Hopes of renaissance fade as flirtation with democracy ends in tears

For a while, it had seemed that good news was a possibility for Sierra Leone. In February last year, elections took place successfully, despite a continuing civil war. A democratic parliament was elected, led by President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's People's Party. The military regime, headed until shortly before the elections by Captain Valentine Strasser (now, controversially, a student at Warwick University) bowed out. The army-backed party was roundly defeated.

Nine months later, a five-year civil war formally ended with a peace agreement which wassigned in Abidjan, in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire. Full demobilisation was agreed bet- ween the new government and Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front. The RUF had suffered partly at the hands of the South Africa-based Executive Outcomes, a private security force - in effect, mercenaries - who were brought in to help crush the rebels. Under the terms of the agreement, organisations like Executive Outcomes were banned: "Foreign troops, private armies, mercenaries and irregular troops" were to withdraw, as a concession to the rebels.

It quickly became clear, however, that the promised peace was a little more than a will o'the wisp. Mr Sankoh's rebels were unwilling to disarm. Mr Sankoh seemed ready to stoke the offensive once more, and complained there was "no trust and confidence" between the two sides. There were international pledges of aid, but these were dependent on peace becoming real - in other words, unlikely.

Last week's coup brought gunfire to the streets of the capital, Freetown, and plunged the country back into chaos. A little-known army major, Johnny Paul Koromah, was sprung from jail in an armed assault on Freetown's central prison, and was proclaimed the new leader. President Ahmed Kabbah was forced to flee to neighbouring Guinea. Nigerian troops, part of the West African regional peacekeeping force, gained themselves much-needed international brownie points by seeking to crush the coup.

Yesterday, clashes were continuing between supporters of the coup and the Kamajor militia loyal to President Kabbah. But the dramas of the last week make it even more difficult to imagine a return to normality in the foreseeable future than it was before the latest violence.

The former British colony was given a version of its present name by Pedro de Cintra, the Portuguese explorer who first visited Freetown harbour in the 15th century. The Serra Lyoa, or Lion Mountains, referred to the hills around the harbour. Both in colonial times and today, diamonds have been one of the country's most important exports. Control of diamond-mining has frequently been fought over. There was even speculation that Executive Outcomes was partly paid with access to valuable diamond concessions. The country's rich mineral resources should be a valuable asset. In practice, they have sometimes merely seemed a reason for war.

President Nelson Mandela spoke recently of an African "renaissance" just around the corner. The events in Sierra Leone in recent days have served as a reminder that there are strong-er reasons for pessimism than for optimism in some parts of the continent.

Africa: The bloodbaths and the opportunities, page 19