External Forces & Making of Sierra Leone
Book Review by U. Mahesh Prabhu - Sierra Leone gained its independence in 1961. During freedom the country had all the essential ingredients required for a functioning state, including: a democratically elected parliament through universal franchise, relatively independent judiciary, an executive comprising of elected Members of Parliament and, nevertheless, a relatively efficient civil service.
Merely six years after independence, in 1967, after a closely contested election, the ethnic schism, which was apparently threatening the very existence of the nation since independence, resurfaced when the army stepped in, only, to prevent the opposition All People’s Congress (APC), which had evidently won elections, from succeeding the ruling Sierra Leone’s People’s Party (SLPP). This military invention not only brought an end to the experiment in democracy, but also, had far-reaching effects on Sierra Leone’s political as well as economic trajectory; as it entrenched violence into the body politic of the nation besides making outbreak of war, political violence and thuggery – a common phenomenon.
This coup de grace for the Sierra Leone’s economy, in particular, was the government’s excessive expenditure in hosting the annual conference of Organization of African Union (OAU), a move which left the country chronically debited. When the State Fails: Studies on Intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War, edited by Tunde Zack-Williams, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Central Lancashire, is filled with several scholarly articles by experts on subject matter presenting comprehensive study on efforts of international community and organizations in bringing a normalcy to this war-torn country.
The first chapter, entitled Multilateral Intervention in Sierra Leone’s Civil War: Some Structural Explanations, provides rational explanation as to why Charles Taylor had sought to export the Liberian conflict to Sierra Leone. It looks at the role of the Sierra Leone government as a peace broker in the civil war in Liberia. Through Taylor’s intervention came the spark which ignited the conflict. However, this was not a sufficient condition for conflict as there were other underlining historical factors which precipitated the war. In his discussion of the role of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOMOG) in Liberia’s peace keeping, Zack-Williams argues that Charles Taylor’s initial design on Sierra Leone was not the country’s diamonds but “the need to seek revenge”; because the Sierra Leonean President had permitted ECOMOG aircrafts to utilize his country’s airport to bomb Taylor’s frontline troops, thereby denying them capture of Monrovia, capital of Liberia. This explanation questions the much vaunted “greed not grievance” thesis as a causation of the war, and as Gberie and others are at pains to point out, diamonds in exchange for arms came much later in the civil war. According to Zack-Williams “diamonds may have prolonged the war, but they were not the root cause for conflict.”
Other interventions recognized in this commendable work are that of Sandline International, the Gurkhas, Executive Outcomes, United Nations Peacekeeping force (UNAMSIL) and the British Paratroopers.
Bad governance explains, but is not explained by conflicts and natural resources. Armed domestic conflicts over natural resources occur in a context of bad governance and, contrary to some erroneous narratives of the Sierra Leone conflict including collier’s, the country’s armed rebellion was not caused by diamond but by mode of governance that is antithetical to both the developmental aspirations of society and the global neo-liberal agenda. It is the persistence of a predatory governance logic that poses the greatest threat to post-conflict peace building in Sierra Leone. Quoting Samuel Huntington, Jimmy D. Kandeh observes that democracy can be safe in the hands of elites only if they believe that they have an interest in promoting it or a duty to achieve it. The question that Kandeh poses is whether, or not, such elites are to be found in Sierra Leone, since we know that they are absent in many parts of the world. Kandeh suggests strongly that “democracy and the free markets demand functioning states that can perform basic tasks, and without such a setup peace and development are not achievable”.
Nations do not become functioning democracies owing to external intervention(s) and it is far better to embed institutions histories, cultures, needs and interest of mass publics than in the ‘best practices’ of the west because neither the socio-economic conditions prevalent in Africa nor the mode of accumulation characteristic of its governing elites are particularly conducive to the liberal governance promoted by the Western nations and donor agencies. In his conclusion, Kandeh observes that the failure of external intervention to lift Sierra Leoneout of poverty can be attributed to the “gross mismanagement of donor resources by political incumbents, top bureaucrats and their associates”.
