David Harris on Sierra Leone and Liberia: Relevance to Sudan?

I am dying to write a post on Egypt but first I wait for Mubarak to leave…yaaaalllla!

In the meantime, I wanted to share a few notes and comments about David Harris’ seminar last Wednesday on ‘Unfolding Consequences of Liberalism in Sierra Leone and Liberia: Liberal Justice and state-building at work” at the Centre of African Studies centre here in Edinburgh. Many of his points relate to developments in Sudan, so I thought I would briefly share.

His paper can be broken into two parts. The first was about formats of justice when dealing with post-conflict societies. He discussed the Sierra Leone Special Court (SLSC) in 2003. It has indicted 13 people, of whom: 3 have died, 1 has gone missing, 8 have been convicted and 1 is currently on trial (Charles Taylor). He believed that Sierra Leone was a special case, as the RUF had militarily collapsed and so the SLSC was able to operate in a political vacuum. He contrasted this situation with Liberia in 2003. Here, the rebels were still active and so it was impossible to hold trials. Those involved in war crimes were required for political bargaining. As part of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (another CPA!), a Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) was established along with a two-year transitional government. As part of the agreement, no official operating in the transitional government could then run for government. Due to these stipulations, Harris believed that the election was an amazingly open civilian election.

Then Harris moved on to talk about trials more generally. He believed that 2000 was a kind of watershed. Before this time, there was a general acceptance of the necessity of political bargaining but after 2000, there was a shift towards criminal trials. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 2006. Harris pointed out that, so far, every person indicted by the ICC has been an African (despite the evidence of war crimes in the Middle East by both Western and regional governments). Harris mentioned the political effects that these trials have had on the countries affected, in particular how the ICC has threatened peace prospects in Uganda and Sudan. In the case of Sudan, this point has been well documented in Mamdani’s controversial work, Survivors and Saviours and has been discussed and debated on Alex de Waal’s excellent blog, Making Sense of Sudan, especially in discussions about the Save Darfur movement and the ICC.

More generally, Harris discussed how there have been three shifts:

From bargaining to criminalisation
From the targeting of structures to individuals
The Delegitimization of violence.

Interestingly, on the last point, Harris wondered if this was something the international community really wanted to take on. He reminded us that the ANC in South Africa used violence as part of their struggle against the Apartheid regime. He asked: Is violence always unjustified? In some ways, events in Southern Sudan also question this trend, as SPLM used violence in order to break away from the North. It would be difficult to convince the Southern Sudanese that this violence was unjustified given the history between the North and South. Although many have pointed to the authoritarian and often violent nature of the SPLM leadership as a potential barrier to sustainable state-building in the new South Sudan.

There is a PhD student at the University of Khartoum who is doing research on the TRC in South Africa and its applicability to the Sudanese case. I look forward to her research, as I believe it is very important, but I also urge her to look at other cases besides South Africa. As Harris rightly points out that each case is different, depending on the status of the political and military parties involved. South Africa is largely seen as a success, but what about Sierra Leone and Liberia?

Harris questioned the idea that Liberal Justice has ever been successful when imposed from outside and asked whether other formats of justice are more appropriate. How do people see war crimes trial? Are people ambivalent about it? Do they want to open old wounds? Can TRCs deliver reconciliation even if they do not offer truth?

The second part of his seminar focused on state-building in Sierra Leone since 2003. Operating under a Post-Washington Consensus (that is, re-building the state in a neo-liberal framework) DfID, under the New Labour government, has been very active in the process, making a ten year promise to collaborate with the Sierra Leonean government. Harris presented his research on the perceived successes and failures from the point of view of the stakeholders involved. There were a number of interesting points, which reflect many similarities with the situation in Sudan.

First of all, Harris described a wide divergence of opinions, with the most optimistic being highly supportive of decentralisation and public sector reform, to those who were highly critical, citing the presence of donors as a major source of corruption. The main weakness highlighted by Harris’ respondents was the incapacity of public sector staff. When he asked respondents how long they expected donors to stay in Sierra Leone, the answers were “10 years”, “20 years”, “a generation” and “forever”.

When describing successes, he made a very interesting point. Specific successes were due to key individuals who were able to drive through reform. He listed the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Finance as ‘success stories’ and in each case, there was a core group of people- maybe 5- who were able to mobilize the rest of their departments. These individuals were either Sierra Leoneans from the Diaspora or internationals seconded to the government. The president himself was described as a ‘lighthouse’- when he shines his light on a problem area, things improve but when his light moves on, there is only hope that reform will stay (beautiful imagery). One donor staff member described his role as ‘managing the lighthouse’.

This was very similar to the impression I formed in Sudan. Whenever there was reform or success, it was always due to key individuals, highly ambitious and highly competent, working very hard to make change. It is important to note that these were not all ex-pat Sudanese or foreigners- often they were Sudanese who were simply very determined. In most cases, however, it seems that these individuals would also have access to political capital- they were in some way, connected to the regime, if not directly, then through an intermediary.

Harris mentioned the ‘Drivers of Change’ research, funded by DfID in Liberia and other countries in 2003. This research has now been replicated across the world, including Sudan. One of its recommendations was to identify key individuals or groups- women, youth or other ‘drivers’- who should be targeted by external agents to make change. The only problem with this approach is that it is not always sustainable. When one individual leaves (or is removed), then progress falters. I can cite numerous examples of this phenomenon in Sudan. In particular, diaspora workers can often suffer from ‘burn-out’. Relocating oneself to a country struggling to develop is a lot to ask from young professionals who have grown accustomed operating in commercially or highly institutionalized environments overseas- especially when they have spent their entire education abroad as well.

In this way, I feel that, rather than focusing on diaspora workers, drivers of change must also include Sudanese from Sudan or Sierra Leoneans from Sierra Leone, who have more at stake in the success of reforms. They are there to stay! One member of the audience asked Harris about the relationship between the diaspora workers and the local staff- whether there was resentment about salaries or differences of opinion- this was a question Harris didn’t really have a good answer. I feel that this is a very important question and one that needs more research. From my own research on work environments in Sudan, there is often a lot of conflict between local and expat workers, and ESPECIALLY between expat Sudanese and local Sudanese. Some local Sudanese in international organisations like the UN or international businesses complained of a bias against them, because of their inability to communicate fluently in English. British and American educated Sudanese were often given more opportunities to speak in meetings and had more access to international staff. While these people are often key in moving reform, local drivers should not be overlooked. Lighthouses are all very well, but donors must also look into the darkness for partners and ‘drivers for change’.

Lastly, David Harris replied to my post and wanted to say that his my book will be coming out shortly with IB Tauris, called Civil War and Democracy in West Africa: Conflict Resolution, Elections and Justice in Sierra Leone and Liberia.


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