Dispatch: Sierra Leone

Africa's Sudden Splash of Good News

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By John Prendergast
Sunday, September 23, 2007

As someone who has worked in Africa's worst war zones for the past quarter-century, I usually write about atrocities, tyranny and famine. That's what Americans are used to in articles with Africa datelines: grim tales of a hopeless and devastated continent. But after years of dealing with the likes of Somali gunmen, the Janjaweed militia in Sudan's Darfur region and abducted child soldiers in northern Uganda, I am far more optimistic about Africa's future than I was when I started.

The election of a 53-year-old former insurance executive as president of Sierra Leone last week was the latest sign of progress coming out of the continent. Though there were some isolated incidents of unrest, the democratic swearing-in of Ernest Bai Koroma was contrary to what much of the world has come to expect from Africa.

Far fewer people heard about the transfer of power in Sierra Leone than saw the 2006 movie "Blood Diamond," which depicted the country as overrun with drug-crazed child soldiers linked to diamond-dealing mafias. Years ago, the world heard horrific news reports about a rebel group there that hacked the limbs off civilians to punish them for voting, or stories that al-Qaeda laundered money through local diamond-industry operatives. But when I observed the first round of elections in eastern Sierra Leone last month, it was clear that the country was turning a corner. Through something as wonderfully ordinary as a nonviolent election, I saw a country willing itself a brighter future.

Sierra Leone's turnaround is a grand affirmation of the future of the continent. It's fitting that this country -- and other nations such as Liberia, South Africa, Mozambique and Burundi, which have also made strides toward democracy and peace -- are beginning to tell a story of Africa that is radically different from the conventional wisdom. They are defying both history and outsiders' low expectations for the continent.

Scratch beneath the surface, and you will find hope and self-transformation -- and inspiration.

During the 18th century, Sierra Leone was a major hub in the transatlantic slave trade, and many of the Africans who passed through it ended up in the plantations of South Carolina and Georgia. The British colonized the country before it won its independence in 1961. Just half a decade ago, the nation was embroiled in a brutal civil war.

Last month, I observed the election in the eastern diamond zone of Tongo Fields, an area crawling with political operatives and former child soldiers. Whoever wins at Sierra Leone's polls also wins access to the country's biggest natural resource and prize: diamonds. So before the electoral process unfolded, every conflict indicator was flashing "red alert." The so-called Africa experts of the world were predicting a bloodbath.

Instead, the country got an election run by some of the most conscientious, earnest polling officials I have ever met. We received only one report of a gunshot during the process -- a celebratory shot through our hotel window. The army stayed in its barracks, and the police helped with security. During the elections I observed in August and the runoff earlier this month, a few incidents of unrest were countered by a tidal wave of efforts by Sierra Leone's civil society groups, churches, mosques and government officials to ensure a peaceful outcome.

"It's a brand new day for Sierra Leone," a former child soldier named Elijah told me. All of the ex-combatants whom I met in Tongo Fields and Freetown, the war-scarred capital, insisted that they would never be lured back to a life of war in the bush.

"We fought for nothing," another former child soldier told me. "We are so tired of war. We don't want to be used for fighting and end up with nothing." A third former combatant, speaking to me in the middle of a diamond mine, divulged that he had committed "terrible atrocities" in the bush. "This vote signals the end of jungle justice," he said.

Sierra Leone's renaissance is strikingly similar to that of Liberia, another country written off earlier this decade by the "experts." In "Lord of War," a 2005 movie starring Nicolas Cage, Liberia is shown as "that country which God seemed to have forsaken." Cage's character describes the outskirts of Monrovia, the capital, as "the edge of hell."

But in late 2005, Liberians marched to the polls and elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the first female head of state in Africa. More than 100,000 soldiers have been demobilized as the country works to erase the legacy of more than a quarter-century of violent political upheaval.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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