Saving Sierra Leone

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By John Hirsch


The Washington Post
March 4, 1999
Following 30 years of ruinous mismanagement and nine years of civil and cross-border conflict, Sierra Leone is in profound crisis. The virtual collapse of the Sierra Leonean government and the military impasse between the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force, on one side, and Revolutionary United Front rebels and remnants of the former army, on the other, present the international community with a stark situation. After years of international indifference, the Western media have given prominent coverage to the atrocities, destruction and violence inflicted on the civilian population.

There has recently been a renewed call for the return of Executive Outcomes, the private security force that had maintained a measure of security through early 1997, to join with the peacekeeping force in defeating the rebels. This in itself is, however, insufficient. Sierra Leone needs a coherent and comprehensive strategy, rather than the reactive, piecemeal approach that has characterized the international response to the crisis to date. President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's government and the peacekeeping force must continue to be supported by the international community while a long-term effort at ensuring security and peace is undertaken.

Broadly speaking, there are four conceivable scenarios. First, a peacekeeping force victory over the rebels; second, a rebel victory over the peacekeeping force; third, a protracted stalemate, with peacekeepers in control of Freetown and its environs and the rebels in control of the north and east of the country; and fourth, an internationally negotiated and enforced political settlement.

Of these scenarios, the first seems more and more unlikely. While the peacekeeping force continues to constrain rebel operations, the American experience in Vietnam suggests that wars against determined guerrilla forces are rarely conclusive. Moreover, the Nigerians have announced their intention to leave or draw down their forces significantly when a civilian government comes into office in May. The rebels retain the capacity to keep fighting, apparently with external support.

The second and third scenarios portend a dismal future for Sierra Leone. If the peacekeepers withdraw and the rebels take over, Sierra Leone will descend into a reign of terror and violence. The third scenario would be tantamount to de facto partition. It would leave a significant part of the country in a no-man's land under rebel control. These two scenarios presage further social and economic disintegration, and more refugees and displaced persons -- now more than 1.5 million, according to U.N. humanitarian sources.

The best scenario for Sierra Leone is an internationally negotiated political settlement, agreed on by both Kabbah's government and the rebels. An international settlement is essential because the regional states have a stake in the conflict that renders them less than impartial. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, as convener, would give legitimacy and credibility to the proceedings.

The foundation for an international settlement of the Sierra Leone conflict is embodied in the Nov. 30, 1996, Abidjan accords between the Kabbah government and the rebels. Though never implemented, the accords remain valid and viable. Kabbah repeatedly has indicated his readiness to implement the accords, provided the rebels cease hostilities and recognize the legitimacy of his elected government.

The Abidjan accords include provisions for the demobilization and disarmament of the rebel and government armies and the opportunity for the rebels to transform themselves into a political party eligible for the next general election. While many Sierra Leoneans will find it repugnant to envisage the rebel group -- whose members have committed gross human rights abuses against the population -- as a political player, the fact remains that the rebels signed the Abidjan accords.

The U.N. secretary general should convene an international conference on Sierra Leone to include the Kabbah government and the rebels, key African participants, the Commonwealth (components of the former British empire) and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. The major objectives of the conference would be to (1) secure a cease-fire and end hostilities (again), (2) facilitate implementation of the Abidjan accords or their revision as the basis for the peace settlement, (3) strengthen and enlarge the U.N. civilian mission in Sierra Leone to assist the government in providing essential services, (4) ensure financial support for the continued presence of the peacekeeping force and (5) reach an agreement on the timing and modalities of the next election, in which the rebels would be allowed to participate as a political party.

The key to this effort lies with Nigeria and its peacekeeping partners. They need assurance of financial resources to remain engaged. A timetable would have to be established for the peacekeepers' continued stay in Sierra Leone. This would make it somewhat easier for the new civilian government in Nigeria to continue to commit troops.

The rebels and their external supporters have to be convinced that they cannot conquer Sierra Leone nor gain international legitimacy by force of arms. Conversely, participation in the peace process will provide them with access to international funding for reconstruction and recovery (essentially what is in the Abidjan accords).

International pressure must be exerted on Charles Taylor, the president of Liberia, to cease military support for his rebel allies. Within an international conference, he would be given the opportunity to play the role of regional peacemaker collaboratively with others.

In sum, all participants need to be convinced of benefits not only for Sierra Leone but also for themselves. At the same time, an enforcement mechanism has to be put in place to ensure that the accords remain on track.

While this may seem a great deal to demand from the international community, it is primarily a revival of the Abidjan accords on an international rather than regional basis. The increased role for the U.N. civilian mission will need organization and financing.

There is still time to save Sierra Leone. This proposal can work if implemented speedily. But if an effort along these lines is not adopted, one must fear the worst for the future of democracy in Africa and the well-being of the people of this beautiful but beleaguered country.

The writer, a former U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone, is vice president of the International Peace Academy.

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