"Blessed" Sierra Leone, Cursed
By Tom Kamara
After 8 years of bloodletting leading to about 20,000 persons killed and an orgy of amputations, Sierra Leone may be on the path to consolidating genuine peace, something fundamentally different from what the world let happen in neighbouring Liberia. There are indications that in dealing with the Sierra Leone horrors, the conscientious world is slowly awakening to the fact that terror should not be rewarded. And this is a comforting reawakening, in view of the fact that while the West continues to hunt down and punish Nazi criminals, Africans are urged to surrender national leadership to men and women who butcher, rape, and loot national resources in the name of politics in the naïve belief that this is the best option for peace, stability and therefore socioeconomic development. On the contrary, fifty-four years since the end of the Second World War, western nations and institutions are still tracking down Nazi operatives and sympathizers while we are told, ( because of our deep poverty and inability to chart our own course) to live with individuals worst than many Nazis. But we must be cautiously optimistic for a world in which criminals, under the cover of politics, will no longer have a card blanch as they did during the Cold War.
American Secretary of State Madeline Albright, during a visit to Sierra Leone, announced a US$65m. package towards the consolidation of peace in the war battered former British colony. Of this, US $55m. is for aid; $11m. for logistics in ensuring disarmament, $4m. for the education of ex-combatants and $1m. to ensure that steps be taken against illicit diamond trading from which Sierra Leone is losing between $300m to $450m. annually. The Americans have also decided to cancel about $65m. of debts Sierra Leone owes Washington while understandably listing Liberia among 4 countries(Burma, Sudan and Somalia) in the Third World that may not qualify for US debt relief due to "ineffective governments."
All this goodwill towards Sierra Leone, no doubt, is intended to erect strong cornerstones for democracy after almost a decade of horrific anarchy. For many who are determined to see West Africa transformed into a stable region for development, Washington's crusade in this largely forgotten part of the world is a much needed boost in a struggle for peace and justice so needed in this jungle of terror. But in the case of Sierra Leone, there has been strong and valid opposition to Washington's endorsement of a peace formula that has rewarded men for their level of callousness and atrocities committed against a helpless population. The outcry against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Foday Sankoh and his ally, Johnny Paul Koromah of the rogue Sierra Leone military, has gained world attention to the delight of all conscientious individuals who believe that peace without justice is no peace. However, there are signals that the UN, and powerful players within the international community such as the Americans, may find it hard embracing the Sankohs and Koromahs of Sierra Leone as they did with Charles Taylor in Liberia.
"Ultimately, the only way reconciliation really can come is if people have a sense that justice has been done and those who have perpetrated the terrible crimes are punished individually", Mrs. Albright clarified in an attempt to put reason on US backing for rebel participation in the Sierra Leone Government. Albright further hinted that a war crime tribunal for Sierra Leone is a fact to "keep in mind as something that we might come to." The American, refusing to be photographed with Sankoh and Koromah in Freetown, is reported to have reminded these killers how the world was repulsed by their atrocities for political power. (On the contrary, President Carter was proud to be photographed with rebel Taylor on countless occasions.(The difference is that Sankoh does not have such powerful backers and admirers.)
Even the UN, which has been criticized for endorsing an agreement that has given the rebels general amnesty and placed Sankoh in charge of diamonds, is saying that the amnesty applies only within Sierra Leone territory. In a footnote to the Lome Agreement, the UN further adds that it does not rule out a war crimes tribunal for Sierra Leone. And to further ensure that no mistakes "a la Liberia" are made in Sierra Leone by entrusting democratic transition to dubious African characters and institutions, the UN Security Council has approved a 6,000 man peacekeeping force for Sierra Leone, with the Americans pledging to finance a good part of the operation.
A notable variable in these laudable developments, a driving force, is that Sierra Leone is lucky in one significant respect: the existence in Britain of Tony Blair leading a Labor Government employing morality as a guiding principle in its foreign policy, particularly where its former colonies are concerned. Liberia, on the other hand, was cursed in one significant respect the absence of a big power (similar big brother) interested in the democratic outcome and future of the country since its usefulness ceased with the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the withering of the "Evil Empire" (the Soviet threat). Thus, Liberia's own brand of "peace" and a strange "democracy" that now entrenches the ongoing valid demonization of the country, transforming it into a pathetic gangster-criminal state with serious implications.
