Sierra Leone - "Gunboat democracy" in Britain's West African backyard

May/Jun 1998

On March 8th, this year, a headline appeared in the British Sunday newspaper, The Observer: "Britain's talks with hired killers: Foreign office admits ambassador's link to notorious mercenaries plotting against Sierra Leone government".

There followed an article revealing that the British ambassador to Sierra Leone had engaged in secret talks with Sandline, a London- based mercenary company run by a retired British colonel. While Robin Cook's spokesman at the foreign office admitted that these talks had taken place, he would not admit to the content. However it transpired that in February, Sandline had assisted Nigerian troops to restore Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to the presidency of Sierra Leone, by crushing the military junta, which had toppled him in May 1997.

For his part, Blair had made no secret that he was championing the cause of Kabbah - whose party happens to be the Sierra Leone Peoples' Party (SLPP), the party groomed by the British colonial administration to take over after independence in 1961. Blair even provided the ousted president with £250,000 while Kabbah was sharing his exile in Guinea with the British ambassador to Sierra Leone and had invited him as his own personal guest to the Commonwealth Summit, last November in Edinburgh.

Such reports in the papers indicating moves by British imperialism to protect its interests in its African sphere of influence have been very rare for many years. This is not because British imperialism is any less brutal than its rivals in West Africa. But, unlike French imperialism, which has often sent troops to rescue client dictators whose regimes were under threat, Britain has usually resorted to much more covert methods. The British government may claim the high moral ground in Northern Ireland - by championing "peace" - but when it comes to Africa, it has no such scruples.

Of course, like its main rivals in Africa, and probably even more often, British governments have selected individuals from the African elites, carefully grooming them in British military and educational institutions, before pushing them into positions from which they could be relied upon to take care of British interests and protect them against imperialist rivals. But this does not always work. Sometimes the protegés prove ungrateful, or so incapable that they become liabilities, or else they get toppled, like Sierra Leone's president. When this happens, the specially-trained strategists of the Foreign Office step in to sort out the "problem". Sometimes a reasonable amount of weapons or adhoc logistical support is enough, but in other circumstances, more heavy-handed methods are required. From Kenya to Uganda and from Nigeria to Sudan, Britain has consistently used political and military violence, to maintain its sphere of influence, whether openly or covertly, by proxy or otherwise. Not to mention the well-publicised role of the British SAS in training "special forces" in many African countries.

The change from Tory to Labour last year has changed nothing in Britain's foreign policy. Today, what concerns Britain in Sierra Leone, is to keep "their" man in the driving seat, rather than any other. And what concerns all imperialisms is that stability returns to the region, so that exploitation of its huge natural wealth can resume, after nearly a decade of disruption due to civil war.

Therefore it should come as no surprise that Blair's government had a role in the Nigerian-led coup to restore Kabbah to power. And if this operation required mercenaries in addition, because, as the foreign office explained, these were "extraordinary circumstances", and it was "justifiable". Now perhaps Blair also believes it is possible to restore too, the "British order of things" after years of anarchic chaos. But that remains to be seen.

A jewel for the British crown

Sierra Leone, is a small, mineral-rich country, famed for its diamonds, and situated on the west "gold" coast of Africa. It is located between Guinea on the north and north-east and Liberia on the east and south-east. With a population of 4.4m it extends just 210 miles from north to south and 204 miles west to east.

Of course there was no such country until the British created it artificially in the 18th century. But it has a history rather similar to that of next-door Liberia. Freetown, today's capital of Sierra Leone, began its existence as a haven for freed slaves. But what was meant to be a self-ruling colony, was soon transformed into a base from which British companies exploited the wealth of the inland region - just as the US later converted Monrovia/Liberia into an extension of the rubber-producing companies, Firestone and Goodyear. To this end special privileges and education were given to the former slaves and their descendants, so that they not only came to regard themselves as superior to their fellow-countrymen from inland Sierra Leone, but they also owned most of the businesses and occupied most of the positions in the colonial regime.

The peninsular in the north-east, around Freetown, was given Crown Colony status in 1808. But it took Britain another 90 years before it was able to establish its domination over the inland region, making this a British Protectorate under indirect rule in 1896. Thus a difference in the status of those who lived in the Crown Colony and those who lived in the Protectorate was established right from the outset.

In 1960, the British imposed a settlement for independence, having prepared the ground by helping in the setting up of the Sierra Leone Peoples' Party (SLPP), and a British-trained ex- medical officer, Milton Margai, became the first prime minister of independent Sierra Leone in 1961.

