Disarmament and Demobilisation in Sierra Leone
by Keith Martin June 2003

Sierra Leone has suffered virtually continuous civil conflict since 1991. In that time, many thousands of children, women and young men have been recruited or forcibly abducted to fight and work with rebel forces. In February 1998, the re-installed government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah embarked on a policy of reconciliation, and instigated a programme to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate the 45,000 combatants fighting in all of the country’s various factions, both pro- and anti-government.

Progress has not been easy, and rebel activity largely halted the programme between January and July 1999, and again from May 2000. Although nine fully-equipped camps have been established across the country, only two – at Lungi north of Freetown, and at Daru in the far east of the country – are running. Nonetheless, despite the difficulties much has been achieved; as of 4 May 2000, 22,184 adults and 1,980 children had been demobilised.

The demobilisation programme

The government established the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (NCDDR), chaired by the president, in July 1998. An Executive Secretariat reporting to the NCDDR was set up, with responsibility for the overall planning and implementation of the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) programme. The government’s policy and programme framework were developed in close consultation with all the relevant stakeholders: the West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG; the UN Observer Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL); UN agencies, the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID); the World Bank; NGOs; the Armed Forces of Sierra Leone (AFSL); and the affected communities.

The initial programme mainly involved former combatants of the AFSL, which had seized power in a military coup in May 1997, toppling Kabbah’s democratically-elected government. It then invited the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to form a joint government, which became known as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The AFRC remained in place until February 1998, when ECOMOG forces toppled it in turn. Some 7,000 ex-AFSL fighters were either captured, or gave themselves up to ECOMOG following the junta’s collapse. Faced with the choice of either being retrained as a new ‘loyal’ force to fight alongside ECOMOG or leaving the army and joining the demobilisation programme, around 3,000 chose demobilisation.

The initial programme, which took place at Lungi camp, began in August 1998, and was scheduled to be completed the following December. An international team, funded by DFID, managed the camp, and oversaw the feeding, healthcare, shelter and registration of the ex-combatants. ECOMOG provided security. The team also improved the local infrastructure to create a better relationship between the former fighters and the people of Lungi, thus relieving some of the tension between them. These improvements consisted of the rehabilitation of the area’s water-treatment plant, undertaken with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which gave 100,000 people access to clean piped water; supplying drugs and equipment to the local hospital; and the grading of unmetalled roads after the rainy season.

Registration took the form of a socio-economic survey, a medical examination and the issuing of a photo ID card once the programme had been successfully completed. Ex-combatants were also screened by UNOMSIL and ECOMOG to discover if they had actually taken part in the conflict, and were therefore eligible for the demobilisation programme.

Following registration and screening, the ex-combatants underwent Pre-Discharge Orientation (PDO). This entailed:

  • Career counselling. Since many of the ex-combatants had spent most of their adult life in the army, few had any skills that would enable them to rejoin civil society.
  • Registration of vocational expectations. This part of the process was linked to skills training and employment-creation activities.
  • Civic education. Primarily aimed at giving ex-combatants a knowledge of civil society, what would be expected of them within it, and where they could get help in the future.
  • An information and sensitisation campaign. Although this was part of a nationwide initiative, the NCDDR felt that it was important that the ex-combatants helped to put across the peace message to civil society as a whole through the promotion of ex-combatant art, music and drama groups.
  • Trauma healing and psychosocial counselling. A number of ex-combatants had drug problems, or were disabled due to wounds received or mutilation; others needed to come to terms with their actions.

With the help of UNICEF, the programme successfully demobilised 200 war-affected children during November and December 1998, who passed into the care of local NGOs around the country, either to be reunited with their families or to go to foster parents. This gained a lot of positive publicity and was felt by the Sierra Leone government and by the UN to be a real turning-point towards lasting peace.

However, on 6 January 1999 AFRC/RUF forces stormed Freetown. A week earlier, the ex-combatants had been moved from Lungi to Pademba Road Prison in Freetown because of fears of an attack on the camp. Early on 6 January, the prison was stormed by the AFRC/RUF, and the inmates, including the ex-combatants, were released. The rebels tried to force the former fighters to join them, but the majority escaped to the sanctuary of the Brookfields Stadium hostel under ECOMOG protection. AFRC/RUF forces attacked the stadium the following night; after a four-hour battle, in which many of the ex-combatants were killed, ECOMOG troops finally beat off the assault. Over the following weeks, the rebels were slowly driven out of Freetown, although they still controlled much of the country, and the ex-combatants started coming out of hiding and surrendering to ECOMOG. They were housed in the disused Mamy Yoko Hotel, where they remained for five months.

During that period, the PDO was completed and, in June 1999, 1,410 ex-combatants received the first half of their safety-net allowance of 250,000 leones (approximately US$150) to help them restart their lives, along with their ID card and discharge certificate. The second payment was issued 90 days later at the Executive Secretariat’s Western Office, one of the six regional offices set up to support and assist former fighters. A further 1,600 were demobilised from Lungi during the three months up to December 1999.

The programme’s achievements

The initial programme achieved all of the objectives required by the NCDDR, the UN and the international donor community, despite the fluid, complex and difficult environment in which it was undertaken:

  • It established the NCDDR as a policy and institutional framework; a functional, locally-staffed Executive Secretariat; and an interagency coordinating committee.
  • The World Bank and DFID created the Multi-Donor Trust Fund to act as a focal point for donations to the DDR programme.
  • Over 3,000 ex-combatants, including the 200 child soldiers, were screened, registered and demobilised.
  • A PDO programme was created, including information and sensitisation seminars, trauma healing and counselling, career-counselling workshops and reconciliation activities.
  • A national sensitisation campaign and opinion survey was launched as part of the post-war recovery message.
  • Socio-economic data and profiling were collected to support plans for skills training and employment-creation schemes.
  • The two-part transitional safety-net allowance was paid to the first group discharged from the DDR programme after completing the PDO.

The next steps

With the signing of a cease-fire and the Lomé peace agreement by the government and the RUF on 5 July 1999, hopes of a sustainable peace were raised. Rapid disarmament was expected, and eight more camps, in addition to the one at Lungi, were built in August and September.

The basic framework of the DDR programme, as used for the AFSL at Lungi, was adapted and scaled up for the expected 45,000 ex-combatants. However, with ECOMOG starting to pull out and the UN peacekeeping force UNAMSIL slow to materialise, the continued security threat made it impossible to restart the programme in all parts of the country. Small isolated groups of rebels attacked villages for food, and the feeling of unrest grew. The RUF refused to disarm to ECOMOG, and UNOMSIL observers risked being kidnapped if they tried to negotiate with the rebels.

Nonetheless, some major steps forward were taken between September and December, with many rebels disarming at Lungi, and at the camp at Port Loko north-east of Freetown. However, rebels in the major RUF stronghold of Kailahun in Eastern Province would not come forward and demobilise. The RUF leadership continued to insist that they had told all of their troops to disarm, but would not allow observers into areas they controlled, where they were using forced labour to strip diamonds. Following rumours of an attempted coup by the RUF leadership in May 2000, all international staff running the camps have been withdrawn; only the camps Lungi and Daru appear to be still open, operated by local staff with the help of UNAMSIL. With fighting continuing throughout the country, and UNAMSIL requesting more men, there seem to be no quick solutions to the problem of disarmament and demobilisation in Sierra Leone.

Keith Martin is an independent consultant.