TYPE=ON THE LINE
TITLE=ON THE LINE: THE AGONY OF SIERRA LEONE
EDITOR=OFFICE OF POLICY - 619-0037
THEME: UP, HOLD UNDER AND FADE
Anncr: On the Line - a discussion of United
States policy and contemporary issues. This week,
"The Agony of Sierra Leone." Here is your host,
Host: Hello and welcome to On the Line. Almost
ten years of fighting between the government and
Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front have
ruined Sierra Leone. Last July, a peace agreement
was reached. It gave amnesty to the rebels,
despite their numerous atrocities, and Foday
Sankoh and other RUF leaders received government
positions. In exchange, the RUF was supposed to
disarm. Instead, it captured nearly five hundred
United Nations peacekeepers. Meanwhile, Foday
Sankoh himself is now being held by British
forces. But prospects for peace in this tortured
country remain unclear.
Joining me today to discuss the agony of Sierra
Leone are three experts. Arthur Lewis is a former
career foreign service officer who served as U.S.
ambassador to Sierra Leone from 1983 to 1986.
Joseph Opala is an American anthropologist at
James Madison University, who lived for seventeen
years in Sierra Leone. And Michael O'Neill is a
member of the board of The Friends of Sierra
Leone, a non-profit organization here in
Washington. During his twelve years in Sierra
Leone, he worked for both the Peace corps and the
Red Cross. Welcome to the program.
Arthur Lewis, can you give us a correct diagnosis
of the troubles in Sierra Leone over the past
decade so that we can have an intelligent
discussion of the solutions that are being
Lewis: I think, if you are really looking for a
long view of the problems that face Sierra Leone,
you have to go back almost to independence.
Interestingly enough, at independence, the country
was looked upon by the British as a country which
had a group in the western portion of the country,
the peninsula, called the Creoles. And they had
most of the contacts with the British over the
years and with the outside world. Up country were
a number of ethnic groups, but the two major
groups were the Temnes in the north and the Mendes
in the south and the east. It was anticipated that
the Creoles would probably be given control of the
legislature when Sierra Leone came to independence
in 1961, but surprisingly it wasn't. It was given
to the Mende and the Mende politicians ran the
country for about six to eight years. A group
began forming which was led by trade unionists,
led by Siaka Stevens, and they began to oppose the
Mende group that was ruling the country. And in an
election, Shakah Stevens and his All Peoples Party
won the election. The A-P-C was essentially a
Host: Are these divisions based on just class
differences, regional differences, tribal
Lewis: Mostly ethnic and regional differences
because the one thing about Sierra Leone which is
striking to anyone who knew anything about Sierra
Leone was the fact that the usual cross-cutting
kinds of sociological things didn't apply. People
married across tribal boundaries, across religious
boundaries, because the country is essentially a
Muslim country with some Christians and some
animists. But those divisions never really became
an issue in early Sierra Leone at all.
Host: Let me just ask Joseph Opala, to bring
this up to date at least to a decade ago. A lot of
commentators say that it was Sierra Leone's
participation in the West African peace-keeping
force, ECOMOG, that went into Liberia that
provoked Charles Taylor's retaliation against
Sierra Leone for doing that, since Charles Taylor,
now the president of Liberia, saw that
intervention as hostile to him when he was
fighting for power there. Do you credit that
Opala: That was the straw that broke the camel's
back. But there was a huge load on that camel
before Taylor got involved.
Host: Built in the way that Art Lewis was
Opala: Yes, although it requires more
explanation. We could probably talk two hours
Host: We can't. We have twenty minutes.
Opala: I realize that. To put it in a nutshell,
Sierra Leone is an interesting country because it
has no serious ethnic divisions. It has no serious
religious divisions. It has no serious class
divisions or regional divisions.
Host: Why are they calling this a civil war
Opala: Because the international media and, quite
frankly, the international community have
misconstrued the whole thing from the beginning.
And like a patient who has a minor disease, if you
keep administering the wrong medicine, sooner or
later, he is going to die on you. And that is
exactly what has happened in Sierra Leone. It's
not that the international community has not come
in with assistance. It's not even so much that
they did not spend much money. They just did all
the wrong things. They did not understand what was
Host: Do you agree with that, Michael O'Neill?
O'Neill: I do. I think that the conditions that
existed in Sierra Leone made it vulnerable to a
person like Foday Sankoh, to gather up
disenfranchised young people, people who had not
been paid for a long time. And he was active
enough and charismatic enough to say, look, this
is not the way we want to live our lives. We can
do something to change this society. And people
felt that they could not do it through the
political process because it had been compromised
through the one-party state and through corruption
and other things. What they were against was
clear. He said quite clearly we are against
corruption; we want the people to benefit from the
sweat of their brow. But they have no mandate;
they have no manifesto. They have no goals in
mind. This is now back in 1992 when he said this
to me. And things have changed since then. There
has been quite a bit more of these atrocities and
it has taken on a life of its own. But this is not
a political movement in the classical sense. These
people are thriving in this anarchy. And anarchy
serves their purposes.
