Sierra-Leone - Blair's military intervention for the control of diamonds

Jan 2001

For nearly ten years now, Sierra Leone's population of 5 million people has been the victim of one of the longest and most bloody civil wars seen in Africa over past decades. In wartime, rules of engagement are seldom designed to spare populations. But in Sierra Leone, there are no rules of engagement. Or rather there is only one rule - who has a gun has power. Random maiming and killing has been considered by all sides in the war as a "legitimate" way to terrorise the population into submitting to their control. But then, most of today's warlords and a significant section of their troops are the product of the breakdown of the country's state machinery - a machinery inherited from British colonial days. And it was in the school of colonial power where they learnt the effectiveness of terrorist methods.

It is the country's extreme poverty and the resulting corruption of its state, which has led to its implosion. And yet, with its rich mineral resources in diamonds, gold and titanium, Sierra Leone should have been relatively better off than many of its neighbouring countries. But imperialist looting ensured that the country and its population never benefited from this wealth. Today's murderous war is the latest by-product of this imperialist looting.

And as if this bloody legacy was not enough, the criminals have now come back to the scene of their crime. Since May last year, Sierra Leone has become the object of the first major British military intervention in Sub-Saharan Africa since British troops withdrew from Kenya in December 1964.

From hypocrisy to farce

Of course, when Blair ordered the British army into Freetown on the 7th May 2000, he claimed that its brief would be limited to the evacuation of British citizens, in the context of a "new" threat by rebel troops to the capital, Freetown. And Blair's ministers duly denied that there was any plan to interfere in the country's internal affairs. But as subsequent events showed, they were lying. And this should come as no surprise, given the efforts already expended by British politicians (aided by the Nigerian army) to bring the ruling clique of president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah back into office just 18 months before.

A week after the arrival of the first British soldiers, a statement from the British army High Command reiterated that British troops would be withdrawn within a month. In the meantime, they would facilitate the build-up of a 15,000-strong UN peace-keeping contingent planned for Sierra Leone. One month later, however, British troops were still there. Foreign secretary Robin Cook's reassurances sounded increasingly hollow.

The British government then changed tack. The purpose of the troops was "only" to train a new army for Sierra Leone. This would replace the country's old army which, by then, had all but disintegrated into warring factions which were hard to distinguish from the anti-government forces. In addition, British trainers were to provide the Sierra Leonian army with an officers' corps - a tried and tested method of winning future loyalty to British interests. To aid this exercise London agreed £20m for a three-year programme allegedly designed to "revolutionise" the army and to make it "democratically accountable"! (No doubt the British army can teach others to be what they are not). Forty trainee officers were despatched in May to a college in Ghana to begin their "education".

This purportedly "innocuous" aid programme raised a number of questions, however. Indeed, this was not the first time that Britain had provided military aid to Kabbah's regime. In February 2000, for instance, 10,000 old British Army self-loading rifles, some general purpose machine guns, ammunition and mortars, had already been donated to Kabbah's government. One could only wonder what happened to these weapons since Kabbah had no "loyal" army or police force to speak of. The odds are that they ended up in the hands of the so-called "Kamajors", a rural militia that Kabbah has used as his own army for a number of years. The fact that these Kamajors have been rebranded by Kabbah as the "Civil Defence Force" does not change what they are - a warring gang among all the others, which employs similar methods and similar terror against the population. As to the Kamajors' leader, Hinga Norman, he may be Kabbah's Defence Minister, but he is above all a warlord like all the others, and just as corrupted and ambitious.

Cook's ethical menu - served with blood

Eventually the UN peace-keeping forces arrived, sorted out a new command structure and established themselves. But British troops remained. And in fact, beyond the official explanation about military training of government troops, no-one knows, even now, what British soldiers really did from the end of May up until August.

What is known, on the other hand, is that for a government which was so short of reliable troops, Kabbah's regime proved quite capable of staging deadly attacks against its "opponents" in this period. Thus in late May and June, Human Rights Watch reported that, what they described as "Sierra Leonian government helicopter gunship" attacks, had taken place in three towns against suspected rebel positions, killing 27 civilians, wounding 50 and causing tens of thousands to flee their homes. The number of Sierra Leoneans seeking refuge in Guinea doubled in mid-June as a result. In some cases, bombs were dropped on crowded market places. In only one case, in Makeni on 31 May, were leaflets dropped beforehand, warning of an unspecified future air attack. However just a few minutes later the centre of Makeni was bombed, killing nine civilians, some of whom had just rushed out to collect these leaflets.

