The news has come through towards the end of December that the rebel army of Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front has made tremendous headway in taking control of vast areas of the country and is now threatening its capital, Freetown. Its avowed aim is once more to overthrow the regime of imperialist minion, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, and establish a government able and willing to rebuild Sierra Leone as an independent economy, capable of providing a reasonable standard of living to its 4.4 million people.
The forces of the Revolutionary United Front are depicted in the imperialist press as wanton terrorisers of innocent civilians, murdering, looting, raping, maiming everywhere they go, consigning little babies to the flames of their family’s burning houses and inflicting horrible injuries on others with their dreaded machetes. All this is designed to give the impression that imperialist intervention on the side of Kabbah is meant to save the country from savagery and give it hope for a secure future.
The truth is that it is imperialism that has plunged Sierra Leone, like many other countries in the third world, into conditions of unbelievable savagery, from which the people of Sierra Leone, led by the RUF, are fighting to free themselves. To the extent that brutality and savagery are perpetrated, it is the minority of imperialist puppets who are using it to try to terrorise the overwhelming majority of the population into submission, a fact acknowledged, for instance, by the
of 17 December, which is forced to admit that Kabbah’s militia
“called kamajors, have committed excesses, and their role complicates any effort to negotiate with the rebels “
Background to the civil war
Let us look at a few of the facts about Sierra Leone. One person who knows the country well is Yusuf Hassan, public information officer for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Southern Africa, who wrote in the South African Mail and Guardian of 30 May 1997 (following the RUF’s successful deposition of Kabbah, later returned to power by imperialist intervention):
“Last Sunday’s coup d’état shocked the world. But any serious observer of Sierra Leone would have seen it coming.
“For years the people of Sierra Leone have been saddled with a plundering élite and maladroit regime, which left what was once a thriving nation in ruins.
“Five years ago, the anger of the poor and marginalised boiled over, plunging the country into a bloody civil war “
It will be noted that Mr Hassan is blaming local kleptocrats for the devastation of the country, rather than imperialism, but more on that question anon. For the moment, let it be noted that living conditions in Sierra Leone for the masses of ordinary people had become intolerable. The average food consumption is only 88% of FAO recommended minimum requirements. The effect on the quality of life is predictable: life expectancy is only 42 for men and 45 for women, while infant mortality is 166 per 1,000 live births – i.e., more than 3 children in every 20 do not survive infancy. 64% of the population over 5 have had no formal schooling whatsoever. The average household has the equivalent of £4 a week to live on, which, again on average, has to provide for 6 or 7 people. Only 53% of the population is `economically active’, i.e., have some way of earning a living.
These are not conditions fit for human beings, which is why Sierra Leone’s civil war has been raging for so many years.
Imperialist puppet overthrown
The war broke out initially in 1992, when the military regime of Col. Valentine Strasser was in power. Once it was clear that the government was going to lose the civil war, British imperialism stepped in to preserve imperialist interests in the area. £2 million of British taxpayers’ money was spent in rigging up an `election’ and securing the victory of Kabbah, a man who could be trusted to `safeguard’ imperialist interests. Yusuf Hassan continues:
“Once these elections were over, it was business as usual for Sierra Leone’s élite and its Western backers. No provisions were made for the eradication of poverty or for the reconstruction of the shattered infrastructure.
“Instead the new government called in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which were quick to impose their discredited structural adjustment programme. The poor continue to wallow in their misery.”
Not having gained what they were fighting for, the Revolutionary United Front went right on fighting, and a year later, in May 1997, Kabbah was deposed and replaced by Major Johnny Paul Koroma. He, however, had little opportunity to implement a plan of reconstruction as throughout his 10 months in office, his government was under strong imperialist pressure to give way in favour of Kabbah’s return. This pressure took the following forms:
(1) Troops from Nigeria and Guinea, under the umbrella of ECOMOG, were dispatched to Sierra Leone to fight on the side of whatever forces could be mustered to oppose the government. These were not many – the only substantial group being the kamajors, warriors of the southern based Mende tribe, as well known for their brutality as for their lack of discipline. In addition, British mercenaries were dispatched to the scene, mostly ex-SAS men.
(2) A resolution was rushed through the United Nations putting an arms embargo on Sierra Leone. The idea was that Johnny Paul Koroma’s government should have no weapons to defend itself against ECOMOG troops and mercenaries. These would not be affected by the arms embargo, since their weapons would come with them from Nigeria.
(3) A barrage of vilification propaganda asserting the commission of atrocities was mounted in the imperialist press, to convince any wavering elements not to oppose imperialist interference in Sierra Leone’s internal affairs.
Under this pressure, Koroma’s government could not carry out any of the reforms Sierra Leone so badly needed, and it was pressured out of office to make way for the return of Kabbah in April this year. But still the war continued, for the people of Sierra Leone had not gained the type of government they so badly need. ECOMOG troops remained behind in Sierra Leone to support Kabbah’s government, but so strong is popular feeling against him that the armed struggle to depose him has become stronger than ever.