Host: Let's go back to the role of Liberia and
Charles Taylor. Could the RUF have done what it
did without a base in Liberia and support in terms
of arms and whatever they may have exchanged their
diamonds for in order to get sufficient means to
do what they have against the government in
Lewis: Certainly they had the support of Liberia,
but they also had the support of Libya, which sent
weapons to them through Burkina Faso which were
then transshipped overland through the Ivory
coast, through Liberia, into Sierra Leone.
Host: What is Burkina Faso's interest in this
Lewis: It has a relationship with Libya that the
other countries do not have.
O"Neill: Particularly between [Blaise] Campaore
and [Moammar] Gadhafi. Campaore, the head of state
of Burkina Faso, is there through a coup himself.
Host: And Charles Taylor and Foday Sanko met
under the aegis of Gadhafi. Is that correct?
O'Neill: He said they trained there together. Yes.
Host: They trained in Libya together. What sort
of training did they receive? What is Gadhafi
training people in western Africa to do?
Opala: I think this entire line of discussion is
Opala: Because the one thing you have to
understand to grasp what's going on in Sierra
Leone is that, over a period of twenty years, the
central government gradually disintegrated as a
result primarily of the political class, as they
would say in Sierra Leone, eating everything in
the government. They literally consumed their own
government. If you were a member of the cabinet,
your job was to sell off the vehicles, sell off
any U-N or outside assistance that came to your
ministry, pass quite a bit of it up to the
president and enjoy the rest for yourself. And
over a period of time, they actually destroyed the
ability of the government to rule, to govern, to
do anything on behalf of the people. And what
happened when the center disintegrated is that all
this area on the periphery went its own way. They
stopped years ago paying civil servants or
teachers. When you stop paying teachers, the kids
are in the streets. And so if it had not been
Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh, it would have
been someone else. These are infections. And if
your immune system is gone, it does not matter
which infection enters you. It is eventually going
to kill you.
Host: So all three of you, with all your
experience in Sierra Leone, would say that Sierra
Leone is a failed state?
Lewis: Well yes. I think it is a state that
imploded on itself. It is a failed state.
Host: And would you agree with Joseph Opala that
rampant corruption was one of the causes?
Lewis: Not only would I agree with it, but I
would think I would have to expand on it almost.
The level of corruption in Sierra Leone was almost
unmentionable. Sierra Leone is really not a poor
country. It is a wealthy country. It has gem
quality diamonds. Eighty percent of the diamonds
produced in Sierra Leone are gem quality. Up in
the Kono where the diamond fields are, the
government used to mine something on the order of
a million and a half carats a year. And those
million and a half carats a year found their way
out of the country with the help of members of the
government. And, as Joe was pointing out, anything
that was not nailed down was available.
Host: Now those diamonds are going through
Liberia for the benefit of the RUF?
Opala: It is a free-for-all.
Host: What do you do in a situation like this
where the internal political and even perhaps
social order has collapsed? You have peacekeepers
being captured by a ragtag guerilla movement. You
have government forces composed of what? Former
rebels plus some government militia?
Opala: There is no Sierra Leone army in any sense
of that word.
Host: And you have British paratroopers there
holding the airport and keeping some kind of hope
for the restoration of order. What do you do in a
situation like this?
Lewis: If I were the doctor and you were to ask
me . . .
Host: Dr. Lewis, I am asking you.
Lewis: This situation requires very drastic
measures. First of all, I would support and
encourage any way of getting rid of the RUF.
Host: That means a military solution?
Lewis: That is not a solution. The first part of
it would be to get rid of the RUF. And it is going
to take a military solution to do that. Then after
that, you can begin thinking about rebuilding the
social order of the country. The social order of
the country has been destroyed. When young
children will maim their elders, where the
relationship that existed in Sierra Leone in the
social order is gone, wiped away completely, we
have to start all over again. I think one of the
ways of starting over again is the country used to
be a very literate country. It is now almost one
hundred percent illiterate. We need to put great
emphasis and great resources into educating
people, bringing them back to literacy.
Host: But if there is no government, who is
going to do that, Michael O'Neill?
O'Neill: I would like to go back to what Arthur
just said. A lot of the young people who are in
the rebels are not there by their own volition or
initially were not there by their own volition.
They have gone through a process equivalent to
brainwashing and committing an atrocity as kind of
a blood rite -- committing an atrocity and then
being told by their fellow rebels, "if you decide
to leave us, we will expose you and you know what
will happen. You will be necklaced and killed in
public." So they have no options; they have no
out. And I think that one way to deal with this is
to give an out to the people who want out that
will provide a safe avenue for them. We have seven
hundred thousand refugees in Guinea. How much to
create a space for fifty thousand of these young
people to go some place sequestered and be
deprogrammed or de-drugged or whatever it takes?
And provide a safe avenue for them out.
Host: Who is going to do this?
