Global Policy Forum

Sierra Leone: Peacekeepers Threaten Fragile Peace


By Lansana Fofana

InterPress Service (IPS)
December 9, 1999

Freetown - The hopes of Sierra Leone's 4.5 million war-weary population, regarding the speedy disarmament of an estimated 45,000 ex-combatants, are beginning to dash, as rivalry between the Nigerian-led regional force ECOMOG and United Nations peace-keeping troops, threatens to delay the process. Five months after the signing of a peace deal between the government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and rebel forces, the 6,000 UN troops that were approved by the Security Council to carry out the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (ddr) of the former fighters, are still to be deployed.

Up until now, no more than 300 Indian and Kenyan troops have arrived, and yet the commission for Disarmament still puts Dec 15 as deadline for completion of the DDR exercise. "This time frame is clearly unrealistic given the slow arrival of the UN troops and the low morale of the Nigerians in assisting the UN troops who are unfamiliar with the terrain and psychology of the rebel forces," comments Donald Jarrett, a Freetown-based military analyst.

Jarrett says that the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) are bound to test the mettle of the Indian Gurkhas and Kenyan troops, who would be deployed in their territories. He says: "These troops are entering a dangerous terrain and may be engaging rebel fighters who are best known for committing despicable atrocities".

The Nigerian-led Ecomog force has been giving support to the elected government since it was overthrown in May 1997 by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). It was ECOMOG which launched a military campaign in February 1998 that led to the ousting of the junta and reinstatement of Kabbah's government nine months later. But fighting continued in many parts of the country, with the AFRC teaming up with the RUF to lay waste to most parts of the country, prompting the government to enter into dialogue with the rebels. Even though the Nigerians had a 12,000 strong force within the 15,000-man ECOMOG mission, and provided the bulk of funds and logistics for its operation, which stopped the rebels from over running the country, their role in the new peace-keeping operation is minimal, in fact marginal.

As a compensation for their consistent successful role in Sierra Leone and Liberia, the UN simply co-opted about 2000 Nigerian ECOMOG troops into the new UN force and an additional 700 from Ghana and Guinea who both had troops in ECOMOG. The rest of the UN force is drawn largely from India and Kenya, with an Indian commander Maj-Gen Vijay Jetley in charge. "I think it is unfair that a Nigerian is not put in charge of the UN troops even though Nigeria was pivotal in containing the escalating violence and the rebel menace," remarks Nigerian-born Maj-Gen Gabriel Kpamber, the current ECOMOG force commander. Kpamber adds though: "We (ECOMOG) will co-operate fully with the UN force to demobilise and disarm the ex-combatants."

Sierra Leoneans generally hold the Nigerian ECOMOG force in high esteem for their sacrifices in protecting civilian lives and property from rebel carnage. And so the idea of bringing in mostly troops from India and Kenya, is one that they hardly accept. "We are no fools. This is Western hypocrisy and duplicity at its highest; for how on earth would the UN marginalise the Nigerians who are our saviours?," rants Baindu Sillah, a school teacher in the capital Freetown. Isata Jawara, a clerk at a Freetown commercial bank, says: "I know that the whole arrangement is a quick-fix one and no sooner an Indian or Kenyan gets killed, the UN pulls out its troops and leaves us at the mercy of the brutish rebels." Although the ECOMOG force will not fizzle out, according to the July Lome Peace accord, no more than 1,000 would remain "to protect the state of Sierra Leone," a development which analysts say is the start of the systematic demise of the once professional and highly respected regional force.

Clearly, morale among the Nigerian troops in ECOMOG has considerably waned, and this appears to have given armed rebels in the countryside strength and coverage to continue atrocities against civilian populations. The coming days will be most challenging and dangerous for the implementation of the peace deal. More than 150,000 people have been displaced, and thousands killed, in Sierra Leone since the conflict erupted there in 1991.

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