|THE SITUATION in Sierra Leone following the AFRC coup of May
1997 could well have been solved without so much of the bloodshed that
followed it and ever since. Focus on Sierra Leone maintained that
position throughout the crisis, and we do to the present day.
It was clear at the outset that Kabbah was not acting as his own man but was vacillating and changing his mind like the seasons of the year. One moment he was for peaceful negotiation and resolution; next time round he was not! It left one - I mean those of us who watched those events very closely on a daily basis and wanted genuinely to contribute towards a peaceful resolution – wondering: who was manipulating Kabbah and controlling events?
Our suspicions fell on the likes of James Jonah – one of those who, it has begun to emerge, previously manipulated the then young and impressionable Captain Valentine Strasser of the NPRC (and dumped him in the end!), John Leigh - that dyspeptic Ambassador of ours' in Washington (during his regular vitriolic nonsensical drivels on CNN TV), and the host of faceless advisers here in London, and in New York and Washington who have all gone quiet, now that Kabbah has rewarded them with various political appointments. Not surprisingly, others have gone quiet, though many more attack him these days, because he did not reward them. The poor man can't win!
There were also people like Tim Spicer, of Sandline International, who were selling the idea of a victorious return by force, offering to train the CDF Kamajohs into a formidable fighting machine. But we know where he was coming from. Purely mercenary motives. On the other side, of course, you also had opportunists weighing in for the AFRC and RUF rebels, on promise of rich diamond concessions, with copious suplies of arms and amunition.
It all showed clearly that the then government-in-exile was really a government-in-limbo, without a coherent strategy of its own except that dictated by outsiders like the profoundly corrupt despotic ruler of Nigeria - the late General Sani Abacha of Nigeria and his maverick Foreign Minister Tom Ikemi.
Add to this the hidden hand of PC Peter Penfold, the British High Commissioner, who was subsequently forced to admit, before the British House of Commons (Foreign Affairs) Select Committee, to (unusual for a foreign diplomat) regular private meetings and briefings with Kabbah in Conakry. His influence was such that he was consulted about who should be in the Cabinet.
The exiled government was truly a lost legion.
Seeing this vacuum in Sierra Leone's leadership, opportunists for power took the initiative and drove us – I mean the entire country – headlong, down the route of open warfare from which we were never likely to emerge without much further bloodshed. The rest, as they say, is all history. But it is history that continues to repeat itself so often in our own case.
Just see for yourselves the contradictions within just one such fortnight in 1997, during a critical phase when the possibility of ending the AFRC illegality was being discussed and pursued by the exiled government's international minders with some apparent urgency. While the general public was being constantly given the illusion that a peaceful resolution was foremost on the agenda, behind-the-scenes manoeuvres for military confrontation were being executed. In the process faint voices advising caution were smothered without a hearing on the international stage. These were the voices of reason, arguing that though the country faced a dangerous and almost cataclysmic prospect, the alternative to peaceful resolution would be Armageddon from which only few would be spared. The latter proved to be right!
(With excepts culled from the archives of Peter Andersen's Sierra Leone News web)
In our own inimitable and fearless way, we shall try to unravel the reasons today, and no doubt in the coming months.
GRANTED, throughout this crisis there was a real and ever present element of bad faith on both sides. There were stalling tactics by all the parties concerned, without exception. Kabbah's exiled government could not trust the AFRC's undertakings to hand power back to it; nor could the AFRC trust that Kabbah and his people would not embark upon wreaking revenge on them and their supporters.
Right from the beginning of the whole debacle, the international community chose to be led by - of all people - Sani Abacha, clearly a bad choice. Kabbah's otherwise richly deserving case for immediate restoration was thus devalued in having a rogue catalyst like Abacha leading negotiations (and subsequently a military expedition) to restore democracy.
Thus you can see the nonchalant treatment that the Sierra Leone case was given. It probably also explains why the international community was not quite forthcoming with any positive action for Sierra Leone. For only a few months before that, it had publicly declared the man, Abacha, an international pariah. Now curiously, they were giving a gentle nod to him to go and reverse a situation in another country which, in many respects, was not dissimilar to the one he operated in his own. It was like setting a thief to catch a thief!
Naturally the AFRC, and the RUF whom they had invited to join them, could not trust, let alone surrender to, the very people they were now fighting on the ground. How the United Nations Organisation could not see these very clear conflicting signals at the time beats the imagination.
In the absence of UN perspicacity and appreciation of this delicate situation, one hoped that other key interested parties like the US and Britain would have publicly (barely short of physically) stepped in to reassure both sides of even-handedness so that the matter could be resolved quickly, and bloodshed avoided. Credible guarantees given by either of these countries (such as those recently given at the July peace meeting in Lomé) could have gone a long way towards injecting a degree of moral rectitude in the phases of negotiations that were taking place at the time. As it turned out these so-called Ecomog meetings and negotiations were just a charade and delaying tactics for eventual forceful military intervention.
But entrusting the resolution of the conflict in Sierra Leone, and reversing the consequences following the AFRC's illegal seizure of power from Kabbah, to a Nigerian military dictatorship (never mind the Ecomog red herring!) that had its own political agenda – being desperate for its own rehabilitation among the international comity of nations from which it had been ostracised – was a false step that was bound to lead to severe difficulties for a bona fide solution. This lack of credible action led us to the present. Today we are paying dearly for it.
One ought to add that here in London, the Alliance for Peace and Democracy in Sierra Leone (of which this editor is a key member), argued time and again for the deployment of UN troops to separate the parties and to inject a measure of impartiality ….but to no avail. A one sided, one-track policy of "do as we say…or else" had already been adopted by all. The reason was that everyone was taken in by assurances from Abacha that his troops would do a professional job of eliminating Junta and RUF rebels in no time. On the contrary, as far as we saw things, it was never going to succeed anyway …without further deaths and destruction on all sides. There were clear alternatives but, alas, they did not suit the many political agendas in operation at the time.
While tribute must always be paid to the dedication and sacrifice of those Nigerian troops (thousands have died and been wounded - they were obeying orders!), it must also be said that the goal of the expedition was not really achieved in practice. The so-called victory claimed thereafter is pyrrhic in every sense. Although Kabbah was technically restored we ended with essentially a stalemate situation no less in character than the state of war that preceded the AFRC coup, which has been somehow gnawed at by Lomé.
The further fact, which must also be said, is that the whole expedition, if at all it was necessary, was too heavy-handed and its focus was totally wrong. The issue had became too personalised and reduced simply to one of the restoration of President Kabbah. The State of Sierra Leone no longer counted - the President had become the embodiment of the State and all other matters became subsumed thereunder.
So what about the numerous factors that had led to the civil war which started eight years earlier while people like Kabbah, Jonah and our so-called former expatriate international servants who now hold the fort, were quite happy to see the country descend into chaos? Were these issues now going to be swept under the carpet so that we could all pretend that we had democracy in Sierra Leone? Of course not! But that's where the international minders of President Kabbah lost their own marbles.
Ironically, today we have UN troops playing the very role that we in the Alliance advocated as far back as September 1997, which was to go in and be seen as a buffer between the parties while genuine negotiations were being vigorously pursued for a peaceful ending of the confrontation. No convincing reason has been advanced by anyone, including the UN, so far to explain why this deployment had to happen 2 years and possibly 6,000 deaths later.
These are some of the issues of Sierra Leone's civil war and the nature and extent of the sluggishness with which it was dealt with. No amount of cover-up or misinterpretation should be allowed to alter the crude facts that must be recorded for the benefit of posterity.