. The Paramount Chief system was reconstructed by a DFID-funded program, the Paramount Chiefs Restoration Program (PCRP).[17] Chiefs are commonly viewed as a cause of the conflict, and there were uprisings against their abuses of power as early as 1955. Abuses of power — such as exploitative punishments given through local courts and seizure of property — were common in the past, and there is little evidence that this will change under the customary law of the system. These customary laws also allow human rights abuses, especially with regard to women and youth. A Forced Labour Ordinance (from 1932) is still listed on statute books and allows chiefs and their families to force youth to work for them.[18] The reinstatement of the Paramount Chiefs has sustained a form of injustice and unaccountability of governance that will continue to alienate youth and other segments of the population if it remains unchanged.

Corruption, crime, and human rights abuses will continue as long as the judiciary is unable to function as an efficient and nonpartisan institution. Sierra Leone's judicial system is hampered by extortion and bribery among court officials, insufficient staff, and the detention of hundreds of accused persons without trial for protracted periods.[19] Donors have led efforts to rebuild courts and provide personnel, yet there remain insufficient numbers of judges, magistrates, public defenders and prosecutors. The judiciary also remains subject to corruption and interference from the executive.[20] Low salaries for magistrates and judges increase the appeal of corruption and bribery. The backlog of cases in the judicial system leaves an estimated 70% of the population with access only to the Paramount Chief courts, giving the chiefs even more power.[21]

Public perceptions of corruption, mismanagement, and injustice represent a dangerous form of disillusionment and despair that is not new to Sierra Leone and must be addressed immediately by the international donor community.

The Young, The Strong, The Unemployed

"Young people everywhere have considerable anxiety about their future, and if they do not find educational and employment opportunities, they naturally despair. This leads to feelings of exclusion and resentment that in the extreme can produce lawlessness, violence, and even anarchy as Sierra Leone witnessed during your civil conflict. The conditions that exist today are some of the same conditions the led to that conflict, and they must be addressed."[22]

The economic exclusion of youth is a widely accepted cause of the civil conflict that brutalized Sierra Leone. The RUF was able to attract youth not because they were inclined to violence, but because they lacked social incentives and were economically and politically marginalized by poverty and the failure of state institutions.[23] One of the greatest failures of state-building in Sierra Leone has been on the economic front. The UNDP Human Development Index ranks Sierra Leone 176th out of 177 countries, and life expectancy in the country is only 41 years. Development indicators for Sierra Leone are frighteningly stark, with an estimated 65%[24] of the population remaining illiterate and 70% living in poverty. While poverty affects every part of a society, unemployed youth are especially impacted by the inability to achieve a meaningful livelihood. Three-fourths of Sierra Leone's population between the ages of 18 and 35 are unemployed[25], and the few who do have jobs often are not paid enough to escape the clutches of poverty.[26]

Reconstruction in Sierra Leone focused most directly on the immediate needs for disarmament and demobilization of former combatants. The large-scale disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) effort in Sierra Leone has been cited as a United Nations success story. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and time has revealed the ineffectiveness of reintegration. The agricultural sector provides three-fourths of the jobs in Sierra Leone, yet DDR programs trained former combatants as plumbers, carpenters, or mechanics. Donors did hope that ex-combatants would settle as farmers, but the reintegration programs they provided did not meet the requirements that would have made this possible.[27] In reintegration programs, combatants could choose a field of training and receive a "toolkit" for that area. Much to the chagrin of the donors providing these kits, ex-combatants chose the kits which could be resold at highest value — hoes and seeds don't fetch much. A six-month stipend was provided for ex-combatants who entered vocational training while farmers were not supported at all, since it was assumed they were already knowledgeable about farming. There were many hidden disincentives for ex-combatants to enter the agricultural field. In the midst of floods of foreign services, training, and aid, many youth overlooked agricultural training in the hope of something more.[28]

The failure of the donor community to provide sufficient infrastructure reconstruction and employment generation has made livelihoods in agriculture for ex-combatants and youth untenable. A small number of public works schemes were undertaken. For example, UNASMIL soldiers employed ex-combatants on road construction projects, yet roads remain in extremely poor shape. International financial institutions, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have also been active in reconstruction and have compounded the economic challenges faced by youth in Sierra Leone. IMF's insistence on privatization of public enterprises has made rebuilding the country's infrastructure an impossible task for a government whose budget is comprised of 65% foreign aid.[29] Opportunities in the agricultural sector have been further stifled by international insistence on removing trade barriers, which has allowed cheaper Asian rice to swamp the local market, reducing the ability of small farmers to compete.[30] A combination of the misguided reintegration programs and the demands of international financial institutions have resulted in a lack of infrastructure and access to productive lands, a lack of appropriate training, and increased disappointment among youth.

