Sierra Leone re-elected Ernest Bai Koroma president against eight other candidates in a calm, orderly vote held on Nov. 17 with results announced Nov. 23, after ballots were counted. The election marks an important step for the country to continue its healing after suffering an 11-year civil war. Koroma, who garnered 58.7 percent of the vote, is credited with paving roads and getting the economy going.
Still managing in serious post-conflict mode, the country is also winding up a United Nations-Sierra Leone tribunal that has tried those responsible for atrocities committed during its especially brutal war, where innocent victims’ appendages, for example, were lopped off and rapes were rampant. The conflict, from 1991 to 2002 and fed by a war chest supplied by illicit diamond trades, was instigated by rebels inside and outside the country to topple Sierra Leone’s leadership.
Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia at the time, was directly involved. As a result, he was convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the recruitment of child soldiers, by the tribunal in April and sentenced to 50 years. His case was tried outside Sierra Leone, in The Hague, to avoid stirring up violence again in the country. He has appealed the verdict.
Besides Taylor’s conviction, the tribunal has been praised for other reasons, like prosecuting gender-based crimes such as gang rape and sexual slavery of women. It was the first court to recognize forced marriage as a crime against humanity.
Encouraging women victims to testify about such humiliating experiences in a public setting required extensive grass-roots work by the court throughout the countryside and was enabled by a strong witness protection program. In addition, the tribunal’s four principals are all women, a first for such a court: prosecutor, registrar, president and main defender. This arrangement was a direct link to a Security Council mandate, Resolution 1325, to incorporate women equally in peace and security negotiations in post-conflict settings, among other requirements.
As Sierra Leone forges ahead, it is aiming to keep other gender-minded goals in sight, like drafting a gender-equality bill. But the country needs to make progress in far too many other areas, including reconciliation, the economy, the health of its people, combating corruption, managing its rich mineral and natural resources equitably (including oil), human-rights abuses, meager infrastructure, security-sector reform, youth unemployment and drug trafficking.
Yet the election is the third national vote since the civil war ended, an almost unheard-of record for a nation ravaged for so long and left with about 50,000 dead. A UN peacekeeping mission was replaced in 2005 with a UN peace-building mission, which assisted technically in the Nov. 17 presidential, parliamentary and local elections. The mission’s mandate expires in March.
“The successful conduct of elections will demonstrate the maturity of Sierra Leone’s political leadership and institutions, as well as the consolidation of the democratic process in the country,” Jens Anders Toyberg-Frandzen, the UN secretary-general’s executive representative in Sierra Leone, said in a briefing to the Security Council in September. “I think the whole world is looking at Sierra Leone at the moment.”
Toyberg-Frandzen replaced Michael von der Schulenburg earlier this year when Schulenburg left seven months before his assignment finished. The UN gave no explanation for the sudden departure, but some media reports said that he had been forced out by Koroma to improve his re-election bid.
The relationship between the two men withered in 2010 after Schulenburg advised the government to drop plans for investigating extrajudicial killings in 1992 by the military regime at the time. One of the Nov. 17 presidential race’s candidates was Julius Maada Bio, who might have become “ensnared in the inquest had it been held because of his participation in that military regime,” said the Security Council Report, an independent group that issues updates on the UN body.
Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, she has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and near Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working in New York at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.