Airstrip One
by Emmanuel Goldstein

May 16, 2000

Sierra Leone Ain't My Burden
Just why are British troops in Africa?


You couldn't make it up. Britain with her over-stretched armed forces has decided to intervene again. Obviously, the beneficiary of this intervention had to be somewhere that had even less relevance to Britain's national interest than Kosovo or Bosnia. This is harder than you would expect, for the Balkans are rather insignificant on the British radar screen. Paraguay probably comes close, but then even Bill Clinton would not be best pleased, and the Argentines and Chileans may have some revenge to get in, and bullies don't pick on people any where near their own size. Tonga is good, but the large deposits of guano (outside the British cabinet's intellectual ability that is) probably preclude this looking as disinterested as Kosovo. What about Mongolia? Large, empty, and now there is no hill farming in Wales no one will care about the enormous amounts of sheep. But, wait. Do we want to lose all those contracts for cattle prods and rubber truncheons with the butchers of Beijing? Heavens, no. We had to choose somewhere in Africa, and as Zimbabwe is taking a little longer to descend into chaos than our masters want, we decide to pick Sierra Leone.


Sierra Leone is not the sort of country that many British people can spot on a map, if asked most would have guessed that it was somewhere in Central America. It is on the West Coast of Africa, somewhat to the north and west of Nigeria, bordering on Liberia. Like Liberia it was founded, this time by the British, to house freed slaves from Jamaica – a fact bared out by the name of the capital, Freetown. The lingua franca of Sierra Leone, Krio, is very like the broken English spoken in rural Jamaica. However, the Creole ruling class (about 10% of the current population) was westernised, unlike the inland tribes. Breaking away from the British empire in the 1960s, becoming a Republic and one party state in the 1970s it went through the depressing litany of lost opportunity and corruption that most of Africa suffered during the Cold War.


In 1997, there the democratically elected government of Tejan Kabbah was overthrown in a coup. This was followed by sanctions, imposed by the United Nations, which destroyed the fragile economy of Sierra Leone. The sanctions also created a nasty little scandal for the Blair government when it was found to be breaking its own laws. The reaction to the law breaking – "the good guys won" – summed up its attitude to the rule of law in general. Civilian rule was restored by the Nigerian military through the cover of ECOWAS (the West African equivalent of the EU). The restoration meant that the army deserted en-masse and joined the diamond fueled and Libyan and Liberian backed rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). The West insisted on two conditions, ending the use of mercenaries who had kept order until then (at 3% of the cost of the UN force) and the involvement of the leader of the rebellion, Foday Sankoh, in the government. This had the inevitable consequence of the civil war re-igniting, this time with the UN acting as the country's army, with a supposed attempted coup last week being stopped by a mass demonstration outside the Freetown headquarters of the RUF.


Of course the route out is obvious, send in the Royal Marines (or in this case the Parachute regiment), backed up with the necessary gunboats, to restore order. But what order? The fact is that the legitimate government has no army, they have defected and are living off the diamond mines. The only forces at it's disposal are some very dodgy local militias (who accept cheques and credit cards), the United Nations forces and now the British. Although the militias may be every bit as ruthless as the RUF (something not reported in the press) they are not necessarily either good or loyal troops. The United Nations forces, are demoralised, poorly led and equipped and have been defeated by the rebels already. This means that the bulk of the defence is to be carried out by the British. This was not how it was meant to be.


The United Nations (UN) have proved themselves totally useless in Sierra Leone. We need to remember this when we are next told that it is worth paying so much to be shouted at in the General Assembly, lectured by the ambassador for Belarus about our human rights violations. When the West African's, led by Nigeria, imposed peace on Sierra Leone, they did a far better job, contradicting some of the racist cant that you read today about the failure of African peacekeeping. At a cost of $1 million a day, 30 times more than the more successful mercenaries of Sandline International, we have had this mess courtesy of the UN. And no wonder, look at the countries where the troops came from:






Czech Republic















New Zealand




Russian Federation





United Kingdom



Is this the basis for a fearsome jungle army?


The way in which the British involvement started was, we were told, to evacuate British civilians. Then it was expanded to include all Commonwealth and European Union (EU) citizens – the latter for the bizarre reason that there was no other EU embassy in Sierra Leone. This was rather odd given the fact that the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, has admitted that the Foreign Office was not aware of the whereabouts of many of the British Citizens. This strikes me at least as rather odd. If they were so keen to evacuate them, wouldn't they at least have kept tabs on them? It rather seems that many of these British civilians were keen not to keep in contact with the embassy. But the fact is that a week on we now have more British people in Sierra Leone than at the beginning, the troops of course.


