Freetown's crisis of confidence will worsen unless there is regional and international support for a negotiated settlement
The apparent impotence of Captain Valentine Strasser's government to deal with the the rebel threat is further damaging the region's already fragile stability as the war spills across the country's borders. Without continued regional help from Guinea and Nigeria and perhaps beyond, Strasser's chances of survival are getting, slimmer. Not only have the various rebel forces paralysed mineral production. which accounts for some two-thirds of foreign earnings. they have also effectively reduced the writ of the National Provisional Ruling Council government to the capital and its immediate environs. While Strasser has more than tripled the size of the Sierra Leone Army to some 10,000 soldiers since he seized power from General Joseph Momoh in mid-1992, the threat posed by the amorphous rebel groups has grown and their operations have become much bolder. The main thrust of government strategy now is to seek international mediation in the conflict.
To this end, Central Bank Governor Steven Swaray and Finance Minister John Karimu travelled to the United States to negotiate some more flexibility in the programme with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, as well as discuss the possibility of a United Nations' initiative in the conflict. They were able to persuade the UN to send a special envoy to Sierra Leone, in the near future, to open formal negotiations with the rebels. This eagerness to negotiate an end to the conflict is shared by James Jonah. former Under-Secretary for Political Affairs at the UN in New York and now an advisor to Strasser. He chairs the Constitutional Commission preparing for elections this year prior to returning to civilian rule by next year. Commonwealth Secretary General Emeka Anyaoku has also been asked to intercede and has publicly requested the rebel groups to contact him as a prelude to peace talks.
So far, responses have not been propitious. The rebel groups appear uninterested in dialogue with Strasser although government says that at least one rebel faction is willing to start negotiations through the International Committee of the Red Cross. Indeed. buoyed by their recent military successes in the southern coastal region (they captured the US-owned Sierra Rutile titanium mine and Sieromco, the Swiss-owned Sierra Leone Ore and Metal company, in mid-January) the rebels are keen to enjoy their latest economic spoils. Thev have also been able to win some support by distributing, free of charge. the contents of the mine stores to local people and playing on local resentment of the multinationals' presence. The other rebel tactic - seizing foreign hostages - has also paid dividends, both in raising pressure on the government and in frightening off expatriate workers, some 400 of whom have been shipped out in recent weeks. A spectacular rebel attack on Kambia on 26 January, in which 100 civilians (including seven foreign nuns) were abducted, has added to the pressure.
Since 1991, Corporal Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front forces, other bandit groups and Liberian mercenaries have effectively occupied large areas of the east and south. This conflict in the rich agricultural and alluvial diamond and gold producing areas has crippled the formal export economy. Cocoa, coffee and palm product exports have stopped. The only diamonds now produced - by teams of miners, including soldiers - are smuggled out of the country via Liberia and Guinea.
Talk of a new government offensive does not seem to have impressed anyone, including the rebels. Western governments, together with IMF and World Bank officials, remain sceptical about the govemment's military Organisation and budgeting. The expansion of the army has not brought a commensurate increase in its effectiveness: in fact, it may have had the reverse effect because a growing number of government soldiers are defecting to the rebels and taking their equipment with them. The govemment's arms spending spree has been a point of contention with the IMF: we hear there is considerable scepticism about the value of the purchase of two Russian-made attack helicopters for some US$4.5 million. Likewise, there is concern about the cost and utility of the 750- strong elite force detailed to guard Freetown installations, including Strasser's 'bunker' at Kabassa Lodge on the outskirts.
From its roots as an overspill from the war in neighbouring Liberia, the dynamics of the rebellion have developed to the point where several groups are confronting Strasser:
Clearly, such a range of rebel forces does not share coherent political objectives beyond Strasser's overthrow. There is some ethnic resentment voiced by those who claim the government, which draws on both civilians and soldiers, is dominated by Southerners - the Krio and Mende peoples. This is after Years of government led by northerners: a Temne. Siaka Stevens, President in 1968-86, and a Limba, Momoh, President in 1986-92. While Sankoh is of Temne and Lokko background. there does not seem to be an ethnic pattern to his operations.