However this had effectively put the country under the domination of the southern Mende peoples from the Protectorate who began to make up the bulk of the SLPP. The Krio descendants from the former slaves, who dominated the economy, and comprised the most educated section of the population, as well as the northern ethnic groups like the Temne, were left without their own political representation. Milton Margai was succeeded by his brother Albert after his death in 1964 and the subsequent years were marked by increasing corruption, large-scale diamond smuggling and crime, to the point where the regime was compared to that of Batista's in Cuba.

This led to a political crisis and the development of opposition parties, the most important of these being the All Peoples' Congress, (APC) formed by disaffected members of the Margai regime who sought the support of the northern ethnic groups. Its most prominent political leader and founder was Siaka Stevens, a former miners' union leader who had been sent to Britain on a scholarship before being appointed to Margai's cabinet. Eventually, the APC won the 1967 elections. But Stevens, who had posed as a socialist, was seen as "dangerously progressive" along the lines of Lumumba of the Congo, Nkrumah of Ghana and other African nationalist politicians who emerged in the fifties and sixties. As a result a "convenient" military coup, was staged, just after the elections, which exiled him temporarily to Guinea.

However, a counter-coup restored Stevens to power in 1971 and he soon proved that imperialism had nothing to fear from him. Of course he started demonstratively by breaking all ties with Britain and declared Sierra Leone a republic. He also nationalised the lumber industry, but having seized majority control of the mining firm which controlled the diamond trade, he stopped short of nationalising this as well. And it was not long before Stevens had restored Britain's 99-year lease on the Koidu diamond fields.

Political rivalries between the APC and SLPP re-emerged as did corruption at high levels in the government, and Stevens himself was involved in this up to his neck. His regime was increasingly unpopular, since he literally ran the country as a police state, where no criticism of the government was tolerated, rivals were executed and bribes were a way of life. The economic crisis at the end of the seventies was the last straw for the population. In 1981, the Sierra Leone Labour Congress declared a general strike. Stevens managed to hold on to power by making some concessions, and probably not a few bribes, thereby splitting the union leadership. Accusing some factions of an attempted coup in 1982, he initiated a repression which led thousands to seek refuge in Liberia.

Thereafter, until 1985, the economic and social crisis went from bad to worse, and while gold and diamond smuggling was estimated to be $150m per year, official exports had dropped from $80m to only $14m between 1980 and 1984. The situation did not improve when Stevens handed over power to Major General Momoh. This so-called "kleptocracy" continued under Momoh, despite his promise of a "new order". But he also began to implement structural adjustment reforms demanded by the IMF and World Bank, as a condition for loans, which led to complete collapse of the economy already strained by years of official corruption.

The collapse begins with Liberia..

This crisis was not just confined to Sierra Leone. By the end of the eighties every country in the region was threatened by economic collapse for the same reasons. In Liberia, right next door to Sierra Leone, this crisis led to the mushrooming of warring factions competing for power, resulting in a total collapse of all state authority. By 1990 a full-scale civil war was raging. As many ethnic groups are split between several countries in the region, the warlords used ethnicity as a means to gain both local support and the support of whichever regime in the region saw fit to back them.

In 1991, the US sent troops to intervene directly in the conflict but with limited success. Ironically, the US then asked Nigeria to lead troops from ECOMOG - the "peace-keeping" military wing of the Economic Community of African States (ECOWAS) - to intervene in order to secure Monrovia's business district. This had the effect of pushing the conflict between the warring factions into the outer regions, but also into neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Among the warring factions, one began to emerge as the strongest - the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, under Charles Taylor. Throughout this civil war, Taylor, an old pal of the then French President Mitterand's son, received most of his supplies and weapons via French-speaking Ivory Coast which he also used as a base for his operations and diamond smuggling, with the tacit approval of Paris.

As a result, the fight between the warring factions in Liberia became tainted with the rivalry between British and French imperialism in the West African region, with the US standing over these two lesser imperialisms and waiting to take its own advantage after the dust settled. And while Liberia was the initial theatre for this competition, as the conflict spilled over the border into Sierra Leone, it became the second theatre in which these rivalries were to be played out.

... and spreads to Sierra Leone

Influenced by Taylor's success, rebellious elements within Sierra Leone joined with Taylor's army, vowing to overthrow Momoh's regime. They called themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and began to cause havoc within Sierra Leone, taking over diamond fields and terrorising the local population. The diamonds were naturally a great aid to the funding of all the rebel groups - and they could not have exchanged them for cash and weapons had they not had the "help" of the European trading companies.