But not so with Sierra Leone, based on unfolding events. The efforts by the international community, particularly the Americans, and therefore the UN, is a marked difference from developments and efforts in Liberia that ended in baptizing the perpetrators of the worst atrocities committed yet in West Africa as "democratically elected" leaders with attendant consequences for the sub region.
Admittedly, Liberia's transition from worst to ridiculous cannot all be attributed to the insensitivity of powerful global actors and institutions. This country, ruled by an oligarchy with a confused and selfish political agenda for more than two centuries, significantly made it clear during 1997 elections that it deserved the kind of political leadership it now has. Unlike Sierra Leoneans, many Liberians saw their interests intertwined with those of the perpetrators of the horrors that have driven the country decades back in basic development.
With notable exception, Sierra Leone civil society stood in unison against the rebel political leadership, paying a price for a better alternative regardless of the dangers. Teachers, students, businessmen, etc., refused to cooperate with the ruthless military junta and its marauding rebel allies. But on the contrary, many Liberians lobbied for the rebels' attention and eventual reward in terms of jobs and other material benefits. Many saw Taylor, a man who supervised 95% destruction of health facilities, electricity, water and schools, as their "Moses" who would lead them to a land of glory and plenty, recreating the "good old days".
However, as the Sierra Leone transition unfolds, the mirror with which the global community (including transnational human rights organizations) looks at events, passes judgments and reaches decisions, becomes a matter of concern. Here, the double standards and duplicity of the international community in its handling of the Liberian terror is becoming increasingly glaring for many Liberians as they watch Sierra Leone's gradual emergence for terror planned and imposed from Liberia. Perhaps Liberia's historical ties to America, now the single most important player in world affairs, played a role in legitimizing terror as an effective political tool for several reasons.
First, there are those who contend that many leading Americans rendered judgment on events in Liberia based on the centuries old sociopolitical and economic divide between native Liberians and Americo-Liberians(descendents of freed slaves shipped to Africa in the 1800s by the American Colonization Society). They used this yardstick to see events in the country. Instances include the controversial roles of former President Jimmy Carter and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, prime among prominent Americans who arguably saw reason and morality in Charles Taylor's crusade for political power.
Carter played a prominent role in the Liberian peace process, and on one occasion, he urged the West African peacekeeping force ECOMOG to remove its heavy artillery from Liberian soil as a precondition and appeasement for Taylor to disarm. A few weeks after, Taylor launched his Operation Octopus which sought to defeat ECOMOG and install himself president. Thousands of people were killed and infrastructure destroyed.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, on the other hand, was conspicuously silent throughout the Liberian horrors, but he soon emerged as a key player when Taylor was declared president. He launched a tireless crusade, rumoured to have been financed by Taylor, calling on the brutalized population to reconcile with Taylor since they now had a democracy which, strangely enough, "threw out a dictatorship". Some Liberians recall their failure and frustration in convincing Rev. Jackson to add his moral weight in ending their terror when he demanded a $10,000 fee for a speech they asked him to deliver.
Eventually, however, these Americans, among many others, helped to send conflicting signals to their Government which had already lost interest in the country as the final chapters of the Cold War were closing. The result, in part, was that Washington, which had previously listed Liberia among 12 countries needing special attention (and protection) at the height of the Cold War, failed to play a decisive role in arresting Liberia's decay, a role that Britain is now playing in Sierra Leone with commendable results.
Second, the relegation of the Liberian problem as an African problem led to an "African solution." In this "African solution", we get "African results". The elections propelled by this "African solution", despite all the PR and the burying of pronounced problems( such as the glaring failure of disarmament and irregularities that would have been unacceptable in other societies) made possible by the moral authority of men like Carter in endorsing the process, have given the perpetrators of atrocities a sense of fulfillment and justice. They are convinced, beyond all doubts, about the rightness of their methods in attaining political power. Taylor, when asked in an interview with The New Yorker Magazine after the elections whether the Liberian people had forgiven him, answered "yes; I have forgiven them, too." (Apparently he forgave them for denying him power earlier.)
But as the international community is now waging a moral crusade to see justice done in Sierra Leone, the pivotal question is what about Liberia, a country that has in fact fueled and orchestrated the atrocities in Sierra Leone? And if the level of atrocities is to be the yardstick in determining who gets invited to the UN (as Taylor was through the work of a $300,000 fee reportedly paid to an American PR firm run by a former Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Affairs Herman Cohen) and who faces a war crimes tribunal, then let us look as some facts and figures.
