By Chukwu-Emeka P F Chikezie

London, UK


THE recently published report on Sierra Leone’s 10-year-old conflict ‑ Sierra Leone: Time for a new military and political strategy ‑ by the International Crisis Group (ICG) is a dangerous mix: a well-written, authoritative report with some ropey recommendations. International organisations have periodically issued reports analysing Sierra Leone’s precarious situation and pronouncing on what should be done. However, this report stands out for two main reasons. First, is the nature of the ICG itself. The ICG probably calls itself a non-governmental organisation. The role call of its board members ‑ from chairman Martti Ahtisaaria, former president of Finland to Cyril Ramaphosa, former ANC Secretary-General, to billionaire George Soros to New Labour’s Mo Mowlam – reads like a role-call of the great, the good, and the extremely influential across the globe. Thus we ought more accurately to see the ICG as almost an inter-governmental organisation. This is no mere protest group singing in the wind.


Second, the ICG’s intervention comes at a crucial juncture for Sierra Leone, stepping as it does into something of a policy vacuum. Sierra Leone’s parliament recently granted the government a six-month extension to its rule because the country is in no position to hold free and fair elections. Despite this extension, however, we see no convincing evidence that the government has a clear strategy of how it intends to restore peace and stability to the country after its 10-year ordeal of war and increasing poverty. Meanwhile, Britain is playing a crucial role in the country without any real mandate, either domestically or internationally. Indeed, British policy makers and politicians appear to prefer to quietly get on and do what they can rather than have their role subjected to intense debate, especially before a British election now likely to take place early June.


So we should not ignore this report. Credible media commentary trailing the report’s publication suggested that the British government would be “quietly pleased” with the ICG’s report and recommendations, as it says things in public that British authorities themselves would shy away from saying. Perhaps this report is as close we will get to a clear statement of British policy in Sierra Leone.


Rule Britannia?

“Having determined that the causes of 'failed states' are supposedly intrinsic to the domestic domain, Western engagement is then advocated, in the name of the downtrodden, to save the third world from themselves, in the interests of international stability and security. Such interventions, therefore, facilitate the suspension of power and authority from supposedly deficient entities.” This comment comes from the organisers of a conference entitled “The Global Constitution of 'Failed States': the consequences of a new imperialism?” and the ICG’s report provides cannon fodder for this critical perspective on international relations. In reading the ICG report, one could be forgiven for assuming that all players in the conflict are either inept, incompetent or have malign interests. Except Britain, that is. It is as if the “black box” of Britain’s policymaking machine has ethics poured in at one end and out pops a benign intervention in Sierra Leone from the other.


Let us give credit where credit is due. The British intervention helped to stabilise the situation in Sierra Leone at a critical point. The presence of a few hundred British soldiers provided the civilian population with far more confidence than any of the many militia – including those purportedly supporting Sierra Leone’s government – or even the thousands of United Nations peacekeepers (who know more about the beaches and night clubs in Freetown than they do about the frontline). Although they have not achieved this single-handed, the British have succeeded in putting the RUF on the defensive. A combination of astute psychological warfare and the occasional devastating strike, as the Westside Boys can attest, have disconcerted the RUF. At the same time, by West Africa’s lamentable standards, the Brits are incorruptible ‑ as far as we know they cannot be bought off with a couple of diamonds.


No doubt Britain draws much comfort from the popularity of its intervention among Sierra Leoneans, particularly Freetown dwellers. Indeed, Sierra Leoneans’ jest that they would like to vote for Tony Blair as president has radical pan-Africanists cringing with embarrassment. Certainly, President Charles Taylor is most unhappy at having the Brits as regional neighbours, just last week as he went into talks with President Kabbah in Abuja, he complained that Britain was welcome to recolonise Sierra Leone but should leave Liberia alone. But Sierra Leoneans’ pro-British stance actually points to the fundamental problem with the British intervention. Sierra Leoneans have lost faith in their own leadership in virtually every state institution. Four years ago after the May 1997 coup in Sierra Leone, Tony Blair told the British public that his government was backing the good guys. But the good guys have let them down, something that the ICG report is honest enough to acknowledge. And British policy is propping them up.


