Issue 9 - Article 13

Sierra Leone (November 1997)

November 1, 1997
Philippa Atkinson, RRN West Africa

Following weeks of intense fighting between the AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council) and ECOMOG (ECOWAS Monitoring Group) forces in Sierra Leone, the two parties agreed a deal at the beginning of November, the first since the coup in May which deposed the democratically elected government of Tejan Kabbah. The deal does not appear to be very stable – the timing of the proposed hand-over of power, April 1998, has been questioned by Kabbah, who also objects to the amnesty agreed for the renegade army members. Any role in the new administration for Foday Sankoh, leader of the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) which joined forces with the AFRC in May, is also likely to be unacceptable. Economic sanctions in force since August 30 will remain in place in order to limit supplies to the AFRC, and ECOMOG will presumably continue its bombing and other actions designed to enforce the sanctions. Some observers believe that only through protracted fighting will a sustainable balance of power be established in Sierra Leone.


The role of the British government, increasingly active as the crisis has developed, is not entirely clear. Their position has been confused by the fact that the leading role in the restoration of democracy in Sierra Leone has been taken by Nigeria, currently subject to diplomatic sanctions for its own failure to respect democratic and human rights. The British Government has now become more directly involved in one of the first applications of its new integrated and ethical foreign policy, based on the protection and promotion of democracy and justice.

Ministers have recently taken two unprecedented steps, first announcing formally their non-recognition of the AFRC government in Freetown, on the grounds that it is not in full control of the country, and then inviting the deposed President to represent his country at the recent inter-governmental Commonwealth meeting. This follows the approval by the UN Security Council of a British-sponsored motion to back a more limited version of the ECOWAS embargo, on trade in arms, oil and travel by AFRC members. Although the embargo includes an exemption for humanitarian aid, DFID recently announced the cancellation of all British aid, including via multi-lateral channels, on the grounds that relief food in particular could fall into the wrong hands and help support the AFRC regime.

This emphasis on political aims above humanitarianism has been questioned by the humanitarian community. Sanctions, and the military action required to impose them, place a heavy burden on civilians. ECOMOG bombing raids have in the past month killed an estimated 500-1,000 civilians, injuring many more, causing serious damage to property and preventing supplies from the sea from landing. For some months now, the humanitarian community, based in Conakry, Guinea, has expressed its concern over the running down of food stocks and evidence of rising malnutrition rates.

While insecurity in some areas has hampered humanitarian operations, many agencies have continued to work inside Sierra Leone, especially British and French NGOs, and the ICRC. UN agencies have a limited presence, constrained by the high level security alert from sending expatriate staff into the country. Some believe that the forthcoming harvest will be large enough to feed much of the upcountry population, and that if the cease-fire holds, food will be traded into Freetown. Others are still concerned that the harvest will be looted by fighters, or has already been mortgaged by destitute farmers. Even if food aid is not distributed, many agencies believe they can still play an important role in sectors less open to abuse by fighters, and are designing interventions with care to avoid any negative impact. Since the coup the humanitarian community has adopted a code of conduct and operating principles, similar in content to the Code of Conduct adopted in Liberia in July 1995 (see RRN Newsletter 6, November 1996), and has also recently agreed to a minimalistic approach, pooling resources and conducting joint assessments of need.

The difficulties of developing an effective policy response when complex issues of moral judgements and pragmatism are involved are highlighted by the current crisis in Sierra Leone. The local population is suffering because of the embargo, but sustained economic and military pressure may be only way to wrest power from the soldiers, and thus demonstrate the commitment of the international community to the protection of democratic rights. The possibility of sending a UN peace-keeping or monitoring force, recently mooted, could help, and would lessen the current dilemma regarding the actions of the Nigerians. But UN forces could only be effective if, as in Liberia, they are deployed to oversee the implementation of a viable accord, which, to have a chance to work, would now need to involve not only the government and the RUF, but the AFRC and military, the kamajors, and other local self-defence militias.

While it is encouraging to see the new British government taking a proactive role in the protracted crisis in this distant former colony, there is a danger that humanitarian needs are being sidelined.

Moreover, the current policy of insistence on the reinstatement of Kabbah as President, and the continued failure to include Foday Sankoh, among others, in the negotiations towards a balanced distribution of power, may not contribute to an early resolution. While agencies may welcome government caution over the distribution of bulk food aid, many are concerned to see politics being given precedence over humanitarian needs. These needs must be taken into account as part of any ethical policy formulation, especially if, as many expect, open fighting continues and the civilian population are thus denied access to the means of survival.


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