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Last Updated: Monday, 17 October 2005, 00:55 GMT 01:55 UK
Sierra Leone still blighted by war

By Joseph Winter
BBC News website, Freetown

During the campaign for Liberia's first post-war elections, Liberians were eager to tell their new leaders what they wanted.

Free primary education has been one of the few undoubted peace dividends in Sierra Leone

Most started with schools and went on to reel off an extremely long list: clinics, jobs, new roads, rubbish collection, electricity, running water, tools for farming, etc.

After 15 years of conflict, just about everything does indeed need to be done.

Liberians are impatient for dramatic change in their lives but what can they really expect?

Neighbouring Sierra Leone is three years down the road Liberia has just embarked on - it emerged from a related, decade-long civil war in 2001.

In 2002, there was similar enthusiasm for post-war elections to that shown by Liberians last week but disillusionment set in for many ordinary people in Sierra Leone a long time ago.

'Realistic targets'

Most of the capital, Freetown, remains without electricity or running water while jobs remain as elusive as ever and huge piles of rubbish can still be seen on streets lined with tin shacks, where people live five or six to a room.

Many Sierra Leoneans say corruption - one of the main causes of the war - remains a huge problem.

It is easier to start from scratch than to try and mend things which are broken
Zainab Bangura
Sierra Leonean civil society activist
The government is quick to point to the absence of conflict and the introduction of free primary education but disappointment with the peace dividend is widespread.

One man well placed to advise Liberia is Alan Doss, the head of the enormous United Nations mission there and who was previously based in Sierra Leone.

"We must be realistic in what we can expect," he told the BBC News website.

"It takes time to rescue an economy, even with the best management in the world."

These words of caution are aimed at Liberians and also donors tempted to withdraw as soon as elections are held.

He says the first thing the Liberian government should do after being inaugurated next January is to set measurable targets in a host of different areas.

With everything needing to be done, donors and interest groups will all come along with their pet projects - judicial reform, civil service reform, human rights awareness, schools, roads, etc - and the government must ensure that its priorities are not skewed by such pressure.

Mr Doss also says that Liberia must act quickly to stamp out corruption, or its perception, which is now making donors wary of putting too much money into Sierra Leone.

After years of war, both countries are on "international life-support", Mr Doss says, and have little choice but to tackle the perception of corruption, even if they believe there are other priorities.

Fighting corruption

In Sierra Leone, an Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) was set up but at first it could not prosecute suspects - that was the job of the Attorney General's office, which was accused of protecting high-ranking officials.

Girl carries basket of charcoal to use for cooking
Life remains a struggle for most Sierra Leoneans
Civil society activist and government critic Zainab Bangura says files gathered dust and were never acted on.

This is angrily denied by Attorney General and Justice Minister Frederick Carew.

He accuses the ACC of jumping the gun and making high-profile arrests before gathering sufficient evidence to warrant prosecution and says corruption is not a huge problem in Sierra Leone.

But donors contribute at least half of Sierra Leone's budget and so their belief that too much of their money was ending up in official pockets had to be taken on board.

The power to prosecute corruption cases was recently moved to a three-man team of two foreign prosecutors acting with an official from the AG's office.

They decide whether to prosecute a suspect on a majority vote, so the AG no longer has the power of veto.

ACC head Valentine Collier hopes this will make a difference to Sierra Leone's fight against corruption, which he describes as a "very serious threat to our peace and stability".

He says independence from potential government interference is crucial and Liberia should learn from Sierra Leone's experience.

Dysfunctional institutions

Donors are also insisting that further aid is tied closely to measurable targets and again, this is being done in Liberia.

When you start anything, there are teething problems which you address as you go on
John Benjamin
Sierra Leone finance minister
Even Ms Bangura, however, admits that to some extent, corruption is inevitable in a post-war country, although she says the scale has been unacceptable, with clinics being built but no drugs supplied and schools built without desks or blackboards because kick-backs are easier to siphon off from construction projects.

"You're bringing a huge amount of resources into dysfunctional government institutions, so seepages are bound to occur."

This is echoed by Finance Minister John Benjamin.

"When you start anything, there are teething problems which you address as you go on," he says.

For example, the Anti-Corruption Commission was set up but it was criticised and so its powers were increased.

"Three years is nothing in development terms. It takes five or six years just to complete primary school," says Mr Benjamin.

People must be patient for the new teachers and nurses currently being trained to finish their courses and start work before expecting a dramatic improvement in social services.

Mr Doss agrees that the Sierra Leone government has been unfairly criticised.

"It is the old question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty."

Mr Benjamin says the mere absence of war allows people to start their own little businesses and slowly improve their own lives.

'Hard work and patience'

Certainly, Freetown has a far more vibrant feel to it than shell-shocked Monrovia, with people hustling and bustling around the central market, where many more goods can be found than in Liberia.

People's lives are not being transformed overnight and the majority of Sierra Leoneans are still desperately struggling to survive but some money is circulating, which can only be a step in the right direction.

People in front of Freetown slum
Many in Sierra Leone are not sure whether their country is going forwards or backwards
Liberia, however, is actually starting from an even worse position than Sierra Leone.

Its war lasted longer and more of its infrastructure was destroyed.

But Ms Bangura, who was in Monrovia to monitor the elections, thinks that could actually be an advantage in the long term.

"Liberia has nothing. We have a lot of baggage. It is easier to start from scratch than to try and mend things which are broken."

So what advise does Sierra Leone's finance minister have for Liberians?

"Be patient and work hard - and remember the government cannot do everything."

Mr Benjamin says people must realise it will be some time before they see dramatic improvements in their lives - something he accepts.

"It is right to have high expectations because it puts pressure on the government."


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