Imperialist interests behind barbarism in Sierra Leone

It is important that we view the situation in Sierra Leone from its roots, i.e. from neo-colonial independence. The current civil war is a confirmation of the impasse capitalism has landed the country in. It is a reflection of the total failure of neo-colonial capitalism. All it can guarantee in the long run, unless the workers take power, is barbarism.

Since neo-colonial independence, the bulk of the economy has remained in the hands of the multinationals. The economy remains dependent on the export of diamonds and some cash crops commonly found in the West African area. This process is also controlled, predominantly, by the big multinationals that set the prices and buy the produce. This situation creates a huge imbalance of trade, thereby resulting in increased indebtedness. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries of the world. This was the case even before the civil war.

The Sierra Leonean ruling class, who are the managers of this arrangement, have further run the country aground on the basis of the crisis of capitalism. They are incapable of developing the economy based on this arrangement, while at the same time they profit from this system. They are corrupt and they feed on ethnic chauvinism for support, just like their counterparts in Nigeria and other neo-colonies. There is only one university in Sierra Leone, a country with over 8 million people. There are no research centres. The basic infrastructures such as roads, hospitals, schools, electricity, do not exist in most areas.

On the basis of these conditions, a very unstable situation has developed over the years. Conflicts have broken out between the various sections of the Sierra Leonean ruling elites, as each wing continues to play up ethnic sentiment in order to defend its own self interest. Just like in Nigeria, the basis of the conflicts is not on how to solve the crisis they themselves created but on what method to use to deceive the working masses and how each section can get more for itself. They use the masses as pawns in their dirty games. There have been coups, counter-coups and mass revolts over the years, the frequency of which increased in the past 10 years. A civil war also broke out in the late '80s; this was shortly after the Liberian civil war began.

The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) is actually controlled by unstable elements who are not interested in any major transformation of Sierra Leone. They are backed by some sections of the Sierra Leonean ruling class and they play up all kinds of nationalist sentiments to gain support.

In the beginning, the RUF controlled only a very small portion of Sierra Leone, but as the crisis in society deepened, more layers, mainly the rural poor and petty bourgeois elements, joined their ranks. This scenario is quite similar to what happened earlier in Liberia. This situation developed because of the inability of the leadership of the Sierra Leonean working class to give a lead. This made it possible for some layers to join the 'rebels'.

Despite the underdevelopment, the Sierra Leonean working masses still occupy a strategic position. It is important to note that the Sierra Leonean workers fought against the various regimes of the past. There have been numerous strikes and mass revolts. Before the stage managed elections that brought Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to power in the mid '90s, there were a series of strikes against the war and the then military regime. The economic situation then was very bad; there were reports of mutinies in the army.

Tejan Kabbah, who is an agent of the IMF/World Bank, continued with the draconian policies of these institutions. In addition, the regime continued with the war against the RUF. The elections were crudely rigged and workers were not allowed to form a Party. Within months of coming to power, the regime became very unpopular. By the third quarter of 1997, May 25 1997, the regime was booted out of office via a junior officers coup. A mass movement actually developed against the regime; there was a major mutiny in the army, which saw the Sierra Leonean soldiers allying with the RUF and together they took over the government. The regime that emerged was made up of the RUF and junior ranking officers. Based on this situation, the civil war ended for a period. This development frightened the Abacha regime in Nigeria and other West African regimes, including imperialism.

The Kabbah regime had no mass base what so ever. Had it not been for the intervention of the Nigerian military it would have been out of power permanently. Even now the regime still relies on ECOMOG (the West African military alliance specifically created to intervene in trouble spots in the area) for support. And had the RUF/junior officers followed a revolutionary line of action they could have defeated the ECOMOG intervention force that finally reinstalled Tejan Kabbah after the February 12 1998 invasion.

The impotence of Kabbah can further be seen by the fact that he had to play up ethnic sentiments within members of his own ethnic group in order to get some support. This led to the formation of the Kamajor militia hunters. This is a very reactionary band, armed by ECOMOG to fight against the AFRC regime led by Major Johnny Paul Koromah. Their actions had little effect until the direct invasion by the Nigerian led ECOMOG.

