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Situation Analysis: Sierra Leone

Publisher International Crisis Group (ICG)
Publication Date 18 March 1998
Cite as International Crisis Group (ICG), Situation Analysis: Sierra Leone, 18 March 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a6e010.html [accessed 24 July 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Executive Summary

Sierra Leone is terrorised

At the start of February 1998, large scale fighting erupted between junta troops and Ecomog "peacekeepers" on the outskirts of Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone. The fighting and accompanying looting terrorised citizens of Freetown for more than a week and spread to the provinces, eventually affecting almost all areas of the country.

Ecomog takes Freetown

Citizens danced with relief when Ecomog liberated the capital after nine months of AFRC rule, but some privately feared that Ecomog would start their own power games.

Fleeing junta and rebel forces cause massive destruction

Junta and rebels who joined together to form the "people's army" after the coup in May 1997 did much of the looting and terrorising. They unleashed tactics reminiscent of Liberian rebels-who are widely believed to be involved in some of the fighting-and put up tough resistance in the provinces.

Kamajors join the chaos

Civil defence militia known as kamajors who operate mainly in the diamond-rich areas of the south east, went on their own looting and shooting sprees, and failed to stop citizens from committing reprisal killings against pro-junta soldiers and civilians.

Ousted President Kabbah delays his return for a month

President Kabbah's decision to delay his return to Freetown long after the city was deemed safe by Ecomog was interpreted locally as a sign of weakness and contributed to a sense of disappointment in Freetown in the wake of the junta's departure.

The president finally returned to the city on 10 March 1998. He faces a massive task rebuilding his country's infrastructure after seven years of civil war.

Economy not functioning

The economy has been crippled since the May 1997 coup and will require massive foreign aid and investment to survive.

What of Peace?

Long-term peace and stability in Sierra Leone will require sustained international attention and investment, a long-term process of reconciliation and, critically, a realistic assessment of still-relevant provisions outlined in the Conakry and Abidjan Peace Accords.

What next?

As the dust settles following the dramatic events of February 1998, in Freetown the sense of jubilation that immediately followed the fall of the junta is slowly giving way to despondency and a growing awareness of the enormity and complexity of the problems facing the country. The list of issues requiring urgent attention is long. Achieving visible results will be extremely difficult given the highly unstable political and security situation, the ever-present potential for renewed, widespread civil war and the almost complete breakdown of state authority.

Among the issues high on the agenda are:

1. Demobilisation and disarmament - this is perhaps the most pressing issue of all. The new government inherits a country with no functioning army but a large number of fragmented armed elements, including the kamajors, the remnants of the official army and the RUF rebels. The likelihood of renewed conflict will remain high unless real progress can be made to recover a durable peace settlement between the factions, dismantle rival militias, including the kamajors and the rebels and establish a credible and professional new security force under the control of the government.

2. Reconciliation and reintegration - a genuine, long-term process of reconciliation is needed that pulls people back into society and revives their faith in the country by involving them in the development of their own communities, by expanding the "third sector"-civil society-and by creating new opportunities for people to learn, acquire useful new skills and, ultimately, find rewarding employment.

3. Improving the quality of governance - through new initiatives to improve transparency and accountability of government decision-making, ensuring freedom of the press and tackling corruption. Much more work remains to be done to combat corruption in particular. If progress is not made in this area it will be almost impossible for the returning government to achieve impact in other important policy areas, the population will rapidly loose faith in the democratic process and it will be all the more difficult to pull the country out of its spiral of power struggles, coups and counter-coups.

The Events of February 1998

5 February 1998: Sierra Leone is plunged into anarchy

On 5 February 1998, the Freetown peninsula was thrown into a state of panic and fear when fierce battles broke out between junta soldiers and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) peacekeeping soldiers known as Ecomog. Over the next week as the fighting spread from east of the city to the centre of town, so did the panic, and retreating junta soldiers fled to the provinces, bringing anarchy and terror with them. The entire country was plunged into chaos and remained there throughout the month.

