Our two white UN vehicles are carefully moving down the dusty and bumpy road between Kenema and Koindu in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone. We pass dozens of burnt, abandoned ruins of what were sturdy brick stone homes, some with hundreds of bullet holes in their walls – eerie remnants of Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war that started in this very spot. About 1,200 of Charles Taylor’s rebels launched their devastating campaign here, leading to years of brutal civil war that literally leveled Sierra Leone. The fighting killed tens of thousands and displaced more than 2 million people (about a third of the population) and disrupted nearly every national institution.
Two weeks before the UN peace operation is closing, our team of United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) security sector experts and UN Police is on its way to assess the challenges that remain and to examine how to support border security in the region. This joint mission of the Government of Sierra Leone and the UN is part of a transition plan from peacebuilding and peace consolidation to development in Sierra Leone: After more than15 years of successive peace operations, the last mission, the United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone (UNIPSIL), is closing end of March based on a UN Security Council resolution. The UN family in Sierra Leone will continue and even expand some of UNIPSIL’s responsibilities, for example support to the government in the constitutional review process, as well as strengthening human rights, justice institutions and engagement with the media sector. One of the key components of future UN engagement is the reform of the security sector. Together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Government of Sierra Leone, the mission has developed a security sector support programme, focusing on key areas and gaps, including cross-border security and transnational organized crime, that will be implemented following UNIPSIL’s drawdown.
Jesus Aguilar, Counter Narcotics and Organized Crime Advisor with UNIPSIL, has traveled many times to Sierra Leone’s border and is now sharing his insights with UNDP security experts Lawrence Bassie and Peter Cross while we’re advancing to our final destination: “Sierra Leone has almost 1000 kilometers of borders with Liberia and Guinea, including 896 crossing points – most of which are unmanned. Much of international smuggling, drug and human traffic is passing here. To effectively stabilize the borders and control the large influx of drugs, UNDP’s engagement here and continued international support to national security institutions is extremely important and in everyone’s interest.” Aguilar is overseeing the activities of Sierra Leone’s Transnational Organized Crime Unit (TOCU), the first of its kind in West Africa, in coordination with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). TOCU is mandated to combat organized crime through national and international coordination and to enable intelligence-based investigations of international crime. Since its establishment in 2010, this special crime unit has already carried out 18 law enforcement operations and investigated 337 drug or organized crime related cases as well as supported the regional fight against illicit trafficking, drug trafficking and organized crime through joint border assessments and intelligence sharing with counterparts in Liberia and Guinea.
Wherever we pass, kids come waving and screaming towards our cars with the huge UN logos, adults casually give a thumb up. The UN flag has been a symbol of hope for the population in this troubled region: Many of the over 17.000 blue helmets that arrived with the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone UNAMSIL in Sierra Leone also helped to restore peace and bring back a sense of security in this district of Kailahun. “The UN brought all the warring factions together to one conference table, reconciled them to agreeing to work together and build a better Sierra Leone,” Koindu’s Town Chief, Moses Foryoh, 64, remembers at our meeting with civil society representatives later this afternoon. Our blue helmets disarmed more than 75,000 ex-fighters, including hundreds of child soldiers. The UN destroyed more than 42,000 weapons and 1.2 million rounds of ammunition – a potentially deadly arsenal that is now itself dead. The UN assisted more than half a million Sierra Leonean refugees and internally displaced persons to return home and supported training for thousands of local police. With the UN’s help, Sierra Leone’s citizens voted in successive free and fair elections for the first time in their history .
But we must give full credit where it is due: the peace is first and foremost an accomplishment of the Sierra Leonean people, who have showed tremendous resolve to heal and rebuild. Since its establishment six years ago as a civilian political mission, the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office helped Sierra Leone’s citizens to consolidate progress, addressing tensions that could have caused a relapse into conflict while strengthening institutions and promoting human rights. It helped the Government to bolster the political process, emphasizing dialogue and tolerance, and further strengthened the national police.
UN staff and other development partners have launched projects that provided jobs to thousands of ex-fighters, to bring social cohesion and peace to communities. However, one of the most successful youth empowerment projects arose from the youth themselves: the Sierra Leone Bike Riders Union. Even at the border to Guinea, we meet former child soldiers that are now earning a living by providing transport on their “Okada”, a motorbike taxi, as part of this initiative.
During his recent visit to Sierra Leone, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the great strides towards peace, stability and long-term development in Sierra Leone and called it “one of the world’s most successful cases of post-conflict recovery, peacekeeping and peacebuilding.” He added that “this country shows that with a strong investment – in material resources, human energy, international support and national goodwill – we can achieve lasting peace.”
That this border region with its strategic location between Guinea and Liberia has been a focus of international aid efforts is clearly visible: Large parts of the road are getting tarred thanks to funding from the African Development Bank. Signs sprawl across the cities promoting the World Food Programme’s and Plan International’ school feeding scheme and United Nations Development Programme’s fight to end gender based violence and many others.
