INTERVENTION, RECOLONISATION OR FACILITATION
(A paper presented by Ambrose Ganda, Editor of Focus on Sierra Leone and guest speaker at a meeting of the Pan African Forum on Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone held on Sunday 18 March 2001, at the Hackney Black Peoples Association, London N16)
Ladies and Gentlemen
I must state at the outset that I am not here to argue for the re-colonisation of Sierra Leone; nor am I an apologist for current British and UN policy in my country. But I am here as a realist, and someone who fully understands and appreciates the basic fact that the present government of Sierra Leone, in common with its civilian and military predecessors, consistently cannot provide the necessary security and protection for our citizens. Our government, on its own, has neither the capacity nor the ability to perform this very vital function of the State. Remember, also, that we live in a state of civil war.
In such a desperate situation, therefore, (and I very kindly ask that no one in this room takes offence when) I daresay that it would be unwise or, to put it mildly, uncharitable for anyone to suggest that what little protection is currently being given to Sierra Leone's citizens, through the agency of both the UN and the Government of the United Kingdom, should be completely withdrawn in the absence of a credible, effective and sustainable alternative. I am sure that the majority of our citizens, which by the way does not mean just those resident in Freetown, motivated by the urge for self-preservation, are infinitely grateful for the limited security provided especially by the British army and, to some extent, the UN's military presence. Recently, someone in Freetown commented to me on the telephone saying to make this very point to me: "We are struggling to survive and since our own government is unable to create an environment to make it possible for us to do so, we have no choice but to accept the British lock, stock and barrel. Beggars cannot be choosers". She added, "We do not care so much about the UN".
This amply demonstrates for me, the hopelessness of Sierra Leone's situation and the plight of its ordinary law abiding citizens. For them to be left in the lurch without adequate security and protection from the threat of another rebel onslaught, or a possible future flare up in this horrendous civil war, is a real as opposed to an imagined fear. Memories of the tragic events of 6 January 1999, when the capital Freetown was invaded by the RUF and ex SLAs, remain etched indelibly on the minds of most inhabitants of that city. So, for them, talk of withdrawal of British forces is not only incomprehensible and anathema but suicidal, given that in the short and medium terms there are no political initiatives in train or trend that I personally know of, for bringing the civil war speedily to a peaceful end.
This is the reality on the ground, which those of us who want to contribute positively towards the process of a peaceful resolution of Sierra Leone's conflict must bear in mind in all of our deliberations. But it does not mean that I approve or even endorse every operation, and especially policy statements that I, and no doubt most of you, have heard time and again enunciated by senior functionaries of the British Government, ministers of the Crown as well as civil servants including military commanders, and their United Nations counterparts.
As you are well aware, there is a full contingent of British civil servants in key positions in vital Sierra Leonean government departments, including the ministry of defence, and parastatals. These developments are happening rather surreptitiously and clumsily in some cases. There are no public statements about who has been employed, their terms and conditions of service; how, and how much, they are paid, by whom; and to what extent, if at all, a future autonomous government of Sierra Leone will be indebted to our benefactors, or be bound by current policies. Is there perhaps, one wonders, a quid pro quo for the facilities that so far appear to be so generously and gratuitously placed at the disposal of President Tejan Kabbah and his government? These and other searching questions are being asked by many Sierra Leoneans who accept that intervention was, and is, necessary but would still prefer to know the extent of any political, financial or natural/mineral resource obligations and implications for our country, that will flow from these military and seemingly benevolent and sometimes brazen political gestures.