The first few days of February were tense due to: 1) a BBC report that indicated 80 junta officials had surrendered to Ecomog; 2) the junta putting all military on "red alert" because they claimed to have intercepted a message revealing that Ecomog troops would go on the offensive; 3) kamajor "hysteria" that was heldover from the end of January, when citizens of Freetown were told repeatedly that kamajors (civil defense militia) were "on their way" from the provinces; 4) the bombardment in the Freetown harbour of a rice ship attempting to evade the ECOWAS sanctioned blockade; 5) on-going skirmishes in the diamond-rich areas in the south east of the country between the kamajors and junta soldiers.

On Thursday February 5, the main road out of town was blocked by several RUF fighters who were demanding the release of their leader, Corporal Foday Sankoh, detained in Nigeria on weapons charges. The road was reopened several hours later without incident, but the situation remained tense and later the same day when an Ecomog vehicle reportedly struck a land mine around the Ecomog base at Jui (15 miles east of Freetown) and then came under junta fire, Ecomog troops retaliated with force. On February 6, residents in the east of Freetown were awakened to sounds of heavy artillery fire around Jui, Kossoh Town and Wellington. Civilian casualties led to growing panic.

Heavy fighting east of the city continued over the next several days and the Nigerian Alpha jet made repeated passes over the city, bombing strategic sights -- some in civilian areas -- including the Spur Road residence of junta leader and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) chairman Lt. Col. Johnny Paul Koroma. Although that bomb failed to explode, several bombs in other areas of the city did explode and alpha jets caused widespread panic over the next ten days.

Looting becomes competitive

Marauding soldiers and Revolutionary United Front (RUF) fighters, vowing to "never surrender" took advantage of the chaos and went on successive looting sprees, terrorising the civilian population with mortars, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), AK-47 rifles, automatic weapons and machetes. Some groups carried with them the heads of what they claimed to be Nigerian soldiers as proof that they "were not afraid to kill".

Looting occurred on a massive scale and what the military and junta soldiers failed to take was carried away by the civilian population, some acting out of desperation and fear and others out of opportunism. Few shops, organisations or groups of people were spared. Supermarkets were looted of all goods and fixtures. Roofs, shelving- anything that could be useful or was perceived to have any resale value whatsoever was taken. Humanitarian aid organisations were looted of drugs, money, equipment, fuel and vehicles. Entire warehouses were emptied of contents-ten people were reportedly killed when a gun battle broke out during the looting of an aid agency warehouse in the Kissy dock area. Individuals were held at gun-point in their homes, and forced to undress and give their clothes, shoes and other personal possessions to looters. The Lebanese community-the backbone of the retail trade in Sierra Leone-was targeted and homes and businesses destroyed. What looters could not carry with them, they doused with petrol and lit on fire. Dubbed "Operation Pay Yourself", the looting destroyed the capital and created profound despair and fear.

ECOMOG troops-citing provocation-advance from the east and bombard the capital from the north

Ecomog troops, claiming to be responding to repeated aggressions, continued to shell junta positions from their stronghold in Lungi, across an estuary from the city centre. Citizens fled vulnerable areas on the outskirts of the city, including Wellington, Kossoh Town, Calaba Town and Waterloo, moving toward the city centre. Thousands of residents gathered in the sports stadium in the centre of town, others sought refuge at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) compound. Freetown was extremely tense and the streets were almost empty of traffic other than groups of patrolling soldiers with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the back of looted vehicles. No commercial activity took place.

As late as 8 February, three days after the shelling of Freetown began, Ecomog Force Commander Major General Timothy Shelpidi was still asserting that Ecomog was "only defending itself". It took until 10 February for Ecomog to acknowledge that they were on an all-out offensive, and intended to flush the junta out of the capital. However the junta feared this to be the case and the AFRC had been scrambling to maintain some semblance of control. On Saturday 7 February, they imposed a 6 pm to 6 am curfew which was unnecessary as few civilians dared venture out of doors.

The RUF rebels and the military-enemies for six years-joined together after the coup in May last year, dubbed themselves "the people's army" and together insisted they would defend the sovereignty of Sierra Leone and never surrender to Ecomog. Indeed, the junta put up resistance that was tougher than many expected.

