THE CRISIS IN SIERRA LEONE: THE HEART OF THE
By Masa Washington
Reports of fighting in Sierra Leone between rebel forces of Corporal Foday Sankoh and government troops loyal to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah continue to feature high in world media coverage. As the fighting rages engulfing thousands mainly innocent civilians, many stories of what is taking place vis-a-vis players and actors, villains and victims have emerged. Of the many accounts given, one important element is allegations by many including British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, ECOMOG and US officials that Liberia is fuelling and abetting the carnage in Sierra Leone, an allegation which is repeatedly denied by the Liberian government. But, are these accusations mere allegations or are the accusers looking for a scapegoat?
Liberia has had a long fraternal relationship with Sierra Leone. As close neighbors, both countries share many cultural, economic and social similarities. This bond was sealed in 1973 when the two countries along with Guinea formed the Declaration of the Mano River Union. This document contains therein amongst other provisions, the Non-aggression Pact and Good Neighborliness Treaty. Moreover, since 1990, Sierra Leone has opened her doors to Liberia by hosting thousands of Liberians who fled their home from fighting in Liberia. Allegations therefore that Liberia would stab Sierra Leone in the back may seem farfetched to some, but the reality on the ground proves otherwise.
Knowledge of President Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Party led government's support to rebels in Sierra Leone is an open secret in Liberia. Foday Sankor and his group invaded Sierra Leone in 1991 via that country's south -eastern border with Liberia. At the time of the incursion, residents of villages under siege recalled that some of the rebels were Liberians. The way they dressed, their accent and the mayhem that accompanied their conquest easily identified them. There were also those recognised as "big men" within the fighting forces of the then National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). They included self-styled majors and generals carrying strange names such as, Gen. Mosquito, C. O. Red Devil etc. Foday Sankor was himself very visible in what was known as Greater Liberia, especially between the period 1991 to 1994. As a kind of second home, Corporal Sankor lived for protracted periods as guest of Charles Taylor at Taylor's Gbarnga mansion. Once, reporters visiting Gbarnga from Monrovia, upon their return to the city, published stories of an interview they held with Corporal Sankor.
In May 1997, a Sierra Leone Army Officer Johnny Paul Koroma, staged a violent coup and ousted the democratically elected government of the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) headed by President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, complicating the Sierra Leone problem. In an attempt to reinstate Kabbah and restore democracy to Sierra Leone, full fledge fighting ensued. Eye witnesses again recounting their experiences confirmed that Taylor boys were active in the fighting. A Liberian mother of two, who sought refuge in Sierra Leone at the start of the Liberian war in 1990, returning home in 1997, narrated her ordeal. "The outskirts of Freetown in which I lived along with other Liberian refugees was captured by "our boys" (meaning Liberians). "After they captured the area, they hoisted the Liberian flag and began singing songs in praises of Charles Taylor. When we saw this, we became very terrified" she said.
Having had enough of Johnny Paul Koroma's intransigence to return stolen power, ECOMOG in February 1998 intensified military campaign against him. Koroma along with some of his men fled Freetown for the hills while others looked to their allies. During this period, a helicopter on the run with some of the rebels was arrested by ECOMOG over Liberian airspace. Passengers aboard the plane included, the second in command of Koroma's dismantled ruling Council Government and some Ukrainian mercenaries. When Taylor was informed of the incident, he became furious, threw a tantrum and commanded ECOMOG to turn over the captives to his government. ECOMOG refused. The ensuing weeks saw the Liberian government and ECOMOG engaged in a war of words. The Liberian press reporting on the incident did so at it's own risk. The "Heritage ", a local daily was shut down and its editors arrested for carrying the headline "Who Is the Judas in ECOWAS," an apparent reference to the Liberian government's hypocritical role in the Sierra Leone affairs. It is worthy to note that Liberia is a member of the ECOWAS Committee of Nine on finding a resolution to the crises in Sierra Leone.
In July 1998, President Kabbah met with President Taylor in Abuja, Nigeria in an attempt to rekindle the fragile relationship existing between the two countries. At the end of the dialogue, both delegations announced that everything was on course. However, by the beginning of August to late October, rumors spread like wild fire throughout Monrovia that Taylor's men were undergoing vigorous training for possible assignment in Sierra Leone. Taylor gave a press conference to dispel the rumors. In the same August nonetheless, Sam Bockarie, a rebel commander announced that his RUF forces were launching a campaign of terror against the Sierra Leone government, the kamajors (The Civil Defense Force supporting Kabbah) and ECOMOG, if Foday Sankor now serving term in prison for treason was not released. For many in Liberia, the above incidents were not co-incidental at all. Liberian rebels themselves have confirmed President Taylor's involvement in what is happening in Sierra Leone. Rebels in their ignorance have told tales of their mission and conquest in that country. The Liberian society is a small and inter-related one and word gets around fast. Most incriminating as well is Commander Bockarie's announcement recently that he was ceasing fire for a week beginning Monday 18, January 1999 upon request from President Charles Taylor.
The Liberian leader Charles McArthur Ghankay Dahkpana Taylor is best known for his infamous October 1992 "Operation Octopus" onslaught on Monrovia and its environs, when he rained rockets on over one million civilians in what was seen as the only safe haven in the country at the time. He is also noted for dealing with his enemies drastically and settling old scores. The disappearance and subsequent murders of Samuel Dokie along with four members of his family in 1997 including Dokie's wife and sister by State security guards speak for themselves. Dokie was a crony of Taylor but the two fell out due to alleged policy difference. Sierra Leone stepped on Taylor's toes when that country refused him assistance to fight his war in Liberia. Instead Sierra Leone became an active part of ECOMOG's peace-keeping mission in the country. From the onset of ECOMOG's intervention in Liberia in August 1990, Taylor made it emphatically clear that he did not welcome the force, and proceeded to blame the peacekeepers for flaws in stages of the peace process. Taylor never forgave ECOMOG for not allowing him take the presidency of Liberia by means of force. Moreover, ECOMOG's Headquarters is stationed in Sierra Leone and it was from there that it's jet bombers took off to blast Taylor's numerous arsenals in "Greater Liberia" during the Octopus war. One of Taylor's rivals in the Liberian conflict, the United Liberation Movement (ULIMO), also first attacked the NPFL in 1991 from Bo, a Sierra Leone town west of the boarder with Liberia.
Now that Taylor has legitimate power dashed him by war-weary Liberians as a sort of compromise for peace, he is getting even, regardless of who suffers and expects that he will get away with it. After all, he signed over thirteen peace accords on the Liberian Peace Process and really didn't adhere to any. He has violated countless international laws and treaties including the violation of human rights, the breaking of UN sanctions and OAU embargoes. He continuously defers on promises made under oath to the Liberian people with impunity. At this stage, President Taylor must think himself invincible, the Godfather of the Sub-region, initiating mischief when it suits his purpose. He must be stopped. One man must not be allowed to hold the entire international community at ransom. He must be called to book. The people of the sub-region need neither a cowboy nor a Rambo, and Liberia cannot continue to live in isolation of the international community. It is insufficient to condemn Taylor only by way of mouth. Practical steps must be taken to ensure that he conforms to international standards. This Octopus must be netted and contained. Until a radical approach is adopted in dealing with the situation, the sub-region risks perpetual instability as Taylor spreads his venom. That is the Heart of the Matter.
Editor's note: Ms. Massa Washington is a Liberian Journalist currently visiting East Africa.
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