Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sierra Leone

Not much in the news lately. It's been a slow couple of weeks. So I'll just ramble on a bit about Sierra Leone, a country I've been studying a bit recently.

They got a new president last Monday. Longtime opposition party leader Ernest Bai Koroma was sworn in a few weeks after he achieved a solid victory over the ruling party candidate.

Sierra Leone is a former British colony in Africa with a predictably turbulent and tragic political history.

The country achieved independence in 1961. Its first prime ministers were two brothers, Sir Milton Margai and Sir Albert Margai. Then in 1967, Sir Albert, the younger one, lost his bid for re-election to Siaka Stevens and his "All Peoples' Congress" Party. It was the first time in history that an African government had lost a bid for re-election. People hoped it would also be the first peaceful transition of power.

Sir Albert didn't want to give up power, though, so he asked the army to stage a coup to keep himself in office. But the army had plans of their own. They did the coup, but exiled Sir Albert.

A counter-coup later deposed the army, who has governed for about a year. The democratically-elected Mr. Stevens was installed to the office he had rightly earned.

But then Stevens turned into a tyrant. He removed Queen Elizabeth as head of state and made himself executive president, ending Sierra Leone's record as the longest-running black African country to remain under the British monarchy. He also banned all political parties and suppressed most civil liberties. Not a particularly violent regime, though, which by Sierra Leone's low standards means Mr. Stevens is now remembered as a gentle statesman.

Stevens resigned in 1986 and his vice president replaced him. In 1992, just as the country was starting to liberalize, the new guy was overthrown by the military, and once again a junta government came to power.

The new military regime lasted much longer than the first one, from 1992 to 1996. The presidency was abolished and all power was concentrated in the hands of a "Council of State" headed by Captain Valentine Strasser.

As the years went on, the nation spiraled into death, turmoil, and civil war. The military regime was incredibly harsh, and backed roaming militias who kept the citizenry in line with random kidnappings, torture, and public executions. Charles Taylor, the kleptocratic dictator of next-door Liberia, made things worse by funding a terrorist group known as the Revolutionary United Front in an attempt to destabilize the regime for his own power interests. The RUF was well-known for recruiting child soldiers, which earned the scorn of much of the world.

In 1996 Captain Strasser was overthrown by a more moderate captain named Julius Bio, who announced a return to democracy. Free elections were held, and the newly-elected civilian president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah quickly moved to sign a peace treaty with the RUF, and end the fighting.

But then, sigh, President Kabbah was overthrown a few months later by rebel officer Major Johnny-Paul Koroma, who was a supporter of the RUF. He tried to bring back military rule, but by now much of the world had tuned into Sierra Leone's plight. The UN security council and most African states in the region slapped harsh sanctions on his regime and refused to recognize it. Defeated, Johnny-Paul soon agreed to step down and restore President Kabbah.

Tony Blair then deployed 1,500 British troops to Sierra Leone to defend Kabbah and the capital city from further rebel insurrections. The Brits in turn trained the police and a restructured army, purged of trouble-makers. For this, Mr. Blair is much beloved in the country.

The restored Mr. Kabbah remained in power until this month, when elections were held to pick his successor. Though far more legitimate than the military kooks before him, Kabbah was generally regarded as corrupt and incompetent—not the strong leader many had hoped for. So now we have Mr. Koroma in power, and he promises to do things differently.

We'll see... we'll see.


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