RPCV Joseph Opala explains why Sierra Leone is important

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Sierra Leone: Special Report: Historian and Anthropologist Sierra Leone RPCV Joseph Opala: RPCV Joseph Opala explains why Sierra Leone is important

By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, June 28, 2001 - 9:00 pm: Edit Post

RPCV Joseph Opala explains why Sierra Leone is important

An RPCV explains why Sierra Leone is important by Joseph Opala, RPCV 1974

Why Sierra Leone is important

The peace agreement signed on 7 July 1999 in Togo between Sierra Leone's elected President and the Revolutionary United Front may be a major step forward to ending the eight years of civil war, but only by glossing over the vicious human rights abuses practised apparently indiscriminately, often by teenage boys, against thousands of civilians. Nonetheless, says Joseph Opala, founder of a Sierra Leone campaign for better government, the country's problems are fixable.

What's wrong with those people? the West might ask. An American from Oklahoma, I most probably would be asking that myself, except that fate and a letter from the Peace Corps sent me to Sierra Leone in 1974. I made my home there, and apart from a few years of graduate study in anthropology in the US and UK, I've been there almost ever since, leaving only in 1997 when bandits looted the capital city, where I lived.

I don't ask the question. I know that Sierra Leoneans are just ordinary people, dealing with circumstances most Americans could never imagine. Now, after having lived with these people, and sharing their trials for two decades, I find myself back in the US, trying to tell their story, trying to explain why ignoring their plight is both callous and unwise.

When Sierra Leone got its independence from Britain in 1961, it had everything going for it. The fierce tribalism common to some African nations never developed there, and although there are 14 ethnic groups, urban life has led to a blending of cultures. Divided among Christians and Muslims, most Sierra Leoneans celebrate both sets of holidays. When asked their faith, many smile and say: "ChrisMus" - Christian-Muslim. Blessed with abundant natural resources, Sierra Leone also boasts many highly educated citizens.

But Sierra Leone soon went off the rails. The British left behind a democratic constitution, but in their haste to leave gave the country only seven years to work with it. After independence, corrupt politicians, realizing the new system had no time to take root, found it relatively easy to change it. They focused all power on themselves in order to steal the nation's wealth, proving once again the old maxim that politicians will do anything they can get away with.

Siaka Stevens, President from 1968 to 1985, inaugurated the "kleptocracy" - reign of thieves. His Cabinet Ministers looted their respective departments, selling off official assets and passing the lion's share up to Stevens. The government gradually destroyed its own capacity to function, and by the time Joseph Momoh was president in the late 1980s, it could no longer pay civil servants and teachers, or even print its own money.

Then Liberia's civil war spilled over into Sierra Leone. Charles Taylor, then a Liberian faction leader, armed a Sierra Leone terrorist group, the Revolutionary United Front. Led by Foday Sankoh, a cashiered army corporal, the RUF has no political agenda, and its followers have murdered and maimed thousands of the poorest people in the country. A Charles Manson figure, Sankoh recruited teenage boys and girls. Sometimes they were made to kill their families before they were
taken from their rural villages at gunpoint.

Sierra Leone's government eventually disintegrated. A 27-year-old army captain seized power in 1992, and promptly lost control of his troops. He claimed his men were fighting the RUF when, in fact, they had joined the RUF's nationwide terror campaign. Finally, Sierra Leoneans rose up demanding elections, and in 1996 poured into the streets, battling soldiers to protect their ballot boxes. In the first democratic elections in many years, they chose as their president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a retired UN diplomat.

But the story couldn't end on that happy note. By the 1990s, Sierra Leone's political leaders had lost the very habit of popular government, and Kabbah never came to grips with his country's many problems. In May 1997 the army seized the capital again, this time inviting their friends, the RUF bandits, to join them in looting the city. Nigerian peace-keepers ousted the vandals nine months later and restored Kabbah to power.

But on 6 January 1999 the RUF forced its way into the capital once again. Nigerian troops drove them out again, but not before they destroyed the country's largest hospital, its 170-year-old university, and its new telecommunications centre.

Another African mess? Absolutely. One the US should steer clear of? Absolutely not. Americans may think the chaos in Africa cannot affect them, but it can.

Liberia's president Charles Taylor is behind the continuing violence in Sierra Leone, most people believe. From Liberia the RUF has been able to obtain arms and terrorist assassins including, most recently, Ukrainian mercenaries. Taylor's goal is to install regimes like his own in Sierra Leone and Guinea. Taylor is believed to have links to international crime syndicates and Gaddafy's Libya. If left unchecked, the region could become a base for drug-running and every type of organized crime. Taylor is a menace the US cannot afford to ignore.

The peacekeeping efforts in Sierra Leone are decidedly regional in nature. Recognising the threat Taylor poses, ECOWAS, the 16-nation West African trade organization, has given a peacemaking mandate to Nigeria, and Guinea. Gambia, Mali, and Ghana, have also pledged soldiers to protect Sierra Leone. Nigeria, now making its own transition back to democracy, has committed 15,000 troops, and is suffering heavy casualties.

