By Lansana Gberie
The announcement that Michael von der Schulenburg, the charismatic Executive Representative of the UN Secretary General and head of the UNIPSIL, has been withdrawn from Sierra Leone did not come as much of a surprise to anyone who has been following the vicious attacks on his person by sections of the media; but surprisingly it was a shock. Schulenburg had worked hard to create a level playing field, getting the opposition and the government to dialogue and reduce tensions ahead of elections slated for November 2012. That caused offence to President Ernest Bai Koroma, who is desperate for re-election. A terse statement from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on 2 February thanked Schulenburg for his “open and fruitful work with all sections of the Sierra Leonean society including with political parties and stakeholders [and] his effective cooperation with the Peacebuilding Commission.” It was a well-deserved compliment for a man whose commitment to Sierra Leone went way beyond the call of duty, and that’s simply a fact.
Just before the end of 2011, Sierra Leone announced that it was sending 850 peacekeeping troops this year to Somalia, joining troops from Uganda and Burundi. That event was barely noticed internationally. That showed how far Sierra Leone has come. When in 2009 the country announced that it was sending its first batch of peacekeepers – 160 soldiers to Darfur, Sudan – since its war ended, the Economist reported the event with the predictably unflattering caption “From Butchers to Peacekeepers.” The magazine wrote that “what used to be one of Africa’s worst armies turns a new leaf.”
Schulenburg liked to proudly point to this stunning turn-around for a country once dismissed as beyond salvage. I first met him in September 2008 shortly after he was posted to the country. The UN was then occupying the heavily-fortified and once-luxury Mammy Yoko hotel in the far west of Freetown. Schulenburg never concealed his disdain for such extravagance. The war had been over since 2002, and Sierra Leone had successfully conducted its second presidential elections. Violent crime was low. The key anxieties in the country when he got there was the growing threat of organised crime syndicate using Sierra Leone as a base for transiting cocaine to Europe, and the rising tide of intra-party political violence since the election of President Ernest Bai Koroma and his All Peoples Congress (APC) party to power.
Within a few months, Schulenburg completed a plan that transformed the UN mission to a much smaller office with less than 3% of the budget of the large peacekeeping mission (17,500 troops) that the country previously hosted. He moved his much reduced staff to an accessible and modest former hotel close to downtown Freetown. And – more energetic and resourceful than his careerist predecessor Victor Angelo – he sought to put in practice the inchoate notion of ‘peacebuilding’ only recently enunciated by the UN, which quickly set up the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) and placed Sierra Leone and Burundi as its first clients.
Under this new arrangement, all the UN programs in the country were integrated under Schulenburg’s leadership, whose political mandate was underlined by Security Council resolution 1886. This mandate was severely tested in March 2009 amidst a rash of violent confrontations between the ruling APC and the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), in which supporters of the APC, led by a former rebel combatant (now presidential guard) with the un-improvable name Leatherboot, besieged the headquarters of the SLPP and nearly destroyed it. There were 22 people trapped in the building, some of them women (and some of whom were allegedly raped). The ill-equipped and probably conniving police stood by doing nothing. Schulenburg drove into the crowd and – such was the prestige of the UN which had lost soldiers and spent over $2.5 billion to bring peace to the country – he was able to persuade the drunken, murderous crowd to disperse.
Shortly after, Schulenburg brought the two parties together and had them sign a Joint Communiqué which committed them ‘to work jointly in preventing all forms of political incitement, provocation and intimidation that could lead to a recurrence of the disturbances’ that the country had witnessed since the 2007 elections. The pathos of it – that political leaders in the country had to be cajoled by a foreign body to make this basic commitment – was that while a once-depraved army was now behaving responsibly, the top political leadership was anything but.
I got close to Schulenburg after this event. When I moved to Sierra Leone after nearly two years in Liberia, Schulenburg asked me to travel around the country and write a report that could form the basis of a conflict mitigation strategy ahead of the 2012 elections. In my many meetings with him, I found him to be the most intellectually curious and engaging senior UN official I have ever met. He was interested in every detail, and constantly challenged my conclusions. I felt at the time that he viewed Koroma – who he told me he liked and trusted, and with whom he was in almost daily contact – much too favourably. He had to, of course, have the confidence of the president and his government; but he was also determine to learn more about the country from many different sources. I told him at the time that Koroma was a politician and that since he was running for re-election, his motives and actions are likely to be as base as any politician desperate for power. In fact, in my research I came to a conclusion that actually stunned me at the time: almost all the political violence since 2007 was initiated by people or groups linked to the ruling APC. I also found that the parties had very tenuous infrastructure outside of Freetown and the major cities, and so the initiative for any organised political activity or fission had to have come from the top leadership, mainly in Freetown. It seemed simply not feasible – certainly not the practice – for local groups, even unruly youth groups, to initiate any serious violent political confrontation without the blessings or signals of top political leaders; the young people who actually carry out the violence, in Freetown and elsewhere in the country, merely respond to such signals, however vaguely expressed by the party leadership. Almost all of the violent political clashes that have happened in the provincial towns/cities since the elections of 2007 were preceded by visits from Freetown or Bo by high-profile party leaders or activists. I suggested that a conflict prevention strategy must therefore focus on the top echelons of the main political parties, and especially on the more vociferous and ‘visible’ sectors.
By 2010, the SLPP was complaining loudly that Schulenburg was an ally of Koroma, and its robustly ham-fisted chairman, John Benjamin, was barely on speaking terms with Schulenburg. I met Benjamin several times during my research, and he told me that I was wasting my time since the facts are well known to the UN, which had in any case connived to inflict Koroma on the country by rigging the elections of 2007. The UN people, he said, have an interest in covering up for Koroma. When the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon visited the country that year, I spent nearly an hour on the phone with Benjamin trying to convince him that Schulenburg meant well, and that he should therefore put on a positive face when meeting Ban even if he had to complain about things he didn’t like. He took my advice, and after the Ban visit his relationship with Schulenburg improved.
