September 4, 2000
Firstly I would like to apologise for interrupting my "Is England Free?" series, but things turned up, like 11 British troops at an African roadblock. But surely, you ask in sarcastic tones, Britain has withdrawn from Sierra Leone and the place has been restored to peace, prosperity and democracy? Firstly, less of the lip and almost as importantly, after the British put out a few press releases when they realised that they wouldnít fully defeat the rag tag Revolutionary United Forces (RUF) they left in a great fanfare, and stayed. But the British stayed to train Sierra Leoneís army, we were told. At least we were told that line until 11 British troops were stopped in an out of the way jungle roadblock without a raw recruit in sight. Ah, we were subsequently told, they were liaising with the UN troops. Quite what they were supposed to be liaising about has not been made clear, neither was the fact that they were doing this job at all (and hence that Geoff Hoon, the British defence secretary, technically lied to parliament). Even this story is in doubt as the United Nations rashly denied that they had been liaised with at all, leading to the inescapable conclusion that the British government was on a frolic of its own. Like Montenegro questions need to be answered. It seems that a ransom has been paid for five of the troops and the British will probably pay a quiet ransom for the rest.
The most important news to come from Sierra Leone was that the British troops had not withdrawn. Indeed I had fought a lonely, geeky but ultimately successful campaign with the BBC web site on the issue of withdrawal. They were stating at the time that British troops were leaving Sierra Leone. The implication was clear, all British troops were leaving. But they werenít. The minister of Defence Geoff Hoon said that they would be leaving behind a small number to train the Sierra Leone army (he didnít say that this would be 40% of the peak deployment and they would be doing many other things, but leave that aside). So the BBC, the government owned broadcaster, was misrepresenting what the government minister himself had said in Parliament. After a number of e-mails and a wait of a few days, the BBC reported that "the bulk of British Troops" were leaving Sierra Leone. Sad, I know, but a triumph nonetheless. This was important in that at least a couple of web addicts now knew, and could probably grasp, that Britain had undertaken another long term commitment.
What I had not grasped was not just that the media were misleading but the government were lying. There were meant to be 100 troops at most, purely devoted to training the Sierra Leone army. The media had misreported this, it is true, but I thought that when the government would go to Parliament it would tell the truth about what the troops were doing. This kidnap attempt not only raised the fact that British troops were still in Sierra Leone, quite contrary to the impression created by the government and media, but that there were four times as many as we had been told. Three hundred troops more than we were told, now thatís a lot to forget about.
Not only that but they were clearly not for training purposes. The official story, for what that is worth is that they were in the north liaising with a UN detachment. The UN deny this, and the West Side Boys Ė the militia that captured them Ė say that they were in their area of operations without permission. Why would they be in the area of operations of an erstwhile ally, without permission? Basically all bets are off. To be contradicted on one official story is unfortunate, to be contradicted on two smacks of carelessness. Whether they were scouting the area, preparing for some sort of offensive action, will not be told. If British troops are still involved in guard duties is similarly uncommented on. What is clear is that 400 troops are not needed for training. What are they there for?
This is not the first time that this has happened in Sierra Leone. Last May we had the same rigmarole. First the troops were needed to secure the evacuation of the British citizens. Then they needed to evacuate all the EU citizens (we had an embassy there you see, no I donít understand). Then they needed to secure Freetown airport, even though the UN had already secured it. Then they needed to secure other key points in Freetown. Then the peninsula on which Freetown lay needed to be secure. After that they were involved in providing logistical aid and artillery support to "government forces" (who included the West Side Boys). And finally they had a "co-ordinating role" Ė or total control Ė over the government forces. Even when we withdrew we left behind a "training contingent", and we know how much they limited themselves to training. Each time we were told that we were only going so far and no farther, and each time we found we were going a bit farther. Remember that the British foreign secretary, Robin Cook, said:
There is a method in this seeming madness. If the government told the country exactly the extent of the intervention and the open ended length of the deployment that was envisaged, they would have had to let Parliament know. They would have won any parliamentary vote on this, it is true, but they would have had to explain what national interest there was in Sierra Leone, or how the RUF were any more brutal than Britainís allies the West Side Boys. Could you? Thought not. But with creeping deployment it is easier. Who among the opposition wants to leave British civilians at the mercy of ruthless arm-chopping bandits? Come now, hands up. Now who thinks we can get them out without an airport? Any takers? You get the drift. People may not be enamoured of sending troops to fight a rebellion in a place they could not find on a map, but they are not eager for British troops to "do what they can" to protect themselves. By a slow release mechanism on the truth, Parliament is denied one of its basic rights Ė deciding on a declaration of war.
