After seven years of vicious fighting and the failure of several mediation attempts, the warring factions in the west African state of Sierra Leone have finally agreed to a ceasefire - but only because of strong pressure exerted by the US, Britain, the United Nations and Nigeria. Washington’s role in the deal is said to have been the ‘clinching influence’.
The accord, signed by president Tejan Kabbah and the rebel leader Foday Sankoh in the Togalese capital of Lom on May 18, came into effect six days later. The two sides have also agreed to release all prisoners of war immediately and give free access to humanitarian workers. But the most important aspect of the deal is the pledge by both parties to start negotiations for a permanent settlement to the conflict. Given the bitterness with which the war has been fought, especially in the last two years, such pledges must be received with caution.
President Kabbah was elected in 1977 with a large majority, but was toppled in a coup led by Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front in February last year. He was restored to power by a west African intervention force, Ecomog. In January, the rebels overran the capital Free Town and came close to seizing power. It was only Ecomog assistance that saved Kabbah, after days of bloody street fighting. The rebels still control most of the country, including the vital diamond mines in the east, and are backed by Liberia and Burkina Faso.
Kabbah was forced to accept the ceasefire when confronted with the growing realisation by Britain and Nigeria, which have so far maintained him in power, that the war is cannot be won, and that its heavy cost, both in money and lives, is unjustifiable. Britain is said to have spent £30 million propping up Kabbah - although British companies sell arms to both sides - and Nigeria has lost nearly 1000 soldiers and has borne most of Ecomog’s costs.
But despite the obvious influence of the Nigerians and the British, the main force behind the Lom deal is thought to have been that of the US, which surfaced in the shape of the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who attended the signing ceremony, along with UN and OAU representatives. Jackson was sent by Washington as a special envoy of President Clinton, who appears to have thrown his weight behind efforts to end the conflict.
The US - who have been trying in recent years to replace the British and the French as the dominant foreign influence in Africa - are more likely to have credibility with the rebels who control two-thirds of the country. Sankoh, the rebel leader, who has been in Lom consulting with his field commanders, has had ample access to US diplomats there.
Both Kabbah and Sankoh agreed to ask the OAU to send observers to Sierra Leone to secure the implementation of the Lom accord by both sides. But the OAU’s record as mediator or supervisor of ceasefires in African conflicts has been dismal. Sierra Leoneans might also be well-advised to avoid an organisation whose officials are not independent of the interests of member-states.
Muslimedia: June 1-15, 1999