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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 January 2006, 12:29 GMT
Lessons from West Africa's dirty war
By Mark Doyle
BBC World Affairs correspondent

It looked more like a child's vision of the surface of the moon than a West African town.

Koidu in 2001
Illegal diamond mining was rife in eastern Sierra Leone in 2001
Koidu, in eastern Sierra Leone, in August 2001, had been dug over so comprehensively that it resembled a lunar landscape.

Everywhere I looked there were giant watery holes surrounded by piles of gravel.

And in the holes, hundreds of diamond miners were panning for gems.

They were digging in what was once the main road; they were digging in the marketplace.

In one house I peered into, they were even digging in the living room.

A United Nations peacekeeper from Pakistan was posted on a small bridge across a stream in the middle of the town. I asked him what he was doing there.

"I'm protecting the bridge," he replied.

"From what?" I wondered. "I thought the war was over?"

"I'm protecting the bridge from being destroyed by these miners," came the pragmatic reply.

"If these guys dig under here, the bridge will fall down and we won't be able to drive our lorries to the UN camp up the road".


Koidu, five years ago, was a symbol of much that was wrong in Sierra Leone.

Most of the miners were former rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) who, having decided their attempt to seize power was now thwarted by a combination of UN troops and a British military intervention, had turned to mining.

Koidu by air
Koidu was destroyed in the fighting
The digging was completely illegal and most of the gemstones would be smuggled to neighbouring Liberia rather than go through the Sierra Leone government's books to (possibly) benefit the people of Sierra Leone.

The RUF miners were a law unto themselves; many of them, out of sight of the UN, had guns which they used to settle their arguments or press gang men into working for them.

The UN troops turned a blind eye to the smuggling because some of the rebels were co-operating with a disarmament programme - and, in any case, it would have been impossible for the thinly spread troops to stop the hordes of diggers.

Diamonds have always been at the heart of Sierra Leone's problems. Ever since the first commercial mines were opened by the British colonial authorities in 1931, they have been both the prize and the fuel in conflicts.


Sierra Leonean researcher and journalist Lansana Gberie argues in his new study of the war that diamonds gave the RUF insurgents both a motivation and a resource base to fight.

Mr Gberie's analysis centres on the criminalisation of the state, funded largely by diamonds, which began under long-time leader Siaka Stevens, in power from 1968 to 1985.

Mr Gberie's study shows just how crucial an army, or the lack of a decent one, can be to the life of a nation
He argues that Stevens steadily undermined the institutions of state (the army, the courts, and social services like education and health care) by corruption, much of it through Lebanese intermediaries.

This, Mr Gberie says, meant the RUF had a relatively easy task in mounting its insurgency because there was little resistance from rotten state structures - including the army, which not only failed to stop the RUF but partly ended up joining them.

The insurgency was characterised by terror attacks on civilians, including the widespread hacking off of people's limbs.

This had the twin effect of making populations flee - so making looting easier - and terrifying others into submission.

In the end it was the UN - with backing from a British military intervention - which restored the elected government to Sierra Leone after war and coups had almost destroyed it.

Mr Gberie's thesis is not new, of course. But the detail he gives from his perspective as a Sierra Leonean journalist who has also worked as a researcher into the international diamond market, is probably unique.

He has worked for the organisation Partnership Africa Canada which lobbied effectively for Sierra Leone to fight against the trade in "conflict diamonds".

The brief history he gives of the British colonial state, for example, is particularly refreshing. Many Sierra Leoneans, exhausted and battered by the war, tend to idealise that history, presenting it as a peaceful idyll.

UK heroes

This tendency was exacerbated by the British military intervention in 2000 which stopped a probable coup by the much-feared RUF.

UN troops
The last UN troops have now left Sierra Leone, leaving the army under close scrutiny

During the intervention it was common for people spontaneously to shout "God Bless The British," whenever they saw a squaddie sporting a Union Jack badge.

In fact, although the modern British action was extremely popular among Sierra Leoneans, the colonial idyll, if there was one, only really benefited a few tens of thousands of people in the colony of Freetown and its immediate environs.

Many of these were the descendants of African immigrants to the country who benefited from the higher education and decent services on offer in the capital.

Mr Gberie's study reminds us that the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans in the hinterland (or "The Protectorate") were not touched by the "civilising" power except when it came to foreign soldiers or policemen extracting hut tax from them.

The author also has some telling nuggets on the more recent dramatis personae in the Sierra Leone war.


It is often forgotten these days, for example, that Muammar Gaddafi, a man now courted by the West, was one of the creators of the chaos in West Africa in the 1990s.

The Libyan leader helped finance the early activities of a small group of "revolutionaries" including Charles Taylor, who became the president of Liberia, and the RUF leader Foday Sankoh.

The new study identifies the corruption and failures of the Sierra Leone army as one of the key elements that led to the collapse of the state in the 1990s and details its demise in admirable detail.

However, it would have been useful to know more about today's army, which has received considerable training and new equipment from Britain, and whether it has any more backbone.

One of the commanders of the British intervention force told me in 2000 his project was "to build the country back up, starting with the government army as the first building block".

I recall thinking, at the time, that this was a rather self-important thing for a soldier to say.

But I was wrong - Mr Gberie's study shows just how crucial an army, or the lack of a decent one, can be to the life of a nation.

What Sierra Leoneans want to know now is whether the new, British-trained army, is much better than the old one; would it resist any new insurgency and defend democracy or would it join the miners in Koidu?

One suspects that Lansana Gberies' contacts with politicians are rather better than his contacts with the military because this book does not really answer this crucial question - perhaps that should be the subject of his next study.

Nevertheless, this book is a valuable addition to the literature on the Sierra Leone war, written by a well-informed Sierra Leonean intellectual.

It details the collapse of a state through corrupt neglect and direct criminal activity.

It is a warning to many countries.

A Dirty War In West Africa - the RUF and the destruction of Sierra Leone by Lansana Gberie, Hurst and Company, London, 2005

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