Sierra Leone: Population: about 5 million. Estimated number of persons killed: 20,000. Reported widespread rapes and amputation of civilians.
Liberia: Population: about 2.4 million. Estimated number of persons killed: between 200,000 to 300,000. The United Nations put the number of children killed during the war and related causes at 50,000. Over 1 million children were victimized through violence or participated in violence in themselves, according to the US. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1997. According to Human Rights Watch, out of the 21, 315 combatants disarmed from the estimated 33,000, 4,306 were children. Over 700,000 persons were sent to refugee camps, and about half of them remain there fearing reprisals and insecurity if they return.
There are numerous accounts of summary executions of individuals for their ethnic links or political connections. Torture was widespread and continues. A number of well-planned and executed massacres in which women and children were hacked to death to drive through a political message, were reported. Several political leaders, nearly all of them of African-Liberian origins, were selectively arrested and executed behind National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) lines. Innocent women, children and men were dragged from checkpoints and shot. Women's bellies were split open to determine the gender of a child.
And yet, those who are carrying the torch of justice, as we now see in the case of Sierra Leone, have remained silent on Liberia. This indirect endorsement of terrible crimes can be seen in Washington's dropping of charges against one of the principal perpetrators, Charles Taylor, who escaped from an American prison to lead a vicious war against a regime (Samuel Doe's) to which he belonged and faithfully served until he was wanted on theft charges. Not even the violation of US diplomatic immunity, as made evident when Taylor's security opened fire within US embassy compounds in 1998, has made a difference. It is this silence and tacit endorsement of the atrocities committed for 7 years and beyond that has emboldened the perpetrators to continue committing them with justified impunity. There are numerous examples.
In September 1998, NPFL forces, determined to settle scores with ethnic Krahns who opposed them during the war, attacked a densely populated neighbourhood with mortars, artillery weapons and machine guns, killing about 300 persons, many of them women and children, according the US Department of State 1998 Country Report on Human Rights Practices. Although strong positions were taken against a series of lesser massacres in the former Yugoslavia and now East Timor, there was a remarkable silence from the world community on Liberia, with a UN Secretary General Special Representative in Liberia named Felix Dwones Thomas from The Gambia in fact justifying the massacre and calling for the arrest and extradition of the Krahn leader (Roosevelt Johnson) the Americans flew out of the country. Since then, large numbers of Krahns have refused to be repatriated as long as our "democratically elected" president remains in power.
An opposition politician, his wife and two family members were arrested by President Taylor's bodyguards in November 1997. Their burnt and mutilated corpses were found days later, but the president announced that those who allegedly killed them had escaped from state detention. A market women and critic of the Government was dragged from her home by the president's bodyguards and shot. Those suspected of committing the crime were arrested and released. The President's brother-in-law shot and killed a taxi driver because the man overtook his vehicle. There have been several reported raids on towns and villages by security forces, made up of combatants who killed, maimed and raped during the war. Residents have reported executions and rapes committed by members of these security forces during a number of these raids.
The United States Aid for International Development, in its report release recently, noted the obvious, which is that "warring factions committed serious human rights abuses.. " The report also noted "continued insecurity" in the country with a "difficult environment for aid agencies" due to persistent and widespread looting of their facilities.
The sub regional and continental implications of this double standard and endorsement of terror are now becoming clearer. More than two years after this "democratic" transition, Liberia is being transformed into an enclave for criminal operations. The Washington Post recently detailed criminal activities directed by our "democratically elected" president and his son. These include directing and fomenting the Sierra Leone war, illicit diamond trading through the help of neo-Nazis from Apartheid South Africa and criminals from the former Soviet Union. All these indicate that West Africa, with weak security, economic and political institutions, is deeply in the woods of horror, making reconstruction impossible.
Since the international community and powerful actors within it decided Liberia was different from Rwanda, former Yugoslavia, and now Sierra Leone such cases have become commonplace.
But if a case for war crime tribunal can be made for Sierra Leone, then justice demands evenhandedness. There are those who may see humanity in those that committed astronomical atrocities against the helpless in Liberia, but the facts and figures speak for themselves. This is why Mrs. Albright's statement that, "Ultimately, the only way reconciliation can come is if people have a sense that justice has been done and those who have perpetrated the terrible crimes are punished individually." We can only hope that this will come to pass in the case of Liberia.
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