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Issue 35, February 1999

Controlling West Africa

'APOCALYPTIC' WAS how an Italian priest described the scene in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, following days of fighting. Dead bodies, some of civilians used as human shields, lay in the streets, and houses burned. The latest stage in Sierra Leone's eight-year civil war was as bloody as any seen before.

Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain in 1961, but its people have often suffered under one-party states and military dictatorships, while elected politicians have usually proved corrupt. The people are amongst the poorest in the world, yet there is an abundance of minerals: diamonds, gold, bauxite, titanium and iron ore. But this wealth has been plundered by those working in league with mining multinationals.

Sierra Leone is one piece on the unstable West African chessboard. In 1991 the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) began guerrilla actions. They were backed by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, which took power in Liberia despite opposition from the Nigeria-dominated Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and its Monitoring Group (ECOMOG).

RUF activity intensified against the military dictatorship of Colonel Valentine Strasser, which collapsed in 1996. Elections were held and Ahmed Tejan Kabbah became president. In May 1997 a 'junta', led by Major Johnny Koroma, took power in a RUF-supported coup. ECOMOG forces tried to broker an agreement which would have assured the Nigerian regime a key role in the country. However, making no progress, ECOMOG forced the junta out of Freetown and reinstated Kabbah in February 1998.

The junta and RUF were not destroyed, but their methods - abducting people, especially youth, and forcing them to fight, beatings, burnings and murder - cannot win them mass support.

The reinstated government put leaders of the junta and RUF on trial, including RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, who had been detained in Nigeria. It was the execution of 24 military leaders, and the sentencing to death of Sankoh and others in October last year, which triggered the latest rebel offensive.

  This is a severe setback for the Nigerian regime's policy of domination in West Africa. Nigeria is dominated and exploited by Western imperialist powers, but in Africa the regime's ruling class and military attempt to play an imperialistic role in the region. Just as its ambitions in Liberia came unstuck, so now in Sierra Leone they face a dilemma. If they withdraw their 15,000 troops, the regime is likely to collapse - the Sierra Leone government has hardly any loyal armed forces. But staying means pinning down one-quarter of its ground troops, many reported to be demoralised, just as a severe economic crisis hits Nigeria. A debacle in Sierra Leone would encourage opposition to the emergent Nigerian government.

The RUF has, for now, been forced out of Freetown by the ECOMOG offensive and has ordered a ceasefire. ECOWAS, meanwhile, has been trying to reach a peace deal. Sankoh was allowed to attend talks in neighbouring Guinea, under guard. The RUF want him released so that peace talks and fresh elections can be held. But ECOMOG fear concessions to the rebels. A spokesperson said: 'This is not just a Sierra Leonean issue. There are dissidents in countries across the region. If you allow the rebels to succeed in Sierra Leone, what stops other movements from rising up?' With a civil war in progress in Guinea-Bissau, refugees flocking into Guinea, and a volatile situation in Nigeria, the whole region is a powder keg.

Britain has sent 1m for 'logistical support' and a Royal Navy frigate. Is Blair thinking of intervening in Sierra Leone only months after civil servants and some Foreign Office ministers were embroiled in the Sandline arms to mercenaries scandal? The experience of the workers and poor of West Africa proves that they can only rely on their own forces. It was the trade unions who organised a general strike in Freetown against the 1997 coup. It has been the magnificent movements of workers, students and ethnic groups which have been to the forefront of the fight against Nigeria's military dictatorships.

  Solidarity between the workers and oppressed in the region can show in action their common interests. A programme to take power out of the hands of corrupt regimes and into democratic working class control, could raise the masses out of oppression and poverty. This would end capitalist and imperialist ambitions and form the basis for a voluntary, democratic socialist federation of the peoples of West Africa.

Kevin O'Connell


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