Human Rights Watch urged the British government to ensure that "international humanitarian law" was respected by "pro-government forces", "as the military effort in Sierra Leone is being advised, trained, and in some cases directed by British military forces on the ground." And indeed, one might have dispensed with such respectful language to ask bluntly what role exactly British forces, if not British hardware, had played in these terror attacks against the population?

By August it was asserted by the MoD that only 200 Royal Irish Regiment soldiers remained in the country as a short-term training team for the government army, having no other military role. Of course, the MoD did not dwell on the fact that British navy vessels with their large complements of military personnel remained anchored off Freetown at the same time, bringing the real number of British forces up to a few thousand.

But on the 25 August, 11 soldiers of the Royal Irish regiment (and one Sierra Leonian officer) were captured in the Occra Hills - known rebel territory - miles north-west of Freetown where they should not, officially, have been. Much to their shame, their captors turned out to be a gang comprising mostly young deserters from the army, who had become known as the West Side Boys.

This incident exposed once and for all that the "training purpose" of these British troops was a fairy tale. In fact this excursion by the Royal Irish battalion was to "check out" two known rebel villages. Five of the kidnapped soldiers were soon released, after negotiations with the West Side Boys' leader, Foday Kallay - whose conditions were that his comrades should be let out of prison and that the government should resign. However the British military was not prepared to give any ground to these captors. British paratroopers staged a "dramatic" rescue on the 10 September. Extensive coverage was given to their "heroic success", much less to the fact that in the process, the paras shot and killed 25 people - some of whom were West Side Boys, perhaps, but who knows for sure? What is known is that five of the paras' victims were women and another was a man forced to work for the West Side Boys.

By September, the Blair government was no longer even pretending that its only role was to play teacher to Sierra Leonian soldiers. It now openly declared that it was stepping up its active involvement in operations against the rebels. In October Robin Cook stated: "Britain will not abandon the people of Sierra Leone to the mercy of murderous thugs... It is vital that the Sierra Leone Army is able to retake the territory of the country and provide much needed stability and security."

The Official MoD policy report added that: "Britain's objectives are to repel the rebels, restore the peace process and rebuild the country. It wants to help the government of Sierra Leone and the UN to build a stable, prosperous, democratic and safe future for all the people of Sierra Leone. Britain has committed over £70m in bilateral assistance to the country since March 1998. The Department for International Development (DFID) is helping to re-start the DDR programme (disarming of the rebels) to reintegrate ex- combatants back into civilian life. This is essential if Sierra Leone is to achieve lasting peace. DFID's substantial assistance also includes: strengthening the media, budgetary support; helping to restore local Paramount Chiefs; rebuilding the legal system; and support for good governance, including anti-corruption measures."

A "stable, prosperous, democratic and safe future" for Sierra Leone"? Well that did not seem to be Cook's concern when he justified the use of British troops there, by writing in an article for Sun newspaper that "Instability on the other side of the world can lead to fewer jobs in our factories, more drugs on our streets and more asylum seekers at our door". Labour's alleged "humanitarian" stance has a strong taste of xenophobic demagogy in Cook's mouth!

In any case, Britain's direct military - and political - intervention is now absolutely explicit. It is wide-ranging, to say the least, stopping just short of taking control of all aspects of Sierra Leone's political life! Yes, up to and including the forceful restoration of so-called "traditional structures" - the authority of the Paramount Chiefs - which were always the favourite fig leaf of the British colonial authorities in the past. But this is the "democratic future" that British imperialism has in store for Sierra Leone.

All along, a naval task force has been anchored off Freetown including a helicopter carrier. In November, the Navy's new amphibious assault ship arrived with 600 marines on board. A landing exercise was staged on Freetown's beaches of what Blair's government calls "an Amphibious Ready Group" - a "rapid reaction force" which could be deployed "if needed". In early December, the 200-strong unit which had ostensibly been schooling Sierra Leone's new army was replaced by a much larger force of Gurkhas Add to this the crews on board the ships plus the RAF personnel and the total probably comes to several thousand potentially active troops.

