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The Washington Quarterly 25.3 (2002) 147-160

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Sierra Leone:
The State that Came Back from the Dead

Michael Chege

British foreign secretary Jack Straw commenced a major foreign policy statement in March with a stinging rebuke against global indifference toward dysfunctional states and a warning of the threats posed by nonstate actors operating outside the limits of any formal governmental control. 1 Pointing to the increasing menace posed by failed states imploding from civil conflict, he admonished that, "when we allow governments to fail, warlords, drug barons, or terrorists fill the vacuum. ... Terrorists are strongest where states are weakest." Hence, the urgent need exists to underwrite state reconstruction in Afghanistan and similarly failed states in Africa, Asia, the Balkans, and the Caucuses.

That same week, President George W. Bush addressed the United Nations (UN) International Conference on Financing Development in Monterrey, Mexico, pledging to double U.S. foreign aid by providing an additional $10 billion in the next three years, as he asserts poverty can provide the setting under which countries become havens for terrorism. Bush emphasized that the most assured path out of mass poverty and for states to become less fickle in the developing world was the building of governmental institutions for "liberty, law, and opportunity" on the foundation of open, market-led economies tied firmly to global trade.

Yet, the relationship between poverty, internal conflict, the breakdown of governance institutions, and terrorism is by no means straightforward. Some of the most poverty-stricken and weakly governed states in Africa—Niger, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Angola, and the Comoros—barely feature in the unfolding drama of international terrorist networks. Wealthier countries in the Middle East—Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi [End Page 147] Arabia—have been prime recruitment grounds for terrorist masterminds. Because the margin of error in implementing the new policies linking institutional reconstruction in failed states to poverty alleviation and counterterrorism is very small, understanding the precise linkage between state failure and terrorist-free reconstruction with freedom and prosperity has become a vitally urgent task.

Examining in detail case studies of failed states with terror connections that have turned the corner toward peace and the rebuilding of functional governance institutions is one method of gaining this understanding. Although Sierra Leone is not yet definitively out of danger, its experience as a failed state that came back from the dead labels it a suitable candidate. Sierra Leone is a small state of 4.7 million people, with perhaps the lowest standard of living in the world. From 1991 to 2002, networks of warlords and shady external operators, some of them with links leading indirectly to Al Qaeda, underpinned generalized lawlessness in the country and one of the goriest civil wars in recent memory. Policy lessons relevant to the issues that were raised in London and Monterrey this year can be learned from Sierra Leone's unlikely transition from lurid anarchy to tentative institutional reconstruction.

From Mascot for State Failure to Tentative Recovery

Founded in 1789 as a British colony for freed African slaves yearning for a home after the abolition of the slave trade in Britain's far-flung Atlantic empire (hence "Freetown," its capital port city), Sierra Leone achieved independence from Great Britain in 1961. With Fourah Bay College established in Freetown in 1827, colonial Sierra Leone pioneered higher education in British-run West Africa for the first half of the last century. For most of its 180-year colonial phase, the fundamental political cleavage in Sierra Leone was between the freed immigrants and anglicized "Creoles" and the multiethnic, multireligious (Muslim, Christian, and traditionalist) inhabitants of the country's interior. Sierra Leone also had a small business community of Lebanese and Indians. Party political loyalties assume a loose ethnic divide between north (Temne) and south (Mende). Yet, Sierra Leone did not experience the ethnic fratricide that is often blamed for state collapse in Africa before or after independence. Even after mayhem broke out in 1991, Sierra Leone's craven governments and bloody warring factions apparently observed the policy of equal opportunity employment...


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