RPCV Michael O'Neill discusses the Agony of Sierra Leone

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By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, June 28, 2001 - 9:06 pm: Edit Post

RPCV Michael O'Neill discusses the Agony of Sierra Leone

RPCV Michael O'Neill discusses the Agony of Sierra Leone

Anncr: On the Line - a discussion of United States policy and contemporary issues. This week, "The Agony of Sierra Leone." Here is your host, Robert Reilly.

Host: Hello and welcome to On the Line. Almost ten years of fighting between the government and Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front have ruined Sierra Leone. Last July, a peace agreement was reached. It gave amnesty to the rebels, despite their numerous atrocities, and Foday Sankoh and other RUF leaders received government positions. In exchange, the RUF was supposed to disarm. Instead, it captured nearly five hundred United Nations peacekeepers. Meanwhile, Foday Sankoh himself is now being held by British forces. But prospects for peace in this tortured country remain unclear.

Joining me today to discuss the agony of Sierra Leone are three experts. Arthur Lewis is a former career foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone from 1983 to 1986. Joseph Opala is an American anthropologist at James Madison University, who lived for seventeen years in Sierra Leone. And Michael O'Neill is a member of the board of The Friends of Sierra Leone, a non-profit organization here in Washington. During his twelve years in Sierra Leone, he worked for both the Peace corps and the Red Cross. Welcome to the program.

Arthur Lewis, can you give us a correct diagnosis of the troubles in Sierra Leone over the past decade so that we can have an intelligent discussion of the solutions that are being proposed?

Lewis: I think, if you are really looking for a long view of the problems that face Sierra Leone, you have to go back almost to independence. Interestingly enough, at independence, the country was looked upon by the British as a country which had a group in the western portion of the country, the peninsula, called the Creoles. And they had most of the contacts with the British over the years and with the outside world. Up country were a number of ethnic groups, but the two major groups were the Temnes in the north and the Mendes in the south and the east. It was anticipated that the Creoles would probably be given control of the legislature when Sierra Leone came to independence in 1961, but surprisingly it wasn't. It was given to the Mende and the Mende politicians ran the country for about six to eight years. A group began forming which was led by trade unionists, led by Siaka Stevens, and they began to oppose the Mende group that was ruling the country. And in an election, Shakah Stevens and his All Peoples Party won the election. The A-P-C was essentially a northern-based party.

Host: Are these divisions based on just class differences, regional differences, tribal differences?

Lewis: Mostly ethnic and regional differences because the one thing about Sierra Leone which is striking to anyone who knew anything about Sierra Leone was the fact that the usual cross-cutting kinds of sociological things didn't apply. People married across tribal boundaries, across religious boundaries, because the country is essentially a Muslim country with some Christians and some animists. But those divisions never really became an issue in early Sierra Leone at all.

Host: Let me just ask Joseph Opala, to bring this up to date at least to a decade ago. A lot of commentators say that it was Sierra Leone's participation in the West African peace-keeping force, ECOMOG, that went into Liberia that provoked Charles Taylor's retaliation against Sierra Leone for doing that, since Charles Taylor, now the president of Liberia, saw that intervention as hostile to him when he was fighting for power there. Do you credit that explanation?

Opala: That was the straw that broke the camel's back. But there was a huge load on that camel before Taylor got involved.

Host: Built in the way that Art Lewis was telling us?

Opala: Yes, although it requires more explanation. We could probably talk two hours about this.

Host: We can't. We have twenty minutes.

Opala: I realize that. To put it in a nutshell, Sierra Leone is an interesting country because it has no serious ethnic divisions. It has no serious religious divisions. It has no serious class divisions or regional divisions.

Host: Why are they calling this a civil war then?

Opala: Because the international media and, quite frankly, the international community have misconstrued the whole thing from the beginning. And like a patient who has a minor disease, if you keep administering the wrong medicine, sooner or later, he is going to die on you. And that is exactly what has happened in Sierra Leone. It's not that the international community has not come in with assistance. It's not even so much that they did not spend much money. They just did all the wrong things. They did not understand what was happening.

Host: Do you agree with that, Michael O'Neill?

O'Neill: I do. I think that the conditions that existed in Sierra Leone made it vulnerable to a person like Foday Sankoh, to gather up disenfranchised young people, people who had not been paid for a long time. And he was active enough and charismatic enough to say, look, this is not the way we want to live our lives. We can do something to change this society. And people felt that they could not do it through the political process because it had been compromised through the one-party state and through corruption and other things. What they were against was clear. He said quite clearly we are against corruption; we want the people to benefit from the sweat of their brow. But they have no mandate; they have no manifesto. They have no goals in mind. This is now back in 1992 when he said this to me. And things have changed since then. There has been quite a bit more of these atrocities and it has taken on a life of its own. But this is not a political movement in the classical sense. These people are thriving in this anarchy. And anarchy serves their purposes.

Host: Let's go back to the role of Liberia and Charles Taylor. Could the RUF have done what it did without a base in Liberia and support in terms of arms and whatever they may have exchanged their diamonds for in order to get sufficient means to do what they have against the government in Freetown?

