Global Policy Forum

Sierra Leone Front-Line

May 2, 2001

Abu Bangura was setting off on Wednesday to get into the best new business in town - selling goods across Sierra Leone's front line. Far from being a dangerous venture through land held by rebels with a reputation for brutality, the business is a simple matter of paying his fare on a truck in Freetown and heading up the road.

West African neighbour Liberia faces UN sanctions for supporting the rebels, but most of what they need - except possibly weapons - passes freely through Sierra Leone itself. "The only problem is the charges at the rebels' checkpoints. They are extortionate," Bangura said. "The rebels ask for a lot more money than the checkpoints on this side. There is no harassment, though."

Diesel and petrol, imported rice and sugar, soap and clothing head up the road into territory held by the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF). In the other direction come mangoes, manioc and - in what is an open secret - diamonds. "Koidu, Koidu, Koidu," call the touts in Freetown's commercial district of Kissy, shouting the name of the main town in the Kono diamond mining centre producing gems said to have funded a decade of fighting.

Travellers say dealers buy stones from rebels in Kono which they then either sell officially to exporters in Sierra Leone or smuggle into other West African countries for sale there. "Most of them (the dealers) are from Mali or Gambia," said one traveller who did not want to give his name. "They just blend in with everybody else."

The wheelers and dealers deployed months before UN peacekeepers, who only arrived in the rebel headquarters town of Makeni in April and had yet to set up camp in Kono. Drivers say up to a dozen trucks a day, as well as smaller passenger vehicles, travel to Makeni 175km away and Kono, around 300km from Freetown. The business was made possible by a November ceasefire, which ended an upsurge of fighting after a 1999 peace accord collapsed a year ago and the RUF struck towards Freetown.

Government and rebels were due to meet in Nigeria on Wednesday to discuss the ceasefire in the former British colony, where British troops are helping President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's forces.

The trade has been given a particular boost by the eruption of war last year in neighbouring Guinea, where the rebels used to do much of their business, and Liberia, where fighting against dissidents has cut many old supply routes. Liberia faces UN sanctions from next week for acting as a conduit for RUF diamonds in exchange for guns.

While there is no evidence that weapons could also be going up the road from Freetown to the RUF, there is little doubt that most other needs to the area can currently come not from Liberia but from Sierra Leone itself.

Travellers say rebels - accused alongside former renegade soldiers now with government forces of hacking limbs off women and children - also use the trucks to come to Freetown. "They say they are tired of fighting," said businessman Jubril Mansaray. "Some of them just want to settle down now. One told me he was married now and he wanted to start life again... They are Sierra Leoneans just like us."

More Information on Sierra Leone and Liberia
More Information on Diamonds in Conflict


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.