Making sense of a senseless war.

Author:Pham, J. Peter
Position:Critical essay


A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone by Lansana Gberie. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005.

Young Soldiers: Why They Choose to Fight by Rachel Brett and Irma Specht. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005.

A "Senseless" War

In a report on the United Nations-supervised disarmament process in Sierra Leone, veteran Washington Post correspondent Douglas Farah described the pathos of the ragged Revolutionary United Front (RUF) fighters: many were barely into their teens, straggling into a processing center in the diamond-rich eastern district of Kono with little more than ill-fitting rags draped over their emaciated bodies (Farah 2001). There was little evidence that these broken youths had, just a short while earlier, been part of one of the most brutal and effective insurgencies in the world, one whose strategy was predicated on terror in its most primordial expression. Farah's piece was headlined, "They Fought for Nothing, and That's What They Got," a succinct description of a conflict that struck many as senseless, despite its heavy toll in lives and property.

Founded by a group of British philanthropists in 1789 as a haven for freed black slaves, (thus the name of the capital, "Freetown") Sierra Leone boasts of being one of the oldest modern polities in Africa. The foundation in the colony of the oldest university-level institution in sub-Saharan Africa, Fourah Bay College, in 1827 made it the "Athens of West Africa," the alma mater of countless African leaders. By the time Sierra Leone achieved its independence in 1961 under the leadership of Sir Milton Margai and the Sierra Leone People's Party, it had inherited as its legacy a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy that was the envy of the region. This especially was the case after the general elections of 1967 constitutionally handed the reins of government over to the opposition All Peoples' Congress (APC), led by Siaka Probyn Stevens.

Unfortunately, like all-too-many African leaders of his generation, Stevens was more interested in consolidating his personal power than in state-building. In short order, he set about turning Sierra Leone's parliamentary democracy into a highly-centralized presidential republic and, by 1978, completed the country's transformation into a one-party state when a farcical referendum made his machine the only legal political organization. Perhaps even worse than what Stevens did to the political system was what he did--or, as the case may be, failed to do--with Sierra Leone's economy. Upon entering office, Stevens had inherited a sound, if poor, economy based on diamond and iron mining as well as agriculture (primarily coffee and cocoa production) that expanded between 1965 and 1973 at the respectable, if not particularly stellar, annual rate of 4 percent against an annual population growth rate of 1.9 percent. Unfortunately, the 1973 global oil crisis coincided with a decline in diamond and iron ore prices, creating a deficit in Sierra Leone's international balance of payments. The conventional response to such an economic downturn would have been to cut public spending and devalue the national currency in the short term and, over time, attempt to diversify exports. Instead the Stevens regime did the exact opposite, opting to finance the deficit by borrowing from the central bank--effectively, printing money--as well as from international governmental and commercial institutions and extending state control of the economy. Not surprisingly, inflation went through the roof, averaging 50 percent per annum in the 1980s where it had been 2.1 percent between 1965 and 1973. The annual rate of growth dipped to an average of 0.7 percent between 1980 and 1987, before going into negative figures (Chege 2002).

Dwindling revenues, compounded by governmental corruption and profligate spending on nonessential "prestige projects," accelerated the sharp economic decline. Sierra Leone went from being the model for democratic governance and economic prosperity to being the exemplar of Africa's post-colonial "neo-patrimonial" malaise whereby national resources were redistributed as "marks of personal favor to followers who respond with loyalty to the leader rather than to the institution that the leader represents" (Richards 2002: 34). In no sector was this more evident than in Sierra Leone's fabled diamond industry. Before the APC took over, the diamond trade constituted one-third of national output and contributed over 70 percent of Sierra Leone's foreign exchange reserves. By the mid-1980s, less than $100,000 worth of the precious mineral passed through legal, taxable channels. Most of the rest was appropriated by Stevens and a coterie of his closest associates, who also embezzled profits and other assets from various state enterprises, including the oil and rice monopolies (Hayward 1989).