I am going to digress here. I want to talk about "evacuating civilians" which seems to be the raison d'être of much intervention these days. It may build a cross party consensus, but what sort of moral basis does it have. That the governments should protect their diplomats and military is understandable, they must protect those who lie or die for their country. This should apply for all those citizens who are working for the British government or on government business. Like me, you may, be against foreign aid, but that is not an argument for saying that our professional busy bodies should not be evacuated if they are on government business. The question remains as to why so many

Nevertheless, what about those who work abroad for private companies. Mostly they are highly paid and pay little or no tax, part of the reason they are abroad. Is it entirely fair that the homebound taxpayer effectively pays a large part of their travel insurance?


The mission has extended beyond the evacuation of citizens. To evacuate they needed to secure the airport (although it was about the only place in the country actually secured by the UN, but we will let that pass). Now that the evacuation has been complete for those that want to go, they are not relinquishing the airport to the UN that would be too much like keeping their word. Instead the British have found themselves giving "logistical support" to the government militias, logistical support including shelling rebel positions while government forces advance. Moreover, the troop count has now exceeded 1,000 after the British civilians who wanted to have left. If your mission has been accomplished why increase your presence? The British military have also boasted that they are coordinating the government forces, having meetings every morning with what passes for the government. However this may be for internal British consumption – our boys may be in there, but at least they're in charge. Where will this extend, rescuing the UN hostages, defeating the rebels? How long will it take? Will we ever find out?


That the rebels of the RUF are brutal I have no doubt. That the other side are saints, there's where I have the problem. The fact is that in Sierra Leone the government and the militias that it relies on are not regarded highly. As one person from that benighted country said on the BBC forum:

The bottom line is that neither the government nor the RUF is sincere about keeping the peace. Only Johnny Paul Koroma is sincere and he is out of his depth. If UN realises that the problem is not just with the rebels but also with the government, they would not have taken sides like they did to forcefully disarm rebels whilst the government militia prances around fully armed.

Johnny Paul Koroma was the leader of the military coup that Britain forced to step down. Does it occur to Britain that imposing its template of a parliamentary veneer on all governments (especially through the model democracy Nigeria) may have stunted the development of this country? Of course not.


One other interesting straw in the wind has been the cheerleader of imperialism, the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), claiming that the British forces are keeping to their original mission of "securing the key points in Freetown". Although this is a lie and contradicts their own reports, it is interesting for what it reveals. The original mission was to temporarily secure the key points in Freetown to facilitate the departure of civilians. It now seems not to matter that they lied to us. They are passed caring. Indeed when Robin Cook, half-man half-weasel, the Foreign Secretary was quizzed on this matter in the House of Commons he said:

I can certainly assure the House – as I have already done – that we have no intention of deploying combat troops as part of the UN mission.

Well Robin our troops are in charge of the airport, providing artillery cover and coordinate the government forces, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it must be part of the UN mission. When you were in opposition, you got so upset when the then government was caught lying to Parliament. Perhaps some breast beating is in order.


Indeed one of the few heartening things about this episode has been the willingness of the opposition to actually do their job and oppose. They can sense that the British public is puzzled about this matter. Whereas there would be support for rescuing British Zimbabweans or (less support) for protecting the Albanians in Kosovo, Sierra Leone will not be so easy to sell. Indeed a full parliamentary debate has been refused by the government, as if a parliament has no right discussing a de facto declaration of war, limiting themselves to a ministerial statement. The tetchiness of the government has also been a wonder to behold, could they, it is asked have made a mistake?


Europe, or America, will not sort out Africa. Bullying them by intervention, or bribing them with foreign aid and debt relief will not bring Western standards of democracy. Indeed little we do will bring that. But the only way Africa will live in relative peace with itself is if we leave it alone. Until then the prospect of Western intervention will just be too tempting. Like cargo cults in the South Seas, African governments and opposition movements will vie for the attention of an all powerful West, knowing that if they impress with the right appearance of parliaments and elections then the West will smile. This is a recipe for continued misery. Until African states know that there is no prospect of all pervasive intervention then they will still fight over the smallest items, just in case the West intervene on their side. In the end Africa is not the cause of its misery, we are.


I have set up, on an experimental basis, a new forum, specifically devoted to the African situation, and what we are to do about it (if anything). Click here, and join in if you think you have something to contribute, or if you just want to try and find out what is being done in our name. Don't forget that run an excellent general forum, as well. If you want to quiz us, this is where you can find us.

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