Such a contingent would probably not be enough to stop the civil war. But this is not the concern of British imperialism and fortunately so, in a way, because the cost of a full-scale British intervention might well turn out to be even worse for the population. What counts for London's strategists is only that this force is large enough to protect their present favoured warlord, president Kabbah, in order to influence the course taken by the war and to be in a position to dictate their law in any future peace deal.

Civil war: fuelled by poverty

The civil war in Sierra Leone started in 1991 as part of a regional implosion which began in neighbouring Liberia.

By the end of the 1980s, years of profoundly corrupt governments and partially implemented "structural adjustment" programmes - forced on the West African states by the World Bank and IMF - threw already poverty-stricken countries into an economic abyss. For instance in Sierra Leone, according to CIA figures for 1985, out of a population of 4.4m and a labour force of 1.4m, there were only 65,000 regular wage earners! And that was long before the crisis in Sierra Leone had reached its peak.

By 1990, in Liberia, warring factions competing for power pushed that country into civil war. An intervention by US troops failed to stop the fighting. US leaders got the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to take over responsibility for restoring order in Liberia. So, ECOWAS, which brings together Britain's and France's former West African colonies (although only for economic purposes in theory), set up a "peace- enforcing" military force under Nigerian command, known as ECOMOG, which was equipped with American hardware and sent to Liberia.

In 1991, ECOMOG occupied the business district of the Liberian capital, Monrovia. But this only pushed the warring factions to the outer regions - and into neighbouring Sierra Leone.

Eventually, Charles Taylor emerged as the strongest contender amongst the Liberian warlords - strong enough to impose his rule on the other factions - with the help of ECOMOG. As a result, he won the endorsement of the US leaders. By 1997 the Liberian war was over and the country firmly under Taylor's rule.

This settlement, however, was viewed by London with suspicion. Taylor was known to have ties with Britain's arch-rival in the region - French imperialism. After all, Taylor had been allowed to use French-controlled Ivory Coast as a military base, as well as a channel for importing weapons in exchange for diamonds. Moreover, Taylor's ambitions clearly went beyond Liberia's borders.

Long before this settlement was reached, however, the Liberian implosion had spread into Sierra Leone. Rebellious elements from Sierra Leone's army, who had accounts to settle with their own corrupt regime, had joined Taylor's forces. They called themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) These elements were led by Foday Sankoh, an ex-Sierra Leonese army officer who had become a photographer - after studying in Britain. The RUF's cadres originated from the days of student revolt in the late sixties and early seventies and were allegedly influenced by Colonel Gaddafi's "Green Book". However, their proclaimed "war of liberation" soon turned into a fight for the control of Sierra Leone's diamond fields - after all, in Sierra Leone, who controls these diamond-rich areas, has power.

But the RUF was not the only opposition to the leaders of then ruling government. Before the RUF had gathered significant strength, an attempt to challenge the regimes's corruption came from within the ranks of the Sierra Leone army itself. A faction of young officers, led by the 27-year old Valentine Strasser, staged a successful coup in April 1992. His initial popularity amongst the youth allowed the setting up of neighbourhood youth organisations, which undertook the repairing of roads, cleaning of gutters and painting of curbs without wages. But the IMF's increased pressures on a regime which was viewed with suspicion by imperialism, the continuing civil war in the provinces and the withdrawal of foreign companies as a result, just increased unemployment and poverty.

Strasser did, however, attempt to rebuild the army, by recruiting from among the thousands of unemployed urban youth - and proceeded to launch an offensive against the RUF. But the state's inability to pay its soldiers resulted in a new phenomenon - the emergence of the so-called "sobels" or soldier-rebels. These were young soldiers who took to looting and terrorising the population, out of control of the army and who became indistinguishable from the rebels, thus adding to the chaos and bloodshed.

In the meantime, the RUF forces were gaining ground in the diamond, gold and titanium mining areas. Eventually, with the go- ahead of the British Foreign Office, Strasser's regime resorted to the services of South African mercenaries, hiring the private army known as Executive Outcomes. These mercenaries drove the RUF out of some of the mining areas and specifically, off the site of the main titanium mine.

ECOMOG was also called upon to attempt to re-take mining areas from the RUF. However the combined efforts of mercenaries and ECOMOG were unable to resolve the situation. The population was driven deeper into poverty and therefore either into the arms of the rebels or at least into opposition to Strasser's regime. Finally Strasser was removed by the senior cadre of the army.

