UK continues to back Sierra Leone - but for how long?

Click to follow
THE PRIME Minister may have left South Africa last week promising the country pounds 90m and more trade, but the African country in which Britain has really made its presence felt in the past year is Sierra Leone.

Heavy shelling was reported yesterday in the capital, Freetown, as the third war in 18 months got under way. Government soldiers and rebels continued to fight, despite the ceasefire declared last week by President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and jailed rebel leader Foday Sankoh. Does Britain care?

To judge from comments by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, it does. Britain has pledged pounds 1m to Ecomog, the Nigerian-led intervention force attempting to push rebels out of Freetown. It has also urged other countries "to do what we have been doing for some time ... to provide financial and logistical support to the Nigerian forces so that they have a better opportunity of sustaining the legitimate government of Sierra Leone".

In addition, the Ministry of Defence announced yesterday that Britain is sending a frigate, the Norfolk, to Sierra Leone "as a precautionary measure". But the confusion is considerable.

Last year, Britain's Sandline mercenary company was revealed to have organised a 35-tonne shipment of arms to forces supporting deposed president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, when in 1997 he wanted to oust the military junta and return to power.

Broadly speaking, Britain was on the side of the angels. Even though the Sandline arms had been shipped in breach of a UN embargo, President Kabbah had been elected by the people, then forced into hiding in neighbouring Guinea-Conakry while rebels terrorised his countrymen. His government was also that with which foreign diamond buyers were used to doing business.

The Sandline arms, delivered to Ecomog forces (reportedly for use by a Nigerian-trained pro-Kabbah militia), have helped keep the president in power since he came back from the capital Conakry in February last year. Britain's High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold, has also been a great support.

Yet, nearly a year after the arms-to-Africa scandal broke and President Kabbah was returned to power, the small West African country founded by freed slaves is at war again. Sam Bockarie, a top commander in the rebels' Revolutionary United Front, has pledged to "fight like last time" until Ecomog forces surrender. President Kabbah and family are reportedly at Lungi Airport, near Freetown, ready to flee if it seems the rebels are winning.

Some diplomats have been quick to say that "Sandline was not allowed to finish the job" after President Kabbah was returned to power last February. But the fact is that the goalposts have moved. Three key players - Britain, Nigeria and neighbouring Liberia - have altered their positions.

Britain, which according to Mr Cook has spent pounds 30m in Sierra Leone since President Kabbah was restored to power, is prepared to be consistent in wanting to keep him there. But the latest pounds 1m for Ecomog may not be repeated without support from the international community. Unless the degree of British interest in Sierra Leone's diamonds far exceeds what is known, the Government is nearing the point of abandonment.

Meanwhile, Nigeria, attempting to prove to the world that it is moving towards democracy, has lost interest in being West Africa's bully, at least for the time being. The Sierra Leone foray (10,000 troops at any one time) has been embarrassing on several occasions and is far too expensive. Besides, the motivation for taking in Ecomog in the first place - an opportunity for General Sani Abacha to enrich himself and earn some peacekeeping credit from an Africa-weary world - evaporated with the Nigerian military leader's death in June.

Finally, Liberia's stance has changed: its president, Charles Taylor, is increasingly convinced that President Kabbah is sheltering rebels who want to oust him. On 29 December, Liberia denied accusations by the United States and six West African nations that it was aiding the rebels. But Mr Cook repeated the claim last week.