Global Policy Forum

Sierra Leone Remains a Major Diplomatic Victory

Daily Trust (Abuja)
June 17, 2002
A wealth of diplomatic skills were at play in the effort to resolve the conflict in Sierra Leone. In this interview with Musa Aliyu and Abubakar Jibrin, Ambassador Ralph Uwechue, Special Presidential Envoy (Conflict Resolution) comments on this, and much else.

As a Special Presidential envoy on conflict resolution, can you share with us your experiences in the projection of Nigeria's policy on peacekeeping in Africa?

Thank you very much, you know that the origin of this office of mine actually came from the mandate given to President Obasanjo during the OAU summit in Algiers in 1999 when he was asked to help with settling quarrels in Africa. This was in July 1999, and my office was created in October that year. Ever since, we have been involved in trying to put out conflicts all over the continent.

The principle being that, if we want to have a proper economic edifice for the continent; we have to mould a terrain that is not on fire. You cannot build on terrain that is in a state of anarchy. So we are taking very seriously, the mandate our president got from the OAU, whether it was in the Congo or back in the Southern African region where we were helping to fight the conflict of apartheid in Zimbabwe and South Africa proper, and through ECOMOG in the ECOWAS sub region. There has been an intensification of this effort since President Obasanjo took over, with the creation of my office which focuses much more on conflict management, prevention and resolution.

We have done quite a bit over the last three years.

Can you give us an insight into your role in resolving the Sierra Leonean conflict?

Many people are not aware of the details of what happened in Sierra Leone.

Nigeria, as part of ECOWAS played a pivotal role in restoring peace in Sierra Leone. For 10 years the RUF rebels were fighting with the government of Sierra Leone. When we came on board, the president and I discussed the matter and agreed that this war cannot end quickly if we just rely on the armed forces. So when we went to the OAU meeting in Lome in the year 2000, our president said. "Look I am a soldier." I recalled vividly what I know about guerrilla war-fare throughout the world and resistance to government by armed groups," the most recent of this kind of fighting was the experience of Vietnam where force could not solve the problem. So, we do not believe that we should continue along this line here in our own backyard.

We devised a means different from that. Instead of amassing more weaponry to smash the RUF, we decided to woo them, and get them to know that our position on what they were doing was limited to them opposing an elected government in arms, and that if it were purely democratic and political, they had the right to do so. We called their attention to the fact that President Taylor of Liberia was a rebel who fought until ECOMOG organized elections and he won. The fact that he was a rebel did not disqualify him from winning a free and fair election, and we started explaining to them that such was the line we wanted them to go. But the key to whatever was happening there in Sierra Leone was actually President Taylor, and Liberia's support for the RUF. So we zeroed in on Taylor. President Taylor may have erred, but he controlled these rebels. He was like their manager. If we had got him on the side of ECOWAS, then we would probably have resolved the Sierra Leonean problem. Once this was adopted as a policy we started moving along this line. Within the first twelve months of my being at this job I visited Liberia 16 times - discretely. I think, after about five visits, Taylor calmed down and asked our president to come over. So we organised the visit to coincide with their national day. This was the year 2001, precisely 26th of July. When we got there, after the ceremony which took three to four hours, Taylor produced nine field commanders of the RUF, some of them we didn't even know ever existed. That was the day the breakthrough began. What you see now started on that day. Before then the last contact between the UN troops and the rebels, was when the rebels captured 500 of them, seized their weapons including their soldiers uniforms, 200 boxes of assorted ammunitions, 34 armoured vehicles, and 500 assault rifles. These are not people you dismiss. That was why we decided that we should do it the African way by appealing to them to join in constructing the economy of Africa instead of fighting and destroying themselves. We are still monitoring events, and helping to give advice and encouraging everybody. We do hope that things will continue to roll on as they are already doing.

Given the great role Nigeria played, how do you feel about bodies like the UN, and the EU which have been claiming the credit?

The truth of the matter is that we didn't do everything alone, but we played a crucial role. The ECOWAS, particularly the then chairman, President Konare, was always very supportive, working closely with our president. But we are not very concerned about claiming credit for helping our own brothers and sisters.

