Sierra Leone recently celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence. The West African nation still bears the scars of a brutal civil war but its fledgling democracy offers lessons to regional neighbor Ivory Coast.
Sierra Leone's civil war destroyed infrastructure, leaving many children without a school to go to
On a bright day toward the end of April, the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown, was as hot, noisy and gridlocked as ever. But a sea of green, white and blue national flags fluttering above the dust-coated traffic snarls pointed to a festive mood. Even the fierce rows among motorists and street peddlers had lost their usual edge.
It was Independence Day again, but this time the annual celebrations were "times ten," according to young TV host Vickie Remoe, who co-presented the parade in the national stadium on the big day.
National flags were hung everywhere to mark Sierra Leone's 50th birthday
"Sierra Leoneans are always looking for a holiday to celebrate, but it's bananas," she told Deutsche Welle. "Usually people don't come home for Independence Day, they come home for Christmas, but a lot of people didn't last year so they could be here for this."
This amplified patriotism is apparently solely down to this year's round number - this was the 50th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule, won peacefully in 1961.
A Sierra Leonean old enough to remember the early years of the republic could easily weep for what has happened in that half-century - the country was a prosperous democracy for almost six years until it began to slide amid a string of military coups, counter-coups and dictatorships.
Today, Sierra Leone is the 12th-lowest ranked country in the world on the United Nations' Human Development Index.
Thousands had their limbs hacked off during the conflict in the 1990s
Power struggles over the country culminated in one of Africa's most brutal civil wars ever, lasting from 1991 to 2002. The war was instigated by the Revolutionary Unit Front (RUF), a militia of radical students reportedly backed by Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. It became infamous for its images of child soldiers and indiscriminate amputations.
"People from all regions of Sierra Leone got together under one evil idea to de-stabilize our country and plunder it and terrorize our people," Soccoh Kabia, a minister in the Sierra Leonean government, told Deutsche Welle. "You have that situation throughout history. It happened in Germany in the 1930s, where a group of people took over society and led it in another direction."
But Kabia also makes a more contemporary parallel - with Ivory Coast, a regional neighbor. Ivory Coast was ravaged by post-election unrest after presidential polls last November. President Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power even though the United Nations and the African Union recognized Alassane Outtara as the winner. An estimated 3,000 people were killed during the four-month dispute.
The minister says that while Sierra Leone never saw the same regional divides, Ivory Coast narrowly escaped a similar fate. "I wish them well," he says. "We also went down that road. They are lucky in that it hasn't degenerated into all-out civil war. They will recover from it, and look back and say, well, we escaped a worse fate."
The value of accepting defeat
The key to democratic stability is knowing how to lose elections. Peter Sorie Mansaray, a Sierra Leonean expat living in Germany, is the interim leader of the newly-founded Berlin branch of his country's ruling party, the All People's Congress (APC).
He says Sierra Leone made a huge psychological breakthrough when the last government, led by the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP), did not contest the 2007 election result won by the APC's Ernest Bai Koroma.
Sierra Leone needs to hugely improve its infrastructure
"In Africa it is seldom that an incumbent government loses an election and honorably steps down," says Mansaray. "In Ivory Coast, Gbagbo lost the election but did not want to give up. In Sierra Leone, we thank God that the situation was very democratic - the new president was inaugurated by the ex-president very peacefully - and I think that is a very good lesson for Africa."
Not that Mansaray takes this fledgling democracy for granted. Sierra Leone might appear relatively stable, but he knows that so much depends on education.
"The democratic process in Sierra Leone has passed the first test," he says. "But democracy in Sierra Leone - I would term it between fragile and stable. It's not 100 percent. We still need to educate the masses about their rights. Democracy can only exist where people are literate and can understand what is going on."
Literacy equals stability
Education is in a dire state in Sierra Leone. Over 1,000 school buildings around the country were destroyed during the war, leaving two-thirds of children without a school to go to. President Koroma has promised to take steps to improve the situation, but an estimated two-thirds of the adult population of the country are still illiterate.
Miriam Mason-Sesay is country director for the UK charity Educaid, which began working in Sierra Leone in 1996. The tireless and passionate British high school teacher has helped to build a three-storey secondary school in the outskirts of Freetown that provides free education to 600 local children.
"Originally, we were paying kids' school fees, and it was quite a meaningless activity," she says. "When we came round to visit we would find 100 kids in a class, maybe the teacher was there, maybe they weren't. If they were there, the only resource they had was themselves and their piece of chalk."
Poor but free
But Sierra Leone has many other needs that are just as urgent. The country's healthcare is still extremely basic, unemployment is massive, and there is little hope of outside business investment until infrastructure such as power supplies, phone lines and roads are vastly improved.
Some question Sierra Leone's "Golden Jubilee" independence celebrations
In the face of all this, Mason-Sesay remains unimpressed by all the "Golden Jubilee" independence day euphoria. "What does that independence mean? Independent of what?" she says. "There are still one in four kids dying under the age of five. The statistics are so terrible that it doesn't feel like a very real independence. The individuals don't feel much independence. They don't control their own destiny."
Still, there is palpable pride in the fact that many Sierra Leoneans are not just celebrating 50 years of independence, but also nine years of successful democracy - a worthy achievement in light of events elsewhere in Africa.
"The question we must ask ourselves now is, 'What are we doing with this freedom?' "concludes Mansaray. "It's a matter of taking stock of the last 50 years. What has happened in Sierra Leone? Where are we now, and where do we want to go?"
Author: Ben Knight, Freetown
Editor: Sonia Phalnikar/Rob Mudge