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Friday, 1 February, 2002, 12:08 GMT
West Africa's never-ending conflict
Burnt weapons in Sierra Leone
The ashes of Sierra Leone's war
Mark Doyle

The start of 2002 has seen two related developments - peace in Sierra Leone and war in Liberia.

At a ceremony in an army barracks near Freetown airport, Sierra Leonean President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah shook hands with his erstwhile enemies of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and symbolically burnt decommissioned weapons.


Speaking in the Krio language, President Kabbah said: "The war don don" - the war is over.

To cheers from those around him, the President declared, "The curfew is lifted.
You can enjoy yourselves tonight".

It was an uplifting moment for the government and (former) rebel officials attending the ceremony.

I was moved too. Over the past four years I have seen the best and the worst of Sierra Leone.

War in Liberia

But a few days later, the war in neighbouring Liberia flared up dangerously with fighting taking place within a few hours drive of the capital Monrovia.


I am a Sierra Leonean, but I have lived the past 10 years in Liberia, and now I have fled to Guinea

Refugee
Thousands of people already displaced by fighting in north eastern Liberia were forced to pack their modest belongings once again to escape the men with guns.

The Liberian Government blames the fighting around the Sawmill refugee camps - and the larger conflict before that, in north-eastern Liberia - on its northern neighbour, Guinea.

Monrovia says the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) rebels are armed and backed by Guinean President Lansana Conte.

It is certainly true that anti-Liberian militias have operated in southern Guinea.

Anti-Taylor guerillas

I saw heavily armed anti-Taylor guerillas in this part of Guinea last year. But the situation is complicated by other factors as well.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
President Kabbah says the war "don don"

Until very recently there were some half a million war displaced people in the area where the borders of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone meet.

Mixed up among them were diamond smugglers, rebels and mercenaries of all sorts.

With peace now returned to Sierra Leone some of those displaced have left for home. But others don't know which direction to turn.

President Charles Taylor of Liberia
But Liberia's Taylor faces renewed fighting

I once met a young man in southern Guinea who spoke with the broad, lilting American accent so typical of Liberia.

"I am a Sierra Leonean," the young man said, surprising me, "but I have lived the past 10 years in Liberia, and now I have fled to Guinea.

"One day I would like to return to Sierra Leone. But I am no longer sure where home is," he said.

Conflicts interlinked

When the UN began consolidating the peace in Sierra Leone last year (backed by the Sierra Leonean Government army, newly trained by the British), several things happened which showed how inter-linked west Africa's conflicts are.

  • Many RUF rebels moved from northern Sierra Leone into southern Guinea to loot or otherwise make a living
  • Some RUF returned to Liberia where they were first trained in the 1980s
  • Guinean helicopter gun-ships attacked RUF positions in northern Sierra Leone
  • According to Monrovia Guinean troops shelled northern Liberia in support of anti-Taylor rebels
  • Guinea said it was defending its borders against anti-Conakry dissidents backed by Liberia
  • Some RUF joined anti-Liberian forces in southern Guinea as mercenaries
  • Fighting intensified in north eastern Liberia
  • The LURD rebels began claiming through an exiled spokesman that they were intent on overthrowing Charles Taylor

Armed forces

A further complicating factor is that inside Liberia itself there is a broad range of armed forces nominally supporting President Taylor but effectively fending for themselves because they are not regularly paid.

"The Liberians are fighting among themselves up there," said a Monrovia-based diplomat who requested anonymity.

"They're squabbling over timber and diamonds. The LURD are only one factor".

Similarities

The conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia are intimately related, as are the peoples of the two countries.

Liberia's rebels
Liberians fought a bitter six-year civil war

Despite the political differences between the governments of Freetown and Monrovia, I am always struck when I visit by the similarities between the two states.

Liberia and Sierra Leone both entered the modern world in the nineteenth century, through the arrival of a settler class - the freed slaves who became known as Krios in Sierra Leone and the Americo-Liberians in Liberia.

These groups dominated the two societies for a long time.

Of course a lot has changed since the days when city elites lorded over the 'country people', but the legacy of the split between town and country remains.

Natural wealth

Both countries have fertile land, rich forests and teeming rivers. And yet both countries' economies are dominated by the exploitative commercialisation of diamonds, gold and timber - resources that appeal to get-rich-quick merchants more readily than farming.

This lopsided economics, which is partly due to an urban disdain for matters rural, has worked to the detriment of the majority of the people who, because of mismanagement and corruption at the top, rely precariously on imported rice or handouts of foreign aid.

The diamonds and other high-value resources available in the two countries, and the eagerness of the ruling classes to ruthlessly exploit them, has led to an influx of free-wheeling traders, smugglers, mercenaries and desperadoes of all sorts - be they African, Lebanese, American or British.

Blessing or curse?

In the diamond-rich badlands where the two countries meet, almost anything goes.

In mid-January I flew by helicopter on the Sierra Leonean side of the border region with Liberia and Guinea.

Victim of amputation
The fighting in the area was characterised by unspeakable atrocities

Through the rattling windows, I saw the dense jungle, rocky hills and deep ravines that would make this place uncontrollable by even the best-equipped border guards in the world.

Every few minutes, looking into the river valleys, I saw tell-tale yellow scars on the landscape. The sandy pools of water were caused by theoretically illegal diamond mining.

The struggle for control of these diamond mines is the main cause of the region's wars.

Vicious circle

Sierra Leone, with massive backing from the United Nations and military assistance from Britain, has entered an election year.

The hope is that after presidential polls in May, a representative, democratically-elected government will take full control of Sierra Leone for the first time in over a decade, so creating a haven of peace that will encourage stability in the region.

This may happen, especially if the international community continues to help rebuilding a country shattered by war - and, crucially, give jobs to the unemployed fighters.

There are many reasons to be hopeful; the guns are silent in Sierra Leone.

But the problem with this part of Africa is that when one war ends, another sometimes begins.

See also:

29 Jan 02 | Africa
Fighting nears Liberia capital
11 Dec 01 | Africa
Thousands flee Liberia fighting
18 Jan 02 | Africa
Sierra Leone's 'flames of peace'
18 Jan 02 | Africa
The President's speech
13 Jan 02 | Africa
Last Sierra Leone rebels disarm
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