Sierra Leone peace plan raises fears of anarchy

Warlord to take power in West African state

September 09, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone -- When drunken rebel leaders staggered into a downtown newspaper office recently and slapped around the editor, nobody was surprised. Nobody did anything about it, either, because the attackers could soon be ministers in the country's new government.

The Sierra Leone peace accord, signed July 7 but not yet implemented, stipulates that Revolutionary United Front (RUF) warlord Foday Sankoh will become vice president. His officers have been guaranteed four ministerial positions and his troops, many of whom hacked off the limbs of civilians and raped young girls, have been offered amnesty.

"It's not the sort of thing that makes you think there's a new day ahead," said Paul Karama, the roughed-up editor of For Di People, Freetown's only daily paper. "Everybody is looking for the quick-fix answer to stop the fighting. Nobody cares if it's going to work or not."

And coupled with a similar 1997 agreement in neighboring Liberia for Sankoh's sponsor, warlord-turned-President Charles Taylor, a range of diplomats, analysts and traumatized citizens worry the longtime friends are well placed to spread anarchy into conflicts brewing in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and the Gambia.

"In Sierra Leone and Liberia, the failing African state is becoming the criminal African state," says Conmany Wesseh, director of the Center for Democratic Empowerment in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, and a key member of peace negotiations in both countries. "We are rewarding violence and appeasing those who practice its most vicious forms."

Leonard H. Robinson, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for West Africa in the Reagan and Clinton administrations, says peace accords that put warlords in power set a chilling precedent.

"The agreements seem to show that if you're a rebel commander in the bush and you gain a military advantage, and if you're vicious enough, that you'll be awarded government power," says Robinson. "It's politics by terrorism."

Since 1989 in Liberia, and since 1991 in Sierra Leone, more than 180,000 people have been killed, thousands have been dismembered by machete-wielding rebels and more than 2 million have been chased from their homes. The chaos has devastated the tiny West African states and made them among the world's largest refugee nations.

The fighting also has destroyed the countries' educational, health care and social systems. An estimated 75 percent of their populations are illiterate. There is no electricity in Liberia. Sierra Leone is rated by the United Nations Development Program as the world's least developed country.

Taylor and Sankoh have used teen-age, drugged-out boys as soldiers, nurturing a generation that is uneducated and extremely violent.

According to diplomats who have worked with both men, they employ a similar strategy -- utter brutality on the battlefield, exhaustive delays and wearing-down tactics at the negotiating table.

After more than 15 broken peace agreements, Taylor consented to elections in 1997, when he controlled 80 percent of the country. This allowed him to coerce the population to elect him as president.

"Everyone knew he'd go back to war if he didn't get what he wanted," says Mary Brownell, founder of the Liberian Women's Initiative, an influential activist group. "And what Charles Taylor always wanted was to be president of Liberia. After eight years, people said, `Just let him have it.' "

In Sierra Leone, the 10,000-member Nigerian-led peacekeeping force, the only defender of the elected government after a mutiny by the national army, was unable to stop the RUF. So the government of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah capitulated and promised Sankoh a vice president's post. He can contest elections in two years.

"Sankoh has won the war," says James Amara, of Sierra Leone's National Council for Reconstruction, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction. "He and his men show no sign of remorse. They are perpetually on drugs or alcohol. I would estimate 90 percent of them cannot construct a simple sentence. They need to get the hell out of this country, but they're not because they're about to be running it."

The peace plan is already in shambles. The RUF and its nominal allies, mutinous soldiers from the Sierra Leone Army, have fallen out in recent weeks, with former SLA soldiers taking Western aid workers and even RUF leaders hostage. More than 210 U.N. military observers are supposed to run a disarmament program, but fewer than 60 are on the ground.

Given the turbulence, the war-weary people of Sierra Leone and Liberia say the cycle of war is not yet finished.

Pub Date: 9/09/99

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