However, the new dictatorship could not count on the wave of enthusiasm that Strasser had enjoyed initially. In fact, it could not even rely on its own state machinery, as the army itself was split into rival factions, which no longer recognised any authority. And of course, this atomisation of state power could only help to reinforce the position of the RUF.

This time, British imperialism put heavy pressure on the new military regime to organise elections and relinquish power to a more stable, civilian regime.

Britain's "Kabbah solution"...

To achieve its aim British imperialism could not rely on the existing parties, which were discredited. So the Sierra Leone Peoples' Party (SLPP), the old party of British interests which had ruled after independence, was dusted off and taken out of the cupboard. £3m was provided for its revamping, dressed up as a donation to "support the electoral process". And London pushed forward its own candidate for Sierra Leone's presidency, in the shape of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, a seasoned UN official who was therefore also considered favourably by Washington.

Formally, all opposition groupings were invited to take part in the 1996 election, including the RUF. However, there were so many strings attached, including the requirement that all weapons should be surrendered, that the RUF could only have agreed in return for tangible guarantees. But, as it turned out, the British government was not willing, at that stage, to make any allowances to the RUF. Under London's pressure, the election was called without attempting negotiations, thereby leaving the RUF with no option but to boycott the ballot.

Kabbah was duly elected president on 15 March 1996. International observers proclaimed the elections "free and fair". But how could an election be "free and fair", at a time when large parts of the country were war zones, often under the control of armed gangs which enforced an election boycott by resorting to terror, while, in addition, hundreds of thousands of potential voters were reduced to refugee status, in Sierra Leone or in the neighbouring countries?

In fact, despite the seemingly high 70% turnout claimed by the authorities, only one million people took part in the ballot, out of a population of nearly five million. In other words, by winning narrowly on the second round, Kabbah could at best claim to represent half-a-million voters. And in the subsequent parliamentary election, the turnout was even smaller, with only 750,000 votes cast. But perhaps this had something to do with the fact that this parliament was only partly elected while a number of seats were reserved for "Paramount Chiefs", selected by the presidency.

So much for the "democratically elected" president whose cause Blair's government is championing today! In fact Kabbah's regime, with Britain's "warlord" now at the helm, had no more real basis in Sierra Leone society than any of the other rival contenders for power - including the RUF - and possibly even less than some of these rivals. Besides, with the SLPP regime owing its existence to imperialist money, it was corrupted from the start.

Once elected, Kabbah set about negotiating "peace" with the rebels. However his idea of peace negotiations was to foment a split in the ranks of the RUF, which caused even more hostility and got him nowhere. Moreover, he was faced with the same problem as his military predecessors in office: he could only rely on a fragmented army, engaged in various money-making diamond smuggling operations, which had absolutely no reason to feel any loyalty towards him. He therefore relied more and more on the very costly interventions of the mercenary outfit, Executive Outcomes and the Kamajor armed gangs, thereby sidelining the "official" government forces and adding to their discontent. It is worth noting in passing that, despite the many reports produced by imperialist institutions such as the UN condemning the increasing use of private mercenaries in the Third World, both the IMF (which provided Kabbah with loans) and the British foreign Office sanctioned their use in Sierra Leone without any qualms.

Kabbah's unstable regime

Kabbah's precarious regime was fated to fall even before it stood up. It was scarcely surprising when just over a year after Kabbah's election, in May 1997, an army officer, Johnny Paul Koroma, led a successful coup against him from within the army under the banner of a new body, the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC). So, just as Taylor was taking power in Liberia, with US approval, the situation in Sierra Leone was escaping Britain's control. All the more so, because Koroma, who was not confident of holding on to power with his own forces, invited Foday Sankoh's RUF into a ruling alliance.

And as the US had in Liberia, the British government turned to the Nigerian ECOMOG forces to do its dirty work. ECOMOG stepped up its pressure on the rebels within Sierra Leone. Arms embargoes were put in place by the UN and the wink and nod was once more given by Britain to mercenary outfits, such as Executive Outcomes and the British-based Sandline. In fact Sandline was instrumental in breaking the UN arms embargo when it arranged for weapons to be delivered a few months later to ECOMOG forces - with, as it later turned out, the full knowledge of the British Foreign Office under Robin Cook's so-called "ethical" foreign policy.