Even in this most remote part of Sierra Leone women are still selling fruit, vegetables and other basic commodities at small stalls in front of their houses; a clear sign that these communities don’t suffer from food insecurity, as a WFP colleague explains to me. Yet the fact that Sierra Leone remains one of the most underdeveloped parts of this world is visible wherever we pass: most of the roads are only passable with 4×4 vehicles, which are out of reach for most Sierra Leoneans, the signs of poverty triggered environmental destruction are heartbreaking: acres and acres of beautiful lush vegetation are being burned down to provide charcoal for cooking.
Most of the villages on the way to the border with Guinea are a collection of the most basic housing structures. No electricity, water pipes or toilets can be spotted. We observe locals digging on the side of the road for gold and diamonds a few miles north of Kenema with simple equipment – working hard before one of the international mining companies receives an exclusive license to extract the precious resources. Even though Sierra Leone is rich in natural resources including diamonds, titanium ore, bauxite, iron ore and gold, 76 percent of its population still lives below the poverty line. The World Health Organization reports that Sierra Leone has a life expectancy of 48 years, the lowest in the world. The country has the world’s highest under-5 mortality rate with 198 deaths of children under-5 for every 1,000 children born, according to UNICEF’s 2014 State of the World’s Children in Numbers report. It ranks only 177 out of 187 in UNDP’s Human Development Index.
After an exhausting 14-hour long journey from the capital of Freetown we finally arrive at our first mission destination, the police station of Koindu. About 40 representatives from the national security service, armed forces, police as well as immigration and customs are squeezed into a small sparsely furnished meeting room to share their assessment of the security situation and needs of the community with us.
Strikingly, all participants are men, with the exception of one female police officer who peeks into the meeting room from outside. “Women don’t feel comfortable in this male dominated environment,” one meeting participant says apologetically. At national level, the Government with support from the international community is striving to improve the female quota in President Ernest Bai Koroma’s administration: women have been appointed to positions such as the Chief Justice, Auditor General, heads of the National Electoral Commission, Sierra Leone Roads Authority and National Revenue Authority.
Everybody we talk to agrees that the security situation has improved dramatically for the population and especially women in this district in the last decade since the war, thanks to a strong collaboration between traditional leaders, security institutions, the government and the international community. According to Andrew Kamara, who has worked as a police officer in Kailahun over the past twelve years, the security situation in Kailahun has changed tremendously – also thanks to the support of the United Nations. “The United Nations has improved the police through trainings and equipment, has helped to increase the number of female police officers and has supported the establishment of the Family Support Unit. We can already see that the number of crimes against women has decreased significantly.”
Nationwide, the UN has assisted in rebuilding national police and security forces and the results are tangible: Sierra Leone once hosted the largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world. Now, Sierra Leone has shifted from hosting more than 17,000 troops to being a troop-contributing country: more than 100 uniformed Sierra Leoneans serve under the UN flag in Darfur, Lebanon, Mali, South Sudan and Sudan – a powerful example of the country’s progress and the growing professionalism and institutional development of its security forces.
We meet civil society representatives an hour later in a pavilion concur with our law enforcement experts: Borders are poorly controlled due to lack of funding for training and payment of staff as well as necessary equipment to regularly check traffic passing over the 56 crossing points in the area. “Currently, border security doesn’t have any type of vehicle to monitor the border crossings. At least five motorbikes and one 4×4 vehicle are needed to ensure adequate policing of this area,” the UN security team recommends after assessing the security situation together with local officials and civil society representatives. Aguilar adds that establishing a fixed border post in the triangle with Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone would also be beneficial for the economic development of this region.
And indeed, the focus of the wish list of the Sierra Leoneans we meet clearly lies on development issues: “What we urgently need are jobs for our youth, an ambulance, roads, electricity and clean water,” Koindu’s Townchief Foryoh claims. “There might be political conflict but no more war and destruction,” he looks ahead to the future of his region. “The biggest problem we face is the poor condition of the roads. We are appealing for help with light, electricity and pure drinking water. These are the major things we need. All the wells have dried up.”
The UN has helped to sustain peace in Sierra Leone for over a decade. This trip to Koindu has shown us that the time is ripe for the ongoing transition from UN peace operations to a UN system focused on development. A United Nations country team will remain until long-term development takes root, supporting good governance, quality education, health services and other essential conditions for progress.
At this crucial moment, the international community must stay committed to building a more peaceful, democratic and prosperous country based on the rule of law and good governance. There are still challenges ahead. Sierra Leone has to do more to strengthen civil society, promote political pluralism, empower women, create jobs – especially for young people – and improve education. Sierra Leone also still has to promote women and children’s health, reinforce democratic institutions, fight corruption, protect the environment, deliver on public services and establish sound State institutions.
But most of all, to avoid future conflict it will be important to ensure that all people, even in this remote border region, benefit from progress that is being made.
Silke von Brockhausen, Public Information Officer