One economic sector into which youth have been integrated is diamond mining, which accounts for 20% of the country's total GDP and 65% of its foreign exchange. The exploitation of natural resources in Sierra Leone — the smuggling of diamonds in particular — was a driving force of the conflict. An extremely valuable natural resource, diamonds have the opportunity to contribute to economic development and poverty alleviation in one of the poorest countries on Earth. Unfortunately, lack of government regulation, corruption, and illegal smuggling continue. The Kimberly Process, initiated by the United Nations in response to the crisis of conflict diamonds, has not been effectively implemented in Sierra Leone; government officials have attributed a decline in official diamond exports from $140 million in 2005 to $120 million in 2006 to smuggling. A major challenge for the reconstruction process has been using diamond revenues to promote development, a task that is unfeasible without government regulation. A positive step in this direction was the creation of the Diamond Area Community Development Fund (DACDF), whose aim is to invest diamond revenues in the respective diamond-producing areas. This effort has been undermined by lack of regulation of mining companies and Paramount Chiefs. Youth interviewed by Global Witness in 2007 said that they believe land is being taken away from communities for resource management, but that their communities are not benefiting.[31] Disaffection with the government and mining companies has only been enhanced by the number of youth who have been attracted to the mines in search of employment. In Kono district, one of the most important mining districts in Sierra Leone, thousands of youth aged seven to sixteen are involved in mining, often in exceptionally exploitative conditions. The lack of government oversight of mining areas makes it unlikely that the conditions for youth there will change in the near future.[32]

Education is the foundation of economic growth, development, health, and myriad other conditions that enhance peace. Although donor-driven initiatives rebuilt schools, many youth still do not have access to education. Education plays an extremely important role in post-conflict societies, and particularly in the context of Sierra Leone, where 36% of ex-combatants surveyed had never attended school.[33] Public education in Sierra Leone is free, but the wide reach of poverty has prevented many parents from being able to afford textbooks, uniforms, and additional fees charged by school authorities.[34] Despite the construction and repair of many school facilities, the educational system remains in crisis. The pupil-to-teacher ratio in some parts of the country is an astonishingly high 118:1. In 2005, a reported 375,000 children could not attend school.[35] Extremely low literacy rates highlight the failure of the post-conflict educational system: 47% of males can read and only 24% of females. Barely half of all primary schools are functioning, and only 41% of children attended primary school from 2000-2005 (although this figure is an average and the percentage may have increased in the past few years).[36]

Teacher salaries and school reconstruction have been impeded by pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and donors to meet macro-economic objectives. IMF spending caps prevent increased government spending on education and result in low civil service salaries.[37] Maintaining low civil service salaries increases the likelihood of corruption to supplement incomes and has resulted in additional school fees charged by education officials. As long as education remains out of reach for many Sierra Leoneans, a large segment of society — namely school-aged youth and young adults — will continue to feel marginalized and alienated by a system that does not meet their most fundamental needs. Education is the hope of the future. Without it, disillusionment, frustration, and despair flourish.

The plight of youth in Sierra Leone has been illustrated by the creation of loosely knit youth groups and criminal gangs. While these groups are not necessarily violent and may even be formed for the advancement of youth, they illustrate the search many youth are undertaking for an identity not defined by poverty, unemployment, exploitation, and disillusionment. Groups serve multiple functions, such as providing protection for their members from police harassment or providing early warning on police patrols.[38] These groups have an enormous potential as forums for youth concerns and political engagement, but their potential for criminality and violence must be recognized by the international community and the government of Sierra Leone. Local chiefs and strongmen may be able to co-opt these groups. UNASMIL reported that it needed the cooperation of youth groups as much as that of paramount chiefs in some mining districts; in Kono, for instance, youth groups appear to exert some control over which companies are permitted to operate.

The most blatantly threatening of these groups are criminal gangs. Bruce Baker explains the attraction of these gangs as organizations that offer "a cohesive alternative sub-culture to the dominant culture which has marginalized [youth], boasts its own language and, through criminal activity, offers alternative forms of wealth."[39] The international community and the state government have not recognized or addressed these youth-led groups, leaving them disengaged from the political sphere.[40] In the context of poverty, unemployment, lack of education and feelings of injustice, youth organizations embody a palpable threat to security in Sierra Leone and could easily be mobilized as criminal gangs, militias, or rebels.

The RUF was composed mainly of urban youth who faced long-term unemployment, criminals, alienated rural youth, and young migrants working in diamond-mining districts.[41] What is different for youth in Sierra Leone today? The answer is very little. Reconstruction efforts disarmed former combatants, institutionalized a relatively stable governing structure, and expanded and reformed the police and military sectors. The average youth, however, still does not have access to education or employment, is subjected to injustices meted out by local chiefs, and is embittered by local and high-level corruption. In the aftermath of great expectations, youth have found themselves outside the projects that were undertaken to rebuild their country and their futures. The greatest threat to peace in Sierra Leone remains the state of the youth.