Because of the war now spreading within his own borders and the fact that he had agreed to join the ECOMOG force which was to intervene, with the backing of the US, in the civil war in Liberia, Sierra Leone's President Momoh was forced to rapidly enlarge his army - which was his ultimate downfall. The young officers of this youthful army overthrew him under the leadership of 27-year old Lieutenant Valentine Strasser, on 29 April 1992. Said Strasser over the radio: for 24 years "we have been ruled by an oppressive, corrupt, exploitative, and tribalistic bunch of crooks under the APC government".

Strasser proclaimed himself Chairman of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). In this he took the same name as the organisation of Ghana's Flight Lieutenant Rawlings, who had led two coups in the eighties, and was now legitimised as Ghana's president by "democratic elections". Possibly Strasser got more than just inspiration from Rawlings, who was a loyal agent of Britain in the region. He vowed to end the rebel incursions and rebuild the economy. However he was not in control.

For the next two years, young soldiers wreaked havoc across the country, looting towns and generally promoting a situation of anarchy. The NPRC blamed it on the RUF guerillas but it was both the government's soldiers and the RUF who were perpetrating the atrocities. Out of this came the term "sobels" or soldier-rebels - who were indistinguishable from each other. In response to the sacking of villages and the atrocities against the population, rural militias were formed. Sometimes they were sponsored by foreign companies whose mineral interests were under threat. Forces under ECOMOG from Nigeria, Ghana and Guinea intervened as well as mercenaries hired both by the government and foreign interests to protect mines and the diamond fields. It was Strasser who first hired the company "Executive Outcomes", to guard the Sierra Rutile mine near Freetown in this period. This mercenary company has the same address in London as Sandline, which the British government has just had dealings with. Most of its mercenaries are South Africans from the so-called "Buffalo Batallion" which notoriously intervened in Angola on the side of Jonas Savimbi's UNITA rebels when it was not facilitating sanctions-busting for the South African apartheid regime.

By 1996, under threat of receiving no more foreign loans or aid, the NRPC replaced Strasser with Brigadier Bio who was then forced to organise a presidential election, in order to hand over to civilian rule. The elections were duly held in the middle of an on- going civil war. In March 1996, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, a seasoned UN official and a member of the SLPP, became President with the backing of both US and British imperialism. He brought northerners into his cabinet as a gesture towards multipartyism. To everyone's surprise, he also brought in the corrupted and discredited former president Momoh, giving him a government position. Evidently Kabbah's gestures were well calculated so as to include in his government opposition politicians who were so discredited that they would have little chance of outflanking him (although rumour has it that Momoh, tempted by Kabbah's rather fragile grip on power gave a helping hand to the soldiers who later staged the coup).

Kabbah was faced with the huge problem of demobilising the army, fraught by internal factions, the various militias holding sway up and down the country and in the diamond fields, not to mention the problem of dealing with the RUF. With the latter, a peace agreement was signed in Abidjan in November 1996. One million wartime refugees returned to their villages. The mercenary company, Executive Outcomes, together with local militias (the most important being the Kamajors) began to take the place of the fragmented army.

The fact that the army was being sidelined, together with the inability of the Kabbah regime to achieve stability, despite outside help, finally led to a coup in May 1997, by a section of the army. The coup leader, Koroma, blamed Kabbah for failing to restore peace, dividing the country along tribal lines and favouring his own Mende ethnic group.

How imperialism restored order

Liberia was the USA's only colony in Africa and so the US proceeded to resolve its conflicts. In the absence of even the remnants of a "legal" state apparatus, the USA did what imperialism often does in such circumstances - it waited for a stronger faction to emerge out of the fray, tested its ability to impose its rule on its rivals and then provided it with backing. This is how, in early 1997, Charles Taylor emerged as Liberia's strong man. Nigerian troops oversaw the preparation of "democratic elections" and, in May 1997, Taylor became the "democratic" president of Liberia.

The prospect of a Liberian regime both connected to French imperialism and friendly to the RUF in Sierra Leone was certainly not a pleasant one for British imperialism. But in Liberia, it was the USA not Britain, who were running the show, and they obviously were not too bothered about Taylor's ties with France. This, however did pose a problem for Britain in Sierra Leone.

In March 1996, it had seemed that Kabbah's accession to power had averted the threat of the RUF taking power in Sierra Leone and British influence was thought therefore to be safe. But Koroma's coup, in May 1997, put everything into question again. All the more so as, being not too confident of being able to hold onto power with his forces alone, Koroma invited the RUF into a ruling alliance.

