Global Policy Forum

G.I.'s to Be Sent to Train Africans for Sierra Leone


By Jane Perlez

New York Times
August 8, 2000

In a shift of policy, the Clinton administration plans to send hundreds of American soldiers to Nigeria this month to train and equip West African battalions that will then be dispatched to Sierra Leone to bolster beleaguered government troops and United Nations peacekeepers there.

A senior administration official said the United States had "gone through an agonizing reappraisal" of its policy toward Sierra Leone, where guerrillas of the Revolutionary United Front -- notorious for chopping off the limbs of civilian victims -- are waging war against government forces and in May kidnapped hundreds of United Nations troops. By training regional soldiers to join the United Nations force, Washington hopes to sideline the guerrillas and restore the government of Sierra Leone to effective power, Under Secretary of State Thomas P. Pickering said.

"Our goal is to return the freely elected government to full control of the territory of Sierra Leone and to get the guerrillas demobilized," Mr. Pickering said. Americans will train and equip five Nigerian battalions of 800 soldiers each, one battalion from Ghana and one from a French-speaking West African country, possibly Mali or Senegal, Pentagon officials said. Several hundred Special Forces will be sent from Fort Bragg, N.C., late this month and next month, they said. About 40 trainers are already in Nigeria.

In Congress, where there has been criticism of the administration's lack of engagement in Sierra Leone, the latest decision has been received with relative warmth by Republicans.

"I've long held that there should be a more aggressive posture towards the R.U.F.," said the chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa, Rep. Ed Royce, a California Republican. "This is a substantial change in the administration's commitment to Sierra Leone. It's long overdue."

This move is the latest turn in the administration's diplomacy toward Sierra Leone, a small West African nation that has been torn apart by the guerrilla force, which has seized diamond mines and made a speciality of amputating civilians' limbs.

Last summer, in an effort to end the civil war, the State Department helped engineer the accord reached in Lomé, Togo, which received guarded international approval and brought the leader of the guerillas, Foday Sankoh, into the government, effectively giving an amnesty for his troops' atrocities. In the months after the Lomé accord was signed, the United Nations slowly assembled a peacekeeping force intended to take the place of a Nigerian-led, largely West African force that had recaptured Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, from the rebels early in 1999.

But when the last of the Nigerian troops withdrew in early May, the rebels swiftly overran several positions of United Nations peacekeepers, taking nearly 500 of them hostage. Most hostages were released after negotiations with Charles Taylor, the president of neighboring Liberia, and after Britain, the former colonial power in Sierra Leone, sent troops to help restore order.

The Clinton administration distanced itself from the Lomé accord, saying as other foreign governments did that Mr. Sankoh should be removed from Sierra Leone government. He was captured in May in Freetown, where he remains in custody. But the administration declined to help the United Nations peacekeepers and raised the ire of the United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, by trying to charge expensive rates for the use of Pentagon aircraft to ferry soldiers of other nations to Sierra Leone.

Now, officials say, the administration has switched tack after extensive criticism in Congress and angry exchanges with the British government, which made plain behind closed doors that it felt left alone in Sierra Leone. In part, the new policy has been driven by President Clinton's planned trip to Nigeria -- sub-Saharan Africa's most populous country -- later this month. Administration officials said that Mr. Clinton needed something substantial to announce once he got there and that the president was keen to bolster the new civilian leader of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, as well as to try and turn the tide in Sierra Leone.

Mr. Pickering and the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Richard C. Holbrooke, visited members of Congress last month to explain the plan. Mr. Pickering, a former ambassador to Nigeria, went to Nigeria and other West African countries last month to work out plans for the military assistance. Mr. Pickering told the lawmakers that it would cost more than $50 million but less than $100 million for equipment and the initial stage of training, expected to be completed by the middle of next year, congressional aides said. The equipment for the soldiers is expected to include Belgian FN rifles -- a standard weapon for the Nigerian Army -- as well as mortars and communications equipment, but not heavy artillery or tanks.

The exact duration of the training program is still under discussion, a senior Pentagon official involved in the plan said today. The official said that for the program to be effective, it should be extended over two or three years.

"The worst possible thing would be to create a West African peace enforcement force and then walk away," the official said. "This has to be sustained, and to have a long-term commitment means more money. Congress understands it, but we have a lot more work to do" among lawmakers, the official said.

Condoleezza Rice, chief foreign policy adviser to the Republican presidential nominee, George W. Bush, said the plan to equip and train West African troops was acceptable as long as it was enacted as currently described to Congress.

"The diplomacy was terrible in Sierra Leone," Ms. Rice said. "The United States messed it up. If the Nigerians are willing to take up the role, we would support it. We have always said we would support regional powers, like the Australians in East Timor, if they are willing."

But Ms. Rice cautioned that "consultation with Congress" was vital so that it would be known why the United States was getting involved and for how long.

On Friday the United Nations Security Council strengthened the mandate of the peacekeeping soldiers in Sierra Leone, authorizing them to go after the guerrillas in a forceful way. Already early last month in Sierra Leone, United Nations troops backed by combat helicopters freed a group of unarmed military observers and some 200 Indian soldiers in an unusual battle that took the life of one peacekeeper but caused much higher rebel casualties.

The American move will add about 4,000 troops from Nigeria alone to the United Nations force, which now stands at about 13,000 and is commanded by a general from India. The West Africans will be trained as light infantry, ready to "get off the roads and into the bush," the Pentagon official said.

A major goal for Sierra Leone's government is to reclaim the diamond mines, the official added, so the revenues from diamonds go into the government treasury and not into the kitty of the rebels, enriching their leaders and allowing them to buy guns.

One difficulty in training Nigerian troops is that some soldiers in Nigerian units are thought to have committed human rights abuses in Sierra Leone and at home. A congressional measure, sponsored by Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, forbids the American military from assisting foreign troops that have violated human rights. The Nigerian government has been told to select the units it wants trained by the Americans, the Pentagon official said. The United States Embassy in Nigeria is now checking on the units to "make a reasonable effort," as required under the Leahy legislation, to ensure that soldiers who had violated human rights were excluded from the training, the official said.

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