Despite the role Nigeria played, there were instances when the Sierra Leonean rebels vented their frustrations on Nigerians, chopping off the hands of Nigerian residents and killing the peace-keepers. Apart from the human losses what other cost did Nigeria incur especially in terms of money?

Yes, to be honest with you, I won't be able to put it in figures. I am not exactly familiar with every detail of what has been spent over the years even before the present government took over. Much of what I know is what we have been doing since President Obasanjo took over, and that is what I've been recounting.

But the important thing is that we are not approaching Sierra Leone and the crises there, as if we are doing it for outsiders. The whole idea of ECOWAS is the enlargement of every member country into one ultimate big corporate body. So, indeed, what we are doing there we are actually doing it for ourselves. Afterall Nigeria is not made up of one homogenous ethnic unit.

For example we have the Hausas in Nigeria and across the border. There are their brothers and sisters in Nigeria. The Fulani people in either Adamawa or Marwa and Garwa in Cameroon or the peoples from Chad or the Yorubas across the borders into Dahomey in the Republic of Benin and so forth. So we are seeing the whole thing more from a range of vision for the future of ECOWAS. So people should not be counting in terms of how much money you put to help a brother or sister and see this as a difficulty, because in the end it is corporate family inheritance for our children if ECOWAS develops into what we have conceived. So we should not look at it as if Nigeria is wasting money or wasting time. We are fighting in our zone to secure our zone and build an economic edifice for the future.

General Victor Malu was quoted as saying that Nigeria lost 800 soldiers, and spent about $5 billion (about N650 billion) during the Liberian crisis. How would you justify such a huge expenditure in a country like Nigeria where there is untold poverty and hardship?

As I said earlier, I am not at all familiar with the statistics. If General Malu said so, obviously he must have figures from which he quoted. But all the same, there is no doubt that we lost many lives fighting these wars, and also the staggering cost interms of money, in weaponry and other logistics provided for the fight. We should not look at it as if it is something that is being done for outsiders. It's being done for our region.

For example if you hear that there is trouble in Badagry or in Borno or Bakassi, Nigerians from every corner would join to go and defend that corner. The man from Sokoto will go and fight in Bakassi or Badagry, because he is a Nigerian, so we are thinking of ECOWAS as a bigger body that belongs to all of us. A kind of expanded Nigeria if you like, or an expansion of all other countries that make up the region. We can speak of an expanded Ghana, expanded Nigeria, an expanded Liberia and whatever. It's important that we get that right otherwise we will begin to think as if we are wasting time.

Assuming you are the head of the family, if you train your younger brothers so that they would be well educated you are not wasting money, it's an extended family. If your money goes to pay the school fees of your younger brother it is not wasted money, it is the larger family that benefits from it eventually, and that boy you are training now would be the uncle of your own son who will take over training your son, when you are not around. So unless it is seen in that order then it would not be possible to view the matter correctly.

Credit goes to our leaders who have foresight which has helped to solve the problems there. General Sani Abacha for instance played a very important role in what happened in Sierra Leone, and even the Sierra Leoneans are saying Nigeria takes the credit for it.

What has been Nigeria's role in resolving the Congolese conflict, given the fact that the conflict has led to loss of many lives and properties, and even defied solutions?

Well, thank you. We have of course, given priority to our region, but we have been involved in other areas. In this case we are talking about the Congo. In this office I have visited the Congo, Kinshasha 11 times. Five times when the old Kabila was in power, and six times in the regime of the young Kabila.

The point I am making here is that we have been involved, usually secretly, and the Congolese have been invited here (Abuja), and the senior Kabila was here before he died. The son has been here. In fact the first trip he made outside the Great Lakes region was to Abuja. That was on April 12 last year. So also Dr. Bemba, and some other leaders of the armed groups have been here to consult with our President. You remember General Aguiyi Ironsi, our first head of state was the head of the UN peacekeeping force in the Congo. President Obasanjo fought as a major in the Congo. So it's not strange that we are intensifying the same effort. We have been involved directly in cautioning and advising.

It is as if there is a similar thing happening in Sudan. Given this kind of situation, don't you think there is greed on the part of the rebels, and therefore accepting their terms may make the role players so cheap such that they would fall into blackmail?