During the fighting, it was difficult to obtain accurate information or get a clear idea of troop advancement. Both sides were spewing out propaganda and after Ecomog bombed the Leicester Peak communications tower, temporarily suspending radio and television broadcasts, little information reached the population other than pro-democracy broadcasts from the pirate radio station 98.1. Ecomog spokespeople-some on the ground in Sierra Leone and others at Ecomog headquarters in Monrovia-urged the junta to "put on their boots and leave" and assured the population that everything was being done to ensure minimal civilian casualties. The reality was perceived differently as Ecomog shelled heavily populated areas, including the downtown port area causing part of the roof to collapse at the Connaught Hospital, one of two functioning hospitals in the city.

Ecomog troops advanced toward Freetown from the south through Regent, Gloucester, and Leicester, and from the east through Jui, Wellington and Kissy, closing off two of three routes out of the capital. Heavy artillery fighting made these areas inaccessible to relief workers. Ambulances trying to reach the Kissy area, one of Freetown's most populous, had to turn back due to heavy firing. Injured civilians were unable to move out of the area and many died due to lack of medical attention. In some instances the injured were transported to hospital by wheelbarrow. Civilian casualty figures were reported to be close to 500, most from shrapnel wounds. More than 100 civilian deaths were confirmed and the city's morgue was overrun with bodies.

Ecomog troops battled junta forces for five days on the outskirts of the city, eventually entering the capital in the east on 11 February, finally capturing State House in the downtown core on 13 February. By 16 February, Ecomog claimed to be in control of 95% of Freetown. The western area of the peninsula was the last to fall to Ecomog, but most junta soldiers and rebels already had fled this area and Ecomog troops met no resistance. When Ecomog moved to clear out the hotels in this area which had served as makeshift barracks for child soldiers and rebels, they were empty.

But behave better than most observers expect after liberating the capital

On 16 February, Ecomog announced that they were in "firm control" of the Freetown peninsula and that they were continuing to disarm all combatants. Ecomog had in their possession-by capture and surrender-thousands of weapons, ammunition and military uniforms.

Although the vast majority of the population greeted the arrival of Ecomog with utter jubilation, seasoned observers feared it was a "matter of time" before Ecomog lived up to their reputation earned in Liberia, where Ecomog troops bombed humanitarian convoys moving to provide aid to trapped civilians and looted their way to an altered definition of their acronym-Every Car Or Moving Object Gone. Some observers hoped that because of the high percentage of Nigerian troops within Ecomog in Sierra Leone (90%), that any sense of anonymity enjoyed in Liberia (where Ecomog troops were not dominated by Nigerian soldiers) would be gone, and unprofessional soldiering diminished.

When Ecomog entered Freetown, there were some reports of drunken Ecomog soldiers looting with the population, and some civilians were harassed at checkpoints and encouraged to pay their way through. However, Ecomog appeared to work responsibly to prevent reprisal killings and guaranteed the safety of junta members or collaborators who surrendered themselves to Ecomog custody.

Ecomog was in a curious position of effectively serving as the interim government in Sierra Leone and soon after liberating Freetown, Ecomog ground commander Colonel Maxwell Khobe addressed the citizens almost as a governor. An ominous radio broadcast stated simply that "authorities" had imposed a dust-to-dawn curfew. The irony of troops from Nigeria-a country with a military government and a lax commitment to democracy and human rights-helping to restore democracy to a neighbouring country was not lost on the citizens of Sierra Leone. But it was easily put aside due to the euphoria and relief that accompany physical safety after a period of sustained fear.

Junta and rebels panic and inflict widespread damage on their retreat from the capital

With Ecomog troops advancing and the fall of Freetown imminent, junta soldiers had scant options: death; a retreat to bush warfare; surrender to Ecomog. None were appealing and with little to lose, the junta inflicted damage wherever they could. On their retreat out of Freetown via the Peninsular Road-the last remaining route out of the city-they burned houses, looted what little was left, threatened the population with machetes and in one terrifying night, forced citizens from Lumley to Goderich from their homes in darkness as they burned houses and promised reprisals for not supporting their "cause".

