The Key Issues

Sierra Leone has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past 18 months. In February and March 1996, national elections brought to power the first democratically-elected government in 27 years. On 30 November 1996, a peace agreement was signed with the RUF rebels and the civil war in most areas has subsided significantly. The bulk of more than one million displaced people have begun returning to their villages in time for the rainy season in May and the planting of crops. These changes relied on a combination of three forces. First, the emergence of a strong and vibrant civic movement that forced the military government into elections and has continued to pressure government. Second, the reduction of conflict through the combined efforts of the local hunters or kamajors, militarised against the RUF, and Executive Outcomes which provided tactical assistance and firepower. These two groups largely took the place of a failing and complicit army. Finally, the support of the international community during the crucial period of the elections. While this progress is heartening, it risks being undermined by three problems:


A "culture of corruption" is removing the gloss from a government that was heartily welcomed just a year ago. Stories of excesses and kickbacks are common. Many argue that part of the problem is that the new government is dominated by the SLPP party, which for the past 30 years has not been involved in any power. The APC that ruled from 1969 followed similar corrupt patterns; the SLPP feel that their turn has now come. Not to take advantage of the situation would be to pass on the opportunity denied to them for so long. ICG's original assessment identified this aspect as one of the underlying causes of disillusionment and, ultimately, violence. Although the elections brought a transformation of the political environment, progress has been disappointing in terms of the ability of government to keep a straight course. As Zainab Bangura, the Co-ordinator of the Campaign for Good Governance, notes: "Democracy is a process not an event" - a reiteration of ICG's point that the election was never going to be an end in itself. Failure to deal with this fundamental problem will breed resentment and the risk of further conflict. There is little incentive at local level to forge new directions for the common good if at the top the example set is of a continued kleptocracy.

Weaknesses in representation

One of the drawbacks of Sierra Leone's electoral system is that parliamentarians are elected from a party list and are not accountable to a specific electorate. Parliamentarians' first point of accountability is to their party. Few travel outside Freetown, exacerbating the rift between Freetown and the rest of the country. The local elections that were demanded as part of a nationwide survey in the early 1990s have not yet occurred, although they were scheduled for last October. Local government was abolished during Siaka Stevens' administration as a part of his consolidation of power at the central level. The failure to proceed with local elections has been blamed on a lack of money, but many believe the idea has been quashed by parliamentarians concerned about an erosion of their positions.

A faltering peace process

The intransigence of Foday Sankoh and his reluctance to honour the peace agreement have stalled the beginning of many rehabilitation programmes, the release of promised donor funding and the deployment of the UN peace monitoring mission which are tied to the achievement of set conditions of the agreement. Until these are resolved, many of these international commitments will remain deadlocked.

Background Events

Sankoh manipulates the peace process

Optimism accompanying the signing of the peace agreement in Abidjan on 30 November 1996 has given way to doubts over whether and how it can be effectively implemented. The peace process has stalled in the past few months. Foday Sankoh has manipulated its delay and consistently reneged on commitments. The agreement called for the introduction of a UN observer force to assist with the demobilisation of RUF. It was felt that this was essential to give RUF combatants confidence to disband without fear of being killed. However, the Security Council resolution made the deployment dependent on the consent of both parties. Sankoh has refused to accept the UN plan consisting of a peace-keeping mission comprising 60 military observers, 720 troops and 276 civilian staff - at a cost of around $47 million for a period of 8 months. Instead, he is pressing for a reduced force compromising only 60 neutral observers. Frustration increased in March this year when Sankoh was arrested by the Nigerian authorities for carrying arms through Nigerian immigration. He is now under house arrest. Subsequently there were reports of a change in the leadership of the RUF due, in the words of one RUF member, to Sankoh's "unyielding determination to thwart the peace process". This fact was widely welcomed by an exasperated international community and formally acknowledged by the Sierra Leone government. But a delegation that went into the Kaihahun area to speak with the RUF was abducted. The delegation included senior members of the RUF that had been working on the commission for Consolidation of Peace-a committee of representatives from both the government and RUF-and Sierra Leone's ambassador to Guinea. To date they have not been released. Sankoh's primary aim appears to be the obstruction of any intervention that might hamper his ability to regain power. His demands for a reduction in the size of the UN force and insistence on the departure of foreign forces are consistent with this strategy. There are also reports that his recent expeditions to countries in the west African region were to buy weapons. There was also a reported radio intercept in which he was heard to order his forces once again to go on the attack. Consequently, there has been no programmed disarmament and demobilisation of RUF combatants (which should have started in January), no downsizing and restructuring of the army, that would have followed, and no moves to register the RUF as a political party, which again was scheduled to take place within 30 days of the peace agreement. A small contingent of British and US army troops is in Sierra Leone to assist with training the army but has faced a reluctance to co-operate on the part of the military. The suspicion is that the actual number of soldiers is lower than the 13,000 estimated and that salaries and rice rations for "ghost" soldiers have been used as a lucrative way to bolster low incomes. Submitting battalions for training might reveal the true numbers.

