Nigeria plays for status in Sierra Leone

WHEN forces acting in the name of democracy overthrow dictatorships, the international community is supposed to applaud. But when a Nigerian- led peace-keeping force chased Major Johnny Paul Koromoa's military junta from Freetown, the world responded with only a polite murmur.

Johnny Koromoa's eight-month-old regime took charge of Sierra Leone in a military coup and had earned a reputation for brutality, corruption and theft. The trouble is, the same things are often said of Nigeria.

Under General Sani Abacha's military rule, Nigeria has killed or imprisoned hundreds of dissidents. The execution of the ethnic Ogoni writer Ken Saro- Wiwa and eight fellow activists on charges of murder in 1995 was widely condemned abroad and prodded the United Nations, America and most Western countries, including Britain, into imposing limited sanctions.

But thanks to its ability to siphon off the country's massive oil wealth, Nigeria's ruling elite has felt able to defy the world. So, while no one mourns the passing of Major Koromoa and his thugs, now on the run in the north of the country, foreign diplomats in the region say their governments feel unable to congratulate Nigeria too publicly.

Some worry that Nigeria's hard-headed rulers may well be after more than Brownie points in Sierra Leone, which is still the dominant political and military power in West Africa. Many diplomats now believe the Sierra Leone operation could be part of a move to strengthen Nigeria's strategic position.

The expansion of Nigeria's military presence in Sierra Leone comes at a time when it is reducing its peace-keeping force in neighbouring Liberia. Originally deployed in 1990, the multi-national force from the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) was dominated from the outset by Nigeria, which provided more than 10,000 troops. Sierra Leone has had its own peace-keepers from the group ever since the Liberian civil war spilled across the border in 1991.

Foreign observers believe this month's military offensive could have been intended to achieve several goals. Apart from securing a continued Nigerian presence in the western tip of Africa, it reinforced Nigeria's standing as the big player in Ecowas. It handed a rare, if muted, public relations victory to the military government in Nigeria and won Nigeria intense popularity with the inhabitants of Freetown.

It may also have guaranteed Nigeria's military elite a say in the future exploitation of Sierra Leone's mineral wealth. Apart from big deposits of bauxite and titanium dioxide, the diamond fields around Kono are estimated to yield gems worth more than pounds 150m a year.

The real question is how dependent the restored President Kabbah will be on Nigerian soldiers to uphold his rule. Major Koromoa's ousted army is already mounting bloody raids on the cities in the interior. According to Ecomog's Nigerian chief of staff General Abdu One Mohammad, the peace- keepers plan to pursue them into the bush and wipe them out.

"If you have a snake and you just hit the tail you are wasting your time," he said. "You have to hit the head as well."

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