The events of the past two days are headline-grabbing, but not immediately horrific. Several hostages have already been released and, at the time of going to press, none of the hostages had been harmed. The kidnappers seem eager to get their political point across. In such circumstances, the British team which has gone to Sierra Leone to negotiate the hostages' release would seem to have some chance of success.
The kidnapping reflects the bloodstained anarchy of Sierra Leone. The kidnappers belong to a rebel group that ruled the country for nine months after overthrowing the elected government in 1997, and which now feels short-changed by last month's peace deal. The two main groups in the rebel alliance - the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council and the Revolutionary United Front, find themselves in conflict: AFRC rebels complain that their leader, Johnny Koroma, is being held by the RUF, led by Foday Sankoh. Meanwhile, the elected, ousted and then reinstated government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah is theoretically back in the driving seat. And yet his writ scarcely runs outside the capital, Freetown. In short: everything connected with Sierra Leone has proved to be a mess.
The British Government's own position has been messy, too. It supported the return to power of President Kabbah's government. It then got itself in a twist when it emerged that, while doing the right thing, it had broken UN rules. It became clear that Britain was aware that the military consultancy, Sandline, had supplied arms to the ousted government, in breach of an arms embargo which had been interpreted as applying only to the junta. British Government ministers eagerly sought to blame others - civil servants, journalists, whoever - for what had happened.
The growing official consensus seems to be that moral policy-making is too exhausting to stick with. According to this analysis, Sierra Leone is a Heart of Darkness saga where sanity and democracy are too much to hope for. The rebels acted with extraordinary savagery. The chopping off of arms became a hideous routine - an estimated 10,000 lost their limbs. Gang rape was common. Fifty thousand died. But the hideousness of events in Sierra Leone - described by some human-rights observers as the worst atrocities they have seen - is precisely a reminder of why we must not allow ourselves to ignore events there.
In the Balkans, we have finally learnt that standing by and hoping for the best is not a serious option. Whether it likes it or not, Britain is now deeply enmeshed in the whole catastrophe. The ills of Sierra Leone cannot simply be ignored.
When President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah took office in 1996 after winning multi- party elections, it turned out to be the prelude to the worst bloodshed of all. The rebel forces of Foday Sankoh went on the rampage nationwide. The Nigerian forces last year helped to drive the rebels out of Freetown, thus leading to the restoration of power to President Kabbah. In January of this year, rebel supporters again came close to capturing the capital, Freetown; in the fighting that followed, several thousand were killed.
Now, Britain has backed a peace deal which allows those who have committed horrific atrocities to become a part of the new government. This is wrong. It is not just a question of allowing bygones to be bygones, as has happened with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. In Sierra Leone, it is the brute force of the rebels - who control some of the key diamond-mining areas - that has permitted them to gain promises of a place in government. But, whatever comes out of the current hostage crisis, that brutal logic must not be allowed to play a role in the longer term.
It is now generally acknowledged that the attempt to make Slobodan Milosevic part of the peacemaking equation in recent years hindered rather than helped the search for a solution. The tough action against Belgrade in recent months was a recognition of that fact. Tolerance of evil is as misplaced in Sierra Leone now as it was in the Balkans.
Moral relativism in these circumstances is a false kind of understanding. Politicians now acknowledge that pragmatism, in a European context, can be a tainted word. It would be an insult to the limbless and dead of Sierra Leone to believe Africa is any different.Reuse content