Although US policy makers have continually called for exactly this kind of regional peacekeeping effort, American contributions for logistical support have, thus far, been pathetically small. That is parti-cularly galling when we consider that the African troops of the ECOMOG force, as it is called, are in effect helping protect the West by challenging a terrorist predator.

In Sierra Leone, the West has an opportunity to show that an African nation can be put back together. Africans themselves have begun the process, and they can end the RUF's reign of terror. However, they need strong Western diplomatic pressure on Taylor, and trucks, radios, and medicines for their troops in the field. Last year, the US gave ten times more in humanitarian aid to Sierra Leone than military aid to ECOMOG. Yet, lack of support for the peacekeepers means the humanitarian crisis only grows bigger and bigger.

Unlike some other collapsed states in Africa, Sierra Leone is clearly fixable. Somalia and Rwanda suffer from civil wars that, as we have learned, are difficult for outsiders to address, but Sierra Leone's ethnic groups are not in conflict. People of every tribe have suffered attacks by RUF bandits and renegade soldiers. Sierra Leone's problem is not civil war, but civil chaos, a breakdown of law and order. Sierra Leone has not fallen apart as a country - its government has fallen apart.

As the security threat wanes, the process of rebuilding government institutions must begin. The West has yet to devise strategies to meet the new challenges posed by state collapse in Africa, but the effort has to begin somewhere, and Sierra Leone has the best chance of success. Its people are still united as a nation, and although badly misused by their leaders, their traditional political culture is highly democratic and, perhaps, for that reason they have enormous affection for the US. We need innovative approaches to sow the seed of stability in Africa, but we should remember that Sierra Leone is fertile ground.

Joseph Opala lectured at Sierra Leone's Fourah Bay College, and was a founder of that country's
Campaign for Good Governance. He is currently Scholar-in-Residence at Penn Center, St Helena Island, South Carolina, USA.

By Jerome Karl Person (nc-69-68-82-96.dyn.sprint-hsd.net - on Sunday, January 30, 2005 - 6:16 pm: Edit Post

Dear Mr Joseph Opala:

Except for fate and a letter from the Peace Corps in 1969 I probably would not know that Sierra Leone exist.

Absolutely the county has fallen off the rails since 1961.

I thank the Internet,informed persons, and your personal explaintion of why Sierra Leon is important to Americans and the West.

Of course, if I can assist(# 910-438-0769) in some way I will.

Sincerely yours,

Jerome Karl Person, RPCV 1969-1971
1606 Gilmore Street
Fayetteville, North Carolina 28301

By Robert Waite (pcp0011403142pcs.ebrnsw01.nj.comcast.net - on Tuesday, April 12, 2005 - 12:48 pm: Edit Post

Joseph Opala--you may remember me as the African-American you took around in search of where his missionary parents had been during his youth, and you found the village of Sembai Bendugu where my father started his ministry--this was in 1984.
I was writing a book about my parents, you tried to get me interested in "The lost tribe of Africa." I still have the outline and want to work on it at last.
Keep up your great work! Bob

By Anonymous (popl-cache-3.server.ntli.net - on Wednesday, July 06, 2005 - 6:57 am: Edit Post

hi im mr west an i think its great dat people are aware of this issues great work

By Glen D. Wasson (dialup- - on Monday, October 16, 2006 - 1:57 am: Edit Post

Robert Waite;

I know there are several Bendugu's in SL, but am wondering if your village is the same as Sambia Bendugu, 35 miles from Bumbuna and about the same from Allikalia? The mission that had our house in Bendugu was the MCA from Magburaka. We lived there from 1978-1979.

Glen D. Wasson gdwasson@yahoo.com

By marla kunfermann (ml82.128.5.136.multilinks.com - on Sunday, October 22, 2006 - 1:13 pm: Edit Post

Weren't you in a movie about SL? Any chance to find a copy?

By Jeff Mareck (c-69-255-40-251.hsd1.va.comcast.net - on Wednesday, February 07, 2007 - 2:33 pm: Edit Post

Do any of you know what became of the missionaries , by the name of Ponchot who were in Bendugu in the 60's. I was a Pcv fron 62-65. I put in a water supply etc. Aloha, jeff mareck

By Paul Holmes (ppp-69-232-189-119.dsl.scrm01.pacbell.net - on Friday, May 18, 2007 - 12:50 am: Edit Post

Dear Joseph Opala-Kahn,
We learned krio pidgin in Mapki together, Oct. 1974. I've known you were doing interesting and important work, catching bits and pieces through interviews on "Fresh Air", etc., but it wasn't until today that I happened to Google-you.
It's somewhat amazing to find the above messages largley about Sambaia Bendugu, where (as you well know) I spent 1975-77.
Jeff Mareck-I attempted to get financing to repair your water system after the diesal pump eventually failed, but did not succeed.

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