O'Neill: I do not know how it is done. I just know
that there are those people who, given the
opportunity, would get out. We are not giving them
the opportunity because the risks are too great.
Opala: He is absolutely right.
Host: Joe Opala, as you know, Kofi Annan has
requested more troops, for U-N peacekeepers to be
sent to Sierra Leone. We know that President
[Olusegun] Obasanjo of Nigeria has indicated his
willingness to send a major contingent of troops
back. And it was actually the withdrawal of his
troops before the U-N got settled that seemed to
kick off this latest disaster. Can you see a
framework developing within United Nations
supervision with Nigerian participation and with
U.S. financial support and British support, of a
framework within which what Art Lewis said can
take place - the RUF can be defeated and civil
society can be rebuilt?
Opala: I think it is appropriate that you call
this segment the agony of Sierra Leone. And one of
the major agonies for me is that, not only is this
not a civil war, but civil chaos, but this is
actually not a very difficult problem. It only
looks difficult because the international
community has legitimized the bandits and because
they have allowed the bandits to go on to the
point that they are as rampant as they are now.
What we have is the collapse of the state. If
actions are taken to rebuild the ministries, to
get the government functioning again, to retrain
civil servants, the people of that nation could
see government is coming back. If you create safe
havens, ninety percent of the RUF boys will go in
there within four weeks. There is no doubt of
Host: But is the elected government of Ahmad
Tejan Kabbah capable of doing that?
Opala: Absolutely not.
Host: Well then, who can?
Opala: The international community has got to
understand that not every situation of conflict is
a civil war. In fact, I would say that Sierra
Leone does not even have a conflict. What we have
is rampant criminality. The problem here has been
that the international community knows how to
negotiate. They know how to deal with conflict or
civil wars or warring factions. They don't know
how to deal with a collapsed state. They had
Host: Where does this leave the Lome agreement
Lewis: I think the Lome agreement flew out the
window when the U-N came in or even long before
that. It flew out the window when the RUF failed
to do what they were supposed to do under the
terms of the Lome agreement.
O'Neill: I think there are a couple of proverbs
here that are apropos. One is that wherever you
tie the cow, that is where the cow eats grass. And
this was a proverb popularized by Shakah Stevens.
But think about it. If you tie a cow to a stake
and say, okay, there is your grass to eat. What
happens when all the grass is eaten? That is
Sierra Leone today. The grass is gone and the cow
is still standing there. The other one is:
something brings something. And what is coming
around today is from the seeds that were planted
twenty, thirty years ago. I spoke to the paramount
chiefs. I was working for the Red Cross at the
time. They used to come to my house every Monday
morning. And they were telling me, here is the
crisis in Sierra Leone. Be it Muslim, be it
Christian, be it animist, there is an ancestral
reverence, something akin to the Catholic
reverence for saints. And the belief is that the
ancestors can intervene on our behalf. But the
type of killing that has gone on in Sierra Leone,
the living have not performed the appropriate
rites to help the dead to move to the place where
they need to be. They feel uncomfortable. Who is
going to intervene for us if our ancestors are in
this purgatory? Then who is going to perform these
rites for me when I die? And I am going to be
stuck in this same purgatory. And what needs to
happen when we get to the point of reconciliation
is to have ritualistic, nationwide mourning of an
appropriate sense that everybody understands in a
Sierra Leone context. To the West, it probably
makes no difference whatsoever. But people need to
repair that other world because that is their
cosmology. And that is where you will see this
reconciliation between the young people who have
been forced to do these awful things and their own
families. Sierra Leonians are eminently prepared
to reconcile. It's unbelievable. The fact that
they were willing to swallow the Lome accord is
unbelievable. But they are not going to be fooled
Opala: That is one issue I will take with you. I
really agreed with your statement, but I was in
Freetown in June of last year when Lome was being
negotiated and when it was clear to everyone that
it was about to come into force. And I can tell
you that there was panic throughout the entire
society. The Kamajors threatened to invade the
capital city. Bo and Kenema, the two large towns
up country, held mass rallies and said we are
seceding from the nation-state. A headline on one
of the newspapers said America kidnaps Kabbah. In
other words, the international community was
forcing this so-called peace on an unwilling
Host: But first the elimination of the RUF, then
restoration of order and the reconciliation at a
spiritual level. Do you agree with that, Art
Lewis, because we are out of time?
Lewis: And state building. It's a society that
needs a society; it needs its institutions. So
yes, I agree.
Host: I'm afraid that's all the time we have
this week and I'd like to thank our guests -
former U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone, Art Lewis;
American anthropologist Joseph Opala; and Michael
O'Neill from The Friends of Sierra Leone - for
joining me to discuss the agony of Sierra Leone.
This is Robert Reilly for On the Line.
Anncr: You've been listening to "On the Line" - a
discussion of United States policies and
contemporary issues. This is --------.
25-May-2000 11:33 AM EDT (25-May-2000 1533 UTC)
Source: Voice of America
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