Mission impossible in bandit country

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British military experts arrived yesterday in Sierra Leone, where at least one of their colleagues is among up to 300 United Nations peacekeepers trapped by a resurgent rebel army. Their first view of the stricken West African country may well be deceptive.

Everyone arriving at the international airport is flown by helicopter across the sparkling bay to Freetown, the capital. It is the second largest natural harbour in the world and Freetown, with its Gothic church towers and municipal buildings, looks like a small English coastal town beneath the massive lion-headed mountain that gives Sierra Leone its name.

It all looks gorgeous, but if the British servicemen look towards the westward end of the town they will just see burnt-out buildings. They represent how far the rebels got when they invaded Freetown in January last year, before they were beaten back by the Nigerian army defending the city.

As they land on the helipad, the British team might reflect on the first Englishman to set foot in this land, Sir John Hawkins, who came ashore in 1562 and seized 300 black people, sailed them to America and sold them as slaves. That first rape set the scene for the relationship between Freetown, the outside world and the interior of Sierra Leone.

Since then, like a funnel, Freetown sucks out the wealth of the country: slaves, wood, diamonds, bauxite, coffee, palm oil and now, in its last stages of collapse, refugees. Most of these have come to Britain, which ruled the town and the area around it from 1787 until 1961. In "the interior" - as it is still called - they feel, strongly and angrily, that Freetown takes all and sends nothing back. The people there have watched as the wealth is removed from under their feet while corrupt politicians and soldiers in the capital steal the money which should have been spent on roads and schools and clinics. Hundreds of thousands of young, mis-educated people, useless and disillusioned by the age of 16, are looking for any escape from subsistence poverty.

This was fertile ground for Foday Sankoh, a former army corporal, when he took control of the Revolutionary United Front in 1991. If ever a country needed a revolution it was sick, corrupt Sierra Leone, but it did not need the RUF. The movement has few structures, and Mr Sankoh is a crude, bullying psychopath who does and says whatever suits him at any particular moment. The RUF sucked in the rural youth, infecting them by forcing them to murder their neighbours and even family, cutting off hands and feet and engaging in cannibal rituals. One woman, recently interviewed by a human rights worker, was the sole survivor of a group caught by an RUF gang. She was raped by more than 30 men and children as young as 10.

The movement spread across the country, backed by elements in neighbouring Liberia, and by Burkina Faso and other francophone states. Sierra Leone's government soldiers were ill-equipped to fend off the RUF and, drawn from the same class as the rebel fighters, often found they had more in common with them than the corrupt fat cats they were supposed to be protecting. The war disintegrated as soldiers and fighters turned into bandit gangs, murdering, raping and digging diamonds.

In 1997, the army overthrew the government and invited the RUF to join them in Freetown. President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and his government fled to Guinea, and it was left to the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force, which still kept a toehold, to drive the rebels out again. With backing from Britain and America, they expelled them from the city in February 1998.

Britain has always maintained a fitful relationship with Sierra Leone, partly because of historic links and partly because Sierra Leone feels like a country that has the resources and people to be rich and successful (It had the most highly educated population and the best university in West Africa until recently.) Britain trained the army and the police force, gave budget support and, in 1995, nearly sent troops to fight the RUF. Instead it encouraged private armies to go there instead. The South African Executive Outcomes group chalked up some success, but the outcry against "mercenaries" and the subsequent row over Sandline destroyed this policy. Sandline, a private security company, was supplying weapons to government supporters after Mr Habbah fled, but this was considered a breach of the British-drafted UN arms embargo on Sierra Leone, which accidentally included the government.

The world had to rely on Nigeria to save Sierra Leone, and early in 1999 it appeared to be succeeding. But the atrocities on both sides drew the attention of America. Looking for a quick fix, Washington forced Mr Kabbah to sign a peace agreement with the RUF just as the tide was turning against the rebels. Not only did this put the elected government on a par with the RUF, but it gave the rebels a share of power, as long as they disarmed their troops. A UN peacekeeping force was mandated to monitor the peace agreement.

The result is that the government now controls little more than the Freetown peninsula. Mr Sankoh stays comfortably in the city. Some days he says he will implement the Lome agreement; some days he says it is a scrap of paper. Of the 23,714 people who had shown up at disarmament camps by last week, according to the government, so far only 5,075 are RUF rebels. The rest are former government soldiers, or just kids with guns.

I met some of the first to come out of the bush to the disarmament camp in Port Loko last year. It was like attending a children's party which had got out of hand. Excited by the prospect of $300 (£200) for handing in their guns, the fighters bordered on the hysterical as they told their tales, shrieking with laughter at stories of castration and cannibalism. The handful of UN soldiers stood anxiously by, knowing that, if things went wrong, they had no chance of keeping control. Meanwhile another 15,000 rebels are believed to be remaining in the bush. Many are in the diamond mining areas which have provided the revenue for the RUF's weapons.

Much is at stake for the UN in Sierra Leone. Led by Clare Short, International Development Secretary, Britain has committed itself to peace and reconstruction in Sierra Leone and already spent millions. After January's "Africa month" at the United Nations, Britain and America, trying to counter criticism that Africa got second-class treatment from the UN, pushed for bigger peacekeeping mandates for Sierra Leone and Congo. Kofi Annan's reputation as an African secretary general is also on the line. If the Sierra Leone mission fails, what chance for the much larger Congo?

To negotiate with someone as duplicitous as Mr Sankoh is dangerous, but in the short term it might secure the release of the UN peacekeepers in return for further concessions. That, however, would help Mr Sankoh come closer to becoming the legitimate president of Sierra Leone. It is a horrifying thought that so much international effort might end so.

But it may be that the men holding the UN hostages do not obey him. In the long run the only choices may be to hand Sierra Leone over to Mr Sankoh or send in a strong army with a mandate to kill and conquer.

Richard Dowden is Africa correspondent of 'The Economist'