I understand that Sierra Leonean expatriates have been employed to work for the current administration and are paid by the British Exchequer. Quite apart from the corrupt, nepotistic and discriminatory manner in which some of these appointments have been made by the Sierra Leone government - itself another flash point for internal conflict - it may be assumed that in some specific instances the terms and conditions of employment have been deposited here in the UK rather than with the government of Sierra Leone. I hear, for example, that our Chief Justice is paid something like $70,000; or, is it £70,000? That the secretary to the President is paid £50,000; or, is it $50,000? That the latter was either recruited or recommended by his friends (at what used to be the ODA when he worked as an employee at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London), and was "imposed on President Kabbah" who has allegedly, privately, complained that "the man is not up to the job but I cannot sack him" for that reason! Also, that Kabbah's posse of advisors are being paid by DFID (Department for International Development) something like $1,000 to $1,500 a month, etc. In all of these cases, it is not clear whether the alleged salaries are paid in sterling or dollars. Never once in these dispatches is the 'Leone' mentioned. So much for confidence in our national currency!
Yes, I am an ardent advocate of a healthy salary structure to attract the best people into our public services and to reward administrative competence handsomely, but I do not think that these particular people should be paid this amount of money during our country's current beggarly status. The presence of UNAMSIL troops with their Dollars and British military/civilian personnel with their Sterling, coupled with the rather false economy generated by their combined tremendous spending powers, is encouraging this confusion. This is quite apart from the lasting social and psychological damage, which the non-military activities of some sections of these liberators are already creating for the future Sierra Leonean society.
I have referred to some issues as allegations but, I am afraid to say, they will continue to do the rounds and shape your, and my, perception of the much publicised international humanitarian assistance to Sierra Leone until we get proper statements about the role, performance and accountability of those involved at the highest levels of Government. At present we do not know where, or from whom, to demand accountability; it won't come from the Kabbah Government, which gives the impression that it is beyond censure. Nor can we judge the competence and performance of these international/civil servants, since we do not know their terms of employment and what their work entails. We are told repeatedly that these policies and operations are intended to uphold democracy in Sierra Leone and to ensure that the country's 'democratically elected government' - a much abused phrase these days, if you ask me - rules effectively. I say, give us an account of what is being done in our name. Let democracy start with ourselves.
Despite everything I have just said, the dilemma that faces us in or outside this room is that such matters are, for the moment, only of interest to you and to me. To those people at the receiving end of the civil war's violence for nearly ten years, they rank as peripheral and possibly unimportant. Theirs is basically a struggle to survive. They see British and, increasingly less so, the UN's presence as liberating and as holding the thin line between total state collapse which some have argued is already the case and the maintenance of some form of political, social and civil order.
So, does everything I have said so far mean that I am anti British or against the valuable assistance that they are contributing to Sierra Leone? No! Never! I know that their hearts are in the right place but I very much want them to be effective and successful in doing the right thing for Sierra Leone.
I became an advocate of intervention a very long time ago. Soon after the outbreak of the war in 1991, in concert with several compatriots, I called for impartial intervention and wrote exhaustively, exhorting particularly Britain, as the former colonial power and the country historically with the closest connection with Sierra Leone, to intervene in the fray. Sierra Leoneans could not look to any of the countries in the West African region, or to Africa's other continental organisations, simply because many countries were themselves either embroiled in civil wars of their own or living under brutal military/civilian dictatorships. Following demonstrations here in the UK, notably the Peace March in April 1995, one letter to Downing Street called on the then PM John Major's government to use its good offices to help bring the conflict to a peaceful end. Again in November 1995, following yet another demonstration, a similar appeal was made, which specifically pleaded that leaders of the warring factions should be invited away from the battlefield to London, or into seclusion somewhere, as we had seen it done for feuding groups elsewhere in the world, to knock heads together and get the parties to agree to end hostilities and sign up to a political settlement that the international community could underwrite and guarantee. Our appeals always fell on deaf ears. Then in July 1999, a hastily contrived and disjointed Lomé Agreement was signed only for it, too, to be strangled at inception. Why, oh why?
Since their well executed and generally popular 'humanitarian' intervention in Sierra Leone, British ministers like Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, Defence Minister Geoff Hoon and former Foreign Office Minster Peter Hain (prior to his thoroughly untimely and undeserving transfer from the FCO), have made statements about enabling President Kabbah and his government to govern effectively, and that the British military will stay in Sierra Leone for as long as necessary for that to happen. Hoon recently publicly endorsed the six-month extension of Kabbah's government by a wavering and politically compromised, rubber-stamping Parliament. He seemed impervious to the chorus of concerned civic society and legitimate opposition demands that, instead of extending the government's mandate, some interim arrangement for national unity should be created.
