Past Work 2001-2002


Helping Rebuild the Public Sphere in Sierra Leone

Background and Context
Listening and Learning
How We Thought We Could Help
Our Vehicle for Change
Our Projects
The Effect

Background and Context

Res Publica ran a pilot project in Sierra Leone from July 2001 to July 2002. In 2001, the country was struggling to end a decade-long civil war that had claimed an estimated 50,000 lives, and resulted in infamous brutalities including the amputation of limbs of innocent civilians. After being called the 'Athens of Africa' in the 1960s, Sierra Leone had suffered a steady and terrible collapse of good governance. Political elites had 'defected' from concern for public good to concern for private gain. They had in turn stoked and manipulated tribal and ethnic animosities to advance personal political and economic agendas. The vulnerabilities created by corruption and injustice were exploited by foreign leaders who also sought a share of the lucrative diamond trade or increased influence in the region. Political turmoil interacted with social turmoil, as increasingly westernized and modernized youths rebelled against the traditional structures of tribal governance. The result was a collapse of the state and a civil war that lasted 10 years and plunged most of the country into anarchy.

A large and sophisticated UN intervention force arrived in Sierra Leone in 2001 - disarming and retraining former fighters, preparing for elections and providing food and basic services. British troops threatened rebels and army militias with force, and the government in Freetown was kept afloat with international staff members and money. Effectively, Sierra Leonean governance was placed on international life support. But, as a political community, Sierra Leone was still damaged and divided from the recent civil war, and more profoundly, from the preceding 30 years of corruption, neglect and manipulation of the public sphere for ethnic, factional and private gain that had spawned the conflict. Until the underlying causes of the conflict were addressed, peace in Sierra Leone would last only as long as UN guns and money were there to keep it.

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Listening and Learning

We spent the first few months in the country listening and learning, living with local Sierra Leoneans, and meeting with everyone, from rebel leaders to government ministers to democracy activists to village farmers. We took consultancies with international organizations that were seeking to bring peace and rebuild the government, and volunteered with local civil society organizations to make sure we stayed 'local'. Through listening to Sierra Leoneans, we sought to understand the country's complex history and conflict. Only a minority of Sierra Leoneans are literate, but they are excellent story tellers, and often knew minute details of their country's history. We listened, learned, asked questions, and reflected, and we made some friends who guided us into the wonderful, terrible and infinitely complex world of Sierra Leonean culture and politics.

Gradually we developed considered views on what we might do to help the country emerge from its long darkness.

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How We Thought We Could Help

In listening and speaking with Sierra Leoneans, we noticed that the country was sharply divided among 'communities of opinion'. Different groups had completely different views of the past and present, and received different information about others. There was very little mass media, and the radio stations and newspapers were all allied with one faction or another, or so corrupt that a story could be purchased for a small sum.

When such deep choices about war, peace and democracy needed to be made, we felt it was impossible for the country to have a real national discussion without some common reference points for what was truth and what was falsehood. There was no 'trusted source' for impartial information - one that people knew would be fair and adjudicate among rival factions.

But the lack of this trusted source spoke to a deeper failure of trust in Sierra Leonean democracy. After seeing the very worst of human nature for years, Sierra Leoneans had stopped believing in the possibility of public spiritedness. Everyone saw everyone else, especially in public life, as self serving and corrupt. An impartial, public spirited, and trusted source was impossible because noone would take the risks involved to play a role in the country's politics without seeking some kind of personal agenda or gain. We felt that without a spark of new hope among Sierra Leoneans in their own capability for integrity and public spiritedness, the public domain would not be revived, and the political culture of Sierra Leone would remain in a state of war. We often found Sierra Leoneans individually to be wonderful people, capable of great generosity and goodness, just like any other people in the world. But together, as a political community, they brought out the worst in each other, because noone trusted others to do the right thing if it damaged their self interest.

In sum, there was no 'res publica' in Sierra Leone - something held in common, and valued above self interest, and trusted public domain in which to pursue it.

To build this public domain, we saw the provision of impartial public information which bridged deeply divided communities as a first step.

We identified that the most effective way for us to contribute was to provide impartial public information, choosing individual projects where grave public needs for this kind of information were unmet by other national or international actors.

We had three inter-related objectives:

1. Improve the quality and content of public debate and of the information available to national and international decision makers about important questions - e.g. when and how to hold elections, or how to re-build the health sector. Also, to support the integrity of events vital to Sierra Leone’s future, e.g. the elections.

2. Help design and build a local organisation able to continue this kind of work.

3. Encourage the local media, civil society organisations and the government to value and produce impartial public information as part of a virtuous civic culture and the foundation of a political discourse directed toward the public good rather than ethnic, factional or private interests.

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Our Vehicle for Change

In November 2001, we set up an organisation called ‘Monitor’. It had a core staff of Res Publica fellows and three Sierra Leoneans – Abdul Kpakra-Massally, Shirley Osho and Lena Thompson – and a temporary staff of up to 15 young Sierra Leoneans who came on board to complete individual projects. It was designed as a pilot project within the leading governance NGO in Sierra Leone, the Campaign for Good Governance (CGG) – whose founder, Zainab Bangura, led the opposition to the military-junta in 1997 and ran for President in 2002.