During the days of chaos before Ecomog arrived in Freetown, groups of youth-some armed with weaponry "donated" by retreating junta members, but most armed with machetes, sticks with nails or hunting rifles-erected frequent road blocks throughout the city where they robbed and searched civilians, ostensibly looking for kamajor collaborators. Insisting on their right to "defend the sovereignty of Sierra Leone from Nigerian intervention", the youth soon changed tactics, and days later erected banners welcoming Ecomog troops.

When Ecomog arrived in Freetown, many of the youth registered with the police to avoid becoming targets of Ecomog. They formed loose neighbourhood alliances to protect their areas and identify straggling junta members or collaborators. They patrolled streets with hunting rifles.

Up-country, most towns and villages experience renewed terror

Even before the Ecomog offensive to take Freetown at the start of the month, pro-junta soldiers and the kamajors had been battling in major towns throughout the provinces, mostly in the diamond rich areas of the south east. In February, the skirmishes escalated in most areas as soldiers fleeing Freetown joined their brethren in the bush. It was extremely difficult to get information from areas outside the capital as panicked civilians fled into the bush and staff of organisations with communications equipment did not feel safe to use it. AFRC spokesperson Allieu Kamara (whose legs were later broken by civilians when he was captured in Freetown) announced that "This is just the beginning of the battle. We are talking about Sierra Leone, not Freetown."

In the southern provincial city of Kenema, the northern capital of Makeni, Bo and Pujehun in the south east and many other towns and villages in the interior, pro-junta soldiers (and in some cases, kamajors) inflicted widespread damage, shooting at random and looting wildly. Churches and hospitals were not spared. When junta forces attacked Bo on 14 February they looted more than 50 vehicles-including an ambulance-filled them with stolen goods and formed a convoy out of town. Many people fled their homes to the bush. Those that stayed were trapped by fighting. Ecomog troops bombed several towns, including the military barracks at Makeni. In Kambia district, where Johnny Paul Koroma was rumoured to have fled, RUF fighters attacked the town of Rokupr, burning houses and terrorising civilians with machetes. The alpha jet made passes over retreating soldiers in Kambia and Port Loko districts, but it was unclear if it dropped any bombs.

In most major towns, control between kamajors and the junta appeared to be fluid, with attacks and counter-attacks common, and both sides claiming to have gained ground. Ecomog reinforcements sent from Liberia were slow to arrive to towns in the interior because of blocks erected on the roads by the kamajors during their "Black December" operation last year. Ecomog reinforcements arrived on 22 February to help troops on the ground and kamajors gain control of the provinces, and they were quick to "mop up" and gain control of most areas in the interior.

Rebels were said to be regrouping in Koidu, at their base in Kailahun in the east of the country and at their training camps in the Malal Hills, east of Lunsar. At month-end, Ecomog claimed to be on their way to these final areas not yet contained.

Kamajors contribute enthusiastically to the environment of fear

Attacks by junta soldiers were indiscriminate. Kamajor antics were reportedly not much better and citizens of major towns reported to be equally frightened of both sides. Kamajors did some looting in Bo and Pujehun and conducted house-to-house searches for junta collaborators, making no efforts to stop the population from committing reprisal killings.

Mob justice was commonplace. The human rights organisation Amnesty International said they received information that unarmed civilians were being tortured and killed by both pro-junta soldiers and kamajors in the south and the east of the country.

The Aftermath

Kabbah gets another chance to govern-but doubts persist over his leadership credentials

President Kabbah was quick to praise Ecomog and the job they did in "liberating" Sierra Leone, but was slow to return. His eventual return, on 10 March, almost a month after Freetown had fallen to Ecomog forces, was seen by many regional observers as the ultimate indication of reticent, weak leadership. Citizens questioned why the president wasn't returning sooner to celebrate with his people and assure them of some sense of order.

Although President Kabbah called for the voluntary resignation of his government in order to facilitate the downsizing of his cabinet, he revealed no concrete plans to indicate how he would lead his country-the second poorest in the world-out of its present, disasterous position. The president said that a policy advisory group would be set up to "review the implementation of cabinet decisions, supervise public enterprises and evaluate the performances of government ministries". Kabbah also said that programmes could be developed quickly to deal with the chronic unemployment of the country's youth. He dismissed as rumour claims that members of parliament planned to impeach him upon his return to Sierra Leone.

