Global Policy Forum

Lessons of Sierra Leone Intervention


Africa Law Today

May 19, 1998

The use of a multi-national military force in Sierra Leone to reinstall the nation's elected government has renewed the debate about the nature and goals of such operations. Should they take sides? Should they impose military solutions when diplomatic efforts fail? Earlier this year, a peacekeeping force from the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, overthrew the Sierra Leone regime of Major Johnny Paul Koroma and reinstalled president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. However, the fall of the Koroma government has not ended the fighting in Sierra Leone or the suffering of its people.

Despite recent setbacks, rebels remain active in Kono, a diamond producing region in the eastern part of the country. The United Nations refugee agency announced that sixty-five thousand refugees had fled rebel-controlled areas of Sierra Leone in March. The new fighting comes after a brutal war in the early 1990's in which more than 10,000 people were killed in this nation of 4 million. President Kabbah, a retired United Nations official, had been elected in a multi-party election in 1996. His government was overturned by Major Koroma last May in a military coup. Koroma organized the revolt from a government jail cell where he was awaiting trial on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. After seizing power, Koroma immediately suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament and banned political parties.

He also invited representatives from the Revolutionary United Front, a rebel group formerly led by Libyan- trained warlord Foday Sankoh, to join the ruling Armed Forces Revolutionary Council . Until 1996 Sankoh's militia had been the primary opponent of the Sierra Leone army. And at the time of the coup, Sankoh was in prison in Nigeria for gun running. Under pressure from other West African states, Major Koroma and the Council agreed to disarm their forces and join a government of national unity under the supervision of a joint ECOWAS military force. The intervention force known by the acronym ECOMOG, short for Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group is comprised chiefly of Nigerian troops, supported by two Nigerian gun boats and units of the Nigerian air force. The contingent also contains troops from Ghana and Guinea. It had been in the country since before the coup, but had been reinforced by the Nigerians after Koroma took power.

When coup leaders failed to adhere to the terms of the peace accord, fighting broke out between the ECOMOG forces and troops loyal to Koroma, who was demanding the immediate release of Foday Sankoh by Nigeria, a halt to the disarmament of the Council's forces, and continued rule by the Council until at least 2001. Koroma's troops were ousted from Freetown and President's Kabbah's regime was reinstated by the ECOMOG forces. But as of this writing Major Koroma remains at large, and the Sankoh's RUF militia remain active in the countryside.

ECOMOG forces have also been involved in controversial peacekeeping operations in Liberia, where complaints about profiteering by its Nigerian commanders have led Monrovians to bitterly joke that ECOMOG means "Every Car or Moving Object Gone." Foreign critics charge that political and business interests in Nigeria also have used ECOMOG to encourage new rebel factions in that nation, and to profit from their arms trade. When ECOMOG troops entered Liberia in 1990, among the forces were, ironically, units from Sierra Leone, some of whom still remain in Monrovia. ECOMOG forces were initially deployed to prevent Liberia from being taken over by rebel Charles Taylor, another brutal warlord with Libyan connections, for whom Foday Sankoh fought before moving on to Sierra Leone. But ECOMOG later reached an accommodation with Taylor. This past summer Taylor won the first Liberian presidential election since 1985, but questions remain about Taylor's commitment to democratic rule.

Critics of ECOMOG argue that it remains an unsatisfactory model for future African and other international peacekeeping forces. Both its Sierra Leone and Liberian interventions raise questions as to the long- term effectiveness of ECOMOG activities and the motivations of some of the peacekeepers. In Sierra Leone ECOMOG has managed to reinstate a popularly elected regime. But until that government has effective means of defending itself, it will remain vulnerable to the various armed political factions in the country that wish it ill. The Sierra Leone episode underlines the critical need for democratic regimes to quickly create professional armies that operate within international norms. The poorly trained, poorly paid and poorly led Sierra Leone army was easily turned into a coup instrument by Major Koroma. The ECOMOG force did not prevent Major Koroma's rebellion. And the restored Kabbah government has declared a state of emergency and imprisoned its political opponents without trial. It has also failed to release the names of those detained by ECOMOG.

The first step to ensuring the viability of elected regimes is to provide them with the means to protect themselves against armed opponents. Such protection is best provided by immediately training effective domestic forces, rather than by depending on international peacekeeping groups. In training professional armies, it is not necessary to rely solely on instructors from standing armies seconded to international duty. Both Croatia and Bosnia have used private companies effectively to help train their armed forces. In many ways, Executive Outcomes, the South African military consultants -- some would call them mercenaries -- were more effective in suppressing rebel factions than ECOMOG has been. (Kabbah ordered EO out of Sierra Leone after his election.)

Ultimately, a "peacekeeping" force that attempts to impose a resolution against the will of one side or the other becomes a participant in the proceedings. This role can provide an opportunity to end a war, or to make a bad situation worse, which is why peacekeepers, like doctors, should first strive to do no harm.


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