Between Democracy And Terror: The Sierra Leone Civil War

alt Edited by Ibrahim Abdullah, Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.
Published by: UNISA Press, 2004
ISBN: 10: 2869781237 13: 978-2869781238

Reviewed by: Kemi Ogunsanya, Conflict Prevention, Mitigation, and Response Advisor at ACCORD.
In Conflict Trends Issue 1 of 2005

The new conflict paradigm has challenged conventional conceptions of modern warfare, characterised by an increase in the number and complexity of violent conflicts. What defines these conflicts is their intra-state nature and the most striking feature of these conflicts has been their impact on civilians, who have been both perpetrators and victims. In the background one is faced with the break- down of the state with vast human rights abuses, abject poverty and other social ills. This was the classic case scenario in Sierra Leone.

The search for political power through armed conflict left the tiny West African country at war for a decade, with a loss of 50 000 lives and scores of amputees. The armed rebel movement, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), unleashed terror on the populace of Sierra Leone, leaving the international community aghast at such vicious human rights abuses perpetuated against people from the same country. The ideology of revolutionary politics experienced in Ghana under Jerry Rawlings (1977), Yoweri Museveni in Uganda (1989) and Paul Kagame in Rwanda (1995) was undermined by the rebellion of the RUF as it sought power through parliamentary politics and the post-conflict elections of May 2002. The rebel movement failed to win even a single seat through the ballot box, which was a first for Africa.

Interpretations of the chain of events in the Sierra Leone civil war and its linkages with rebel movements on the continent have been offered by an array of authors. This volume is the first to engage a thorough analysis of the Sierra Leone conflict, and it is divided into three parts, comprising 12 chapters authored by nine writers of varied expertise. The volume explores the context of the crisis, the contradictory roles of internal and external players, the complicity of the state in perpetuating the administration of vengeance on the populace of Sierra Leone, regional intervention forces, the role of the media, and numerous peace initiatives led by civil society and the international community to end the war.

A positive feature of the volume is that it critiques previous books written on the Sierra Leone crisis. Yusuf Bangura interrogates Paul Richard’s popularly read book Fighting for the Rain Forest as flawed for portraying the RUF as a highly disciplined organisation with the intellectual capacity to make rational decisions about their war goals and for concentrating on their logic and dynamics for war, without investigating the social origins of the RUF cadre and the manipulation of child soldiers as the driving force of the rebel movement’s fighting machinary. Ibrahim Abdullah and Ismail Rashid trace the genealogy of youth rebel culture in Freetown, generally explaining why some of the youth turned to such radical ideas as those found in Muamar Gaddafi’s Green Book and Kim II Sung’s Juche idea in pursuing an alternative guide to political practice, making the youth a resourceful target for exploitation by the RUF. Ibrahim expounds on the RUF’s lack of a concrete programme of action or political agenda and their resort to indiscriminate violence against women, children and communities, thus further alienating the peoples it claimed to be liberating. Moreover, the origin of revolutionary groups vis-a-vis student radicalism was marked by a progressive deterioration of the economy, collapse of public institutions, dwindling revenues from mining, and an intolerant political culture by the Sierra Leone state, all of which contributed to this confrontational stance. Endemic corruption and the complicity of the Sierra Leone military forces with the RUF is revealed in chapters by Sarh Kpundeh and Arthur Abraham. Abraham’s provocative chapter exposes the deliberate prolonging of the war due to congruent economic interests in mining diamonds, supported by a neighbouring country.

The chapters by Jimmy Kandeh mirror the return to parliamentary multi-party politics in 1996 and the even- tual collapse of the second republic. Both chapters reveal the weak democratic culture in Sierra Leone and the political landscape, which has remained unchanged in spite of the civil war. Kandeh reviews the activities of the Kabbah administration from the pre-coup period from 1996-1997 to the post-invasion era following the signing of the Lome peace accords, in 1999-2000. He argues that the failure of the government after the Abidjan peace accord to put in place a strategic plan to defend the nation after the premature withdrawal of Executive Outcomes, an alternative security outfit, thus leading to an over-reliance on Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), was in part responsible for the invasion of Freetown in 1999. Lansana Gberie further expounds on the complicity of the state by exposing the impact of Kabbah’s policy of downsizing the army, which resulted in 95 per cent of the army joining the rebellion, leading to the bloody coup of 1997. Gberie reveals that the conflict was further compounded by the sensationalist reporting of the independent media. Olu Gordon echoes Gberie in his chapter, by portraying the struggles and challenges faced by the independent media and civil society organisations against a repressed regime. Yet, despite all odds, Kandeh describes the positive contribution of civil society organisations, particularly women’s groups, during the transition to the second republic.

The final three chapters deal with the meandering road to peace, the regional intervention force, ECOMOG, and the involvement of juvenile combatants, describing the phenomenon of child soldiers. Abraham depicts the rudimentary internal efforts and external intervention to resolve the conflict of Sierra Leone from the Abidjan to Lome Peace Accords, consistently over- riding popular will. He further exposes the leverage RUF had over the government of Sierra Leone to capture power through violence at a high price to the ordinary lives of Sierra Leoneans. Fumni Olonisakin presents a penetrating analysis of the shortcomings of the Nigerian troops in the ECOMOG, as a reflection of the internal situation in Nigeria and an opportunity to launder the image of the erstwhile military junta of General Sani Abacha, highlighting prospects for regional security in West Africa.

The volume is vivid, poignant and unequivocal, and serves as a critical case study for students, historians, academics and practitioners in the field of conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction in Africa.

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