So how much of a coherent strategy do the British really have in Sierra Leone? Britain’s tendency to muddle through these situations could end up leaving the country in a right pickle. And lest we forget, Britain has not always bequeathed Sierra Leone benign leaders who go on to do the country proud. In his historical account of British decolonisation (Colonial Wars and the Politics of Third World Nationalism), Frank Füredi details how the Colonial Office used leading British trade unionists to groom the “moderate” Siaka Stevens (a scholarship to Ruskin College) and precipitate a split with the more radical I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson.


Britain is once again in deep in Sierra Leone. The Brits are very disappointed in their man President Kabbah. In their desperation for a bailout, they would love nothing more than another basket in which to throw all their eggs. In the current climate, such a basket is most unlikely to serve the long-term needs of Sierra Leoneans, just as Siaka Stevens ultimately failed them. If Sierra Leoneans do not want to live with another very British fix, they will have to take far more responsibility for their own fate.


Out with Lomé baby and bathwater

This is the context within which we should read the ICG’s recommendation that we tear up the Lomé peace treaty and go with a gung-ho British approach to beef up the Sierra Leone army (SLA) and take the fight to the rebels. The UN Security Council should force the RUF, with “no meaningful political constituency”, to surrender immediately, and support the SLA’s use of military force against those who refuse, with support from the UK.


Our knowledge of the destructive capacities of the RUF is in marked contrast to our understanding of the organisation’s internal workings. The ICG report itself only speculates about splits within the RUF. Does fragmenting the RUF work in the best interests of long-term peace in Sierra Leone? We can almost plot a graph of the escalating violence in this conflict, which has scaled its goriest peaks just as the RUF has felt and behaved like a cornered rat. The ICG is very flattering about the role of Executive Outcomes (EO) in exerting military pressure on the RUF and almost bringing it to its knees. But another reading of that episode of the conflict would suggest that EO’s intervention actually helped to brutalise the conflict (methods reportedly included pushing RUF combatants out of airborne helicopter gunships). Moreover, for many of the victims of Sierra Leone’s war – the underage combatants that make up the RUF – that brutal organisation may now be their only family and support structure. Is Sierra Leone society ready to absorb these ex-combatants in large numbers?  Is it capable? Sierra Leonean scholar Professor A. B. Zack-Williams has pointed to the total breakdown of Sierra Leone society prior to the outbreak of war. Indeed, he even implicates the “mehn pikin” system (the widespread practice of fostering children from poorer families, sometimes from within the extended family) in creating social dysfunction in Sierra Leone. What fuelled much of the conflict at the local level were the grudges RUF miscreants held against a society that they felt treated them as second-class citizens. People who have spoken to RUF combatants stress the importance of allaying their fears that giving up their weapons and leaving the bush (or the mines) will result in certain death for them. Taking the ICG approach would almost certainly confirm those fears, with predictably disastrous consequences.


And while the ICG wants to rip up Lomé and start over, quietly and away from the public glare, the peace process has been slowly but gradually gathering pace. Indeed, some of the Lomé institutions, such as the Commission for the Consolidation of Peace (CCP) are working well and notching up successes under very difficult circumstances. In fact, what the ICG report misses is any serious consideration of the indigenous Sierra Leonean efforts to bring peace to their war-torn country. Surely it is precisely these efforts that the international community should study, learn from, build upon, and provide with substantial resources to continue. For sure, Lomé is deeply flawed – not least its failure to take into account the needs, interests and wishes of the wider Sierra Leonean public. Lomé needs revision, but that does not mean throwing out the baby with the bathwater.


Splitting and smashing the RUF

All the evidence suggests that rank-and-file RUF members are war-weary and ready to demobilise. But one problem with the peace process to date has been the attempt to bypass the hierarchy within the RUF, meaning that combatants must disobey orders from their own superiors to participate in the peace process or that commanders must face what they perceive as humiliation (for instance, being treated the same way as those under their command). For too long too many people have treated the RUF as a “rag tag” bunch of hooligans whereas in reality, and with devastating consequence, the RUF has proved to be a cohesive, cunning adversary that has successfully exploited its foes’ every weakness and error. Dangerous the movement is, rag tag it most certainly is not.


