Tony Blair: Sierra Leone has much to celebrateFriday, Jan 27, 2012 in Africa Governance Initiative
January saw the 10th anniversary of the end of war in Sierra Leone, a conflict that UK troops played a part in ending after intervention in 2000. In an interview with AFP, Tony Blair, who was UK Prime Minister at the time, reflects on the decision to intervene and the significant progress made by the people and government of Sierra Leone over the past decade.
The following AFP story appeared under the headline, 'Blair says Sierra Leone has 'much to celebrate' on Monday 16th January 2012:
When Sierra Leone's brutal civil war was declared over in January 2002, Britain's then-prime minister Tony Blair was welcomed as a hero for the role his troops played in pushing the rebels out of Freetown.
The west African state marks 10 years of peace Wednesday and Blair -- who has been a close advisor of the regime as it rebuilds -- has praised a stability many thought impossible, in a telephone interview with AFP.
"I think I would summarise it as a lot done and a lot to do ... it's in far better shape than it was ten years ago but it's still got big challenges," said Blair, recalling the end of one of Africa's most terrifying wars.
In 2000 the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) under Foday Sankoh was advancing on the capital and the UN mission and government forces were unable to stop them.
"I was very agitated by what was happening there. Basically the country was being taken over by a bunch of gangsters," said Blair.
He authorised the then chief of the British armed forces, General Michael Jackson, to send in some 1,000 troops.
Operation Palliser was billed as a mission to evacuate expatriates, but troops stepped in to stop the rebels, shifting momentum in the war.
"It was a difficult thing to do at the time, it was an unusual intervention done purely by us. We didn't have anyone to help us," Blair said.
On January 18, 2002 the conflict was declared over, and the mission was hailed as a foreign policy success for Blair, who visited the war-torn nation soon after.
"I remember driving through some of these villages and seeing people with their right arms amputated and thinking: My God, what a shocking and appalling thing to happen at the turn of the millennium in a supposedly modern world."
These are the images Sierra Leone's 11-year civil war left the world -- of child soldiers and rebels funded by the sale of "blood diamonds" hacking off the limbs of their victims.
But a decade on, Blair is upbeat about the progress in the former British colony he visits often as part of his African Governance Initiative which advises troubled nations on reforms.
"It has changed government through a proper process of democracy, people thought that was impossible in Sierra Leone some years ago but it has happened," said Blair.
And ahead of presidential polls this November, despite recent political tensions, "most people expect free elections."
Roads have been built, lights have gone on in Freetown and massive investments are pouring in.
In an address to the nation on New Years Eve, President Ernest Koroma said: "Our country is undergoing its greatest transformation since independence. Forecasts for our country becoming an oil-producing nation are great, we may soon become the largest per capita producer of iron ore in the world..."
The Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance in 2011 showed Sierra Leone, along with neighbouring Liberia, had shown the most improvement on the continent.
But the country remains fragile.
"Not hearing gunshots except during festive occasions has made life worth living although times remain hard, the cost of living is soaring and the future appears dim with no jobs for school leavers," said single mother Isatu Deen in Freetown.
Some 70 percent live in poverty and Sierra Leone still has some of the worst health indicators in the world, with only one in four children living to see their fifth birthday, according to UN figures.
In a 2011 report on Sierra Leone, UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon warned that "unacceptably high levels of youth unemployment" and corruption posed challenges to peace.
Lansana Gberie, Sierra Leonean author of 'A Dirty War in West Africa' told AFP he fears the country is on a "slippery slope" ahead of the elections, with several clashes between rival parties in 2011.
"Koroma's government has not been (ethnically) inclusive, and the country is deeply divided politically as a result. This accounts for the incidents of political violence in the past, and why violence remains a key concern."
However Blair, who once called Africa "a scar on the world's conscience" said he strongly believes the 21st century can be Africa's century.
Ten years later Sierra Leoneans still thank Blair for their peace.
"It was a selfless and daring action that yielded the dividend of peace and it will not be forgotten in our history," said retired policeman Emmanuel Williams, who lost his wife and three children in the war.