Lewis: Certainly they had the support of Liberia, but they also had the support of Libya, which sent weapons to them through Burkina Faso which were then transshipped overland through the Ivory coast, through Liberia, into Sierra Leone.

Host: What is Burkina Faso's interest in this matter?

Lewis: It has a relationship with Libya that the other countries do not have.

O"Neill: Particularly between [Blaise] Campaore and [Moammar] Gadhafi. Campaore, the head of state of Burkina Faso, is there through a coup himself.

Host: And Charles Taylor and Foday Sanko met under the aegis of Gadhafi. Is that correct?

O'Neill: He said they trained there together. Yes.

Host: They trained in Libya together. What sort of training did they receive? What is Gadhafi training people in western Africa to do?

Opala: I think this entire line of discussion is irrelevant.

Host: Why?

Opala: Because the one thing you have to understand to grasp what's going on in Sierra Leone is that, over a period of twenty years, the central government gradually disintegrated as a result primarily of the political class, as they would say in Sierra Leone, eating everything in the government. They literally consumed their own government. If you were a member of the cabinet, your job was to sell off the vehicles, sell off any U-N or outside assistance that came to your ministry, pass quite a bit of it up to the president and enjoy the rest for yourself. And over a period of time, they actually destroyed the ability of the government to rule, to govern, to do anything on behalf of the people. And what happened when the center disintegrated is that all this area on the periphery went its own way. They stopped years ago paying civil servants or teachers. When you stop paying teachers, the kids are in the streets. And so if it had not been Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh, it would have been someone else. These are infections. And if your immune system is gone, it does not matter which infection enters you. It is eventually going to kill you.

Host: So all three of you, with all your experience in Sierra Leone, would say that Sierra Leone is a failed state?

Lewis: Well yes. I think it is a state that imploded on itself. It is a failed state.

Host: And would you agree with Joseph Opala that rampant corruption was one of the causes?

Lewis: Not only would I agree with it, but I would think I would have to expand on it almost. The level of corruption in Sierra Leone was almost unmentionable. Sierra Leone is really not a poor country. It is a wealthy country. It has gem quality diamonds. Eighty percent of the diamonds produced in Sierra Leone are gem quality. Up in the Kono where the diamond fields are, the government used to mine something on the order of a million and a half carats a year. And those million and a half carats a year found their way out of the country with the help of members of the government. And, as Joe was pointing out, anything that was not nailed down was available.

Host: Now those diamonds are going through Liberia for the benefit of the RUF?

Opala: It is a free-for-all.

Host: What do you do in a situation like this where the internal political and even perhaps social order has collapsed? You have peacekeepers being captured by a ragtag guerilla movement. You have government forces composed of what? Former rebels plus some government militia?

Opala: There is no Sierra Leone army in any sense of that word.

Host: And you have British paratroopers there holding the airport and keeping some kind of hope for the restoration of order. What do you do in a situation like this?

Lewis: If I were the doctor and you were to ask me . . .

Host: Dr. Lewis, I am asking you.

Lewis: This situation requires very drastic measures. First of all, I would support and encourage any way of getting rid of the RUF.

Host: That means a military solution?

Lewis: That is not a solution. The first part of it would be to get rid of the RUF. And it is going to take a military solution to do that. Then after that, you can begin thinking about rebuilding the social order of the country. The social order of the country has been destroyed. When young children will maim their elders, where the relationship that existed in Sierra Leone in the social order is gone, wiped away completely, we have to start all over again. I think one of the ways of starting over again is the country used to be a very literate country. It is now almost one hundred percent illiterate. We need to put great emphasis and great resources into educating people, bringing them back to literacy.

Host: But if there is no government, who is going to do that, Michael O'Neill?

O'Neill: I would like to go back to what Arthur just said. A lot of the young people who are in the rebels are not there by their own volition or initially were not there by their own volition. They have gone through a process equivalent to brainwashing and committing an atrocity as kind of a blood rite -- committing an atrocity and then being told by their fellow rebels, "if you decide to leave us, we will expose you and you know what will happen. You will be necklaced and killed in public." So they have no options; they have no out. And I think that one way to deal with this is to give an out to the people who want out that will provide a safe avenue for them. We have seven hundred thousand refugees in Guinea. How much to create a space for fifty thousand of these young people to go some place sequestered and be deprogrammed or de-drugged or whatever it takes? And provide a safe avenue for them out.

Host: Who is going to do this?

O'Neill: I do not know how it is done. I just know that there are those people who, given the opportunity, would get out. We are not giving them the opportunity because the risks are too great.

Opala: He is absolutely right.

Host: Joe Opala, as you know, Kofi Annan has requested more troops, for U-N peacekeepers to be sent to Sierra Leone. We know that President [Olusegun] Obasanjo of Nigeria has indicated his willingness to send a major contingent of troops back. And it was actually the withdrawal of his troops before the U-N got settled that seemed to kick off this latest disaster. Can you see a framework developing within United Nations supervision with Nigerian participation and with U.S. financial support and British support, of a framework within which what Art Lewis said can take place - the RUF can be defeated and civil society can be rebuilt?