levels of violence decrease

Yet despite the faltering peace process, in general levels of violence have decreased, particularly attacks on civilians. More than half a million people out of a total of 1.5 million displaced have so far returned home as areas have became more secure. Feeding in displaced camps has been reduced and local subsistence agriculture has recommenced in many areas. Approximately 380,000 people remain outside the country, mostly to be found in Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire and Liberia. Some areas, generally those where diamonds and gold are mined, have remained insecure.

the rise of the kamajors

However, it is fair to say that the reduction in levels of violence has little to do with the peace process and is more a consequence of increased operations and protection to villages provided by the traditional hunters or kamajors. The kamajors have become widespread throughout the south and east of the country, and although traditionally more aligned to the Mende tribal group to the south, they are now forming in the north. They dress in ragged clothes covered in types of fetishes - which some believe render them bullet proof and although traditionally they have been armed with single- barrelled shotguns, there are now more AK47s and RPG7s in evidence. Their actions have not been limited to attacks on the RUF but have also involved clashes with the army which is accused of colluding with the RUF during the war and of having been responsible for much of the atrocities and looting. Tension in some parts of the country between kamajors and army is high, particularly in those areas where minerals are located. This has been a feature of the conflict. By continuing the war and maintaining a level of insecurity, armed groups have been able to exploit diamonds, gold and the forced labour of civilians. In the Tongo fields, a rich diamond-mining region, clashes with the kamajors in April forced the army to abandon the area completely.

RUF on the back foot

Several RUF combatants have given themselves up and come out of their bases. More than 60 emerged during April and others are reported to have quietly slipped back to their villages. They report poor logistics, a lack of food and medicines and a breakdown in the RUF command. The two main RUF bases, in the Kangari Hills and in Kailahun, have suffered from repeated attacks from Kamajors and much of their leadership was killed by Executive Outcomes and Nigerian artillery assaults during October last year. The current military commander, Sam Bockerie (alias Mosquito), is not popular. Morale appears low and with Sankoh confined in Nigeria there are some disputes about who is in charge. However, while easy across the border with Liberia and Guinea remains, the RUF has retained the potential to seek refuge and fight again. Eliminating the RUF completely by military means will be a difficult struggle.

Executive Outcomes leave

Executive Outcomes (EO), the South African based security firm that was contracted by the Government in April 1995, left in early February 1997. Most observers believe they made a significant difference to the outcome of the war. There is a link between EO's military offensives and the RUF willingness to negotiate. During their two years in Sierra Leone, EO inflicted considerable damage on RUF bases and splintered the movement's military capability. EO's later actions were also linked closely to the kamajors who have continued their operations and have been shown to be effective in mopping up fragmented RUF groups.

but the future of the kamajors remains uncertain

The kamajors, while offering the first real protection to the local populations, may become a problem in future. Currently they are under control of the local chiefs who donate a certain number of fighters to a centralised command. But concerns are emerging. Kamajor numbers have increased dramatically-there are now thought to be between 15-20,000 (compared to the less than 13,000-strong army) and numbers continue to grow, despite a government ban on recruitment. They have access to more sophisticated weaponry and are increasingly questioning their volunteer status. Pressure for formal recognition and financial assistance is being applied which up to now the government and aid agencies have resisted. But their new-found position could easily be manipulated into other activities as the RUF threat declines. Several are already being employed to provide security for individuals and companies. Without close scrutiny and control, the kamajor movement could backfire and become a new source of instability.

rumblings of ethnic tension

Rumblings over tribal differences, never really an issue in Sierra Leone in the past, are growing louder. The SLPP party that won the election is predominantly supported from the southern based Mende tribe (30 percent of the population). The Temne (31 percent) and Limba (9 percent) tribes from the north were stronger under the previous regimes. Siaka Stevens and Momoh the presidents before the 1992 military government were both Limba. There is a perception that the Mende are gaining strength. This adjustment to the power balance is being expressed in three ways:

• The leadership of the SLPP and most of the key positions in government are Mende, (including Chief Norman, the deputy Minister of Defence who reports directly to the President). There have also been reports that Mende officers are moving through the ranks of the army more quickly than their counterparts.

• The kamajors are predominantly a Mende force, and although other tribes are also assembling similar forces, the large build up of armed kamajors in the south is greeted with some unease in the northern areas.

• The most war-affected areas are in the south and east and are likely to receive the bulk of rehabilitation money. Accusations of bias and tension are likely to result.