Frankly speaking, these statements and interventions are sometimes unhelpful, irritating and frustrating for those, including myself, who believe that Sierra Leone needs a clean sweep of the old order. Firstly, in terms of policy declarations the pronouncements are open-ended and therefore beg several questions. For example, how long is 'as long as necessary'? Who in the time being decides what is necessary, and how is that decision to be taken? Secondly, they do not give the present Sierra Leone political leadership the incentive to strive harder for a resolution of the war, let alone for a peaceful or political settlement. Why should these opportunistic politicians be in any hurry to end the cosy lifestyles that they are enjoying under the protection of a powerful British army? Thirdly, and relating to the last point, the financial subventions to the Kabbah government by the British Exchequer, through DFID, have further eased the current rulers into complacency, emboldening them to defy and ignore sensible opinion and advice from those outside their immediate ruling circle, about present and future policies. To me, it seems as if Sierra Leone is once more witnessing, by accident or design, the revitalisation of a wretched and discredited political system, and the perpetuation of a decadent status quo.
The policy of throwing money at the symptoms (rather than the causes) of the Sierra Leone problematic, with corruption still dominating the political landscape, is enabling a select group of Sierra Leonean patrons in government and their clients to enjoy standards of living that are vastly superior to that for the overwhelming majority (possibly 95%) of their compatriots who belong to a very disadvantaged underclass. In the absence of close monitoring, corrupt politicians and their civil servant 'plants' are diverting funds meant for development to gain advantage over political opponents. DFID’s resources, which are being poured into Sierra Leone in (what I believe to be) a genuine British attempt to help make things better for the average person, have, for example, inadvertently succeeded in socially engineering a new class of 'contractor' Sierra Leoneans, who live off solely on GoSL/UN/NGO contracts. These people are thriving but their success, if it can be called that, is not even filtering to the masses, nor are the benefits of what have been contracted to them reaching the intended beneficiaries. These contracts, which have become yet another 'Freetown-is-equal-to-Sierra Leone' product, are awarded almost exclusively to acolytes and nominees of the political elite. The Provinces hardly get a chance to look in.
You can see that once again, the privileged urban ruling classes are being favoured, and their influence and power in the community strengthened, at the expense of the masses. It is a policy that is bound to falter soon, as the opulence of this emerging new elite becomes the object of curiosity and enquiry, envy and spite, and eventually anger and revulsion among a population that is preponderantly destitute and craving for basic essentials to sustain life and limb. It must concern us all because, unless urgent and decisive steps are taken to stem the activities of these people and ensure equitable access to the resources and opportunities being made available to the country in our collective names, the chances of violence erupting now and in the foreseeable future will become real.
So once again, ladies and gentlemen, I am not here to join battle over whether the British or the UN should be in or out of Sierra Leone. Their presence is a fait accompli. For me the important question is this: Now that they are in our country and are easily the most powerful and, in the special case of the British, the most influential parties on the ground, what are they doing to help us Sierra Leoneans progress towards the final resolution of the conflict, and facilitate the creation of an environment that is conducive for us to live in durable and sustainable peace, harmony and security? What difference are they making to the already poisoned political landscape, that would ensure that Sierra Leoneans move as a united nation, in a common direction, for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of their country, and for uninterrupted progress to take place? In short, what is their mission and ultimate goal? I agree that they cannot make us to do these things, but they can help in creating conditions for them to happen. The British and the UN, while holding the line between the opposing sides in this war, should be facilitating the creation of conditions for all Sierra Leoneans to be more co-operative, more forgiving and more tolerant of each other. Above all they should be helping to make it easy for this conflict to end, and not encourage or themselves embark upon action that can lead to a hardening of positions than before. I really do fear that fires are being stoked up by the indeterminate nature of some of the policies that are in operation so far. Let me explain further what I mean.