Opala: I think it is appropriate that you call this segment the agony of Sierra Leone. And one of the major agonies for me is that, not only is this not a civil war, but civil chaos, but this is actually not a very difficult problem. It only looks difficult because the international community has legitimized the bandits and because they have allowed the bandits to go on to the point that they are as rampant as they are now. What we have is the collapse of the state. If actions are taken to rebuild the ministries, to get the government functioning again, to retrain civil servants, the people of that nation could see government is coming back. If you create safe havens, ninety percent of the RUF boys will go in there within four weeks. There is no doubt of that.

Host: But is the elected government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah capable of doing that?

Opala: Absolutely not.

Host: Well then, who can?

Opala: The international community has got to understand that not every situation of conflict is a civil war. In fact, I would say that Sierra Leone does not even have a conflict. What we have is rampant criminality. The problem here has been that the international community knows how to negotiate. They know how to deal with conflict or civil wars or warring factions. They don't know how to deal with a collapsed state. They had better learn.

Host: Where does this leave the Lome agreement from July?

Lewis: I think the Lome agreement flew out the window when the U-N came in or even long before that. It flew out the window when the RUF failed to do what they were supposed to do under the terms of the Lome agreement.

O'Neill: I think there are a couple of proverbs here that are apropos. One is that wherever you tie the cow, that is where the cow eats grass. And this was a proverb popularized by Shakah Stevens. But think about it. If you tie a cow to a stake and say, okay, there is your grass to eat. What happens when all the grass is eaten? That is Sierra Leone today. The grass is gone and the cow is still standing there. The other one is: something brings something. And what is coming around today is from the seeds that were planted twenty, thirty years ago. I spoke to the paramount chiefs. I was working for the Red Cross at the time. They used to come to my house every Monday morning. And they were telling me, here is the crisis in Sierra Leone. Be it Muslim, be it Christian, be it animist, there is an ancestral reverence, something akin to the Catholic reverence for saints. And the belief is that the ancestors can intervene on our behalf. But the type of killing that has gone on in Sierra Leone, the living have not performed the appropriate rites to help the dead to move to the place where they need to be. They feel uncomfortable. Who is going to intervene for us if our ancestors are in this purgatory? Then who is going to perform these rites for me when I die? And I am going to be stuck in this same purgatory. And what needs to happen when we get to the point of reconciliation is to have ritualistic, nationwide mourning of an appropriate sense that everybody understands in a Sierra Leone context. To the West, it probably makes no difference whatsoever. But people need to repair that other world because that is their cosmology. And that is where you will see this reconciliation between the young people who have been forced to do these awful things and their own families. Sierra Leonians are eminently prepared to reconcile. It's unbelievable. The fact that they were willing to swallow the Lome accord is unbelievable. But they are not going to be fooled twice.

Opala: That is one issue I will take with you. I really agreed with your statement, but I was in Freetown in June of last year when Lome was being negotiated and when it was clear to everyone that it was about to come into force. And I can tell you that there was panic throughout the entire society. The Kamajors threatened to invade the capital city. Bo and Kenema, the two large towns up country, held mass rallies and said we are seceding from the nation-state. A headline on one of the newspapers said America kidnaps Kabbah. In other words, the international community was forcing this so-called peace on an unwilling nation.

Host: But first the elimination of the RUF, then restoration of order and the reconciliation at a spiritual level. Do you agree with that, Art Lewis, because we are out of time?

Lewis: And state building. It's a society that needs a society; it needs its institutions. So yes, I agree.

Host: I'm afraid that's all the time we have this week and I'd like to thank our guests - former U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone, Art Lewis; American anthropologist Joseph Opala; and Michael O'Neill from The Friends of Sierra Leone - for joining me to discuss the agony of Sierra Leone. This is Robert Reilly for On the Line.

Anncr: You've been listening to "On the Line" - a discussion of United States policies and contemporary issues. This is --------.

25-May-2000 11:33 AM EDT (25-May-2000 1533 UTC) NNNN

Source: Voice of America

By Karen and John ( on Tuesday, April 04, 2006 - 9:04 pm: Edit Post

Hi, Mike. It's John Yearwood and Karen Peterson from Bo. How the heck are you? We are now living in Nevis. How are you and Millicent doing? Where are you? We have been married for 20 years now, coming up on 21, and have a 12, going on 13 daughter named Rachel.

Please contact us at JohnYearwood@Oualie.com or Bellevue@caribsurf.com.
Karen and John

By Anonymous ( on Monday, March 05, 2007 - 2:34 pm: Edit Post

Kushe Lahai Hiduwa,
You may remember me Mike, this is John Brown friend of Brian Starken. Never forget the times we had. Knew you were working in Washington thru da Fahdah. Still follow the goings on inSalone. Brian kept me up to date. Couldn't believe I saw your name and all. Good to see you still have your gift of gab.

By Anonymous (host86-153-43-8.range86-153.btcentralplus.com - on Friday, May 02, 2008 - 11:31 am: Edit Post

John Brown. This is Jo saying Hi - Jo and Nigel Davies were in Bo, Sierra Leone and too friends of Brian Starken. Still married - 29 years now!!! Living in Bournemouth UK. How r u?

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