Instead the ICG wants to rely on the British-trained SLA to defeat the rebels. And here the ICG is being plainly duplicitous. The main report talks of “the intensity of the horrific revenge killings and abuses during the January 1999 RUF attack on Freetown”. But in the appendix detailing the political background to Sierra Leone’s conflict we read that “in January 1999, the AFRC [former military junta responsible for the May 1997 coup] and the RUF infiltrated and nearly seized control of Freetown. Appalling atrocities were inflicted on civilians including rape, the random amputation of limbs from men, women and children, and kidnapping.” In fact, most local observers put the blame for January 1999 more firmly at the feet of the AFRC and former members have indeed confessed to their horrendous crimes. As we all well know, the RUF is of course capable of committing such atrocities, but it clouds analysis and judgement to blame them for the January 1999 Freetown attack. Similarly, the ICG report relegates to the appendix the acknowledgement that the “new, retrained Sierra Leone army appears to contain individuals who were themselves responsible for human rights abuses in previous years”.


British training for these former human rights abusers will supposedly result in a radical human transformation. Former top brass within Sierra Leone’s military can provide chapter and verse on the ways that the country’s politicians gradually politicised and corrupted the army. Will the British train the politicians not to repeat these practices? Or will Sierra Leone actually end up with better-trained killers who may at some point once again turn on the people that they are supposed to protect? One characteristic of a state is that it is supposed to have a monopoly on the use of violence within a given territory, but attempting to reconstruct the state starting with honing its killing machine smacks of folly.


Sorry state of affairs

Reconstructing the “failed state” of Sierra Leone is the responsibility of Sierra Leoneans. Outside forces and bodies can help in this process, but only as facilitators. And in allowing Sierra Leoneans to decide their own fate, we must look beyond narrow conceptions of liberal democracy. The ICG report claims “there is widespread support among Sierra Leone citizens for new elections this year”. It is difficult to believe that the ICG has evidence to back up this claim. In any case, the issue is far more complex. The civil society-led democracy campaign that resulted in the 1996 elections was a success in that Sierra Leoneans were able to rid themselves of the discredited NPRC military regime. And while many recognised the desirability of achieving peace before elections, they feared that the military regime would hang onto power indefinitely on the pretext that peace was just round the corner. However, most Sierra Leoneans would now accept that holding elections when they did was a mistake. The international community – Britain especially ‑ that also pushed hard for these elections has been more reticent about acknowledging its mistake. Indeed, a key flaw in the Labour government’s strategy has been its failure to break with its Conservative predecessor’s approach, in spite of the hot air about an ethical dimension to its foreign policy. Although President Kabbah has played his hand poorly over the last five years, he was dealt a bad hand in the first place. Much of the ensuing chaos since 1996 could have been averted or minimised if both Sierra Leoneans and the international community had worked to simultaneously remove the NPRC regime and achieve lasting peace.


In fact, the issue of whether and when to hold elections has itself become quite politicised. The prevailing ideology in Sierra Leone is “power by any means necessary”. It is no good castigating the RUF alone for having no clear political programme. It is impossible to distinguish any of the mainstream political players and the umpteen presidential hopefuls in Sierra Leone along ideological lines. What distinguishes the RUF from the rest is the sustained scale and scope of the violence it is willing to unleash on a civilian population to achieve its ends. When the definitive story of Sierra Leone’s contemporary history is told, the links between the RUF and so-far unknown, but influential others will show the extent to which all parties in Sierra Leone are willing to go to achieve and retain power. Those who no longer feel that they can win power by the ballot box now favour a government of national unity, which of course they hope will include them.


While a strong case for deferring elections exists, simply perpetuating the current vacuum will almost certainly suck Sierra Leone into a further vortex of violence. Elections now would be a competition between a bunch of largely discredited politicians who will ignore the interests of the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans simply to line their own pockets and continue with business as usual. Before elections, Sierra Leoneans need space to ask some much bigger questions: What values should underpin the relationship between leaders and led? How do they want to be governed? What are the lasting lessons to be learnt from this traumatic phase of the country’s history? How is lasting peace to be achieved and sustained? What kind of a society do Sierra Leoneans want to live in? When and under what conditions should elections be held?


Power to the Sierra Leonean people

In the interests of peace and stability in Sierra Leone and the region, the international community should now hold the fort while all Sierra Leoneans – the RUF included ‑ deliberate these important issues. Such broad-based consultations could culminate in a national conference the results of which would be morally binding on any future government in Sierra Leone. Demoralised and war-weary as they all are, Sierra Leoneans are perfectly capable of deciding their own destiny. The international community, including Britain, should have faith in them.