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Sierra Leone: Crisis Update

June 4, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Ten days ago soldiers seized power in Sierra Leone. The coup was led by Major Johnny Paul Koromah. He formed a new military government consisting both of soldiers loyal to him and rebels who have fought the ruling governments for the past five years. The coup ousted the first democratically-elected government after only one year in office and after a five-year civil war that left at least 10,000 dead and a million refugees.

Sierra Leone is a small former British colony in West Africa. It is about the size of South Carolina and borders the Atlantic Ocean between Guinea and Liberia. It has beautiful beaches and bountiful resources, but its population of nearly five million is among the poorest in the world. Per capita income is $150 a year. Average life span is only 40 years.

Decades of strife have torn apart Sierra Leone, and its infrastructure is poorly developed. Even its cities lack basic sanitation, roads, and communications. Though rich in diamonds and other minerals, that wealth has only benefitted a tiny elite. Now, following the coup, chaos is the rule in Sierra Leone. Work has stopped. Stores are closed. And looters rule the streets pillaging from stores and homes.

EVACUEE: A lot of people have lost everything. The rebels went into their houses. They took everything. They took the clothes out of their wardrobes. They took the curtains down. Some people even had their kitchen sinks taken.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The elected president, Ahmed Kabbah, has gone into exile in neighboring Guinea. At least three West African countries–Nigeria, Guinea, and Ghana–have sent troops to Sierra Leone in an attempt to bring Kabbah back to power. Earlier this week, Nigerian gun ships off the coast opened fire on the West end of Freetown, where the coup headquarters is located. Escalating tensions and violence prompted the United States to mount three evacuations since the coup.

U.S. Marines have ferried more than 2500 people, including at least 450 Americans–more than 1200 were brought out yesterday. U.S. Marines also rescued 18 orphans and took them to Guinea. Today, two companies of French Marines joined the effort to get foreigners out of the beleaguered country.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We now get two views on the situation in Sierra Leone. Herb Howe is a professor of African studies at Georgetown University. Shaka Ssalii is an editor at Voice of America’s English to Africa Service. A native Ugandan, he is an American citizen now. And, gentlemen, thank you for joining us. Mr. Ssali, who are the prime movers in this coup?

SHAKA SSALI, Voice of America: Well, one of the key figures of yesterday is Major Johnny Paul Koromah. He is about 33 years old and he has actually been previously imprisoned he says when I talk to him a couple of days ago on trumped up charges for having attempted to overthrow the government of then of course President Ahmed Kabbah. So he was in prison for quite some time, and some of his colleagues broke into prison, released him, and he just walked to state house and took over.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is he–does he have political objectives, Mr. Howe? What can you tell us about what is motivating this?

HERBERT HOWE, Georgetown University: I think the major motivation that he has is within the military, and that is that the Sierra Leone defense force had been a very corrupt and inefficient defense force. A lot of them are called soldols, meaning soldiers by day, rebels by night. And you never knew–when I was over there I never knew–fighting for their government, for the rebels, or for themselves.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The RUF being…

HERBERT HOWE: It’s the Revolutionary United Front, the guerrilla movement that I think is really in control of Sierra Leone today.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So what do you have–you have two different forces now joining today. Explain that briefly.

HERBERT HOWE: Well, actually, you have another very, very important force, and that is a militia group that’s larger than Sierra Leone, a military, and that did very well against the RUF. The actual national military did very poorly. Now, the government of President Kabbah said we want to downsize the regular military. In other words, a lot of young kids who only have one skill, weapons handling, will be out of work.

The militia, a group called the Comajos, were going to stay in power and actually have a budgetary increase, and so here the military was saying, this is a slap in the face because this militia group is getting more attention than we are, and that was one of the major reasons, kind of a military rivalry, a national military versus the militias that brought the national military to cooperate with the RUF to take over power. Since we had three major actors–the RUF, the government military, and this militia group called the Comajos.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And so it’s not political in that sense? It’s not a classic coup?

SHAKA SSALI: Well, it depends frankly on what we are looking at because–in talking with Major Koromah, you get the sense, as Professor Howe says, that they do have what they consider to be genuine grievances as a national army, the sense that most of the budget, as he said, has actually been spent on the Comajos, who are called–tribal militias. And the army looks itself as having been marginalized.