Well, the truth of the matter is that the rebels don't see themselves as rebels. They see themselves as nationalists fighting a cause. Just like the law about hijacking. For example, if somebody takes over a plane and he is armed, usually the fact is not whether he has arrived or not to hijack the plane, but how you can make the plane safe, and save the passengers. That becomes your concern more than the legality of what he or she is doing. So this is how we approach the problem. If, like in the case of Sierra Leone those who were causing trouble were those who were termed as rebels. So we zeroed in on them and got them to disarm. Every other thing is in the interest of the government and the people.

Without breaking any principle, we get those who are recalcitrant to comply with the norms of law and order.

One would have thought that the UN's option is better. Like the case of Charles Taylor, upon whom they had to impose sanctions, because of his role in Sierra Leone and other places, on the question of his support for the rebels.

If two people are fighting, people finally turn to what they possess. If you have a large army and tanks and you move in with tanks, you are now called a terrorist. Somebody who has no tanks will carryout his operation, through may be, a suicide bombing. Everybody has his own interest, you use what you have to fight. What matters in conflict management and resolution is to aim for peace, and to do what is necessary to achieve peace, and dissuade those who want to kill themselves and kill other people, from doing so.

Now there is the fear that peace is still being threatened by fighting around the Mano River. What in your opinion, should be done to prevent trouble from erupting in Sierra Leone and other countries?

I am glad you asked this question. We did not, from this office, neglect the context in which the Sierra Leonean conflict was happening. ECOWAS set up an independent technical committee to study the problems in the Mano River countries, in this case that is Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. It was a sixteen man committee, made up of thirteen soldiers and two civilians. I was the chairman of the committee. The other civilians are jurists from Mali. We spent eighteen days touring the three countries. I got back and wrote a forty one (41) page report and submitted same to the ECOWAS meeting in Bamako in December 2000. I told them the causes of the problem and what should be done to ease the problem.

As you said, Nigeria has been given credit for the role it played in the resolution of the African crises, especially in the areas of conflict prevention and control. But the consequences of conflict in Africa are enormous, and one of them is the refugee crisis. In an interview with the President of Ghana, John Kufuor, he said that Ghana has been over burdened with about 20,000 Liberian refugees. Has Nigeria this kind of problem? What is it doing about it?

Yes, you see there are a lot of people who come into Nigeria and start doing one thing or the other and earning a living and we don't actually call them refugees because luckily for us, Nigeria is so vast that anybody can come in here, that you won't even notice, compared to smaller countries with smaller populations, where if you have two thousand people, you will notice. In Nigeria if a few hundred thousand people come in, you won't even know.

They'll just melt into the population. So it is important for Nigerians and for every African to know that the divisions we have are artificial, and were imposed by outsiders for different purposes. The French, the German, and British at that time wanted their own territories, and they divided these places up.

How would you appraise the efforts of OAU and the UN in solving Africa's crises?

Well, let me tell you that the UN and the OAU have been doing the best they can over the years to help Africa, both in terms of development, and also settling our quarrels, and we are grateful for the help they are rendering.

But the UN is like a father with many many children, Africa is just one unit that makes up the UN. Therefore, the kind of attention we'll get is partial attention. It is a simple as that.

Now that the apartheid problem has been settled, we are gearing up towards settling other quarrels, and thinking and constructing. So, I believe that the AU will do a lot, and it is going to take off soon. We are having a meeting next month. So we hope that more and more attention will be paid.

With all hands on deck there is hope for Africa.

Given the kind of role we've been playing in resolving conflicts outside the country, it is sad that we are witnessing crises inside the country. How can you reconcile these issues since foreign policy is usually a reflection of domestic policy?

Well, the truth of the matter is that Nigeria is a very large country, not just large in size but also complex. We've come a long way. So the crises we are having are being tackled, and we know that over time we'll achieve more and more stability, and the lessons we learn from outside can actually help us inside.

I believe that we have a great future as a country, a very great future. All we need is to learn how to conduct our disagreement with a sense of family.

More Information on Sierra Leone and Liberia
More Information on Peacekeeping

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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.