The junior ranking officers, with their RUF allies, had no direction nor were they interested in solving the crisis facing society. They could not proceed towards nationalisation of the mines and the other commanding heights of the economy nor could they control their forces. This laid the basis for the numerous excesses carried out under this regime.

There were reported cases of looting, rape, etc., although the imperialist press consciously exaggerated some of these cases in order to blackmail the regime. Despite the limitations of this movement, the imperialists still saw it as a threat. The Kabbah regime had committed even more crimes and yet they do not report these. That was because the regime was totally committed to carrying out the various mispolicies of the IMF/World Bank. The uprising and army mutiny that brought down the regime scared imperialism and the various neo-colonial regimes of West Africa to a great extent.

The ECOMOG intervention

Before the outright collapse of the Kabbah regime, Sierra Leone was a major supply base for Nigerian led ECOMOG. ECOMOG is a reactionary counter-insurgency force, set up by neo-colonial regimes of West Africa with the aim of combating the guerrilla movements that were gradually developing against some of them. The force is dominated by the Nigerian military; Nigeria plays a sub-imperialist role within the West African region.

The Babangida and Abacha military juntas saw the growing guerrilla insurgency in Liberia and Sierra Leone as a threat to their regimes, as an easy victory for them could lay the basis for similar actions in Nigeria. A bloody coup attempt had already taken place in Nigeria in April 1990.

Their position, which was shared by the other regimes within West Africa, was to stop the rebels from taking power from the bush, as this could have spread within the region. In addition to this, the Nigerian ruling class also had some economic interests in many of the countries in West Africa. In Sierra Leone, Unipetrol owns the only refinery in Sierra Leone. It is also reported that Abacha had some stakes in some sectors of the Sierra Leonean economy.

In addition, ECOMOG provided a channel to loot the Nigerian State treasury; the Nigerian government has spent over 2 billion dollars on ECOMOG within the past ten years. The ECOMOG intervention has made some key members of the Nigerian ruling class very rich. They were the ones who got the fat contracts to supply the food, guns, ammunition, fuel, etc.

The Sierra Leonean army is trained and armed by the Nigerian military; over the years the Sierra Leonean minister of defence has been appointed by the Nigerian generals. Most of the soldiers guarding Tejan Kabbah are from the Nigerian military. The intervention in Sierra Leone and Liberia via ECOMOG was not for the purpose of defending "democracy", as they claim, but for the defence of the hopeless and corrupt regimes of Samuel Doe and Tejan Kabbah.

In Liberia, it was the intervention of ECOMOG that actually prolonged the war. Charles Taylor's NPFL had actually taken over 90% of Liberia before the intervention of ECOMOG, which occupied the capital Monrovia and saved Samuel Doe for a period, before he was killed by Johnson's group. The Johnson's group was a gang set up by ECOMOG to fight the NPFL.

This occupation continued until about three years ago when there was a reactionary "negotiated settlement". The result of this is the undemocratic election that further legitimised the reign of Charles Taylor. Meanwhile, thousands of ECOMOG soldiers have died in these senseless reactionary wars and millions of people have either been killed or displaced.

The current situation in Sierra Leone

The renewed fighting in Sierra Leone further reflects the hopelessness of the various negotiated arrangements. This negotiated settlement was a result of the fact that the ECOMOG, just as in Liberia, over a period of years could not defeat the RUF and the morale of the ECOMOG troops was at its lowest. There were already reports of mutinies and protests by the ECOMOG soldiers who cannot understand why they have been fighting for the past few years. In addition, the cost of the war was too high to be maintained by the Nigerian government.

The Sierra Leonean army had already been disintegrated into various bands after the 1998 invasion by ECOMOG. Some are with the RUF. There is no way the Kabbah regime could defeat the RUF. The regime has been relying on ECOMOG for almost everything.

All this laid the basis for imperialism and the various neo-colonial regimes under ECOWAS to opt for some form of negotiated settlement. Under this arrangement, the RUF, the Kabbah regime, the AFRC and other parties were brought together with the aim of setting up a coalition government, with the tasks of continuing with the programmes of capitalism. The new cabinet included Foday Sankoh and two other members of the RUF. The Kabbah regime had earlier sentenced Sankoh to death, one of the leaders of the RUF. This judgement was cancelled in order to get a negotiated settlement.