Firstly, I should stress that the problems of Sierra Leone are the problems of Sierra Leoneans, and for Sierra Leoneans themselves to resolve. They are not the problems of President Charles Taylor, or of Liberians, even if Taylor by his own recent admissions has been back-pedalling into a begrudging acceptance of his role in featherbedding the RUF. But for the international community and Britain to continue to encourage Sierra Leoneans to believe that Taylor is their sole problem and that everything will be plain sailing once he is out of the way, ignoring the rancour and bitterness towards one another within the Sierra Leone body politic itself, and the grave injustices that have been perpetrated upon individuals over so many years and in the recent past, is the policy of the sleep walker. I agree that if Taylor is what he is alleged to be for the RUF and he can be persuaded or even forced to withdraw his support, then it will be one major problem out of the way. But I know that our problems simply won't end there.
Secondly, my own stance on the civil war has always been that we should encourage peaceful dialogue and negotiation, however recalcitrant and difficult the parties seem to us. We need less militant talk and more of political initiatives and action. For example, why has no concerted purposeful effort been made to revisit the Lomé Agreement, not for the purpose of re-adopting it in its entirety but to see where and how improvements can be made to it? I also believe that the best weapon for combating this resistance to peace, on all sides, i.e. RUF and CDF, is the DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration) programme. Sadly, this programme has become so bureaucratic, rigid and manifestly inoperable as to devalue its essence as the only formidable tool in the armoury of the peace builders. The programme should be taken foremost to the combatants and not vice versa. It is not a gift in the hands of any person or government to give. Why should a rebel fighter feel confident right now to walk into town with his or her gun and give himself or herself up? What are the incentives, and have they been explained adequately among the people it matters most? Have we really established the conditions for disarmament to happen? Clearly, new thinking must be done and new tactics deployed. We need the stick but equally we need the carrot.
But then what I keep hearing is more threatening militant talk followed by high profile visits to Sierra Leone by ministers of the Crown. I applaud these gestures of solidarity and moral support for our citizens, and for our beleaguered government but for me they neither signal an end to the uncertainties nor substitute for a credible and well-defined policy. I get the impression for example that too much emphasis has been placed upon the re-training of a new Sierra Leone army that will become battle-ready to confront the RUF. This policy assumes that the RUF and their allies will in the meantime sit and wait, like turkeys at Christmas, to be basted, roasted and then blasted into smithereens. Surely it is not unreasonable for you and me to assume that the RUF too have been, and are rearming and retraining!
When Mr Geoff Hoon talks about making sure that Kabbah rules effectively, how is he going to make that happen. Granted, the statement is most probably aimed at the RUF's control over most of the national territory. But that said, I believe it is only Tejan Kabbah himself who can make his rule effective in Sierra Leone. For example, I am opposed to most, but by no means all, of President Kabbah's policies, like thousands of other Sierra Leoneans. How can Hoon, Cook, and others make or force us to fall in with Kabbah's policies, such as those especially concerning the ways and means of bringing peace to Sierra Leone, with which we disagree? Those dictating events in Sierra Leone should now reassess what they are saying and doing, and consider how it impacts on the present volatile competitive political climate. Some might say, having seconded British nationals into key positions in the Sierra Leone Civil Service - hence government - these ministers probably take this to be a logical extension of their ministerial rule in Sierra Leone. But I know that they do not go around threatening to ensure that Prime Minister Tony Blair continues to rule over the UK willy-nilly, or endorsing extraordinary extensions of his mandate.
Geoff Hoon also promised to equip the new army with the "most sophisticated" weapons. Fine! I always cringe with fear at bland statements like these because I know that with arms in general, whether they are supplied 'illegally' by Charles Taylor of Liberia or 'lawfully' by the British government as promised by Hoon, their purpose is to destroy life, rebel and non rebel alike. The guns of whichever side do not discriminate even if their bearers are 'good guys' or ' bad guys'. There is also no monopoly of good or bad guys on all sides of a war. Things can go very wrong even with the best of intentions. The victims of war and weapons, incidentally or by design, are frequently innocent men, women and children caught between warring sides. Loyalties, too, are never constant and can change or be misplaced. Introducing even more lethal weapons into a hostile arena already awash with small deadly arms, with indeterminate interests still holding sway, is a risky move that should be approached with extreme caution.
