Blair's `good guys' have lost

THE HOSTAGE CRISIS could trigger more problems for British policy in Sierra Leone. The worst is that the shaky peace accord between government and rebels might unravel for lack of international support and local obduracy. This much-criticised deal, with jobs and pardons for the rebels, follows two years of close British involvement in Sierra Leone, a saga which has become as critical a test of Labour's ethical foreign policy as Kosovo.

Last year at the height of the arms for Sierra Leone row, Tony Blair dismissed the furore about the Sandline military company working with British diplomats and soldiers as an "overblown hoo-hah" because "the good guys had won". By "good guys" the Prime Minister meant the elected government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, restored to power in February 1998 in a counter-coup led by Nigerian troops and helped by Sandline's Lieutenant Colonel Tim Spicer and his team of former (and some not so former) British intelligence and military specialists.

British involvement in Sierra Leone's civil war dates back almost to March 1991 when 100 rebel fighters started it with support from neighbouring Liberia's warlord (now president) Charles Taylor. The incumbent Sierra Leone president, Joseph Momoh, who had served as an officer in Britain's colonial West Africa Frontier Force, immediately asked his old friends in Whitehall for a team of military advisers to help his army push the rebels back into Liberia. But though Sierra Leone had had given Britain military facilities during the Falklands and Gulf wars, and consistent diplomatic support at the UN, John Major's government rejected the request.

After a succession of coups and the continuing civil war, Kabbah was elected president in February 1996 after Sierra Leone's ruling soldiers had been prodded by American and British diplomats into handing over power. But in May 1997 he too was ousted by a combination of dissident soldiers and Liberian-backed rebels. Getting the elected Kabbah back in Freetown became the new Labour government's first ethical foreign policy outing. Kabbah, flown in from exile in Guinea, was Blair's personal guest at the November 1997 Commonwealth summit in Edinburgh.

African realities proved more intractable. Last month, the "good guys" were bludgeoned and blustered into signing a surrender note dressed up as a peace accord. They have lost.

Taylor is a past master at guerrilla war, guerrilla diplomacy, and hiding weaponry during ceasefires. He won in Liberia after an equally bitter civil war there. Compared to him, Kabbah is an ingenue.

Many in Freetown expect Taylor's proteges in the RUF - Corporal Foday Sankoh and Sam Bockarie - to end up on top after outplaying a weak and vacillating Kabbah. Then British policy would be back to square one.

Patrick Smith is editor of `Africa Confidential'

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