However, lasting peace could never be attained under this kind of arrangement, as it was brokered with the view of defending the dirty interests of capitalism. The 'new' arrangement was not geared to solving the problems facing the working masses, but towards sharing the income of Sierra Leone among the various sections of the Sierra Leonean ruling elites. That is why the agreement broke down eventually and fighting broke out again.

The Kabbah regime is a puppet regime with little control over Sierra Leone. The RUF controls close to 80% of the country and they are making millions of dollars from the diamond trade, which has flourished in the areas which they control. They are not ready to relinquish this to the weak Kabbah regime. As the saying goes, you can never win at the negotiation table what you never won on the battle field.

The collapse of the negotiated settlement is a reflection of the conflict of interests within the various parties involved. What is at stake is who controls the diamond trade and the country. The Kamajor militia hunters, who are the tribesmen of Tejan Kabbah are also looting the resources of the areas they control.

The role of the UN and British imperialism

The aim of US and British imperialism is to back up a form of coalition regime under Kabbah that will continue with the various draconian mispolicies of the IMF/World Bank. Under this arrangement it would be possible for the multinationals to enter and further exploit the country, particularly the diamonds. The coalition government would provide security for the interests of US and British imperialism. To a great extent the Nigerian regime supports this line of action.

However, some other countries, mainly France, the Ukraine, Liberia, etc., also want to protect their greedy interests, as they are the ones currently benefiting from the diamond trade. They are not too eager to see US and British imperialism take over from them. This, combined with the internal contradictions in Sierra Leone itself, is what is responsible for the collapse of the negotiated settlement.

With the withdrawal of the Nigerian troops, the weakness of the Kabbah puppet regime was exposed. Although the coalition gave the Kabbah regime more control, it still remains fundamentally weak, as most of the forces it now depends on belong to the former AFRC and the arrangement is very unstable.

The presence of three top members of the RUF in the coalition government was not enough to hold back the RUF from attempting to take over power completely. In addition, the RUF is made up of independent units; Sankoh does not have absolute control over them. While he was held in Nigeria for three years, the RUF still fought on.

The impotence of the UN in stopping them is also too glaring. This is the reason why US and British imperialism want the return of ECOMOG and the direct presence of British troops. All the cry about defending democracy is nothing but a smoke-screen; this is similar to the lies about defending the Albanians in Kosovo. The real reasons for the intervention is to take over the diamonds and other raw materials, and prevent a group of unstable guerrillas from taking power. This would create a legacy that could threaten the other unstable neo-colonial regimes of West Africa.

However, it is important to note that in spite of the uncoordinated and unstable nature of the RUF and other bands of rebels in Sierra Leone, they are not easy to defeat outright. It would require a large scale military operation that would go into the thick jungle of Sierra Leone. The Nigerian led ECOMOG could not do it in over three years.

The direct intervention of British troops will inevitably develop problems, as it is only a matter of time before they come under attack and the body bags begin to come in. A similar situation occurred with the US troops in Somalia. Guerrilla warfare is a highly irregular warfare, a soldier can get killed any time. They would have to stay in Sierra Leone for quite some time.

The second coming of ECOMOG, backed up by British troops, may hold the situation for a period, but it is not going to perform any miracle, nor will they now re-establish order, although they can win battles on the pages of the bourgeois newspapers and media. As casualties and the cost of maintaining the troops increase more crises are bound to develop.

Barbaric wars of this nature are taking place all over Africa and around the world, from Afghanistan to the Congo, to Somalia, to the Lebanon, to Sudan, to Ethiopia/Eritrea, etc.

The imperialists will still attempt to organise some form of negotiated settlement, on the basis strengthening the Kabbah regime with military support. However, they will not solve the underlying economic problems that are the direct result of the contradictions of capitalism. The settlement they want is aimed at protecting their greedy interests that are responsible for the war in the first instance. On this basis there always be room for reactionary chauvinists to play the ethnic card and pit one people against another.

Only the intervention of the working masses internationally, with the conscious programme of overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with socialism, can bring an end to this capitalist inspired barbarism. It is only the role of policeman being played by the Labour bureaucracy around the world that is preventing this from happening.

Leke Absioye,
Nigerian Marxist paper Workers Alternative
Lagos, 23rd May, 2000

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.