Monitor ran for six months, piloting projects for CGG and training a core staff to become CGG’s new Governance department. Res Publica fellows worked for free and personally funded the project, including other staff salaries; CGG provided office space and equipment.

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Our Projects

Opinion Poll - In December 2001, we conducted Sierra Leone’s first ever opinion poll, surveying the views of a representative sample of 3000 residents of the capital Freetown on the war, the peace and their hopes and fears for the elections and beyond. Operating as public entrepreneurs, we organized the poll in response to the crisis in the peace process, in which the rebels claimed the government had stage managed a national conference empowered to decide the country's future. We saw the need for an alternative and trusted rendering of public opinion before Parliament voted on the recommendations of the conference. We therefore had 3 weeks to design the poll, recruit and train 20 staff members, conduct 3039 20-minute interviews, collate, analyze, publish and distribute the results. Our team accomplished this enormous task on time, and every parliamentarian had the poll report on their desks when they voted. The poll was an enormous success in that, to our knowledge, not a single Sierra Leonean leader, NGO or press outlet challenged its impartiality - it's results and methodology were clearly fair to all. Such an unprecedented level of trust in something so controversial was a major step forward in our goal of providing impartial public information. The poll was covered in all the national press as well as several major international press outlets.

Health Services - In January 2002, we published an investigative report on the provision of government and NGO health services, highlighting problems and offering policy solutions. In a country with one of the lowest life expectancies and highest infant mortality rates in the world, nothing holistic had been written on the provision of health services for over 10 years. In addition, government ministries had never before been subject to such an in-depth, public investigation of their working methods. Our report exposed serious corruption, and was used by the World Bank in developing its own approach to the health sector. The report was widely covered, and generated a significant degree of concern in an infamously corrupt government that a new level of scrutiny was being brought to bear upon them.

Voter Registration - As Sierra Leone approached its elections in the Spring of 2002, many voiced fears that the government or rebels would rig the elections by defrauding the voter registration process set to occur in February. Despite these well grounded fears, we noticed the international community was slow in establishing monitoring of the registration, such that 10 days before registration was set to begin, no international monitors were going to be present for at least two weeks. We also noticed that the model for monitoring the registration was hopelessly ineffective in deterring the kind of fraud that Sierra Leoneans feared: International monitors, many of whom did not speak the language and would spend just a few days in the country, would clearly identify themselves and visit different registration centers. Sierra Leonean monitors were more savvy but were all volunteers and had to follow the same methods of observation. Their report would only be finished and released long after the registration process was over. In response, we scrambled to recruit and train 20 highly educated under-cover monitors, who would circulate in communities that were known to them, and report any examples of fraudulent activities immediately to the police, the media, the international community, and the national elections commission, using police radio. The daily reporting was carried in all the press, and used by the police and officials to nip fraudulent activities in the bud. Perhaps equally importantly, our investigators were able to disprove several false accusations of fraud, which if believed, might have similarly destroyed public trust in the process. We were pleased that our reporting was once again treated as fair and impartial, and provided the kind of vital truly public information the country needed. We wrote several OpEds in the local media and, in a final report, summarised our findings and suggested lessons learned for the May elections.

Elections - In April, Monitor produced and distributed nation-wide 10,000 pamphlets outlining the backgrounds and policy positions of the parties and candidates running in the May parliamentary and Presidential elections. The pamphlet was the only public, electoral information of its kind.

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The Effect

Monitor went a long way to achieving its three objectives.

National and international decision makers and media used the opinion poll during debates over when and how to hold elections and what lessons to draw from the civil war. The Health Ministry used the health report as a core document in planning how to re-build the health sector. The World Bank consultants hired to support the Ministry in this work met with Monitor staff to discuss policy solutions, noting that the report was, “the first thing handed to us as we got off the plane.” Monitor’s reporting on the voter registration exercise helped the National Electoral Commission identify and overcome logistical problems and better prepare for the May elections. The electoral pamphlets enabled thousands of Sierra Leoneans to make better informed voting decision at the Presidential and parliamentary polls.

The Campaign for Good Governance retained Monitor’s core local staff after April 2002 - Abdul Kpakra-Massally is now Assistant Programme Officer in CGG’s governance department. Several of Monitor’s temporary staff have also continued to work for CGG. In early 2002, Res Publica obtained funding for CGG to pursue Monitor-style projects. Amongst other things, this has enabled CGG to conduct a further opinion poll (this time nation-wide) and produce an investigative, policy-focused report on sanitation in Freetown.

It’s impossible to judge exactly how Monitor’s work has affected civic culture and political discourse in Sierra Leone. At a minimum, Monitor produced a body of relevant, impartial, public information at a time of key transitional and institutional decision making; and the information continues to be used as a resource today. It also encouraged the idea and practice of producing policy-focused, timely public information within the Campaign for Good Governance and among a number of extremely active and talented Sierra Leoneans.

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More About Sierra Leone:
Basic Information on Sierra Leone: CIA Factbook
Basic Information on Sierra Leone: UK Foreign Office
News and Useful Documents about Sierra Leone: Sierra Leone.org


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