Explaining War, Creating Peace: UK-Sponsored Reforms in Sierra Leone

By Denney, Lisa | Contemporary Review, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Explaining War, Creating Peace: UK-Sponsored Reforms in Sierra Leone


Denney, Lisa, Contemporary Review


RECENT rioting and violence in Sierra Leone has returned this West African country to the pages of the international news. Despite the United Kingdom's massive assistance package to Sierra Leone (spanning military and intelligence reform, infant mortality reduction programmes, and changes to the traditional chieftaincy system), little has been heard about the former-British colony since the end of its civil war in 2002. This article seeks to redress this silence. Sierra Leone boasts perhaps a more intertwined history with the UK than any other African country. From the establishment of the capital of Freetown as a port for freed slaves, rescued by the British in 1787, to the colonial encounter and later British intervention in the civil war and extensive post-conflict reconstruction efforts, the UK has played a central role in shaping modern-day Sierra Leone. And yet the picture that most Britons hold of the country is limited to Hollywood-inspired images of diamond-hungry, drugged-up, AK-47 toting youths. Here a broader picture of the Sierra Leonean conflict and post-conflict endeavours is painted. Despite the war being 'don don' (Sierra Leonean krio word for 'finished') for over seven years now, argument still abounds as to what actually caused the violence, and thus what measures are now needed to ensure that peace can be sustained. This article will provide a brief background to the conflict, examining several explanations for the war, before giving an overview of the UK's extensive post-conflict recovery programmes. UK-sponsored reform efforts can be seen to have focused upon issues of governance, on the basis that these issues constitute the root cause of the war.

In March 1991, two groups of predominantly Sierra Leonean (but also Liberian, Guinean and Burkinabe) irregulars calling themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) launched a cross-border assault from Liberia into eastern Sierra Leone. Their stated aim was to overthrow the corrupt government of President Joseph Momoh who, along with his cronies, was manipulating patrimonial networks to extract a personal profit from the country, thus crippling the economic prospects for the majority of non-elite Sierra Leoneans. Over the next eleven years the rebels raided village after village, working their way towards the capital, Freetown. The RUF became synonymous with the capture of child soldiers, the 'chopping' off of limbs and Rambo-style fighters. Promoting a loose political ideology of socialism and pan-Africanism, the rebels appeared more interested in personal gain through looting and diamond mining, than in realising political change. An organisation that should have garnered the support of a long-suffering and politically frustrated civilian population, the RUF instead isolated itself through excessive violence.

Deployed by the Sierra Leone government to destroy the RUF, the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) proved largely ineffective. Soldiers were underpaid (when they were paid at all), poorly equipped and lived in appalling conditions. In an attempt to make up for their situation, SLA soldiers took to posing as rebels to loot villages. This resulted in the 'sobel' phenomenon - soldiers by day, rebels by night. As these practices spread and the Sierra Leonean population went unprotected, communities formed their own defence initiatives, known as Community Defence Forces (CDFs). These Forces incorporated elements of mysticism, drawn from secret societies prevalent in Sierra Leone, and local bush knowledge to repel rebel attacks.

The decade of civil war saw two military coups, one election and numerous interventions by the private security company Executive Outcomes, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), the United Nations and the UK. At its end in 2002, it is estimated that the conflict resulted in 75,000-200,000 deaths, two million displaced people and 70,000 demobilised combatants.

Despite government and donor-commissioned studies, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and a United Nations Special Court, debate continues as to what caused the extreme violence in Sierra Leone that has come to represent the archetype of 'new war' in the post-Cold War world. …

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