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Sierra Leone

VIII. Washington:
The Meanings of Sierra Leone

Story by Steve Coll
Photographs by Michel duCille

Was there really anything the United
States or its European allies could have done


Victims Gallery  
Rebels Gallery  
The Abduction of Helen
A Borderless World
In Mosquito Country
At the Crossroads
The Best Intentions
"We've come to see you..."
Toward Politics
Meanings of Sierra Leone
Among the Wounded

to ameliorate Sierra Leone's violence? Perhaps—and it would not have involved a wrenching decision to put U.S. or NATO soldiers at risk. But it would have required a view of Africa far different from the one that has shaped U.S. foreign policy during most of the last decade.

As U.S. troops withdrew from Somalia six years ago after sustaining casualties on a humanitarian mission, American journalist Robert Kaplan wrote in the Atlantic Monthly an influential essay partially set in Sierra Leone titled "The Coming Anarchy." He described the country as engulfed by "an increasing lawlessness that is far more significant than any coup, rebel incursion, or episodic experiment in democracy," a lawlessness that signaled a world where "criminal anarchy emerges as the real 'strategic' danger," where Africa and much of the rest of the Third World would be marked by "the withering away of central governments, the rise of tribal and regional domains, the unchecked spread of disease, and the growing pervasiveness of war."

Kaplan's thesis that Africa was drifting beyond governance took hold with many members of Congress, diplomats and foreign policy analysts. It seemed to capture their own gathering revulsion and exhaustion with post-Cold War challenges America faced in the Third World, especially in violent corners of Africa. Americans and Europeans watched passively during Rwanda's genocide in 1994, where hundreds of thousands of African civilians died in a killing spree far greater in scale than anything that has taken place in Sierra Leone. President Clinton later expressed pangs of regret. Nine months before the crisis in Freetown, he embarked on a six-country tour of Africa, and he apologized in Rwanda for the West's failure to intervene. But in early 1999, as the rebels entered Sierra Leone's capital and began to butcher civilians, the United States shut its embassy and stood down; among other things, Clinton now had a Senate impeachment trial on his hands.

There was an alternative. By late 1998, Nigeria had already placed thousands of troops in Sierra Leone with support from a broad alliance of African governments. This alliance would almost certainly have battled the rebels indefinitely if the United States and Britain had provided funding, intelligence, communications and weaponry-as they have subsequently pledged to do, on a more limited scale, to support the Lome accord. Nigerian and other African troops fighting from a U.S.- and European-supplied high-technology platform almost certainly could have pushed the RUF out of nearly every major city and town. Not that a military victory would have been certain or inexpensive. Nor would it have necessarily curtailed violence against civilians, as the Kosovo intervention showed. But reducing the RUF to a marginal, defeated force scattered in the bush probably could have been achieved with an all-African intervention army roughly the size of the one that eventually entered Kosovo.

Of course, no such scenario was ever seriously entertained. State Department officials say it was hardly even discussed at the White House. Sierra Leone is probably the last place on Earth in which today's Pentagon would wish to fight. Moreover, the handful of specialists paying attention weren't sure the RUF could be defeated on the battlefield. And the humanitarians in Washington and London who complained about Africa's neglect had little stomach for a military solution. When Tony Blair's government was caught early in 1999 trying to smuggle arms to Kabbah to help him fight the rebels, outrage among liberals in Britain forced the government to apologize and back down.

General Mosquito is dressed for a family portrait.
So instead, the United States and Britain leaned on Sierra Leone's elected president to open peace talks with the rebels just weeks after they had slaughtered thousands in Freetown. The Clinton administration turned the case file over to Jesse Jackson, a special envoy with virtually no bureaucratic clout, a negotiator with a one-peace-fits-all approach. General Mosquito, commanding 10,000 teenagers in the rain forest, discovered that he could bring the world's most powerful military nations to the bargaining table through the selective application of force. "When I ran out of alternatives, I had no choice but to go on the offensive, to use force, which is all they understand," he says. "I had the upper hand—I told them that they had to release Sankoh and go around the table" for settlement talks.

And why would the United States go along with his demands? To secure peace, argues Jackson, but also because an isolationist Congress and an indifferent public meant the United States had no alternative but negotiation. "If we could go in there with half of the Kosovo budget and use that budget as an essential force to democratize, we'd have something to offer," Jackson says. But countries only intervene where public opinion insists or strategic interests are seen to be at stake. "This, of course, is press coverage," Jackson says. "If Americans had seen Sierra Leoneans walking down the street amputated, babies bludgeoned and pregnant women stabbed, Americans would have been as upset over Sierra Leone as they were over Kosovo . . . Part of this thing is putting light on Africa."

Defending the peace negotiations and amnesty plan for the rebels, the architects of the Lome accord cite East Africa's Mozambique as inspiration. There a similar peace agreement persuaded Renamo—a guerrilla group that once terrorized and mutilated civilians—to forswear violence and enter politics. Last month, Mozambique staged its latest successful elections after five years of peace and surging economic growth. Renamo leaders sit in parliament; they have no war crimes tribunals to fear.

But much has changed in the world since Mozambique's peace was forged in 1994. War crimes tribunals have convened for Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Chile's former military dictator, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, has been arrested on torture charges in Britain. And in Kosovo, of course, an entire war was framed in 1999 around the ideas of international humanitarian law.

Sankok supporters
Foday Sankoh's supporters dance in the streets during a political rally in Magburaka.
Now comes a U.N.-sponsored amnesty absolving the RUF and its allies of kidnapping, rape, murder and amputation. "For civil society in Sierra Leone, for civil society in Africa generally, the amnesty shook the concept of accountability to the core," argues Peter Takirambudde, executive director for Africa at Human Rights Watch. "It represented a major retreat by all the parties—the U.N., the Clinton administration, the others. For the rest of Africa, where there are rebels in the bush, the signal is that atrocities can be committed—especially if they are frightening atrocities. The lesson to other rebels is that half measures will not do."

That is certainly the lesson Mosquito has learned. Last month, four weeks after we left his camp, Mosquito reportedly fled Buedu in a spasm of bloodshed. The Nigerian general commanding pro-government forces in Sierra Leone announced that Mosquito had executed eight of his senior aides after accusing them of conspiring against him, and that he had then left the country. In Freetown, Sierra Leoneans initially celebrated. The RUF appointed a new general loyal to Sankoh to command guerrillas in the eastern forests. On December 29, Sankoh held a press conference in the capital. He announced that Mosquito had been fired for insubordination, the BBC reported, and he sharply criticized the peace process. Mosquito surfaced in Monrovia, where Charles Taylor, now president of Liberia, said he hoped to broker a reconciliation between Mosquito and Sankoh. How many men had followed Mosquito? Had Martin Coker stayed with him, or had he been among the executed "conspirators"? The RUF did not say.

There were reports from Liberia that Mosquito would be offered—or forced to accept—a life in exile. But who would enforce such a deal? Reading the confused reports of his retreat from Buedu, I remembered that at several points during our long talks about his future, Mosquito had hinted that if he was forced to break openly with Sankoh, he would simply start his own, new revolutionary movement to carry on the violent struggle. Perhaps this was what he now intended. His countrymen will find out soon enough.

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