Some say that I am naïve and they have a right to their own views. But I simply do not buy the idea that macho militarism is the answer to our problems. If it were, we would not be still discussing how to end the civil war. If in fact the policy is aimed at intimidating the RUF and ex SLAs, or to make them know that they face being wiped out completely if they do not toe the peaceful line, what then if they call our bluff? Having come this far and achieved some reduction in the level of violence as we knew it before, do we again embark upon another all-out war like that waged by Ecomog to restore Kabbah’s government after the Conakry talks, for the AFRC to end their illegal usurpation, were deliberately sabotaged in October 1997 by hawkish elements opposed to dialogue and peaceful negotiation?
The question of what the UN and the British are doing, or intend to do in Sierra Leone is legitimate because in any policy appraisal now or in the future the end results will count the most. I am, like many, very interested in the form of future political developments in my country, which will inevitably be defined by way and manner in which the civil war is eventually settled. Consequences will flow from any policy action taken now. For me personally, what I would expect to emerge from any action contemplated now is a Sierra Leone whose citizens accept to live with one another in peace, and agree to exploit and share as much of their nation’s common resources as possible for their mutual benefit (which has never happened); a country in which the opportunity to run their nation's affairs is open to all citizens who want to be involved in it, with guarantees of equal opportunity for all without discrimination. Above all, a country that is in full charge of its own destiny with Sierra Leoneans themselves making the vital decisions.
I will make one final comment, from the wider West African perspective. I am convinced that with or without the Taylor/Liberian factor, which seems to have dominated the debate about finding a solution for the Sierra Leone problematic, our unabated civil war will continue to pose serious threats to the whole of the West African region. The recent flare up in the Republic of Guinea is live proof of this. The Mano River Union lies close to ruin. Our region has long been primed for the upheavals that we are witnessing. They should not have come as a surprise to anyone because many of us long ago gave advance warning of their imminence. Now again, as was with the Sierra Leone case, people are burying their heads in the sands of illusion to invent convenient reasons for not facing up to the reality. There is, for example, Guinea's opposition leader Alpha Conde, who is languishing in one of President Lansana Conte's prisons. Nobody is asking, publicly for the hearing of potential Guinean dissidents, why he is held? Every one including the international community is timid to press for his release or to inquire whether or not his detention might be a cause for violence within the present Guinean political dispensation under President Conte. And, instead of accepting that Guinea has had its own hard core of legitimate indigenous dissidents who have (rightly or wrongly) been preparing for war for years, from since the days of the late President Sekou Toure and throughout the period of the present incumbent, everyone seems to be content to say simply that the RUF has taken its war into Guinea. It is almost as if there is an international conspiracy to subvert the truth on a global scale.
I think there is a distinction between joining in to fight someone's war (mercenarism) and actually deciding to wage one for yourself. I believe, and here I accept that I may be wrong, that with the lull in fighting in Sierra Leone, the RUF have become willing agents operating in concert with, or as surrogates of, Guinean dissidents opposed to Lansana Conte's government. Rightly or wrongly, Guinean dissidents have decided to wage their own so-called war of "liberation" in their country. We must acknowledge this fact as a matter of prudence and then move on to making sure that the crisis does not get out of hand.
There was a time when Sierra Leoneans blindly denied the existence of Foday Sankoh; they also denied that their own Sierra Leone people could become rebels and be capable of committing the horrific atrocities that we have all seen. We have lived the lie that ours has always been a peaceful and democratic country, regardless of the abuses of power and people, and the deprivation and marginalisation into which we consigned our citizens for many years. I believe a similar mistake is being made with Guinea's burgeoning rebellion.