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By Ibrahim Seaga Shaw - 15/08/2000  - New AfricanJul/Aug 2000

Despite all the chest-beating in London about British intervention, the Sierra Leone peace clock is still ticking anticlockwise on a fast track to square one. Recent events - the hostage drama and the detention of Foday Sankoh - have ignited a new round of war. Now in tatters, even feared dead, is the Lome Peace Accord signed in the Togolese capital in July 1999.

 

Most analysts believe the foreign players in the conflict should shoulder the Lion's share of the blame for the latest fighting. But the mad rush for the country's rich mineral resources, especially diamonds, has made it difficult for them to hands off:

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While Britain has been showing keen interest for diamonds a la Branch Energy and Executive Outcomes, the United States has been eager to protect the interest of its conglomerate, Nords Resources, which owns majority shares in Sierra Rutile plc.

The US and other players such as Canada and France have also been jealously eyeing, and even pulling some strings, for the diamonds, albeit behind the scenes. Thus Sierra Leone has become a pawn in the chess game of the powers jostling for influence.

Says Michael Wundah, editor of The Tribune newsletter, the mouthpiece of the UK branch of the ruling SLPP party: "Our wealth is the nemesis of the crisis in Sierra Leone, like the case of oil in Nigeria. The West has been involved in the exploitation of this wealth but has not done much to end the crisis. Sandline came and restored Kabbah to power but that did not end the war." Wundah was speaking at a recent symposium at the Africa Centre in London.

Britain and the US have never made secret their preference for a military solution to the RUF rebellion. Some critics say the West's venom against the RUF was influenced more by geo-political and economic factors than the mere campaign for democracy. Else, they say, the West would have hit the roof in DRCongo where Ugandan and Rwandan support for rebels trying to oust President Kabila, has received little or no Western expression of concern.

The RUF links with Libya, Liberia and Burkina Faso ("the unholy axis" according to the West) have now been elevated as one of the chief concerns of the West. As usual, the regional grouping Ecowas, is nodding agreement and refusing to take full credit for its lead role in peacekeeping in both Liberia and Sierra. All the three peace accords on Sierra Leone - 1996 (Abidjan), 1997 (Conakry) and 1999 (Lome) - have all had substantive Ecowas input. Critics, however, have generally blamed Britain and America for the collapse of these Ecowas peace initiatives.

Although London and Washington urged Kabbah to sign Lome, the money and logistics they promised to support the accord, never showed up or arrived too late to make an impact. Thus Lome, fraught with hocus-pocus from day one, was, like the two accords before it, doomed to fail whenever the West was ready.

Lome's turn for extinction was timed with the flying in of the 800 British marines on 8 May to coincide with the stage-managed demonstration at Sankoh's residence. No one has yet told the nation why the demonstration was allowed, and who by, when under the state of emergency imposed by Kabbah in 1999, demonstrations (whether by God or Satan) are explicitly forbidden!

As it happened, in a matter of hours, the British "evacuation expedition" ballooned into a "full-scale intervention" ostensibly to bolster the UN and government troops.

Kabbah's embattled government welcomed the British troops with glee, but their presence provoked mixed reactions among Sierra Leoneans.

Said Hassan Omolaja: "Britain's efforts in Freetown should be applauded especially as a democratically-elected government has been assisted in its fight against brute force."

But Cee Caulker, a Sierra Leonean, expressed a different opinion in a letter to "expotimes.net", the Sierra Leone online newsletter. Drawing a parallel to the Zimbabwe land issue, he said: "In the eyes of the British media, President Mugabe was a villain, the people trying to take back their land were squatters in their God-given land. Because they can't get their way in Zimbabwe, Britain was desperate to do anything to save its face. So Sierra Leoneans' blood became that to be shed."

Despite the recent high profile visits to Freetown (first) by Robin Cook, the British foreign secretary, and then John Prescot, the deputy prime minister, the last batch of the British marines pulled out on schedule on 4 June, leaving a token Force to "train" the Sierra Leone army.

Most people blame the British for exacerbating, rather than easing, the tensions. Because until the British intervened, there was no fighting in Sierra Leone. The Lome Accord, though not implemented fully, was going fine. Only the UN troops had had some local difficulties with the RUF. And that could have been sorted out without a hot war.

Thus, while some say the British rushed into the so-called "rescue operation" to score political points and claw back some prestige lost over their foreign policy miscalculations in Zimbabwe, others see it as a damage control mechanism to smooth over last year's Sandline arms scandal. Honestly, people don't know what the British objective was, of is, in intervening - and sparking another round of war in Sierra Leone.

Coming on the heels of the gradual British pull out, were the UN Jordanian troops clash with the RUF on 12 June near the Rokel River, 20 miles to Freetown. The RUF has since taken Lunsar - again - from the pro-government forces. Lunsar has been changing hands like the diamonds, and the latest twist in the town's fortunes has put paid to the claims that the rebels are beating a hasty retreat.

The RUF is now demanding the release of their leader Sankoh and others, as a quid pro guo for a return to the Lome Accord. President Kabbah, for his part, told parliament on 16 June that he would only resume talks with the rebels when they retreated to positions held before Lome was signed. 

As the stand off rolls on, innocent civilians caught in the fray are already paying a heavy price. Those fleeing for cover have swelled the displaced population around Mile 91 and its environs.

The Liberian foreign minister, Monie Captan, who has been negotiating the release of UN Indian hostages held by rebels in Kailahun, has said: "You can't negotiate the release of hostages in an atmosphere of hostilities."

Meanwhile the governments in Sierra Leone and Liberia are busy trading accusations of harbouring dissidents to destabilise each other. Liberia has since moved troops to the border "for security reasons".