An Argument for Sustained Pressure

By: James W. Harris

The Perspective

January 24, 2002

At last, the brutal civil war that was thrust cruelly upon the people of Sierra Leone for the past ten bitter years by the ruthless Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels there has been declared officially over. Or at least, so they say!

But not before it violently consumed the innocent lives of more than 50,000 people and the deliberate destruction of millions and millions of dollars worth of property. The thousands of amputees walking around Freetown and other parts of the country will remain visible symbols of injustice and the hallmark of the RUF's barbarity against the very people upon whose behalf it said it had taken up arms against their government.

While Sierra Leoneans obviously have every right under the sun to celebrate this rather momentous occasion in their own special way, there's bound to be greater challenges waiting for them ahead.

As President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah declared in his speech recently at ceremonies near Freetown marking the formal end of what many consider to be Africa's most brutal civil war to date: "Today, as we celebrate the dawn of lasting peace and security in Sierra Leone, we are also symbolically erecting a new milestone on the road to peace and stability in the West African sub-region."

"The events in the past ten to twelve years have shown that the proverbial 'we are our neighbour's [brother's] keeper' has become more relevant to the situation in our sub-region", he then went on to say. Indeed, his remarks couldn't have been more true or appropriate than now.

By uttering these magic words, "neighbour's keeper", I hope that by this, he truly means that his country, Sierra Leone, will now use its experience in "crisis management" to help its miserably failed partners in the Mano River Union (MRU), Liberia and Guinea, respectively, to achieve some semblance of peace in the not too distant future.

Because, as the late Dr. Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana observed sometime ago, "until the whole of Africa is free, no part of it is free". Although he was at that time referring particularly to the "total liberation" of the African continent from the iron clutches of colonialism and imperialism, but his observation could also apply to the MRU region today in regards to the attainment of peace and stability there.

What this then means is that until Liberia and Guinea achieve some level of peace and stability too, Sierra Leone's current relative peace and stability will always be threatened somewhat, especially so, considering the ungodly marriage of the RUF in Sierra Leone and the National Patriotic Party government in neighboring Liberia. Actually, it has become increasingly hard to tell one group from the other since both use the same violent methods for acquiring power.

But frankly, Sierra Leoneans should pat themselves on the back for reclaiming their country from their murderous compatriots, the heartless RUF, with the help of the international community. They should also give thanks to God for delivering their nation from those evil forces and ushering in a brand new day. Unlike Liberians and Guineans, they certainly have much to be thankful for! They should particularly be grateful to the United Nations (UN) and Great Britain (Sierra Leone's former colonial master) for playing a major role in bringing peace and stability to their troubled land.

Going forward, Rehabilitation (example: caring for the amputees and resettling the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and Reconciliation will be the two major problems to immediately tackle. Between the two, Reconciliation will be the most daunting and challenging since it involves pursuing justice for the war's many innocent victims.

Said President Kabbah: "If we really want to consolidate the peace, if we really want to facilitate the process of national reconciliation, we must be prepared to deal effectively with the trauma, the emotional pain resulting from that bitter conflict. One principal institution designed for this purpose is of course the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). We should all look forward to its proceedings, and the outcome of its work."

But the President did not stop at the TRC as the only means through which his nation could be reconciled. He went further to talk about the much-anticipated Special Court or Tribunal, without which total justice could never be realized in Sierra Leone.

Mr. Kabbah emphatically said : "One cannot speak about the need for national reconciliation, and at the same time ignore or dismiss the MORAL and CONSTITUTIONAL [emphasis mine] imperative of upholding the rule of law. The Special Court is about accountability. It is about justice."

"I should add however, that justice is not merely an act of punishment, of revenge or retribution. In our [Sierra Leonean] situation it is a means of dealing with impunity. It is also a means of ensuring that at all times, the human rights of every individual, including those who are caught up in armed conflict, are respected and protected," he added. But his remarks could very well be classified as understatements.

Some people may ask curiously, and for good reasons, why Sierra Leone does in fact need a Special Court when the evidence of horrendous crimes that were deliberately committed by the notorious RUF and their partners in destruction are so overwhelming and visible everywhere?

Well, the most reasonable answer might lie in the fact that the country is now abandoning its old ways and embarking on a new path - a path that will hopefully lead it to democracy and the rule of law. The country is hopefully leaving behind the practice of using "kangaroo courts" and the administration of "jungle justice" that were widespread in areas controlled by the dreaded RUF.

For a nation like Sierra Leone that has gone through so much pain and suffering with almost all its institutions severely scarred, it surely will not be an easy task to revive it. But overall, if Sierra Leoneans were to choose democracy and the rule of law over any other form of government, they will have a far better chance to recover from years of carnage and despair.

What would be remarkably different, though, from anything that Sierra Leoneans have been accustomed to in their immediate past is that under a democratic system, justice is "supposed" to be "blind", meaning that no one would be above the law; and no one would get away with impunity after committing heinous crimes like the feared RUF. It means also that no one, including the President or Head of State for that matter, would be automatically immune from prosecution. Whereas, the direct opposite has been true in most, if not all, countries in Africa following their so-called independence.

