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Wednesday, 5 January, 2000, 18:15 GMT
Uncertainty as Nigerians leave Sierra Leone

Ecomog soldiers in Sierra Leone Nigeria says it cannot afford to keep its troops in Sierra Leone

War-weary Nigerian soldiers are preparing to leave Sierra Leone where for years they have formed the basis of a peacekeeping force. Our West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle reports.

"Ecomog is through - Nigerians got to go home. Little darling please don't you cry."

To a bluesy piano accompaniment, a musical Nigerian major sings a song to celebrate his imminent return home.

Sierra Leone
The army of Nigeria, the giant of west Africa, has for the past decade dominated Ecomog - the regional peacekeeping force in Sierra Leone.

Now it is going home, Ecomog is through, and it is leaving its smaller West African brother to fend for itself.

Nigeria says it simply could not afford the $1m it was spending each day on peace enforcement in Sierra Leone.

Pressure at home

Nigeria's decision to withdraw came in the wake of peace talks between the Sierra Leone Government and the rebels.

Kenyan soldier in UN force The UN has sent some peacekeepers - but more are needed
The talks were firmly supported by the newly elected civilian President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasanjo.

He knew that public opinion in his country was against Nigerian troops risking their lives abroad.

President Obasanjo told the BBC he was optimistic the peace deal would work.

"We are convinced that Sierra Leone is fairly secure," he said.

But the peace deal is fragile and there is still widespread banditry on the dangerous roads.

'Foundation for democracy'

I accompanied the rebel leader, Foday Sankoh - who now sees himself as a former rebel - on a trip outside the capital.

In any democratic liberation war you have to experience some destruction of lives and property
Former rebel leader Foday Sankoh
The rural people welcomed Mr Sankoh. For years he had been feared, because his movement committed widespread atrocities.

Now he is treated with a mixture of fear and respect, and he acts like a campaigning politician.

"I think we will succeed in laying a strong, good foundation for us to practise democracy," Mr Sankoh said.

Foday Sankoh Foday Sankoh is treated with a mixture of fear and respect
He denied the charge that the rebellion in Sierra Leone had destroyed democracy.

"In any democratic liberation war you have to experience some destruction of lives and property," the former rebel leader insisted.

UN troops

Some of the Nigerian peacekeepers have been in Sierra Leone for four years without a break, and Nigerian politicians think its time the United Nations pulled its weight in this part of Africa by sending more international UN blue berets.

We have been fighting a counter-revolutionary war
Nigerian General Gabriel Kpamber
I asked the Ecomog commander, Nigerian General Gabriel Kpamber if, nevertheless, he did not feel like a soldier who had lost a war.

"That would be like someone saying the Americans lost in Vietnam," he replied.

"They had to pull back because of public opinion in the United States - it doesn't mean they were defeated.

"In our case we have been fighting a counter-revolutionary war. Ecomog being a professional force, we had to observe our targets, we had to make sure we avoided civilian casualties.

"And that is why it appeared to some people that we lost," the Nigerian general concluded.

United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan has urgently appealed for 4,000 extra peacekeeping troops for Sierra Leone.

The UN has already started deploying some troops there following the signing last year of a peace agreement between government and rebels.

The UN soldiers were originally due to police the deal alongside Ecomog.

But as the Nigerians prepare to leave, it is far from clear whether Western countries will supply the fully-equipped UN peacekeepers which Sierra Leone now needs to replace the men from Ecomog.

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See also:
02 Dec 99 |  Africa
Gurkhas to tackle Sierra Leone troublespot
30 Nov 99 |  Africa
UN troops arrive in Sierra Leone
12 Oct 99 |  Asia-Pacific
Gurkhas bring hope to Timor town
24 May 99 |  Africa
Analysis: Battle to rebuild shattered Sierra Leone
13 Feb 99 |  Africa
Grim facts of Sierra Leone's war
07 Dec 99 |  From Our Own Correspondent
Cleaning up the diamond badlands

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