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Saturday, May 29, 1999 Published at 17:16 GMT 18:16 UK


World: Africa

Freetown fears for the future

Sierra Leonians are worried what will happen without Ecomog

By Mark Doyle in Freetown

The handover to civilian rule in Nigeria is being followed very closely in Sierra Leone, where Nigerian troops lead an intervention force which has been backing the democratically elected government against rebel forces.

Sierra Leone
The presence of the Nigerians is crucial to the Sierra Leone government's security, even though the government and rebels have recently signed a ceasefire agreement.

When he was campaigning for election, the now inaugurated President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo, said Nigerian troops would not be deployed in Sierra Leone any longer than necessary.

This is widely believed to have encouraged the Sierra Leone government to enter peace talks with the rebels.

No one is expecting a sudden Nigerian withdrawal because this would undoubtedly destabilise Sierra Leone and the rest of the West African region.

Foreign war

But many Sierra Leonians also fear that a civilian government in Abuja will not be able to sustain the deployment of Nigerian troops in a foreign war.

Any precipitate move could also jeopardise the goodwill that Nigeria has generated with everyone except the rebels by backing the democratically elected Sierra Leone government.

But the writing is on the wall - the Nigerians will not be here to support the elected government forever and Sierra Leonians will have to negotiate an end to their war for themselves.

The peace talks between the government and the rebels are going as well as could be expected after almost a decade of war, but the ceasefire is shaky and the situation throughout the country is still extremely tense.

On Saturday a group of Sierra Leonians had planned a march in Freetown to celebrate the arrival of democracy in Nigeria and to appeal to the Nigerian soldiers to stay on to protect their democracy in Sierra Leone.

But the authorities here called the march off, citing security reasons. There is a general fear here that any large gathering could be used by the rebels to infiltrate the city and cause instability.



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