Leading Article: Negotiations will help Sierra Leone, not guns

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The Independent Culture
JUST WHEN the cause of African democracy seemed to be improving with the developments towards early elections in Nigeria, it has been set back on its heels again in Sierra Leone, where a rebel force seems once more determined to bring down the democratically-elected government there. The fact that the West African contingent of troops sent in there to preserve democracy is led by the Nigerians only makes it worse; still more so that the government was armed by British companies with the apparent connivance of our own Government. As Tony Blair said earlier in the year, it may have all been in a noble cause. But noble causes don't help the tens of thousands of civilians who have become, once again, the victims of the latest upsurge in violence.

The problem in Sierra Leone is, yet again, the presence of minerals and the nature of the land. Just as in Angola, or Zaire, military intervention can defend the towns, but so long as the rebels in the country can have access to diamonds or other goods, then they can survive and arm themselves. Should we then despair? The answer has to be no. No, because the West has to bear some responsibility for what goes on in the Forgotten Continent, not least because its purchases still fuel the funds of rebellion, while its arms exports give the means of revolt. Where the Angola crisis has drawn in the armies of five different African nations and threatens to set off the first all-African war this century, Sierra Leone has not drawn in its neighbours in the same way. Intervention has been organised regionally and multi-nationally though the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which is to meet again today to consider the situation. .

Fighting could still get a great deal worse. But that is surely the lesson of Sierra Leone, just as it is of Kosovo. Immediate solutions are not always readily available. The responsibility of the outside world is not to meddle, still less to try to change the military power by arming one side or another. It is to promote stability by negotiation through the offices of international organisations and to keep on doing so even when the fighting appears to be eternal.