Having looted an estimated $500 million and leaving a balance of barely $196,000 in foreign reserves in the Bank of Sierra Leone on the day he left office (Pham 2005a), Stevens retired in 1985, designating the army chief, Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh, as his successor (armed with Stevens's endorsement, Momoh's accession was duly "ratified" by a plebiscite in which he claimed to have won 99 percent of the vote). Unfortunately for Sierra Leone, Momoh proved to be not only more corrupt than his predecessor, but an even more incompetent captain of the ship of state. Sierra Leone's straitened circumstances fed a vicious cycle of political, economic, and social lethargy. As one former United States ambassador to Sierra Leone, John Hirsch, observed:

Unpaid civil servants desperate to keep their families fed ransacked their offices, stealing furniture, typewriters, and light fixtures ... One observer has noted that the government hit bottom when it stopped paying schoolteachers and the education system collapsed. Without their salaries, teachers sought fees from the parents to prepare their children for their exams. With only professional families able to pay these fees, many children ended up on the streets without either education or economic opportunity (Hirsch 2001: 30). Bereft of the resources which "typical" neo-patrimonial regimes exploit to provide their clients with jobs and educational opportunities, Sierra Leone's lost its base of support and began to unravel altogether at the very moment when contracting services and collapsing infrastructure left the Sierra Leonean state itself most vulnerable to attack. The coup de grace came in the form of a spillover from the civil war in neighboring Liberia, a country whose history has unfolded along parallel lines with that of Sierra Leone since the former's foundation as a haven for freed slaves from the United States. Liberian warlord (and later president), Charles Taylor, had initially wanted to launch his insurgency from Sierra Leone and had traveled to Freetown in 1988 where he offered to pay Momoh for permission to operate out of bases in the country's east. However, as Stephen Ellis succinctly observed in his study of the Liberian civil conflict: "The notoriously venal Momoh promptly sought from [then Liberian president] Samuel Doe a higher sum, turning the approach into an auction, an action for which his country was later to pay dearly" (Ellis 1999: 70-71).

To make matters worse, just as Taylor was on the verge of victory in early 1990, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decided to intervene in the Liberian conflict with its own military "monitoring group" (ECOMOG). Momoh not only permitted ECOMOG to use his country's major international airport at Lungi, near Freetown, to bomb areas in Liberia controlled by Taylor's rebels, but sent Sierra Leonean units to join the intervention force. Taylor never forgave the Sierra Leonean ruler. On March 23, 1991, Foday Saybana Sankoh, a charismatic former Sierra Leonean army corporal, (1) invaded eastern Sierra Leone from Liberia. Sankoh, supported by Taylor, issued a call for anti-government uprising in the name of the previously unknown "Revolutionary United Front."

The RUF, originally a diminutive force consisting only of several dozen disaffected rural youth to whom Sankoh had promised free education and medical care, and who, in turn, hailed him as "Papa," ostensibly fought for a redress of the iniquities of Sierra Leonean society. The APC regime had been exploiting the rich diamond resources for the benefit of its elite, even as the living standards in the country sunk to the very bottom of international scales. Instead, as they sent the government's forces reeling and quickly seized control of most of the eastern part of the country, including the diamond fields, the rebels themselves soon became a by-word for terror; they routinely amputated the limbs of civilians as a terror tactic, raped women and girls, and abducted young boys to fill their ranks and young girls to "marry" to their fighters--inspiring, together with the conflict in Liberia, Robert Kaplan's celebrated Atlantic Monthly essay, "The Coming Anarchy." (2)

In April 1992, a group of soldiers on leave in Freetown from the fighting on the front, led by a 27-year-old captain named Valentine Strasser, overthrew President Momoh. The coup was actually popular at the time as most Sierra Leoneans had grown disgruntled with the APC's corrupt and ineffectual rule. The current president of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, then a senior official with the United Nations Development Programme, even offered his services to the young putschists and was appointed the chairman of their national advisory council. Strasser, however, formed a military junta that grew increasingly despotic in its turn, thus shifting popular momentum to the RUF; they not only seized control of the diamond fields, but subsequently also took the iron mines, the other major source of state revenue for the Freetown...

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