In mid-February, Kabbah did announce the formation of a task force or "ad hoc administrative body" that would travel to Sierra Leone to pave the way for the resumption of "democratic governmental functions". The task force includes his vice president, Joseph Demby, Attorney General Mr. Solomon Berewa and Ecomog commander Colonel Khobe. United Nations special envoy to Sierra Leone Francis Okelo arrived in Freetown on 18 February on a "humanitarian mission" to assess relief needs. He is expected to set up a liaison office at Lungi-which has re-opened to commercial flights-to facilitate the return of wide-scale UN involvement.

Monrovia's fingerprints are detected as the Liberian government is accused of arming, collaborating and harbouring the junta

Liberian President Charles Taylor, widely believed to be sympathetic to the junta, claims that still at-large junta chief Johnny Paul Koroma will not gain access to Liberian soil, nor will other fleeing members of the military government. However, two helicopter gunships with almost 50 fleeing junta members and families en route to Monrovia-presumably for asylum-were forced down by an Ecomog Alpha Jet and escorted to the Ecomog base in Monrovia. Liberian officials were prevented from seeing the junta members and issued a harshly worded statement claiming that Liberian sovereignty had been violated.

Liberian rebel trademarks, made famous during that country's civil war, spilled over to Sierra Leone and incidents were evident in February in the capital, previously immune to rebel "attacks". Marauding groups of rebels indiscriminately ambushed and commandeered vehicles, harassed and tortured civilians, and burned houses. There were harrowing accounts of beheadings, traumatic amputations and people being burned alive. Many victims of looting in Freetown claimed that participants included Liberians.

RUF rebels kidnapped foreign aid workers and missionaries, holding at least seven hostage in Camp Charlie, their training base in the Malal hills. RUF spokesperson Lieutenant Eldred Collins said the RUF would trade the release of foreign hostages for the release of Foday Sankoh. However, after the intervention of Bishop Beguzzi of Makeni, the hostages -- five missionaries and two workers from the humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières -- were released unharmed after 13 days in captivity. There are several other westerners still believed to be held by rebels in the bush.

Outlook clouded by events elsewhere in the region

A further complicating factor is the country's newly heightened vulnerability to the effects of change elsewhere in the region. As recent events have confirmed, Liberia remains a maverick in the region and seems likely to remain a destabilising influence on Sierra Leone.

Nigeria's future involvement, meanwhile, is coming into question as that country heads towards controversial elections later this year. Instability or disorder in Nigeria would have serious implications throughout West Africa, but particularly in Sierra leone. the future of the Nigerian troop deployment in Sierra Leone will ride to some extent on General Abacha's political future and his desire to keep forces participating in the Ecomog operation out of the domestic Nigerian arena.

Finally, Guinea, which has been a staunch supporter of the Kabbah government, is also facing elections this year. The prospect of a leadership change in Guinea adds to the uncertainty regarding the future of the region and of the region's approach to the newly returned government in Freetown.

RUF plotting a counter attack from the hills?

With several of the RUF leadership still at-large in the provinces-including RUF Chief of Staff Sam "Mosquito" Bockarie and Eldred Collins-the RUF are not likely to abandon their fight, especially with tactical assistance and active participation from Liberian rebels.

It is unrealistic that they could re-take Freetown, but seven years of practice in the provinces make it likely that the RUF will continue to unleash trauma in the country. It is possible that the rebel war will continue with renewed vigour-with or without the release of Foday Sankoh-and with the added participation of pro-junta military that evaded capture.

The whereabouts of Johnny Paul Koroma are not known. On 14 February he told BBC that he was speaking "from the hills above Freetown" and that he would not surrender but would continue to rally his troops in the provinces.

Infrastructure destroyed, economy not functioning

The economy was at a virtual standstill before February due to a crippling embargo imposed by ECOWAS and enforced by Ecomog. Few businesses were operational. All commercial banks closed after the coup in May. In passive protest, many civil servants and teachers had not worked in the nine months since the coup. On 20 February, the Sierra Leone Labour Congress (SLLC) called on its members to return to work, and some workers returned to buildings destroyed by the fighting and looting, others that fled Freetown after the coup were not immediately returning due to instability in the provinces.

