by Larry Garber
Sierra Leone is probably what Donald Trump has in mind when he characterizes Africa as a continent of “shithole” countries. The country is poor, with a per capita income of $1,497 and 60 percent of the population living below the national poverty line. Average life expectancy among Sierra Leoneans is 51 years, and the country ranks 180 out of 187 on the UN human development index. And unlike neighboring Liberia, Sierra Leone has no historical connections to the United States. Nor does it have any high-profile security interests.
Yet, having spent five weeks in the country leading a Carter Center expert mission to observe the country’s electoral process, I believe that the United States would make a serious mistake ignoring Sierra Leone. Following a brutal 11-year civil war, the country, with considerable help from the international community, has now experienced 16 years of peace. The 2018 presidential and legislative elections were the fourth since the end of the civil war and the first conducted without a UN security presence. Having served two terms, the incumbent president was precluded by the constitution from running again, and a crowded field of 16 candidates competed.
No candidate received the required 55 percent of the vote in the first round. The subsequent March 31 run-off featured the candidates of Sierra Leone’s two historic parties who finished in a virtual tie in the first round. After four days of uncertainty, the National Election Commission announced that the opposition party candidate, Julius Maada Bio, had received the majority of the vote. On April 3, Bio, a former general who played an important role in restoring democracy to Sierra Leone in 1996, was sworn in as the country’s new president.
Sierra Leone’s commitment to democratic elections presents one reason that the country should remain on the U.S. policy radar. Sierra Leone is a majority Moslem country, with more than 75 percent of the population identifying as Moslems. Building on a long history of collegial inter-communal relations among different religions, Sierra Leone has avoided the radicalization of segments of the population and thus has not provided fertile territory for Islamic extremists, as has occurred in several neighboring West African countries. Indeed, both of the presidential candidates who emerged from the first round are Christians married to Moslems.
The Ebola pandemic, which took the lives of 3,956 Sierra Leoneans, also highlights the dangers of disengagement. The pandemic was contained through an extraordinary national and international effort. The United States, through the dedicated professionalism and considerable experience of both government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, played a leading role. Rather than having to mobilize again for the inevitable next outbreak, the United States would be better served by investing in prevention and research through on-going partnerships with host country institutions, including in Sierra Leone.
Not surprisingly, as the United States has reduced its involvement in Sierra Leone, China has expanded its investment and engagement. China is building critical infrastructure, including expanding the road network and supporting a new airport complex, which would make unnecessary the stomach-churning 25-minute ferry trip between the capital city and the international airport. The Communist Party of China (CPC) has provided fraternal support to the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) party, including the construction of a large, new party headquarters. Although the opposition and civil society leaders much criticized the APC’s links to the CPC, China may be more than willing to shift allegiances now that the opposition party has won the run-off.
In an era of tightened budgets, the United States must make difficult choices between domestic and international investments. In the international realm, the most recent budget allocates significant resources to enhance hard-power assets, even as the United States continues to project military and intelligence capacities that far exceed its major adversaries. But if the United States is to remain a serious player on the international scene, soft-power diplomacy and development capabilities must be effectively utilized even in countries that today do not seem to present an immediate national-security threat. Certainly, these capacities cannot be allowed to atrophy.
Sierra Leone offers an example of the choices facing the United States. The current default is to assign the country to the deep backwaters of policy attention, with limited diplomatic engagement and a considerable reduction in aid programs. Inevitably, this will require a fire-drill response when the next pandemic breaks out, when extremist organizations are discovered to have established terrorist cells in the country, or when China’s investments morph into those designed to enhance China’s projection of military power.
The alternative approach is to recognize that U.S. interests require engaging with Sierra Leone during periods of calm. Washington should celebrate and call attention to Sierra Leone’s democratic progress. It should continue nurturing Sierra Leonean civil society organizations that are on a daily basis promoting peace, human rights, health, and education within their country. It should identify opportunities to promote private-sector investment. And above all, rather than denigrate their lack of development and assume their population is doomed to perpetual poverty and conflict, the United States must recognize the tremendous challenges that these countries face—as well as the considerable human and social potential that exists within a country like Sierra Leone—and respond in a manner that reflects our mutually reinforcing security interest and longstanding values.
Larry Garber, formerly a senior official at the U.S. Agency for International Development and an international election expert, led The Carter Center expert election mission in Sierra Leone.