Lessons from Reconstruction, Lessons for Peace

"...In the gap between reality and the theory lies war."[42]

There is perhaps no better way to describe the challenges of post-conflict state-building and peace-building than the quote above. Sierra Leone has experienced the gap between reality and theory first-hand. Donor agencies are now recognizing the threats to peace that have not been resolved in Sierra Leone. Reconstruction has succeeded in many ways. Why, then, do corruption, injustice, unemployment and poverty remain endemic? State-building cannot be separated from peace-building. Failures of state-building endanger peace. The case of Sierra Leone provides a multitude of lessons for the international community on priorities of reconstruction and the need to make theory become reality.

Curbing corruption and promoting justice

Post-conflict societies rarely experience a clean break from the past, particularly in the elite realm of governance. It is imperative that the international community and donors involved in reconstruction make ending corruption a high priority. Donors took several important steps in this direction in Sierra Leone, with the creation of the Anti-Corruption Commission being the most significant. As was previously discussed, however, the Commission has remained powerless in the face of government interference and lack of cooperation. The international community must pressure the government to confer prosecutorial powers on the Commission. Additional recommendations by International Crisis Group call for a comprehensive reform of the judiciary. In order to decrease the windows for corruption at all levels of government, budgets should be published from the ministry-level down and candidates should declare their financial assets before running for public office.[43] An informed public provides an important means of accountability for officials. Sufficient (not extravagant) salaries for civil servants will diminish the motivation for corruption at lower levels of government. A functioning legal system and Anti-Corruption Commission are necessary to curb corruption at the highest levels. UK Major General Jonathan Riley describes the inability of reconstruction to tackle corruption, writing: "We did security. We made a contribution to governance but did not address the whole system, and we did nothing about essential services. In particular, we allowed corruption to continue."[44]

The need for state-building to focus on functioning institutions in the immediate aftermath of war is unquestionable. The need to recognize what elements will impede the functioning of those institutions in the near and far future, however, is rarely questioned. The international community and donors have the capacity to enhance conditions for good governance and to limit corruption. Strategic analyses of the problems facing state institutions must be conducted in the immediate aftermath of war or even before peace is declared. Unexpected consequences or failures of reconstruction initiatives must be anticipated as well. One of the most important lessons from the case of Sierra Leone is that international interventions in state-building must last much longer than is currently acceptable to the international and donor communities.[45] Long-term engagement is necessary to monitor the consequences of decisions first made in the post-conflict setting and to ensure that they do not destabilize the country.[46] Corruption was rampant in Sierra Leone for generations before the war and was a core cause of the conflict. The United Nations, US, and UK should have, and must today, recognize the threat corruption poses to peace and use their leverage to stop the cycle.

Giving youth hope for the future

The word reconstruction conjures images of the construction of buildings, roads, hospitals and schools. The reality is that those images are often only a small part of reconstruction plans. The international community overlooked the concerns of youth and an impoverished population with a short-sighted drive for immediate peace, disarmament, and the creation of a barely functional government. Economic development, education, and the restoration of basic services were certainly on the list of things to do; the problem is how far down on the list they fell and how they would be accomplished. Donors concentrated on disarmament and reintegration as a strategy for preventing future violence among youth. At the same time, their strategies for macroeconomic growth and spending caps undermined economic and educational opportunities for those same youth. A higher priority should have been given to the education and health sectors, as well as rebuilding infrastructure that connects rural areas. According to International Crisis Group, a World Bank study recommends less emphasis be placed on macroeconomic balances. Instead, rapid spending on reconstruction in rural areas and the provision of jobs for impoverished and alienated youth should occur.[47]

A handful of public works projects to build roads and local police stations were conducted by donors, yet no large-scale government spending on public works emerged. Donors must consider the consequences of IMF and World Bank policies on at-risk populations, such as the youth in Sierra Leone. Reductions in government spending on education, infrastructure, and health have led to conditions that marginalize large numbers of youth. Corruption must be constrained before donor support for government spending can be effective, however. International actors must approach state-building with a long-term time frame and a willingness to invest time and effort into understanding the many intricate relationships between reconstruction activities and the needs of the average Sierra Leonean.