Ever resourceful, Schulenburg was influential in mobilising international support for President Koroma’s Agenda for Change, then merely a set of rather high-sounding political sentiments, by fashioning a UN Joint Vision from Sierra Leone, whose blueprint gave meaning and direction to Koroma’s Agenda. Schulenburg focused on good governance and the rule of law; youth employment; and combating drug trafficking, with gender and regional perspectives as cross-cutting issues. The problem was money to make any difference. The UN Security Council and the General Assembly, which jointly created the PBC as a subsidiary body, still appear unable to make the necessary commitment to have it work. In fact, the Security Council appears singularly dilatory in its attitude to the PBC: the permanent five members, at any rate, often treat it as an inconvenience, the kind of nation-building approach that unnecessarily expands the role of the UN in an uncertain and needful world. Funding for the PBC is voluntary, and for the whole of 2011 PBC contribution towards the Joint Vision was: Australia ($1,000,000), Canada ($500,000), Italy ($685,000) and the United States ($200,000), falling far short of promises made at the beginning of the year. In fact, since 2006, Sierra Leone has received less than $45 million from the PBC funds. Schulenburg’s frustration over this state of affairs was deeply felt: it impacted on the prestige and leverage that the UN has in the country.
As a respected German diplomat, however, Schulenburg was able to attract enormous bilateral assistance for Sierra Leone, as well used UN funds to help refurbish the SLPP HQ after the APC attack, and assist civil society groups doing valuable advocacy work in the work. He was especially close to such groups, including the media, seeing them as key guarantors of the country’s democratic future.
In March 2011, Schulenburg submitted a memo to the UN in New York setting out an uncharacteristic plan: abolish his office after what he hoped to be the success of the 2012 elections and transfer responsibilities to the lesser office of a resident UN coordinator. “Within only nine years”, he argued, “Sierra Leone has evolved from a country that was engulfed in anarchy to a country with an evolving democratic culture; from a country with institutions that had all but collapsed to a country with functioning central as well as regional governance structures; from a country where some of the worst human rights abuses were committed to a country in which its people now live largely at peace with each other and from a country that was only recently the beneficiary of one of the largest UN peacekeeping operations to a country that is now sending its own armed and police forces to UN peacekeeping operations in other countries.” Problems remained, he wrote.
The greatest challenge facing the country, he wrote, may well be the recent massive investments into iron ore and off shore oil and gas deposits. “Presently, the country does not have sufficiently strong governance structures, adequate regulatory frameworks, the technical know-how, the trained human resources, the physical infrastructure or even the economic basis that would be needed to cope successfully with and take full advantage of such large investments in extractive industries,” he wrote. “A particular challenge in dealing with emerging extractive industries will be managing public expectations, maintaining an open dialogue on the likely impact of such activities on the lives of ordinary Sierra Leoneans and creating an environment of inclusiveness that open opportunities not only for the élites but also for the unemployed youth, for fresh university graduates as well as for the rural and urban poor. A particular risk is that unrealistic expectations could lead to imprudent public investment decisions and a failing budgetary discipline that in turn would create only new dependences. The Government’s ability to manage these potentially huge natural resources for the benefit of all Sierra Leoneans will probably more than any other challenge determine the future stability, peace and prosperity of this country.”
He made some his concerns public, drawing the ire of Koroma’s government, which was busy signing non-transparent and lopsided deals with several mining companies. The memo also emphasized the coming November 2012 elections as the “critical political test for Sierra Leone’s stability, the maturity of its political system and the capacities of its national institutions.”
In the event, it was those elections, still several months away, which determined Schulenburg’s future in the country, in a rather unexpected.
The issues are difficult to disentangle from the mix of interests and sentiments, some counter-intuitive, others plainly baffling, but one thing seems to stand out. It appears that Schulenburg had in 2010 advised President Koroma, after considering the potential implications for overall security and good governance, to drop the idea of holding an inquest into the extra-judicial killings of 29 people by the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) in 1992. The issue, as it happens, was extensively looked into by Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which recommended drawing a line under the matter. At the time, Koroma had no problems giving up the idea of an inquest. Then on 31 July 2011, the SLPP elected Julius Maada Bio, who was a member of the NPRC and who is popular with the country’s youth (a key potential APC constituency) as well as large parts of the country, as its presidential candidate. There occurred something of a zeitgeist change within the ruling party: from a complacent belief that a second term for Koroma was a matter of course to a sense of mortal political struggle ahead.
Koroma stopped taking Schulenburg’s calls and the APC as a party made clear that it would not be cooperating with the UN as long as Schulenburg remained in the country. Pro-APC newspapers launched a campaign against Schulenburg, falsely accusing him of a number of untoward things. The leader of a brand new political party linked to the APC was taken to New York by Koroma, where he delivered a rambling and ungrammatical letter accusing Schulenburg of undue meddling in the country’s affairs. The dignity and prestige of the UN were under attack: Schulenburg had to go.
Political violence, meanwhile, has continued: a by-election for a local council seat in Freetown, which was won by the SLPP, was accompanied by violence, and Koroma’s government promptly arrested and detained the winner.
Sadly, these developments portend – pace the bright optics of a once demented army on peacekeeping missions – something truly sinister: that the politicians may well be bracing for bloody battles in November.
Somebody, some people, ought to be told that there will be serious consequences should that happen.
The writer is the author of A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone (Hurst 2005) and Rescuing a Fragile State: Sierra Leone 2002-2008 as ed. (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009).