I was able to interview a former military head of state who lives in Alexandria, Virginia, we get Gen. Ladbil–this is the man who presided over the recent transition for military rule to civilian democratical rule.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: One year ago.

SHAKA SSALI: Exactly.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Sierra Leone.

SHAKA SSALI: I mean, he’s extremely bitter at the manner in which, for example, former President Kabbah was able to handle the military, the manner in which he didn’t seem to care about it, and the manner in which he personally handled the Brig. Gen. Ladbil. So there is a problem in the sense that the military as an institution feels–it feels like it’s been alienated, and it feels that it has its own constitutional role that it must be allowed to play.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And this military is not committed to democracy. I mean, Sierra Leone has had a number of coups, has it not?

SHAKA SSALI: Right.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Have they all been like this, or is it different?

HERBERT HOWE: Well, I think this one’s different in that it deals with both the guerrilla movement that was badly beaten but still had some life in it and elements of the Sierra Leone military. I think this is kind of an enriche vous coup of get what you can for yourself. This is not an ideological coup. There’s not too much of an ethnic basis on here. I think that it’s more just personal aggrandizement.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Briefly, can you tell us what the government that was in place before the coup, what was it like, aside from aiding the military? Was it trying to bring democracy to the country?

SHAKA SSALI: Well, to be honest with you, for example, we have a rebel leader–who, as we talks is in the Sheraton Hotel in Abuja–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Nigeria.

SHAKA SSALI: That is correct. I was able to interview him last week. He complained that there is no such thing as democracy in Sierra Leone. He was, for example, making allegations against the Kabbah administration of, you know, ethnocentrism, or tribalism some might say. He was also talking about the mismanagement of the economy. He was talking about those types of things, and he was also saying that they have actually been incapable to end the war, and even in talking with Major Koromah–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: That’s the five year old war that’s been going on.

SHAKA SSALI: Actually seven, to be precise, Charlayne.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And that involves who?

SHAKA SSALI: Well, it involves, as Professor Howe said, it involves the Revolutionary United Front. It of course involves, as he said, the Comajos, who are known again as tribal, ethnic militias, and it also, of course, involves the national army.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about Nigeria’s role in all of this, Mr. Howe?

HERBERT HOWE: Nigeria has had very longstanding relations with Sierra Leone since Sierra Leone’s independence in 1961, and it’s had more or less two battalions, roughly about twelve hundred troops, in there, fighting the RUF. The ties are very strong between Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Nigeria has now put in about 3,000 total men and looks like it wants to throw this government out.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Can it?

HERBERT HOWE: It might. It might become another Vietnam for Nigeria, but I think there’s a good point here. Everyone is saying this represents–Sierra Leone represents another case of Africa going down the tubes. I think there are a couple of very positive points here, and one is that for the first time, or about the first time, you’re getting African states saying we are our brother’s keeper, and they’re going in to put pressure against undemocratic regimes.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: They’ve been almost totally unanimous in the condemnation of this coup.

SHAKA SSALI: They have.

HERBERT HOWE: But this happened in Zaire recently, so this might be a growing trend.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Is there any negative impact or any other kind of impact on the region, this coup?

SHAKA SSALI: Certainly there is. The other of course is–you look at this–this recent military coup has not really gotten any support from anywhere. You can look at the regional countries; you can look at European countries, the United States, what have you, everybody seems to condemn the coup.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Does the U.S. have historically any role, and can the U.S. play a role now, just very briefly?

HERBERT HOWE: The U.S. has had a role over the last seven years during the war. It’s given $30 million a year in humanitarian assistance, and it’s played various behind-the-scenes discussions to try to get the peace movement going. It certainly is very much opposed, as all the African states are, to this present regime.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Does anybody have any leverage with them at this point?

SHAKA SSALI: Well, at this point–

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The coup leaders.

SHAKA SSALI: To be honest with you, Charlayne, I think they are vulnerable because in talking again with Maj. Koromah, I asked him, I said, look, you’ve been condemned by virtually everyone; do you really have any international backers? He said, no. I said, does it bother you; he said it doesn’t, but I think he’s bothered.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, we’ll have to see what happens. Thank you both for joining us.

SHAKA SSALI: You’re most welcome, Charlayne.