In November 1997, under this increasing military pressure and a new ultimatum from Britain, Koroma signed the so-called Conakry agreement, in which he undertook to hand back power to Kabbah by 22 April 1998. However the British government chose not to wait until the date agreed with Koroma, probably fearing that this might allow the RUF and the AFRC to build up their military capacity with the help of Taylor's Liberia. Blair gave the go-ahead to the Nigerian-led ECOMOG force (with Sandline providing "logistical support") to stage a bloody attack on Freetown and restore Kabbah by force. On 14 February 1998 Kabbah's restoration was achieved. Not that Kabbah returned immediately, however, much to the anger of at least a section of the population. He waited another 10 days before daring to set foot in Freetown - until the Nigerian forces had "cleaned" up the whole area, rendering it "safe" enough.

However, once restored in power, Kabbah was immediately faced with the same problem as before - he had no reliable army and only the Kamajor gangs and ECOMOG forces to rely on. But he immediately showed what his "democracy" was worth, by having 24 AFRC officers and 45 civilian AFRC collaborators executed after summary "treason trials", despite the fact that the Conakry agreement, which bore his signature, gave them immunity.

On 6 January 1999, rebel remnants of the old Sierra Leonian Peoples' Army and former AFRC supporters invaded Freetown, causing Kabbah to flee once more. The heavy fighting between these rebels and ECOMOG left 5,000 mainly civilian dead and many more wounded and Freetown in ruins. Eventually most, but not all, the rebels were driven back to the countryside by ECOMOG troops. But this was one of the bloodiest and most horrifying episodes in the 10-year war. And it certainly demonstrated the weakness of Britain's favoured Kabbah regime.

However, despite the bloodshed in Freetown, the main problem remained - the RUF still controlled large parts of the country and particularly most of the diamond areas. So Blair's next step was to try and broker some sort of deal with the RUF. This deal was the Lomé Peace accord.

The Lomé Accord provided for a permanent cease-fire and a large UN peacekeeping force. But it also recognised the RUF - which was meant to disarm and transform itself into a political party. Four out of 18 cabinet posts and four deputy minister posts in Kabbah's government were allocated to the RUF. Foday Sankoh, the RUF leader, was given the position of chairman for a "Commission for the Management of Strategic Mineral Resources" - this meant, in particular, that he was put in charge of the diamond mining which his troops controlled. Predictably, however, given that the RUF's control over the diamond fields was its only real bargaining chip, Foday Sankoh only used his new status to try and reinforce his control of these areas.

So the RUF forces remained in control of nearly half of the country. Battles continued on and off despite the cease-fire. Of an estimated 45,000 combatants on the rebel side, only 10,500 had handed in their weapons by December 1999. Renewed fighting in the North caused the population to flee their villages once more. New refugee camps sprang up around Freetown, Waterloo, Kambia, Yele, Bo and Kenema harbouring 300,000 refugees.

When it became clear that the UN peace-keeping mission was paralysed due to tensions between the Indian leadership of the UN forces and the Nigerian ECOMOG troops, who were supposed to be under UN command, the RUF decided to up the stakes. Instead of allowing themselves to be disarmed, they began to ambush UN troops and disarm them. They killed a number of personnel, and took hostage a contingent of UN soldiers.

By May 2000 it was alleged that the RUF was now threatening to invade Freetown. It was at this point that Blair decided to use British troops to secure Kabbah's otherwise non-viable regime. The RUF leader Foday Sankoh was arrested - marking the termination of the agreement between the RUF and Kabbah under the Lome Peace Accord.

A hidden stake - De Beers' diamond monopoly

Having failed to sort out the situation in Sierra Leone through diplomatic means or via the ECOMOG and UN military intervention, British imperialism resorted to its own army to do the job. That Blair was worried, both about the impact this may have in Britain and the risk of getting sucked into a bloody conflict was made clear by the initial precautions he took in his public presentation of the intervention. But he was all the more cautious because of the real and unsavoury stakes which lay behind Britain's "concern" for the fate of Sierra Leone. Indeed, it is not because of the atrocities committed in Sierra Leone that British troops have been deployed there, but because of a much less "honourable" interest: the world diamond monopoly exercised up to now by the London-registered South African conglomerate, De Beers.