Which brings me to the present day. Remember those West Side Boys? Well who are they? No , donít switch off, this is really important. The West Side Boys are a militia, loyal to the former coup leader Johnny Paul Koroma. Although they were at one time allied with the RUF they switched sides to the government some time before the British troops arrived. Now Johnny Paul has not been idle since leading the coup. In May the BBC described him as a "Pro-Government militia leader". The militia he was leading? The West Side Boys, of course. He is now a minister in the government, you know the one we are supporting. When we "co-ordinated" pro-government forces and provided artillery cover for them, which was one of the largest contingents, thatís right the Boys. British troops were kidnapped by their allies. Think about that. If the opposition or the media were half as alert as they think they are there would have been an almighty fuss, British troops were held in captivity by the forces we were told were the only force for decency. They donít seem that decent to me. But how does the Government owned media, the British Broadcasting Corporation, report these allies of the Government? Theyíre rebels of course.
Remember the RUF and tales of limbs being cut off? They were obviously the baddies, right? And the Sierra Leone government are obviously the good guys, because they donít indulge in the savage practices of their opponents. Well, thatís what we are led to believe, even to the point when the BBC continually claim that the West Side Boys are "rebels", with the obvious intent that most British people would confuse the pro-government militia with the RUF. Now some in the British media are now trying to explain that the West Side Boys are not really with the government, or that they are uniquely barbaric for a government militia. Maybe they havenít heard of the Kamajors. These make the West Side Boys, or for that matter the RUF, look like models of Western decency. Oh, and they are ultra loyal to the Government. They use the most modern bullet proofing - juju chants and smearing the upper body with paste. They are steeped in the pagan and tribal religion, and have the same enlightened attitudes towards women and people of different ethnicities. In their areas they patrol in headdresses and leather ju-ju jackets. Oh, and they donít like other pro-government factions in their areas, does that sound ominous? Are the British unsure of these allies, who are more powerful, less rational and far, far more ruthless than the West Side Boys? Well David Richards, the former British commander in Sierra Leone said of them "there is an important place for a strong militia." Seems like this kidnapping is only the first of many.
Now some people may say, this is a militia so they must by definition be rebellious. Well, no. In Sierra Leone the army is a collection of militias, some in uniform and some out of uniform. Indeed, what was the main problem that the boys had? Oh, "re-integration into the army". You know, the army we are training, arming and supporting. But the BBC still call them rebels. They report on Johnny Paul Koroma going down there to read the riot act, and helpfully state that he is a government minister, the leader of the peace commission. They donít say why he, of all ministers needs to go down there, like the fact that he leads these troops. But still they are referred to as "rebels" when they are an integral part of the "pro-government" forces in Sierra Leone. When the British turn on the TV news and see that "rebels" have kidnapped British troops they may be bemused, but if they found out that it was allies wouldnít they be more than bemused? Of course this is totally unconnected. Naturally Iíve been keeping up my campaign with the BBC web site to not call them rebels, although this has not been a success with the unusual discourtesy of not a single reply or even acknowledgment. Are they scared of letting the British public know that British troops have been detained and humiliated by their own allies?
There was another piece of news that is illustrative of a chronic overstretch in British forces. The Northern Ireland peace process is going through one of its characteristically un-peaceful convulsions. And so we have had to bring in a few hundred troops. The significance? The very fact that the government claims that we are not mightily overstretched. They claim that "overstretch statistics" are the same as they were when they came to power. This was because when troops were going to Kosovo, East Timor and all points between the military presence was pared in Northern Ireland. Not only were large segments of the working class population of Northern Ireland handed over to their sectarian versions of the Bloods and the Crips, but no provision was made for the troops having to return. So the overstretch was false, as even the most optimistic person would concede that troops would have to come back to restore order every now and again until Northern Ireland was happy. Now this false calculation has been blown out of the water, and with the often forgotten troop deployments Britain is looking more overstretched than ever. Donít expect to hear that in the news, either.
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