Deputy Finance Minister Momoh Pujeh was pessimistic about the state of the Sierra Leone economy, calling it bleak and warning citizens to "not expect a miracle" weakly promising that "the government will do everything possible to ensure that the people will survive." Government revenues have fallen by almost 90 percent, all foreign aid (30 percent of the government budget) has been cut and custom duties were stopped by the embargo.

International community responds with discussions of aid flows, repatriation programs and observers

Sierra Leone's economic survival will depend heavily on foreign aid and assistance. IMF and World Bank financing, suspended since the coup in May last year, is expected to be re-evaluated after the return of President Kabbah. Most foreign businesses fled or were forced out of operation after the coup, but some were optimistic that Kabbah's eventual return could lead to a resumption of operations. Many humanitarian agencies that were forced to flee due to insecurity after the coup were expected to return to the capital, and to the provinces once the situation stabilised.

The UN, absent since the coup-except for two "assessment" missions conducted this year in Tonkolili and Kambia districts-is expected to return after conducting additional assessments. A UN team was scheduled to travel to Freetown on 9 February but cancelled because of the insecurity. It was to have assessed the civilian population's access to basic food and healthcare services, population displacement, and basic economic conditions. On 17 February, WFP-the UN food agency-sent emergency food to be distributed to the most needy by humanitarian agencies already on the ground.

Ecomog-who plan to increase troop size to 15,000 from 11,000-said they would welcome assistance from UN peacekeeping troops or a monitoring group. A military regulatory body appears essential as the country is extremely fragile and has no working army.

The UN will work on the massive task of repatriating the thousands of refugees that have fled Sierra Leone since May. The fighting in February led to an increased exodus from Freetown-an estimated 5,000 by sea alone, most in dangerously overcrowded canoes-and the provinces. The United Nations High commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) put the number of displaced as high as 30,000. Liberia and Guinea, already hosting thousands of Sierra Leone's displaced, expressed concern at the high numbers of refugees crossing their borders.

Is this progress?

Provisions outlined in two peace agreements-the Abidjan Accord signed in November 1996 and the Conakry Accord signed in October last year-will need to be re-examined. Each addresses legitimate concerns, among them: demobilisation of all armed elements, including the kamajors; and the role of Foday Sankoh and the RUF in a legitimate government. Some provisions outlined in the accords-amnesty to the junta-may now be irrelevant, but the peaceful future envisaged under the accords is not necessarily made more likely by the arrival of Ecomog troops.

What Next?

As the dust settles following the dramatic events of February 1998, in Freetown the sense of jubilation that immediately followed the fall of the junta is slowly giving way to despondency and a growing awareness of the enormity and complexity of the problems facing the country. The list of issues requiring urgent attention is long. Achieving visible results will be extremely difficult given the highly unstable political and security situation, the ever-present potential for renewed, widespread civil war and the almost complete breakdown of state authority.

Among the issues high on the agenda are:

1. Demobilisation and disarmament-this is perhaps the most pressing issue of all. The new government inherits a country with no functioning army but a large number of fragmented armed elements, including the kamajors, the remnants of the official army and the RUF rebels. The likelihood of renewed conflict will remain high unless real progress can be made to recover a durable peace settlement between the factions, dismantle rival militias, including the kamajors and the rebels and establish a credible and professional new security force under the control of the government.

2. Reconciliation and reintegration-a genuine, long-term process of reconciliation is needed that pulls people back into society and revives their faith in the country by involving them in the development of their own communities, by expanding the "third sector"-civil society-and by creating new opportunities for people to learn, acquire useful new skills and, ultimately, find rewarding employment.

3. Improving the quality of governance-through new initiatives to improve transparency and accountability of government decision-making, ensuring freedom of the press and tackling corruption. Much more work remains to be done to combat corruption in particular. If progress is not made in this area it will be almost impossible for the returning government to achieve impact in other important policy areas, the population will rapidly loose faith in the democratic process and it will be all the more difficult to pull the country out of its spiral of power struggles, coups and counter-coups.

Freetown, Sierra Leone
18 March 1998

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