De Beers is controlled by a Luxemburg-based holding company owned by an old South African family, the Oppenheimers, who also control the South-African mining giant, Anglo-American. De Beers and Anglo American built a fortune not just from diamonds, but on all the most lucrative mineral resources of Southern Africa, largely thanks to apartheid. But in the field of diamonds, De Beers developed a worldwide monopoly. Besides owning or controlling the mines which yield the best quality diamonds in countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Namibia and Tanzania, (and up until the 1980s Sierra Leone) and therefore already operating a regional monopoly in actual mining, De Beers also run a huge buying network which monopolised trade in rough stones in the rest of the world (including the USSR while it still existed). This buying monopoly feeds a stockpile of raw diamonds hoarded in London, which De Beers uses to impose its control on the world diamond price, by releasing fewer or more diamonds onto the market to keep prices at the level it wants (at the end of 1999, this stockpile was estimated at $4bn). Today, De Beers still controls over 60% of the $7bn a year world market for uncut diamonds.

Enforcing this buying monopoly in some African countries like Sierra Leone was even easier as it did not require big investment. It only required tight security controls around the muddy soil deposits containing the diamonds. When countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Angola sank into civil war, preventing De Beers from operating its monopoly in the usual way, it just dealt with whoever controlled the diamond areas, whether government or rebels.

Little has been known as to the details of the uncut diamond market up to now, except that it is very well organised and shielded from public scrutiny. However, the fact that De Beers was not too bothered about buying so-called "blood" stones used by warlords to obtain weapons, was illustrated, for example, in 1992, when it was revealed that the cartel had bought $14m worth of diamonds originating from "unlicensed" diggers in war-torn Angola.

So long as De Beers retains its buying monopoly, only a small proportion of the "illicit" and "conflict" stones sold outside the normal channels fail to end up in its London stockpile. This trickle cannot affect diamond world prices and everything is fine as far as De Beers is concerned.

However, De Beers does have a problem: rivals in the diamond business have emerged recently. Besides the big companies like BHP of Australia and RTZ of Britain, there are smaller ones, like Branch Energy and Diamond Works, who are willing to make the most of civil war situations (using their own private armies) and smuggling operations to try to break into De Beers' monopoly. Naturally, smuggled stones and those coming out of rebel- controlled areas - be they from Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Sierra Leone - are much cheaper. In fact, these rivals are forcing De Beers to sell its stockpile in an attempt to undercut them.

Hence the latest moral stance of De Beers against "conflict" and "illicit" diamonds. And just co-incidentally, the UN's "expert committee", which published its final report and recommendations on "Diamonds and Arms in Sierra Leone" in December 2000, echoes much of what De Beers has been saying. The UN report's main thrust is to argue for a tight certification system to stem the sale of conflict diamonds.

On the part of the UN, of course, this is blatant hypocrisy. Indeed, as its own report shows, the institutionalised laundering channels used by the rough diamond trade worldwide are so well- established and sophisticated that it is pure wishful thinking to claim that they can be dismantled by the use of certificates which can always be forged.

But for De Beers, which also controls to a large extent these laundering channels - unlike its new rivals - these certificates can provide a solution for the time being, by forcing the exporters of "illicit" diamonds to find an arrangement with De Beers' own buying network rather than with buyers representing its lesser rivals. This is why the conglomerate is now offering to help the UN implement its proposed certification regime. In fact, De Beers has pre-empted the implementation of this system, having already closed its buying offices in West Africa and by purchasing only certified diamonds from Angola - or so it claims, of course. And since last March, it has used its "guarantee" that stones were "conflict- free" as an advertising ploy, portraying itself as a producer and distributor of so-called "clean diamonds".

In the longer term, of course, what really counts for De Beers and similar imperialist companies is the loyalty and reliability of the political forces who control the mineral-rich areas. And taking care of this is the remit of Blair's government, by using its troops to help with the consolidation of a lasting dictatorship in Sierra Leone, regardless of the cost for the population.

In the meantime, it is convenient for the imperialist leaders to place the blame for the civil war in Sierra Leone not on imperialist profiteers like the Oppenheimers, who sit safely in their mansions, surrounded by their servants, but on their West African pawns. We are told by the UN that the smuggling of "conflict" diamonds by the RUF via Liberia, with the help of Liberian prime minister, Charles Taylor, in order to buy weapons, must be stopped because it "fuels" the war in Sierra Leone. They portray RUF leader, Foday Sankoh and Charles Taylor as the region's Bad Guys. Bad guys they may be, but would they have ever thought of embarking on their blood-thirsty adventures in the first place, if it was not for the De Beers of this world and their greed for profits?