An agreement was made in November 1997, in Guinea, whereby Koroma's military junta was given until 22 April this year to arrange to hand back power to Kabbah. However, it was felt that Koroma could not be trusted or maybe that he would be prevented from delivering by his RUF allies, or by Taylor, the RUF's pro- French friend who was by then solidly in power in Liberia. In any case, the British government was not prepared to allow French interests to set a foot in "their" territory through Koroma's regime or the RUF. With US approval, Britain chose not to wait for the 22 April deadline and gave the go-ahead for the Nigerian army to "restore peace" and President Kabbah to power, at the beginning of this year. No matter that it meant allowing the bloody Nigerian military dictatorship of Abacha to play the role of "peace-maker" in Sierra Leone.

Nigeria already had troops in Sierra Leone, just as it had troops in Liberia, Guinea and elsewhere in West Africa, under the auspices of ECOMOG. These troops had been engaged in regular clashes with Koroma's forces ever since he seized power. Soon, the capital, Freetown, was taken over, on February 14. So Kabbah, the so-called "democratic" president, was reinstated in his absence, leaving the forces of Nigerian dictator Abacha in control for a whole month, and relying on them to occupy and "restore order" by cleaning up the region around Freetown of all opponents and subsequently the other main towns, and rural areas.

But today, despite the assertions of the restored president and the Nigerians, "peace and order" does not yet prevail. As it is said, Freetown is not Sierra Leone. Most importantly, around Kono, the diamond field area is more or less in the hands of rural militias like the Kamajors. These militias claim to fight for the return of Kabbah, but undoubtedly they have interests of their own and links to other dubious interest groups - not least those of western mining conglomerates, as well as the mercenary organisation Executive Outcomes. There is today a question mark over the future role of these militias since they have become a sizeable force, numbering over 20,000 - by far the largest armed force in the country outside ECOMOG troops.

The economic stake for imperialism

Sierra Leone has for some years - in fact since the late eighties - been considered one of the poorest countries in the world. It has one of the lowest per capita GDPs. In 1994, this was estimated at $160 per head, higher only than Rwanda, Mozambique, Ethiopia and Tanzania. Given its immense natural mineral wealth and rich agricultural potential, the poverty and misery of its population is even more scandalous. But it is just this wealth which makes this poor country so poor, since this is precisely why imperialism will never leave it alone.

Diamonds have been mined in Sierra Leone since the 1930s. Due to their superb quality, they are much sought after. Consequently, even during the civil war over the last six years, foreign investment continued to be attracted to Sierra Leone. The British company, Branch Energy (which appears to be linked to the British-based mercenary organisations Sandline and Executive Outcomes as well as to a Canadian mining conglomerate) invested $11m in six mining projects during 1996/1997. The company has a renewable lease for 25 years to exploit kimberlite diamond deposits around the town of Koidu and has exploration licences for gold and other diamond bearing sites.

At the same time, De Beers, the biggest diamond company in the world and controller of a worldwide diamond cartel, acquired the licence for off-shore diamond prospecting.

Prior to the outbreak of the civil war, Sierra Leone produced 2.5m carats of diamonds per year. The war resulted in the proliferation of illegal mining and smuggling which is said to have deprived the country of £220m a year in foreign currency income. Despite the war, 213,000 carats were reaching the European market in 1995, mostly illegally.

One of De Beer's biggest problems in controlling the diamond trade has been the huge number of illegal diamonds reaching the market, over which it has no control whatsoever. For De Beers the years of mayhem in the Sierra Leone diamond fields and the increased smuggling, have been very expensive. It has a huge stake in closing one of the biggest leaks in this market.

Prior to the civil war, Sierra Leone was also the world's second largest producer of Titanium oxide, an essential ingredient in paint pigment. Production was concentrated in the Sierra Rutile mine near Freetown - owned jointly by Nord Resources USA and Consolidated Rutile of Australia - which was the country's largest employer. The civil war led to the closure of the mine and the coup delayed its reopening, despite the intervention of Executive Outcomes to protect it. The mine has yet to be re-opened.

In addition, Sierra Leone also has bauxite deposits which are exploited mainly by a subsidiary of Alusuisse of Switzerland, although the government also has a stake in other mining operations for bauxite.

It probably does not even need to be argued, therefore, that there is a great economic stake for foreign companies in the restoration of political stability in Sierra Leone, by whatever means, fair or foul. Hence the active use of mercenaries with the tacit agreement of all the imperialist players. The World Bank even released money to the regime, specifically for the payment of mercenaries.

But it is not just a matter of securing mines and diamond fields. Some of Sierra Leone's ethnic groups exist also in all the surrounding countries. Because of this, political instability, the collapse of state authority and the mushrooming of warlords using ethnicity as a weapon against one another, can easily threaten to spread across the whole region. This was exactly how the civil war initially spread from Liberia to Sierra Leone.

