RPCV Joseph Opala explains What The West Failed To See In Sierra Leone

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Sierra Leone: Special Report: Historian and Anthropologist Sierra Leone RPCV Joseph Opala: RPCV Joseph Opala explains What The West Failed To See In Sierra Leone

By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, June 28, 2001 - 8:58 pm: Edit Post

RPCV Joseph Opala explains What The West Failed To See In Sierra Leone

What The West Failed To See In Sierra Leone By Joseph Opala, RPCV 1974

What The West Failed To See In Sierra Leone

By Joseph Opala,
(Courtesy of the Washington Post)

On a bright day in March 1996, I stood outside the American Embassy in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, with tears of pride streaming down my face. In defiance of the guns and grenades of an angry junta, the people of this beleaguered West African nation had just held democratic elections. And they had done so with the support of an American diplomat, then-Ambassador John Hirsch, whose tireless encouragement had helped generate the resolve that sent thousands of Sierra Leoneans to the polls.

Once it was clear the election had succeeded, hundreds of people gathered spontaneously outside the embassy to express their gratitude. The lone white American in that crowd, I had never been prouder of my country or its ambassador. And I had never felt more admiration for the remarkable courage of Sierra Leoneans, among whom I had lived for most of the preceding two decades.

Today, I am crying once again -- but this time, tears of rage and sorrow. Rage at the international community's failure to follow through, and sorrow at what has now happened. Since that hopeful day in 1996, Sierra Leone has endured the continuing slaughter of thousands of its citizens and the mutilation of thousands more. An internationally-imposed power-sharing agreement -- one Sierra Leoneans did not want -- has disintegrated. Just this month, some 500 UN peacekeepers were kidnapped by the thugs whose leaders were invited into the government by diplomats from other nations, including my own.

I firmly believe that this madness would have stopped long ago if the international community would have recognized the situation in Sierra Leone for what it is -- not civil war, but civil chaos, following the collapse of government -- and had been willing to take appropriate action.

A native Oklahoman, I went to Sierra Leone in 1974 with the Peace Corps. Soon I was so taken by the country's rich culture and the charm of its people that I could not imagine living anywhere else. Except for several years of graduate study, I remained in Sierra Leone until 1997. I taught African studies and anthropology at Fourah Bay College in Freetown. I served as a cultural advisor to the government. I made documentary films on Sierra Leone's historical ties to African Americans, particularly the Gullah people of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. And over the years, like my Sierra Leonean friends, I watched nervously as political chaos gradually descended on my adopted country, my second home.

President Siaka Stevens ruled from 1968 to 1985, heading a regime so larcenous that his countrymen called it the "17-year plague of locusts." By the time he retired, the national bank was bankrupt and government agencies had been stripped of everything from vehicles to office furniture. Those losses were small, though, compared with the psychological damage: Though Sierra Leone had inherited a democratic system from Great Britain, its colonial ruler, by the end of Stevens' regime the political elite had lost the habit of popular governance. Bureaucrats had forgotten how their ministries were supposed to function. The people trusted no one and held their leaders in contempt.

Stevens' hand-picked successor, General Joseph Momoh, continued the decline. Eventually his government was unable to pay civil servants, police and school teachers. At one point it had no money to print money. Fuel oil and gasoline could not be imported, so Freetown had no electricity for months at a time and cars sat idle in the road. Toward the end of Momoh's rule, a greedy bureaucrat sold the country's only large broadcasting tower -- so the president could no longer speak to citizens outside the capital.

On one occasion, I accompanied a visiting group of American college presidents to an audience with the president. State House was nearly as blighted as the rest of the city, with beggars surrounding the building. As we talked with Momoh, the generators ran out of fuel and the lights went out. Momoh spoke sadly, admitting at one point, "I have failed my people." His ministers were all thieves, he said, and paused. "Do you think if I asked the US ambassador to send Americans to run our ministries, they would do that?" The American visitors were embarrassed, and remained silent.

In 1990, Momoh made the fatal mistake of mixing in the civil war in neighboring Liberia -- opposing Charles Taylor, leader of the largest faction (and now president). Taylor punished Momoh by sponsoring a ragtag group of disgruntled Sierra Leonean exiles called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Led by Foday Sankoh, a cashiered army corporal, the RUF rampaged through rural villages, murdering, raping and mutilating innocent people.

Momoh's disintegrating government could not provide its troops adequate arms, ammunition, uniforms, even food. In April 1992, young officers led by 26-year-old Capt. Valentine Strasser staged a coup. Like most Sierra Leoneans, I at first believed Strasser's pledge to end official corruption, but within two years everyone realized that his junta was a government in name only. Its immature leaders -- some as young as 21 -- had lost control of the troops. Soldiers pillaged whole cities, factories, mining operations.

The junta retained control of the capital city and the major diamond mining area: The rest of the country became a free-looting zone. The cities of Bo and Kenema virtually seceded, organizing their own defense and banning rebels and government soldiers alike from their territory. Thousands of terrified rural families fled to those cities, which were soon surrounded by vast refugee camps.

Sierra Leone was now a collapsed state.

By this point I had made Sierra Leone my home, and realized that if I was going to stay, I had to make a commitment beyond just historical research. In 1995, I joined with two Sierra Leonean democracy activists, Zainab Bangura and Julius Spencer, to form the Campaign for Good Governance. We were among the most powerful voices demanding national elections, and the movement succeeded: Despite the junta's attempts at intimidation, two national conferences voted overwhelmingly to hold an immediate election. It was slated for February 1996, with a runoff the following month.