Stoking ammunition for more civil wars

For the imperialist leaders, blaming the civil war in Sierra Leone on diamond smuggling, is also a way of blaming it on the tens of thousands of poor miners who scrape a living in the diamond-rich regions like Kono - just as they blame the power of the drug barons in South America on the poor peasants who survive by growing coca leaf crops.

Yet to exclude the people who live in these areas from occupying what should be their collective land, and to forbid them from digging the country's natural resources, by using armed guards - should, according to imperialism's own UN rules, count as "illegal" occupation of the diamond areas. Yet this is imperialism's aim.

As to the Sierra Leonian population, imperialism could not care less about its martyrdom over the past decade nor its catastrophic impoverishment. They have nothing except contempt for this population.

Significant of this was the Guardian's description of West Side Boys' leader, Foday Kallay after his capture during the September rescue of kidnapped British soldiers. He was, wrote this newspaper, "a sad figure, dressed only in a filthy Calvin Klein T-shirt and his underwear... He regretted it all, he said. All the more so because he insisted he was just about to release the six soldiers ... That was not the impression gained by negotiators as the swaggering, drunk leader demanded that the government quit and his criminal comrades be released from prison."

The Guardian, of course, despises such youths. But Sierra Leone is full of Foday Kallays. There is hardly any paid work available. Over 70% of the population lives below the poverty line. Unemployed urban and rural youth have always been a large recruiting pool for the government army as well as for the rebels. And who can tell the difference between gangs of armed youths who are used to fending for themselves, many of whom have also been labouring in the diamond areas for either the Kamajors or the rebels in order to take the chance to obtain the only "legitimate" currency - a few diamonds allowed to the diggers - to buy food, weapons and consumer goods. Of course some of these boy and girl soldiers come from villages caught in the cross-fire of the civil war. They often have no choice but to agree to carry a gun for the armed gangs. But they have nothing much to lose by making this choice because at least this way they have a better chance of surviving.

The "boy soldiers" who horrified the Western media so much are hardly "children" with guns. They have had what would be called in the West "adult responsibilities" from an early age - since they have had to fend not only for themselves but often for their smaller brothers and sisters in order to eat. "Family and village life" in Africa was not broken up by the wars (although this undoubtedly has exacerbated the situation) but first and foremost by the colonial regimes and Western companies which acquired the land these villagers occupied, causing a migration to urban areas and the development of city slums - which in turn created a cheap labour pool for the intensive industries like those of Unilever and others. The end of the colonial era changed nothing to this state of affairs.

The real "fuel" for this war - as with the other civil wars raging in Africa today - is the extreme poverty of this part of the world. Sierra Leone numbers among the poorest countries in the world. Average life expectancy is 45 years. Only 31.4% of the population can read and write. In 1989, already 68% of the population lived below the poverty line - and this was before the civil war.

Of course the civil war has made matters catastrophically worse for the population. On top of the atrocities of the civil war, the physical destruction of the towns and countryside over ten years of fighting has left people utterly devastated. Over one million people have had to flee their homes. Today, there are still around 400,000 refugees in camps in Guinea - now intermittently under attack - 100,000 in Liberia, not to mention the 700,000 internally displaced people, 250,000 of whom have sought refuge in and around the capital, Freetown. And in addition, tens of thousands living in the villages of the interior, cut off by a variety of rebel forces, have to face constant harassment and starvation.

The British intervention may be aimed at restoring "order" in Sierra Leone, but the order it wants to restore is the imperialist order. It is not aimed at restoring "peace" for the population, in any case, - which cannot exist without economic well-being.

Indeed, the British intervention, if it succeeds in stabilising the situation in Sierra Leone, may end up re-establishing a more solid basis for Western companies in the diamond fields, the titanium, iron ore and gold mines as well as in the few industrial units which still exist. But in so doing it will only tighten the screw of imperialist control on Sierra Leone once more. Since it is this imperialist looting of Sierra Leone in particular and Africa in general which is the main cause of the poverty of the populations, this will only stoke up ammunition for more implosions and more civil wars - that is, as long as imperialism remains unchallenged.

2 January 2001