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Saturday, 9 February, 2002, 21:50 GMT
Britain's future in Sierra Leone
Tony Blair with Sierra Leone troops
Blair: British and Sierra Leonean troops should be proud
Mark Doyle

When President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone walked up to British Prime Minister Tony Blair's jet to greet him, he was flanked, along with several ministers, by two white men in uniform.

The two men were Brigadier Patrick Davidson-Housten, President Kabbah's British security adviser, and Keith Biddle, the British Inspector General of the Sierra Leonean Police.


Ten years of devastating war means our institutions need rebuilding, so we have found the best people to do the job for us for now

Sierra Leone Information Minister Cecil Blake
The presence of two British citizens - paid for by Britain - in such high positions in the Sierra Leone Government, illustrates the commitment of the UK to the country.

It also shows the dire state to which key Sierra Leonean state institutions have fallen as a result of the decade-long war.

In many countries you would expect local people to resent the presence of foreigners at the top of government.

But in Sierra Leone, after years of corrupt misrule, the opposite is the case.

"Thank You Britain", said one of the banners greeting Tony Blair when he made a whistle-stop tour of Mahera village near the airport.

"Thank you for helping end the war."

Recolonised?

Britain sent troops to Sierra Leone in mid-2000, ostensibly to evacuate British nationals when rebels responsible for appalling atrocities against civilians threatened to overthrow the elected government.

Sierra Leonean rebels handing in their guns
The rebels finally began disarming late last year

But it quickly became apparent that there was a long-term plan, and Brigadier Davidson Housten now heads the team that has re-trained and re-armed an 8,000-strong government army.

Britain and other Commonwealth countries had been fulfilling a similar role for the police force for several years.

"The people actually want to be recolonised", said Zainab Bangura, a political activist and publisher of the first serious political opinion poll in Sierra Leone.

"Now 70% of the respondents to our survey, all of whom were in Freetown, said they would like Britain to assume trusteeship of Sierra Leone until a new political dispensation can be worked out."

Recolonisation is of course out of the question, however President Kabbah has, in effect, gone halfway to doing this by appointing British advisers to top positions and welcoming the largest United Nations peacekeeping force in the world.

The British troops can be proud of what they have achieved, but so can the Sierra Leonean soldiers who have joined the new army

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair

"This is not a normal situation", said Information Minister Cecil Blake. "When we have found competent Sierra Leoneans to do these jobs, we will appoint them."

"Ten years of devastating war means our institutions need rebuilding, so we have found the best people to do the job for us for now," he said.

Economic rebuilding

On the streets, ordinary people agreed. "We wan' Tony Blair and de white people-dem for help-we", said a young man speaking in the Krio language, meaning: "We want Tony Blair and the people from the rich countries to help us, please".

"British man good-oh. We gladee", said another, meaning: "The British are good. We are happy that they came".

Child with amputated foot
Many children became targets during the civil war

Mr Blair only stayed in Sierra Leone for three hours, but crammed in meetings with the president, a quick tour of a village near the airport, and a review of Sierra Leonean troops and their British trainers.

"The British troops can be proud of what they have achieved", Mr Blair said.

"But so can the Sierra Leonean soldiers who have joined the new army."

Mr Blair's message in speeches and statements during the visit to Sierra Leone was that if the international community can achieve peace in Sierra Leone - when the sceptics said it was not possible - it can also achieve the economic rebuilding the country now so desperately needs.

UN 'disaster'

But it might be a mistake to see Sierra Leone as a model that could easily be repeated in other conflict situations.

Nigerian UN peacekeeping troops
Hundreds of UN soldiers were kidnapped by rebels in 2000

Several specific factors were in place that encouraged the international community to act.

These factors included previous disastrous United Nations peacekeeping missions in Africa, including Somalia and Rwanda.

When the mission in Sierra Leone started going wrong, the most infamous incident being the kidnapping of hundreds of peacekeepers by rebels in 2000, the very credibility of UN peacekeeping was questioned.

The international body therefore made a concerted effort - and spent billions of dollars - to restore its credibility.

It is not clear whether the UN would be able to mobilise such a force for other situations.

Blair's commitment

Another specific aspect of the Sierra Leone situation is its status as a former British colony and Mr Blair's apparent personal commitment to achieve something in Africa.

British soldier in Sierra Leone
Observers say UK presence in Sierra Leone saved Mr Kabbah's government

Since the Sierra Leone war began it had always been thought that British troops could make a major difference because of the close links between the two countries and the respect in which Britain is held in the country.

A combination of these factors has led to a huge foreign presence in Sierra Leone, a presence which has saved President Kabbah's government.

What might happen if and when the UN and British troops leave is another question. Peace has returned, but Sierra Leone is still a long way from being able to stand firmly on its own two feet.

See also:

08 Feb 02 | Africa
Blair targets African dictators
08 Feb 02 | Africa
Blair receives tribal welcome
08 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Perils of a globetrotting PM
07 Feb 02 | UK Politics
In Africa with Blair
07 Feb 02 | Africa
Blair begins African tour
07 Feb 02 | Africa
Blair's African contrasts
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