Michael Kargbo’s, in Chapter 3, offers a comprehensive case study of United Kingdom’s (UK) effort at peace building and strengthening of democracy in Sierra Leone. Britain as the former colonial power had always had strong historical ties with Sierra Leone which dates back to the American War of Independence, when slaves who fought on the sides of the British were promised freedom. At the end of the war, while some were taken to Nova Scotia in Canada where they were Promised Land, others sailed across Atlantic to London.
Following the Campaign by philanthropists like William Wilberforce, Fowell Buxton and Granville Sharp, these Black Poor, as they were known in Elizabethan England, were settled in the Province of Freedom, Sierra Leone in year 1787. In 1791, the Settlement was taken over by the Sierra Leone Company and in 1808 Sierra Leone was to become a “Crown Colony”.
In Part II of this commendable work, Sylvia Macaulay, in Chapter 6, takes a profound look at the relationship between gender, conflict and the role of women in nation building. Among other factors, the impact of war on a woman will also be determined by her socio-economic status and her ability to “buy her escape” out of war zone. Thus, poor rural women in Sierra Leone were some of the worst victims of the war: victims of sexual attacks, their houses and possessions burnt by rebels, they could not easily escape war zone as refugees to neighboring countries or abroad. Sylvia Macaulay warns that in order to restore the dignity of women the state has to be more pro-women if nations are to avoid a repeat of a conflict characterized by gender based violence with all the humiliating consequences for women.
During the civil war thousands of young women and girls were abducted by rebels and many were transformed into sex slaves as “wives” of commanders. By the end of the war, many of them had become teenage mothers and stigmatized as “rebel wives”; facing rejection by their parents, their communities and head teachers, who would not have them back in their schools for the fear of “corrosive effects on other girls”.
Large number of women lost limbs, became refugees in neighboring countries and were separated from their families, but women were also more than victims of war. Women were proactive in forcing regimes of Captain Strasser and Major Maada Bio to give into democratic demands for elections before a peace treaty was signed with Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader Foday Sankoh. This move was lead by Women for Morally Engaged Nation, or WOMEN for short, and donors who held that speedy return to democratic population was a sine qua non for peace in the country.
Chapter 8, entitled “Conflict and Peacebuilding in Sierra Leone: The Role of Sierra Leone Diasporas”, authored by Zubairu Wai deals mostly with the role of Sierra Leon diaspora in post conflict peace building. Wai castigates every researcher who seeks to stuffy the war, its causes and the struggle for sustainable peace, whilst at the same time ignoring the role of disapora in their analysis. He observes: ‘From the day the insurgency spearheaded by RUF started in Sierra Leone it was apparent that the Sierra Leone diasporas were implicated in, and destined to play a major role in, the emerging conflict’. Not only did sections of the diasporas fight alongside the ‘international brigade’ that invaded the country in 1991, but:
“At different times during the war, various individuals in theSierra Leonediaspora, either by themselves or through transnational networks and diasporic organizations, played roles that affected in diverse ways, the dynamics of the conflict and the parties involved in it… This trend has continued in the post-war period, whereby through series of political economic and social engagements, theSierra Leone diaspora continue, in numerous ways, to influence and impact the peace building and post-war reconstruction efforts in the country.”
The Sierra Leone diaspora have become a useful constituency before, during and after the war, largely due to transnational migration and, indeed, members of the diaspora continue to play leading roles as spokespeople for both sides in the war. For example, Omrie Golley, a London based lawyer, acted throughout the war, and after, as political adviser and spokesperson for the RUF and was one of their chief negotiator; others, such as Cecil Blake, obtained sabbatical leave from university work in United States to serve for a short while as information minister in the first Kabbah administration.
Remittances from the diaspora became invaluable in sustaining relatives and friends in Sierra Leone. The diaspora Underground Railroad became major escape routes out of the war zones, and out of the country. The disapora played a key role in keeping the plight of Sierra Leonein the news and in lobbying for action, particularly after the first invasion of the capital in 1996.
In many ways, When the State Fails: Studies on Intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War offers insights that were otherwise unavailable to students as well as experts on current affairs. Facts well matched with insights, truly, make this work – a lucid read.
Book Reviewer, U. Mahesh Prabhu, is Founder-Editor-in-chief of Folks Magazine. He’s also distinguished fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London (UK) since 2009.