In Conversation with Lansana Gberie, Sierra Leone’s Ambassador to the UN and Switzerland

Lansana Gberie is a Sierra Leonian researcher and Ambassador to the UN and Switzerland. Right for Education sat down with him to talk about post-conflict peacebuilding, the decline of military coups and the rise of ECOWAS.

R:Ed: Could You Tell Us About Yourself And Your Work?

My name is Lansana Gberie. Previously I was an academic and I researched conflict and peacebuilding. Then I worked for the United Nations and have been Sierra Leone’s Ambassador since 2018.

R:Ed: The Causes Of Conflict Are Often Seen As A Dichotomy Between Grievances And Greed. In Your Work As An Academic, Do You Find That This Contrast Meaningfully Speaks To Sierra Leone’s Experiences During The 1990s Civil War?

I do not entirely agree with some of the research, such as by Paul Collier, that has been done on this topic. Still, in Sierra Leone there was a greed aspect and there was a grievance aspect to the conflict. When it came to the post-conflict reconciliation process, we could see that there were deeply held grievances that led to the war. By contrast, the involvement of people like Charles Taylor, a former President of Liberia, as well as the exploitation that diamond mining led to, show that greed also played an important role in sustaining the war. I have met some of the people from the Revolutionary United Front who led the initial rebellion, such as its commander Foday Sankoh. They all said they had deeply held grievances because the state was a corrupt, one-party dictatorship. Many young people also felt the state was not to their benefit, so they all attempted to replace the state with a better alternative. Then this movement got hijacked and the country devolved into an all-out civil war. But the original fighting forces that Charles Taylor brought over from Liberia had their own interest in coming over. It looked to me as though the conflict was mercenary in many ways, although it fed off the grievances that were deeply rooted in Sierra Leonian society.

R:Ed: Since The 1990s, The Number Of Coups, Like The Ones Sierra Leone Experienced During Its Civil War, Has Fallen. Why Do You Think This Shift Occurred?

Firstly, there is a deepening of democracy within Africa. In Sierra Leone we have periodical elections and changes of government including changes of political parties. People feel they have a stake in maintaining a system where you might spend some time in the opposition, but you can come to power. Secondly, our experience with military rule was extremely brutal, especially the one in 1997. This led to a general repulsion towards all military rule and a sense that the military should not be trusted with power. Finally, international organizations like the African Union and ECOWAS have clearly stated that military regimes are not recognized and that countries will automatically be ostracized if they have a coup. This has had an impact on people who may otherwise have been prone to seeking power through that route.

R:Ed: What Has The Post-Conflict Reconciliation Process Been Like In Sierra Leone In The Two Decades Since The End Of The Civil War? Are There Any Issues You Believe Still Need To Be Addressed?

What I think is notable about our society is the is the almost total absence of any urge to wreak vengeance on people who spearheaded the war. The work of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission was partly responsible for this. There is this sense that we all made mistakes, especially the people who led the armed forces. Therefore, we are trying to build a better society rather than inflicting vengeance on people who we thought were the perpetrators; we must move forward. The judiciary is even better than it used to be, there is press freedom, and the rule of law is upheld. Are there still lingering issues? Of course. We have not done that well in creating jobs, especially for the youth. Sometimes there is a problem with the dual justice institutions we have, namely the modern justice system and the traditional system. Some people feel this system does not always uphold their rights, especially with respect to gender. But these are things that will gradually change; governance is a work in progress.

R:Ed: Recently, In Addition To The UN, Regional Organization Such As ECOWAS Have Played A More Active Role In Peacekeeping Efforts, Such As In The Aftermath Of The 2016 Gambian Presidential Election. What Do You Think The Balance Between These Bodies Is Going To Be With Respect To Peacekeeping?

In West Africa, we have a proud history of regional peace initiatives. ECOWAS’s history goes back a few decades when it intervened in the Liberian Civil War. It was the first serious regional peace enforcement operation. It was also the first time that the United Nations deployed police forces and civilian observers alongside a regional peace initiative that they did not control, and it set a precedent for further ECOWAS interventions. However, Nigeria largely funded most of these operations, and since they democratized, they have been less willing to spend money and human lives on others’ conflicts. Therefore, the UN has had to lead many recent peacebuilding missions, especially in more complex cases. Still, The Gambia is a small country, so it was easier for ECOWAS to make former President Jammeh leave power when he was defeated in the 2016 election.

R:Ed: What Does Your Day To Day Work As An Ambassador Involve? Have There Been Any Unexpected Parts Of The Job That You Have Enjoyed?

This is the first time I am working for government and in a representative capacity and speaking on behalf of over 7 million people is a big responsibility. In addition to the UN, I also represent Sierra Leone as its Ambassador to Switzerland, so I have two complex tasks. What surprised me is how friendly diplomats are in their interactions with one another. Even when someone disagrees with something, they do so in the most polite and friendly way. This genial and friendly atmosphere has been slightly surprising. In addition, there is a lot of work to be done and that can seem overwhelming, but if you concentrate on the areas that really matter for your country, you can achieve pretty good results. For example, I was recently elected President of the Conference of State Parties for the Arms Trade Treaty. Sierra Leone is not a very active member of the treaty, but some of my colleagues know of my background and work on arms monitoring and conflict prevention. They rallied around me and to my surprise I was elected without me campaigning.

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