Nigerians outshine the British brass

TIME was when the visit of a British High Commissioner to a town in Sierra Leone was a major occasion, but this weekend in Makeni, Peter Penfold was upstaged by the top brass from West Africa's new dominant power, writes Ed O'Loughlin.

Having flown into Makeni with a humanitarian assessment team, Mr Penfold found his trip coincided with a visit by the Nigerian military commanders who, under the banner of the Ecomog West African peace-keeping force, had just liberated most of northern Sierra Leone from Major Johhny Paul Koroma's junta.

Quietly waiting at the town's main crossroads, the British team saw the Nigerian officers arrive to the cheers of an enthusiastic crowd, who surged forward to greet Ecomog commander Major General Timothy Shelpidi.

Clutching their swagger canes and shooting sticks, the Nigerians seemed for a moment to be parodying the colonial-era British officers from whose African regiments their own army had grown. But when General Shelpidi told the crowd about the deposed president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's scheduled return to Freetown today, he spoke Krio, the local creole,and the crowd loved it.

Pushed to the front by the Nigerians, Her Majesty's representative in Freetown was rewarded with a polite but brief cheer. But by the time the local paramount chief, Baisebore Kasangna II, invited him to speak, the Nigerians had already left. It may not have been a deliberate snub, but it made clear that Britain is no longer the major foreign power in Sierra Leone.

This despite the fact that the British had come to Makeni bearing gifts. The High Commission and Ministry of Defence have spent the past week busying themselves about an array of humanitarian missions.