Observers say that the relationship between Michael von der Schulenburg, the United Nations’ top point man in Sierra Leone, and President Ernest Bai Koroma’s government, began to deteriorate in 2010 after Schulenburg advised the government to drop plans for holding what would have been a politically-motivated inquest into extrajudicial executions perpetrated in 1992 by the then military regime, partly headed by Brig-Gen Julius Maada Bio.
When on 31 July 2011, the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples’ Party chose as its presidential candidate the retired Brig-Gen Maada Bio, who might have been ensnared in the aborted inquest, President Koroma decided that Schulenburg should leave the country ahead of elections slated for November this year, in which he fears the popular Bio will pose a tough challenge.
Just before the end of 2011, Sierra Leone announced that it was sending 850 peacekeeping troops this year to Somalia, to join 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 – The Economist reported the event with the predictably unflattering caption “From butchers to peacekeepers. What used to be one of Africa’s worst armies turns a new leaf.
Schulenburg once liked to proudly point to this stunning turnaround for a country once dismissed as beyond salvage. Now he is not so sure the turnaround will be maintained.
Now back in New York, Schulenburg had in December last year submitted a memo from Freetown warning the UN that President Koroma was so desperate to win re-election in November this year that he was becoming “increasingly undemocratic and unpredictable.”
Schulenburg told the UN that an attack on the opposition leader, Brig-Gen Maada Bio, which wounded him in the head in Bo on 9 September last year, was initiated by agents of the government.
President Koroma, Schulenburg wrote, holds “a very personal and deep hostility towards” Bio, his chief political rival. Koroma has refused to meet with Bio since he became leader of the opposition, though he had actually taken Bio on foreign trips after he became president in 2007. Schulenburg sees Koroma’s new-found hate for Bio as “irrational”, but he suggests that the popularity of Bio among the urban youth and in large parts of the country, as well as recent corruption scandals which have gripped the government, mean that Koroma’s re-election chances are in doubt.
I first met Schulenburg in September 2008 shortly after he was posted to Sierra Leone. The UN was then occupying the heavily-fortified and once-luxurious 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 were the growing threat of an organised crime syndicate using Sierra Leone as a base for sending cocaine to Europe, and the rising tide of intra-party political violence since the election of President Koroma and his All People’s Congress (APC) party to power.
Within a few months, Schulenburg completed a plan that turned the UN mission in 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 predecessor Victor Angelo – Schulenburg 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 programmes 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), 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 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 $2.5bn to bring peace to the country – he was able to persuade the crowd to disperse.
Shortly after, Schulenburg brought the two political 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 irony behind political leaders in the country having to be cajoled by a foreign body in to making this basic commitment was that a once-depraved army was now behaving responsibly, but the top political leadership was doing 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 President Koroma – whom he told me he liked and trusted, and with whom he was in almost daily contact – much too favourably.
Of course, he had to have the confidence of the president and his government; but he was also determined 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 were likely to be as focused as any politician hungry 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 political parties had very little structure outside of Freetown and the major cities, and so the initiative for any organised political activity or fission had to have come from the 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 blessing 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 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 were well-known to the UN, which, according to Benjamin, had connived to inflict Koroma on the country by rigging the elections of 2007. The UN people, he said, had an interest in covering up for Koroma.
When the 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 the secretary-general even if he had to complain about things he didn’t like. He took my advice, and after Ban Ki-moon’s visit, Benjamin’s relationship with Schulenburg improved somewhat.
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 the money to make any difference. The UN Security Council and the General Assembly, which jointly created the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) as a subsidiary body, still appear unable to make the necessary commitment to have it work.
As a respected German diplomat, however, Schulenburg was able to attract enormous bilateral assistance for Sierra Leone, as well as use UN funds to help refurbish the SLPP headquarters after the APC attack, and assist civil society groups doing valuable advocacy 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 however remained, he wrote. The greatest challenge facing the country, he said, might well be the recent massive investments into iron ore and offshore 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,” Schulenburg 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 opens 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.”
He continued: “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 dependencies.
“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 of his concerns public, drawing the ire of Koroma’s government, which was busy signing deals with several mining companies. The memo also emphasised 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 some months away, which determined Schulenburg’s future in the country, in a rather unexpected way.
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 in 2010, Schulenburg 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 Brig-Gen Maada Bio, who was a member of the NPRC and who is popular with the country’s youth as well as in 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, accusing him of a number of untoward things.
The leader of a brand-new political party linked to the APC, Mohamed Bangura, was taken to New York by Koroma, where he delivered an inflammatory and unsubstantiated letter accusing Schulenburg of mentoring the opposition. The dignity and prestige of the UN were under attack: Schulenburg had to go.
In December last year, Shekou M. Touray, Sierra Leone’s permanent representative to the UN, delivered a formal request from President Koroma to Ban Ki-moon for Schulenburg to be recalled. Tension has continued to rise: Koroma is refusing to release the report of the UN-funded commission headed by Justice Emmanuel E.C. Shears-Moses, which investigated the causes of political violence in the country in 2009. The commission submitted its report to Koroma in April 2010, but the report has not been made public, allegedly because it held the ruling party culpable for instigating the violence.
Sadly, these developments portend something truly sinister: that the politicians may well be bracing for bloody battles in November.