The Regional Context

The outcome of the elections in Liberia, due to be held in May, will have an important impact on Sierra Leone. The current favourite to win is Charles Taylor. The other major faction leader, Alhaji Kromah who heads the ULIMO-K, is unlikely to win because of his minority Mandingo ethnic background. Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson, formerly the Africa Head of UNDP, is also standing as an outsider. While the US is generally opposed to Taylor, the chances are high that the country will lapse back into war should he fail to win the elections. Nigeria and Taylor who fought in the past, have now resolved their differences and there are suspicions that an economic deal may have been cut. Taylor gained considerable territory in last year's fighting including control over all the ports that provide access to Liberia's rich resources of timber, rubber and minerals. There is little doubt that Nigeria wishes to maintain its role and influence in the region and has been keen to maintain, or even increase, its long-standing presence in Sierra Leone. Until now, they have restricted their activities in Sierra Leone to providing security to key installations and artillery support to attacks on the RUF. There have been suspicions that the Liberian ULIMO-K faction, whose territory borders Sierra Leone, has been supporting the RUF. Certainly some retreating RUF members have sought refuge there. Kromah has denied the accusation and points to Charles Taylor as the RUF's only supporter. Taylor initially supported Sankoh in the RUF's early days. The truth may lie more in ULIMO-K wanting to maintain friendly relations with all parties to minimise reduce threats to its border with Sierra Leone should Taylor win. There is also a lucrative cross-border trade of diamonds that ULIMO-K soldiers are suspected to be involved with. The triangle, where Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone meet, is likely to remain unstable and the site of a number of overlapping agendas.

Economic Situation

There are some macro-economic indications that the economic situation is improving. Inflation has dropped to less than 10 percent. But the improvement in the Leone against the dollar, attributed by the government as evidence of their policies, is more likely linked to the large number of dollars flowing into the country from Lebanese businessmen arriving from Zaire where their investments are threatened. In general, there has been little change in the living standards of most Sierra Leoneans. More than 80 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line-estimated at $18 per month-and 50 percent are living in extreme poverty. Sierra Leone has the distinction of being the second poorest country in the world. The Government recently set the minimum monthly wage at 21,000 leones-around $23 a month-about the same as a 50kg bag of rice. Little investment into the country is being reported and until the security situation improves further there will be no change. Mining for bauxite is unlikely to be restart-the investment needed outweighs its extraction costs especially when compared to more easily mined ore elsewhere. The Sierra Rutile (titanium dioxide) plant south-east of Freetown has some plans to recommence, but again security is needed. (Sierra Leone once supplied around 30 percent of the world's supply). An evaluation is being carried out and outside security firms are likely to be hired. Until now, most foreign investment has centred on the exploitation of diamonds and gold. In the case of diamonds, little passes through government channels where the 2.5 percent tax can be levied. Instead, dealers are smuggling diamonds out. An informed source has estimated that only 15-20 percent of diamonds are officially declared. There has been some positive news on international assistance to Sierra Leone. The Sierra Leone Government announced that donor pledges at the World Bank Consultative Group Meeting in Paris in March totalled $640.6 million for the period 1997-99. However, the release of many of these funds were made conditional on the demobilisation of fighters and evidence of lasting peace-guarantees of these do not yet exist.


The future of Sierra Leone still hangs in the balance. For those displaced and in war-affected areas the situation is improving. But the underlying causes of Sierra Leone's crisis are yet to be addressed. The Campaign for Good Governance is planning a convention in the coming weeks that will bring grass roots organisations as well as civic leaders together. The aim is to develop nation-wide strategies to pressure the government to move on the issues of local elections and combating corruption. It is a welcome effort. Meanwhile the peace process remains deadlocked. Unless this impasse is cleared, other actions such as the deployment of peacekeepers and freeing of donor money for rehabilitation projects will remain on hold.

Main Points to Watch

The ICG Board should remain apprised of this situation. There are two areas where Board advocacy could add value to the situation in the future.


Talks are continuing through various channels to obtain the release of hostages seized by the RUF, and these should be given time to be resolved. If, however, the stalemate on the peace process continues, there may be a need to advocate the release of earmarked funds for Sierra Leone's rehabilitation i.e., push for rehabilitation to proceed independently of the peace process in secure areas. Not to do so would be to deny populations in war-affected areas, who have cared for their own security, the opportunity to rehabilitate their communities. Once again, Sankoh would be dictating the future of the country and its development.


The number of personnel for the UN peacekeeping mission has been calculated on a formula designed to provide protection for observers and security for surrendering combatants. The need for more than 700 staff exaggerates the risk, the cost has discouraged donors and will delay deployment. Two points need to be made clear. First, peacekeepers have rarely, if ever, protected populations in their care with force. Second, NGO and UN agencies are already working in areas set aside as demobilisation sites without "protection". A smaller UN observer force could provide the same confidence to fighters, for less expense and allowing them to be deployed more quickly. Deployment needs to be undertaken as soon as the opportunity allows to demonstrate clear international support for the peace process and to maintain its momentum. The Board could play an important role to accelerate the deployment of observers at this critical time.

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