The destruction caused by war cannot be fully comprehended by those who were not its victims in some way. The international donor community has failed to change the context in which conflict originally emerged in Sierra Leone. Officials remain corrupt, chiefs retain power, injustice prevails, unemployment is pervasive, and disillusionment at the reconstruction process is widespread. International reconstruction efforts must endeavor to understand and anticipate their consequences, both intended and unintended. In breaching the gap between theory or planning and reality, what is left undone is often more important than what is done. Reconstruction and aid must demand transparency from recipient governments while simultaneously providing support and expertise to implement systems of accountability. Reintegration projects cannot provide a short-term fix, but must work within the existing economic framework to provide employment that will make lasting contributions to individuals' livelihoods. Schools can be rebuilt, but will remain empty unless funds are allowed to be used for teacher salaries and materials. Many lessons can be discerned from the failures of Sierra Leone. Sweeping political, judicial, and economic reconstruction will falter if it does not consider and adequately address the underlying causes of the conflict. May the voice of those to whom the society belongs be sought and heard by the community of states who have undertaken to rebuild it.

[1] "Volume 1: Introduction to the TRC Report," The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Sierra Leone, publish/intro.shtml, Accessed 15 March 2008.

[2] "Background Note: Sierra Leone," US Department of State,, Accessed 30 December 2007.

[3] Bruce Baker and Roy May, "Reconstructing Sierra Leone," Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 42 no. 1 (March 2004), 36.

[4] "Liberia and Sierra Leone: Rebuilding Failed States," International Crisis Group (December 8 2004), 8.

[5] Major General Johathon P. Riley, "The UK in Sierra Leone: A Post-Conflict Operation Success?" Heritage Lectures, (Heritage Foundation, 10 August 2006), 1.

[6] Joseph Hanlon, "Is the International Community Helping to Recreate the Preconditions for War in Sierra Leone?" The Round Table, 94 no. 381 (September 2005), 460.

[7] Baker, 38.

[8] Baker, 36-37.

[9] "Sierra Leone," Human Rights Watch, (January 2004), 01/21/sierra6989.htm, Accessed 15 March 2008.

[10] "Republic of Sierra Leone," IRIN: UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, http://, Accessed 15 March 2008.

[11] Baker, 37.

[12] Baker, 36.

[13] "Liberia and Sierra Leone: Rebuilding Failed States," 8.

[14] "USAID/Sierra Leone Briefing Paper," USAID.

[15] Bruce Baker and Roy May, "A Sustainable Peace? Sierra Leone," Ending Africa's Wars: Progressing to Peace, eds. Oliver Furley and Roy May, (Burlington: Ashgate Publishing, 2006), 2254-5.

[16] Baker, 46.

[17] "Liberia and Sierra Leone: Rebuilding Failed States," 24.

[18] Hanlon, 463.

[19] "Sierra Leone: New Leader Must Combat Injustice, Corruption," Human Rights Watch, /11/13/sierra17325.htm, Accessed 15 March 2008.

[20] "Sierra Leone," Amnesty International Report, (2007), http://thereport.amnesty.or g/eng/Regions/Africa/Sierra-Leone, Accessed 15 March 2008.

[21] "Sierra Leone," Human Rights Watch.

[22] Thomas N. Hull, Ambassador, Keynote Speech to the Youth for Sierra Leone Improvement Event, (26 June 2006), html, Accessed 15 March 2008.

[23] Baker, 40.

[24] "Republic of Sierra Leone," IRIN.

[25] Baker, 226.

[26] Hull.

[27] Hanlon, 466.

[28] "Liberia and Sierra Leone: Rebuilding Failed States," 15.

[29] J. Andrew Grant, "Diamonds, Foreign Aid and the Uncertain Prospects for Post-Conflict Reconstruction in Sierra Leone," The Round Table, 94 no. 381 (2005), 446; Hanlon, 467.

[30] Hanlon, 466-7.

[31] "Peacebuilding Omission?" Global Witness, (October 2007), 6.

[32] Baker, 43.

[33] Hanlon, 467.

[34] "Sierra Leone: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices," US Department of State: Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, (2006), 2006/78756.htm, Accessed 15 March 2008.

[35] Hanlon, 464.

[36] "Sierra Leone: At a glance," UNICEF, ountry/sierraleone-841.html, Accessed 17 March 2008.

[37] Hanlon, 461.

[38] "Consolidating the Peace: Views from Sierra Leone and Burundi on the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission," ActionAid, CAFOD, CARE International UK, 20.

[39] Baker, 44-45.

[40] "Consolidating the Peace: Views from Sierra Leone and Burundi on the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission," 20.

[41] "Consolidating the Peace: Views from Sierra Leone and Burundi on the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission," 10.

[42] "Liberia and Sierra Leone: Rebuilding Failed States," 24.

[43] "Liberia and Sierra Leone: Rebuilding Failed States," iii.

[44] Riley, 958.

[45] "Liberia and Sierra Leone: Rebuilding Failed States," 20.

[46] "Liberia and Sierra Leone: Rebuilding Failed States," 24; Recall the reconstruction of the Paramount Chief System by the UK. This is an illustration of a decision made in the frenzy of post-conflict rebuilding, the results of which have alienated other segments of the population. Efforts must be undertaken to reform this system.

[47] Hanlon, 465.