Unlike its neighbors, Liberia and Guinea, Sierra Leone now has the golden opportunity to finally turn things around for good. Under the new arrangement, "kangaroo courts" and "jungle justice" would not be encouraged by any segment of the society. Each person, even the most despicable amongst them, would be given his or her day in a competent court of law, because that's how democracy works.

You see, when it comes to delivering justice, democracy and the law work in a very funny way. For example, no matter how glaring or obvious a crime is, it must be proven in court before any relevant punishment can be meted out to the would-be culprits. At times, it does not seem right or works too slowly, but that's just the way it is! But I tell you what - it does guarantee stability since no one would dare take the law into his or her own hands.

And so, as Sierra Leoneans go about seeking justice and striving to stabilize their fragile nation, they should remain very vigilant (just as they were in physically capturing now jailed RUF rebel chief, Foday Sankoh) in light of continuing threats from the rag-tag group's biggest sponsor and co-founder, Liberian President Charles G. Taylor. To deny that he (Taylor) no longer supports or influences the notorious RUF is to ignore the reality on the ground.

As the disarmament process was winding down in Sierra Leone, there have since been reports about former RUF rebels crossing over the shared border into Liberia fully armed. Although these reports have yet to be verified, but given the close ties and relationship between the RUF and the NPP government in Monrovia, it's quite possible that they could be crossing into Liberia for two reasons. Either to help the vicious Taylor government combat dissident forces, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) in Northern Liberia (Lofa County), or they are there (in Liberia) to evade the disarmament process in Sierra Leone.

At a time like this when President Taylor is under tremendous pressure, both on the domestic and international fronts, for his failure to bring peace to Liberia and his personal role in destabilizing Sierra Leone, one cannot rule out anything. We will all have to wait and see, unfortunately! One thing is certain, though - Mr. Taylor and his criminal partners, the ruthless RUF, will definitely do anything and everything possible to acquire power and then keep it at all costs just to continue looting the West African sub-region of its once vast natural resources, including, diamonds, gold and timber.

Neither should anyone be misled into believing that by attending the mostly symbolic weapons burning ceremonies to mark the end of the war in Sierra Leone, that the RUF's interim leader, Issa Sesay, is sincerely committed to peace. Far from it! He will have to prove his real intent in due course.

As history has already recorded, those who gave birth to the rebel force were no more interested in making things right in their respective countries as they were bent on creating havoc and mercilessly plundering wealth for their own selfish greed. This is true today as it was more than ten years ago. The fact is that peace and stability in Sierra Leone are closely linked to the fates of Foday Sankoh and Charles G. Taylor, whether we want to admit it or not. And President Taylor has vowed lately to go back into the "bushes" if things don't go his way in Liberia.

Like its sister organization, the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), we are now seeing the heartless RUF desperately attempting to transform itself into a recognized political party to contest the ensuing presidential and general elections there. But like the NPFL (now called the NPP), such transformation is almost impossible given their core values of daylight thief and cold-blooded murder.

Unfortunately, nothing is ever going to change that anytime soon, because Taylor, Sankoh nor Sesay believe in democracy and the rule of law. If they did, their strategies to acquire power would have been different and more sympathetic to the ordinary civilian population. As far as they are concerned, power is no more than the illegal accumulation of wealth at whatever costs.

And so, while we as Africans and proponents of democracy wholeheartedly rejoice in the initial steps being taken by Sierra Leone, we must insist (and emphatically) that the UN and the international community, particularly, Great Britain, stay the course a little bit longer. They should commit themselves, just as they're doing in Afghanistan, to ensure that true peace comes not only to Sierra Leone, but the entire West African sub-region. After all, Africans in that part of the world crave for peace and stability even more than others, including the Afghans.

That's why it is very necessary that the international community, led by the UN, continue to keep pressure on both the RUF in Sierra Leone and its counterpart, the NPP (NPFL) government in Liberia. Because without its (pressure), we might as well say good-bye to peace and stability in the whole MRU basin.

Last but not the least, President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and the people of Sierra Leone should be highly commended for breaking away from the past and moving their country forward. Having come this far, if I were Tejan Kabbah (of course I never will be), I would gracefully step aside with my dignity intact and pass the mantle on to someone else so that he or she can also have the opportunity to contribute towards national reconciliation and development. This is what great men do unselfishly, because it guarantees continuity and stability.

Most importantly, if he were to step aside at this very moment, his action would help in a small but very significant way in erasing the long-standing negative image of African leaders wanting to stay in power for life. Like Kenneth Kaunda, Jerry J. Rawlings, and of course, Nelson Mandela, as well as a few distinguished others, Mr. Kabbah could definitely help his country in many other ways. That's why he really ought to give my suggestion some serious thoughts!

By accomplishing this much, President Kabbah and Sierra Leoneans collectively have proven that they are indeed capable of determining their own destiny with a little help from their friends (the outside world). I honestly hope that given the same opportunity, Liberians and Guineans would do the same someday soon.

© The Perspective
P.O. Box 450493
Atlanta, GA 31145