Issue 13 - Article 12

Sierra Leone (March 1999)

March 1, 1999
Philippa Atkinson, RRN Regional Representative, West Africa

The seven-year war in Sierra Leone again reached the capital Freetown in early January after months of intense fighting upcountry between the rebel coalition of the former junta AFRC/RUF (Armed Forces Ruling Council and the Revolutionary United Front), and the CDF (civil defence forces) backed by the Nigerian-led ECOMOG.

Following the reinstatement by ECOMOG of the democratically elected Kabbah government in February 1998, the rebel coalition retreated, strengthened by their period in control of state power. Their use of terror against civilian populations has led to continued displacement, with over 600,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia and Guinea, and at least 150,000 internally displaced. The January offensive left another 150,000 homeless in Freetown.

The ability of the rebel groups to re-enter Freetown has exposed the failings of the Kabbah government’s military strategy, which is backed by ECOMOG and the international community. This reflects the difficulties faced by a relatively conventional force in defeating a well-organised and funded guerrilla group. It also demonstrates the continuing effectiveness of the rebels’ strategy, including their strengthened external alliances as a result of the rebel/army union, and increased utilisation of Sierra Leone’s diamond resources to fund arms purchases and mercenaries. The abuse of civilian populations and their use as human shields in battles against ECOMOG has also proved highly successful. On the other side, CDF forces have also committed atrocities, while ECOMOG bombing campaigns have been heavily criticised for the extent of their ‘collateral’ damage.


In spite of the key roles played by regional and international alliances and interests, this is still fundamentally a civil war and its resolution must be sought locally. A major area of contention relates to the issue of peace versus justice, and the merits of the military strategy as opposed to the pursuit of negotiations with the rebels. There has always been massive public resentment of the violent and highly predatory methods used by the AFRC/RUF, and strong support for the democratic government. But many have also regarded Kabbah’s confrontational strategy as a serious mistake. While the political project of the rebels appears incoherent – particularly in the light of their appalling human rights abuses – their continuing military struggle and the more general militarisation of the political process is still understood by some to reflect deep-rooted injustices in the patrimonial political system. This is still apparent, especially in the way that individual cabinet members known for putting their personal ambitions ahead of the interests of the country remain influential. 

Many commentators from within and without the country have emphasised the need to address these trends as part of any attempt to seek a peaceful means of resolution. They also stress the importance of acknowledging the complexity of the conflict and multiplicity of internal and external interests involved. External interests need to be addressed beyond the level of rhetoric, particularly the network that reportedly involves Burkina Faso, Liberia and Ukraine in mineral and arms trade with rebel forces. Similarly, the economic interests of the backers of the government, including ECOMOG, must be recognised as contributing to the conflict.

The difficult humanitarian situation is expected to deteriorate further if military activity continues. Some humanitarian activity has been possible upcountry, but relief work in Freetown has been limited by security conditions. Huge physical damage has been done to private and public property and infrastructure, and the medical needs of all victims continue to increase. Some relief agencies have, however, restarted their operations in Freetown.

In the main, relief activity is restricted due to ECOMOG’s prohibition of high frequency radio equipment; some agencies have had their equipment impounded by force due to alleged interference with military operations. Agencies have also been hampered by differing perceptions of the neutrality of humanitarian work, despite earlier efforts to disseminate humanitarian principles to the government, ECOMOG and the CDFs, and the development in November 1998 of a new joint Code of Conduct (see earlier article).

NGOs in Sierra Leone have demonstrated some ability to develop and implement innovative relief and rehabilitation programmes sensitive to the inherently unstable situation. A dynamic local NGO sector and local staff of international NGOs have contributed to this process, effectively utilising local knowledge and enabling many operations to continue without the presence of expatriate personnel. Flexibility in food aid implementation is another achievement, as seen in a CARE programme that uses a variety of indicators of vulnerability at village level for targeting purposes. Other programmes have not been so successful. For example, the £2m demobilisation programme funded by DfID and the $18m six-month UNOMSIL budget for UN military personnel to ‘observe the war’ were seen as particularly inappropriate. There is, as ever, a major shortage of information and analysis about the nature and impact of the conflict, without which it is difficult to develop either effective relief and rehabilitation programmes or policy on political level interventions.


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