It was therefore vital for imperialism to restore state authority where it had broken down, even if it meant putting into the driving seat warlords with very doubtful credentials, such as Taylor in Liberia. Although, in fact, judging by the repression unleashed in Kabbah's name against his political opponents, there is probably not much to choose between this "democratically- elected" president and the likes of Taylor. Imperialism's determination to restore political stability also explains the role they gave to ECOMOG forces under Nigerian military command - including Britain, despite Cook's token "sanctions" against the Nigerian top military who are still banned from visiting Britain. It very probably means that these troops will remain in occupation for the foreseeable future, in both countries. But this is already a focus for discontent - for Taylor's government in Liberia, and, by all accounts, for a section of the Sierra Leonian population.

On the other hand, the specific policy followed by Britain in Sierra Leone, and its refusal to make any allowance to Koroma's AFRC/RUF regime, reflected Britain's determination to keep French imperialism out at all costs. This was primarily of course because Sierra Leone has been such an important contributor to Britain's own GDP for nigh on two hundred years. What the population lacks per capita, has been going straight into the pockets of British companies.

As to Nigeria's dictator general Abacha, the consequences of all of this may well be recognition from the international community. It was ironical that Kabbah attended the same Commonwealth summit as a guest, that his "liberator" was excluded from. Perhaps Sani Abacha - as he no doubt hopes - will regain just the credit he needs as a result of the big favour he has done for Britain and the US to legitimise himself when he arranges his own "election" to president in the near future.

A heavy toll for the population

It is estimated that the cost of the civil war to the population of Sierra Leone was 50,000 people killed, and 1.5 million displaced to neighbouring countries - a devastating toll for a country which has a population of only 4.4m. In 1996, the United Nations figures showed that the life expectancy was already down to only 39 years. The economy was to all intents and purposes was at a standstill. The brief tenure - 14 months - of the elected Kabbah government had scarcely begun to repair any of this damage, not least because the civil war was not ended.

When the coup took place therefore, in May last year, things could hardly get worse. Yet they did. Immediately 5,000 refugees streamed out of Freetown and then, as the other main towns fell to the junta, a total of about 50,000 sought refuge in Guinea and Liberia. Towns and villages were looted and burnt, and hundreds more lives were lost among the civilian population. The ECOMOG forces also seemed to pay little attention to how and where they fired in their skirmishes with the rebels, as a result catching many civilians in cross-fire and also causing much more damage to buildings.

Due to the oil and food embargoes, imposed by Britain and ECOWAS, and the theft of aid by the rebels, 500,000 people were literally starving in the countryside when the junta fell in February. Prices of basics had rocketed - the price of rice and kerosene for instance increasing fivefold in the course of nine months.

In Freetown, commercial life with the exception of the most basic street-trading had ceased completely. The Ministry of Finance building was totally burnt out, destroying vital records. Factories had not just closed, but had been looted and their machines destroyed. The mining sector had become a battleground for various factions fighting for control of diamond fields long after Freetown was liberated.

Sierra Leone has never "developed" despite all the wealth it has produced. Infant mortality at 160/1000 live births is the highest in the world as is maternal mortality at 2/1,000. 69% of the population is illiterate and only 34% has access to safe water.

So what about the future? Is Sierra Leone destined to remain a pawn in imperialist games where the stake is access to almost unlimited quantities of the most expensive mineral in the world? And where the only concern of the imperialist powers today is to retain or even better, expand their spheres of influence? The utter indifference that these powers have for the consequences on the population has become even more overt perhaps than during the so-called "scramble for Africa" in the 19th century. The numbers - in millions - of people killed and maimed in civil wars in Africa over the past years say it all. And in each of these wars, without exception, the rival interests of imperialism lurked in the background. Today these same interests no longer even bother to hide themselves and as in Sierra Leone, have unashamedly become embroiled in exploits with such reprehensible outfits as Executive Outcomes, giving them legitimacy, while using them as a police force in the absence of state powers strong enough to keep stability.

But there is another possible future for these rich West African countries, of which Sierra Leone is a part. That their populations maintain their healthy distrust of politicians, but that they go one step further and join ranks across the artificial borders left by imperialism, not on the basis of common ethnicity, but based on a common proletarian policy. Such a policy, which aims at uniting the whole world into a single economic entity is the only way to resolve regional deprivation. It was the Sierra Leonian working class which led the resistance to colonialism in the period before the war just as it did in Ghana, with the aim of linking the workers of all West African countries together in this fight. Today's imperialists and their local client-elites deserve to face an even bigger resistance to their plunder than they did when they relinquished colonial rule in the sixties. Just as workers acted in the past, so they can in the future. The collective aim of the poor populations and their working classes can only be to prepare "the mother of all" class fights.