There has been little news of this in the press, partly no doubt due to British imperialism’s reluctance to advertise the total failure of its attempts to impose its will on an impoverished country of a mere 4.5 million inhabitants, and partly because Kabbah himself is throwing into prison any journalist who dares write anything suggesting that the government side is losing the civil war. For instance, according to Sierra Leone News Archives on Sierra Leone Web,
“Kabba Kargbo, a freelance journalist with the independent `Pathfinder’ newspaper, was arrested in Freetown Tuesday afternoon
by Criminal Investigation Department (CID) officers and transported to CID headquarters. The arrest came shortly after Kargbo told the BBC’s `Focus on Africa’ programme that he had witnessed Saturday’s attack on Waterloo, and said that the rebels appeared to be militarily superior to ECOMOG.”
Notwithstanding the news blackout, as long ago as 29 July the US newspaper, the
Christian Science Monitor,
was already warning that ECOMOG had
“begun to lose ground to the rebels”
despite the $3.9 million contributed this year by the US
“to help the peacekeepers” (An Invisible War in Africa,
by N Scott and L Thompson). More recently, the
of 17 December notes that
“ECOMOG has deployed roughly 10,000 troops in towns across much of the country. But for months it has made no lasting advance against the rebels.”
At the time of writing, the rebels are threatening to attack the capital Freetown at the New Year unless genuine peace negotiations are initiated with the RUF.
In the meantime, in a fruitless effort to try to crush the rebel movement, Kabbah has put on trial soldiers and civilians involved in the seizure of power by Koroma in May 1997. The trials have been quite farcical, with the defendants denied all rights of appeal. 24 such defendants were executed by firing squad in October, leading to an outcry from human rights groups who pointed out that their trial had been unfair and that they had been deprived of a right of appeal, contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Kabbah’s government ratified in 1996. Since then many other defendants have been sentenced to death, including the leader of the RUF, Foday Sankoh, extradited from Nigeria. Far from intimidating the rebels, these acts of vindictiveness have strengthened them in their determination to overthrow the puppet Kabbah regime.
The fighting in Sierra Leone is not about whether that country enjoys parliamentary democracy or languishes under military dictatorship, as the imperialist media would have us believe. It is about who controls Sierra Leone’s considerable wealth, in particular its huge deposits of gold, diamonds, bauxite, rutile (titanium ore) and iron ore. The country’s mines produce £80 million’s worth a year. Obviously, that could be a great deal more. In addition the country produces cocoa and coffee. Minerals, cocoa and coffee make up the bulk of its exports, and those who control these economic activities, principally US and European imperialism, make millions in profits.
Profits are also made by imperialist concerns who export to Sierra Leone, mostly food, fuel, chemicals and machines. Here the lion’s share of profits go to US imperialists, providing Sierra Leone with goods to the value of some £50 million annually, as compared to less than half that amount supplied from Europe.
Another major source of imperialist profit is, of course, debt servicing. Sierra Leone’s imports cost it over three times what it earns from its exports. It has to borrow to cover the deficit, and has being doing this for years. The result is a government debt of $1 billion, the servicing of which absorbs 11.3% of the government’s annual budget (compared to 8% spent on education, 4% on public health).
Imperialism is interested in a government in Sierra Leone which will keep this loot flowing, and indeed increase it. The people of Sierra Leone, on the other hand, actually need a government which will refuse to pay this tribute and will restore the country’s self sufficiency. With all the natural riches Sierra Leone possesses, there is no reason, other than its subjection to imperialist interests, why its people should be so poor.
Let Sierra Leone decide its own future
The past few months have shown that Sierra Leone will no longer tolerate a government servile to foreign interests. The people of Sierra Leone must be left to decide for themselves what kind of government to have. Whatever problems they might have, it is not for outsiders to interfere. They must be allowed to sort them out for themselves. ECOMOG troops and any remaining mercenaries must withdraw immediately. Genuine peace negotiations must be instituted.
Notwithstanding the rebels’ victories and the fact that they control such large areas of the country now, the government of Sierra Leone is still engaged in pig-headed refusal to countenance peace negotiations and ECOMOG is attempting to regain the lost ground by sending in reinforcements from Nigeria. There are signs, however, that US imperialism is seeking to explore the possibility of reaching agreement with the rebels, since it is US imperialism which largely foots the bill of what is turning out to be the futile effort to extinguish the rebel movement – a bill which cuts a large hole in the profits it extracts from the country. Hence
“in Freetown last month, Jesse Jackson, a Clinton administration special envoy to Africa, has been publicly pressing Kabbah to open talks with the rebels,”
of 17 December (James Rupert: `Conflict Crosses Borders in W Africa’). If the RUF is admitted to peace negotiations, however, those who negotiate with them should be under no illusion that people who have fought a 7-year guerrilla war in the most arduous conditions are going to be satisfied with any formula that keeps in place the imperialist stranglehold over the country’s economy. Serious negotiations will be those which offer the people of Sierra Leone genuine scope to develop their country, something imperialism would never allow unless military pressure is maintained.
The workers of Britain must extend their support to the people of Sierra Leone fighting for a better life. No doubt the millions of pounds extracted from Sierra Leone’s hungry and impoverished masses contribute towards a higher standard of living in this country But can we in all honesty and common decency be party to the plundering of people who have so little? If the British people want higher standards of living, they should fight for socialism rather than collude in the plundering of the world’s poor.
As we go to print, the news has just come through that the revolutionary forces have regained control of most of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. This is nothing short of a total humiliation for Anglo-American imperialism and its stooges, the Nigerian army and the erstwhile Kabbah regime.
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