Primary rebel targets have been the diamond-mining areas of Kono, eastern border towns such as Kailahun, and the borders of the vast Gola Forests in the south-east; these areas have long been relatively lawless. Sankoh and other rebels have exploited this along with growing resentment at the lavish lifestyle of the government in Freetown.
Over Christmas and in early January, the rebels intensified activities in new areas. Attacks on rural communities near Freetown showed in they were capable of striking at will and apparently without effective resistance by the security forces. The government has encouraged the formation of watch teams, known as community vigilance units, to combat such attacks but with the exception of some recent incidents in and around Bo. capital of Southern Province, the teams have not been very effective. In Bo, vigilantes caught and summarily executed alleged rebels in the second week of January but rebel activity still increased in the area.
A week after this incident, rebels kidnapped a number of Sierra Leonean hostages from Njaia, a college of the University of Sierra Leone. Some of these vigilantes or 'watch teams' are drawn from the ranks of the secret societies (such as the Poro and the hunting societies). Apart from invoking spiritual threats against the rebels, these societies appear to have greater authority in the community than the govemment's army or its civilian officials and this points again to the weakening of the central authority.
On 12 January, someone claiming to be Foday Sankoh contacted the Defence Ministry by shortwave radio and spoke for 50 minutes on the situation. Intelligence sources do not believe this was Sankoh himself, and the call appears to have been an attempt to stir up further dissent and unease amongst government forces. The caller said the first set of foreign hostages, two British Voluntary Service Overseas workers abducted from Kabala, a small town near the Guinean border, were still alive but would be executed if any captured rebel were executed. This was seen in Freetown as referring to Lieutenant Colonel Chernor Deen, sentenced to death barely 24 hours before the message.
A government soldier, Deen was accused of giving weapons. ammunition and uniforms to rebels in Malainkay district in March and April 1994 and of assisting them in their fight against the government. However, Justice Ebun Thomas, Judge Advocate to the Military Tribunal, has said the sentence is subject to confirmation by the Convening Officer of the Court Martial and the accused can also petition the Supreme Military Council to reverse the sentence after confirmation, even though the right to appeal against court martial was abolished by the former government.
Communication with the rebels at any level is proving difficult. A team of government negotiators was put together to meet RUF delegates at Mano River Bridge in response to an earlier agreement reached with some groups claiming to represent the RUF. The government team travelled to Liberia in December for the meeting. The trip was called off when they were unable to pass the Po River Checkpoint, manned by Roosevelt Johnson's wing of Ulimo. Another man claiming to be Sankoh called the British High Commission in Freetown by radio and said the group offering to negotiate had no right to do so. He was not prepared to 'go through the back door' to talk to his fellow Sierra Leoneans but would be prepared to meet them at some other neutral point. After checking details of his military training, British officials were convinced this was indeed Sankoh. Despite these setbacks, Foreign Minister Abbas Bundu went on the BBC to emphasise the government's willingness to negotiate. Less than 48 hours later, the rebels stepped up their activities in Moyamba Region and in their most daring raids yet, seized six expatriate hostages in mid-January. This dissension in the army was illustrated by the destruction of a small memorial park and monument to the memory of Captain Ben Hirsch, an officer who died during the 1992 coup and who was likely to have assumed the presidency had he lived. The destruction was carried out by a Public Works bulldozer under the direction of a staff sergeant who declared that even if Capt. Ben Hirsch had died in the course of the revolution, he was not the only one who did. They should build monuments to his memory in his hometown. The headquarters of the Public Works Ministry burnt to the ground on the same night in what some see as retaliation for the destruction of the memorial. Hirsch was the younger brother of John Benjamin, the powerful government Secretary General. Two days after the bulldozing, the Secretary of State for Lands and, Housing, Colonel S.F.Y. Kromah, whose ministry was responsible for the action, was redeployed as deputy force commander of the army. Unless Strasser can effectively heat such internal rifts, even his negotiating strategy looks doomed to failure.