Global Policy Forum

Internal Disputes Mar UN Mission

Washington Post
September 10, 2000

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, the largest such operation in the world, has become paralyzed by infighting among its top officials and has failed to halt new waves of human rights violations--including abductions and rapes--by the country's armed factions.

The deep divisions in the U.N. mission were described in interviews with diplomats and U.N. officials in Freetown, the capital, and dramatized in an unusually blunt and angry memo written by Maj. Gen. Vijay K. Jetley, the Indian commander of the 13,000 U.N. troops dispatched to bring peace to this badly bruised West African country.

In bitter terms, Jetley accused his deputy commander, Gen. Mohammed Garba, and the U.N. secretary general's special representative, Oluyemi Adeniji, both of whom are Nigerian, of undermining the U.N. mission and of insubordination. He also alleged that Nigerian officers had secret contacts with the main Sierra Leone rebel group, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), which, he implied, led them to profit from the illegal diamond trade.

In his memorandum, which has circulated among diplomats here, Jetley wrote that Adeniji and Garba believe "keeping the Nigerian interests was paramount even if it meant scuttling the peace process." Jetley also wrote that the "Nigerian army was interested in staying in Sierra Leone due to the massive benefits they were getting from the illegal diamond mining" and that Adeniji and Garba "have worked hard to sabotage the peace process and show Indians in general and me in particular in a poor light."

The two officers denied the charges. But the memo, which Jetley has acknowledged as authentic, has so divided the U.N. leaders here that they barely speak to each other and give conflicting commands, leaving the mission adrift in recent months, U.N. officials and diplomats said.

As a result of the lack of direction, they said, the force is stationed almost exclusively in a few heavily armed camps near the country's main cities of Freetown, Bo and Kenema, with a few battalions stationed along the main east-west highway from Kenema to Freetown. To the dismay of residents here, U.N. forces rarely patrol beyond their bases, and the Kenema-Freetown highway has been closed down repeatedly in the past week by armed groups who rob and kidnap travelers at illegal roadblocks. The road is vital to keeping the capital region supplied with food and the eastern region supplied with fuel and other goods.

"We have tanks, we have six helicopter gunships, we have 13,000 troops, and we can't keep one main highway open," said a U.N. military observer. "We don't fly our helicopters, we don't patrol, and the troops sleep at checkpoints, where everyone can see them. If we can't even open the road, then what are we doing here?" That is a question that is increasingly being asked by the government, diplomats and U.N. officials about the $1.5 million-a-day mission.

U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has said repeatedly that the Sierra Leone mission is a test of the United Nations's ability to deal with challenges in the new millennium. And improving peacekeeping missions was a focus of the heads of state who met at U.N. headquarters for the Millennium Summit this week.

But conditions here seem far removed from the lofty goals proclaimed in New York.

The Sierra Leone mission was humiliated this summer when RUF rebels captured 500 armed peacekeepers, along with more than a dozen armored personnel carriers, hundreds of weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. The hostages were eventually freed, and Adeniji said the United Nations learned several lessons from the crisis.

"We have come to realize the sedate atmosphere for classic peacekeeping didn't exist and doesn't exist," Adeniji said in an interview. "We misjudged fundamentally in the way we deployed. We were easy targets. We are trying to tighten things up internally, and things will improve. The secretary general is aware there is no way we can make do with 13,000 troops, so he is recommending increasing the force level to 20,000."

With the additional troops, Adeniji and others said, the United Nations could begin to redeploy across the country, including many bases that have been abandoned since the summer crisis.

The mission here began following a peace agreement signed July 7, 1999, between the government and the RUF that was to end nine years of civil war during which the RUF kidnapped thousands of children and turned them into combatants, carried out systematic rape of women and hacked off the arms and legs of hundreds of civilians. The agreement called for the RUF to disarm in exchange for a share of political power, but the rebels refused to do so in diamond mining regions. In May, they began taking U.N. peacekeepers hostage and plunged the country back into civil war.

The war, according to intelligence and military sources, is currently in a lull because of heavy rains and the fact that the army and the RUF have run short of food and ammunition and are waiting to be resupplied. Intelligence sources and relief workers said almost all RUF raids in recent weeks have been aimed at gathering food because rebel troops are going hungry.

But Corrine Dufka of the New York-based group Human Rights Watch and other human rights workers said that the human rights situation has deteriorated greatly since the May U.N. crisis and that the most common abuses are kidnappings and rapes by the RUF and various pro-government militia groups. Many of the reported incidents occur along the Kenema-Freetown highway that U.N. forces have been unable to clear of armed gangs.

The U.N. force, called UNAMSIL, was brought in to replace a Nigerian-led West African force that fought the RUF during the war. But several Nigerian battalions stayed on as part of the U.N. mission. U.N. officials said that from the beginning, the Nigerian government and military wanted a Nigerian to command UNAMSIL, but agreed to an Indian commander in exchange for a Nigerian deputy and a Nigerian to represent the secretary general.

Coupled with the personality conflicts that arose between Jetley and the Nigerian contingent, that tension set the stage for the current split, U.N. officials said.

But other rifts hamper the mission as well. When the U.N. contingent began to crumble this summer, Britain, the former colonial power here, dispatched some 1,000 troops to help drive the RUF back. About 200 British troops remain to train government troops, and British officers hold senior advisory positions in the Defense Ministry.

While the United Nations is anxious to reestablish a peace process that would include the RUF, British officials acknowledge that they want to see the RUF defeated.

This rift has grown since 11 British military trainers and a Sierra Leonean soldier were taken hostage late last month by a militia called the West Side Boys. The gang, known for heavy drinking, lack of discipline and use of amphetamines, until recently had been fighting against the RUF on behalf of the government.

While the West Side Boys released five hostages last week, they continue to hold the others and issue endless demands: a share of government power, scholarships to study abroad, amnesty, freedom for two of their captured commanders and integration into the army.

The area where the British were kidnapped is controlled by a Jordanian U.N. battalion based in the strategic crossroads of Masiaka. Before the kidnapping, there were numerous witness accounts and written intelligence reports that the West Side Boys were setting up roadblocks, abducting civilians and robbing buses along the main highway from Masiaka to Freetown. Nevertheless, U.N. officials acknowledged, the Jordanian troops were providing the gang with fuel, food and medicine.

According to witness accounts to human rights groups and written intelligence reports to U.N. officials, many of the incidents took place within a few hundred yards of Jordanian checkpoints and well within areas they were supposed to be patrolling.

The U.N. spokeswoman here, Hirut Befecadu, said that while such incidents may have occurred, they did not occur within sight of the Jordanians. She stressed that U.N. forces are there to preserve peace, "not wage war against anyone." She said that the gifts were necessary to build confidence and that as a result of contacts with the Jordanians, more than 200 members of the group have demobilized.

But the fraternization has angered the British. Tensions have risen further since new intelligence reports that the West Side Boys in recent days have been allowed to pass through the Jordanian checkpoints in the very vehicles they stole from the kidnapped British troops.

Garba, the deputy U.N. commander, said in an interview that under the U.N. mandate here, the Jordanian battalion is only compelled to act if civilian lives or they themselves are threatened.

"The Jordanians believe the West Side Boys are just like other militias within the borders of Sierra Leone that are not for now forced to disarm because disarmament is voluntary," Garba said, indicating that although he could order the Jordanians to be aggressive, he has no plans to do so.

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