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Chaos Fills a State the West Ignores

May 14, 2000|Paula R. Newberg | Paula R. Newberg, who writes frequently about countries in crisis, visited Sierra Leone in March on behalf of the National Democratic Institute. The ideas expressed are her own

WASHINGTON — War returned to Sierra Leone two weeks ago. In just a few days, hundreds of soldiers, among the thousands borrowed by the United Nations to patrol an uneasy bush truce, found themselves disarmed by the very guerrilla fighters they were meant to disband. Gunshots near Freetown, the country's dusty seaside capital, quickly unraveled the loose fabric of a rudimentary, misguided treaty that had brought uneasy quiet to the coastline. They dashed the world's faint hope that the United Nations might secure concord in a corner of war-torn Africa.

But headlines about U.N. ineptitude tell little, if anything, about what has gone so terribly wrong. Like its neighbors, Sierra Leone is caught in a decade-long carousel of mismatched expectations--its own and others--that has diminished multilateral diplomacy in the eyes of the world's poor and disenfranchised. Like their neighbors in Somalia, Sudan, Liberia and Congo, demoralized Sierra Leoneans have learned that treaties drafted on behalf of gun-toting fighters, who then profit from international law by violating its every tenet, are unlikely to bring peace.

Sierra Leone has endured two wars in the past nine years, as well as bouts of astonishing violence that pitted child soldiers against child victims and turned out-of-work armies into enemies of civil society.

The blood sport of war, however, is only one part of a complicated political tale. Sierra Leoneans see themselves as victims of regional interests that challenge their own ethnic concord and sectarian tolerance with a lethal mix of opportunism and greed. Rebel fighters are supported by political leaders in their none-too-stable neighbors: Liberia's open season on Sierra Leone's diamond mines has made the countryside fertile ground for rebellion and a continuing source of refugees bound for Guinea. Half the country lives beyond the writ of the state; a tropical curtain of torn transport routes and broken communications separates weak government from weaker, unprotected citizens.

Like many countries seized by uncertainty and complex political emergencies, Sierra Leone occupies a space somewhere between war and peace. It has a government of sorts and boasts a cabinet of retired U.N. diplomats skilled in the ways of other people's woes. Its generic prescriptions for political ills sound like a seven-step plan for post-conflict redemption: first disarmament, then demobilization, followed by rehabilitation, reconstruction, reconciliation and reform.

This practiced chant is cited in Freetown with diminishing conviction: Without the first step, nothing follows. Guns, the country's dominant currency, are a portable form of international credit. Foreign assistance has matched a price to every gun, supplementing an already vigorous arms trade with recycled weapons and the captured arsenals of pacific-minded U.N. patrols. A few foreign-built demobilization camps have become unintended resettlement communities for the families of displaced fighters tainted by poverty as much as war. Jury-rigged policies to dispel conflict have instead reinforced a political economy of strife.

This is the portrait of a country whose troubles rarely rate international attention, except when violence spills over its borders. Confronted with a governance crisis, however, the international community addressed a few symptoms and bypassed the road to a cure. An internationally sponsored peace accord was signed by the government and some of its most lethal opponents in Lome, Togo, last summer. It handed the rebels a cause: By keeping their weapons, they earned access to diamonds and, with no apparent interest in the niceties of parliaments, a place in the country's ill-fated politics.

The renewed violence of two weeks ago was long predicted in Freetown, as was the frantic scurrying in Western capitals to prevent bloodshed from spreading. Almost the only support for the accord comes from the U.N. Security Council, U.S. and British donors keen to resume West Africa's mineral and energy trade, and soldiers loaned as international peacekeepers by the world's poorest armies.

Last week's gunboat diplomacy--the British patrol the waters while Bangladeshis tote the guns--reflects sadly on the depths to which international indifference can condemn a country deemed too poor to govern itself properly and too unimportant to rate advance planning. The symphony of blame that hit the U.N. early this month--when peacekeepers were captured by rebels--was neither unexpected nor inappropriate. Bad information, bad communications, bad response, bad rules of engagement--all typify multilateral efforts to keep a lid on a bubbling pot.

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