During the months leading up to the revolt, Bangura, Spencer and I met with a broad range of Western diplomats and UN officials. All of them gave us their support, none more enthusiastically than Ambassador Hirsch. We never doubted his determination, or the international community's, to make the election go forward.

But once the new president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, was elected, we were no longer operating from the same playbook. The international diplomats focused completely on Kabbah, expecting him to lead his country back to peace and good government. They would help, of course -- but they expected Kabbah to set his own agenda, and to identify his needs.

Seeing this, my Sierra Leonean colleagues and I were dumbfounded. The diplomats behaved as if the election had transformed Sierra Leone into a functioning state. In reality, the country had not possessed even a semblance of organized government for many years. The entire political elite, including most of Kabbah's cabinet, were all corrupt -- and worse yet, inept.

Kabbah began discrediting himself immediately. Although 40 percent of his people were then living in refugee camps, he saw no reason to visit them. He waited months to announce his agenda, and when he did, it was a wish list of impossible dreams -- an enormous bridge, a railroad, a national museum. The international community pledged millions in aid, but Kabbah could not even manage to submit the paperwork necessary to obtain the funds. Diplomats stubbornly kept their faith, though, complaining only that Kabbah seemed "rather slow."

My friends and I knew otherwise. Kabbah and his ministers were incapable of restoring the structures of government on their own. Some outside agency had to do it for them. Sadly, though, what every taxi driver and fish monger in Freetown knew, the diplomats could not perceive -- even when we tried to tell them.

I was baffled at first, but after several long discussions with Hirsch, I got the picture. When I told him that state-building measures had to be "pressed" on the government from outside, he pointed out that Sierra Leone was a "sovereign state." When I argued that, for all practical purposes, Sierra Leone did not have a government, he was clearly uncomfortable with that view. I could see that professional diplomats have their own long-established principles, and these do not embrace what was happening to Sierra Leone. A doctrine of relationships among sovereign states has no place for state collapse.

As for Sierra Leoneans, they were desperate for orderly government. It would never have occurred to them to think of outside help as neo-colonialism.

My colleagues and I were even more worried by another development. Soon after the 1996 election, the international community focused all its efforts on negotiating a peace agreement with the RUF. To get a deal, the diplomats reinforced some fictitious notions already rooted in the foreign media -- notions that Sierra Leone was in the grip of a "civil war," and the RUF was some kind of political faction.

But far from a faction leader, Foday Sankoh was -- and is -- a psychopathic killer leading a band of brutalized and confused teenagers. He recruited many of his young henchmen by making them murder their parents, then drugging them with cocaine. Sankoh doesn't want to govern Sierra Leone -- he wants to turn it into a criminal enterprise, a base for money laundering and drug smuggling. Sierra Leone does not suffer from civil war, and never has. It suffers from the rampant banditry that accompanies state collapse.

In May 1997, the RUF and rogue soldiers toppled Kabbah, and held the capital for nine months. They opened the prison and armed the most hardened criminals. That summer I reluctantly left the country -- one of the last foreigners to go -- and returned to the United States.

Since then, I've kept in touch by phone and email; I spent a month there last summer. I've seen the horrors continue. A West African force made up primarily of Nigerians returned Kabbah to power in 1998, but bandits terrorized Freetown again in January 1999, and murdered and raped their way across a city of a million people.

Last July, diplomats from the United States, Britain, the United Nations and several African nations brokered a second peace deal with the rebels. This time, Sankoh and his killers were granted positions in government and amnesty for their crimes. All they needed to do was disarm. In recent days, we have seen what became of that -- hundreds of UN peacekeepers kidnapped and disarmed.

It is not too late to come to Sierra Leone's aid. The bandits that emerge when a state disintegrates are anything but soldiers. A professional military force, properly equipped, could make short work of the RUF. Its adolescent murderers only seem formidable because the international community, as a byproduct of the way it does business, has given them an importance they do not deserve.

The international community must make the rebuilding of the state in Sierra Leone -- not some new deal with the RUF -- its first priority. The very act of rebuilding would resolve most of Sierra Leone's problems. I've talked with some of Sankoh's boys. They've lived lives of misery; they were drugged and coerced. Give these youths a decent life and they'll take it gratefully.

Even though they never got the international support they needed, the Nigerian troops that pushed Sankoh back once could do it again. Sierra Leoneans are crying out for the Nigerians to return, and the Nigerian government has agreed, providing the international community pays the bills. I hope President Clinton is listening.

Sierra Leone, my adopted country, is my primary concern. But it is not the only African country suffering from state collapse. Western diplomats must be flexible enough to see this phenomenon for what it is, and deal with it on its own terms. They cannot apply old ways of thinking and doing business to every situation. Doing so can have very deadly consequences.

Joseph Opala, an American anthropologist who lived for 17 years in Sierra Leone, is an adjunct professor at James Madison University in Virginia.

By susie (host81-157-75-77.range81-157.btcentralplus.com - on Sunday, July 15, 2007 - 1:43 pm: Edit Post

I am 31 years old and have never had my eyes opened to this before. I wondered how many lives were affected for the jewellery i wore just before i took it off and put it away in a box just like this subject was from the rest of the world. For helping me see more clearly just one word, thanks.

By Talley ( on Monday, July 20, 2009 - 7:18 pm: Edit Post

I just watched a movie named: Blood Diamond. It was an amazing eye opener. We as a people group must never let this sort of thing happen again. Much like the Holocaust. We must remember for the fear of forgetting will only open the door to let it happen again...

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