Bandits, not ethnicity, to blame in Sierra Leone : LETTERS

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From Mr Stephen P. Riley Sir: I am glad that you have covered in detail the seemingly endless and brutal civil war in a little reported part of West Africa ("Sierra Leone dissolves into anarchy", 31 January). As a visitor to Sierra Leone since 1978, and as a former lecturer at the university there, I agree that it is time that these issues are fully debated in the British press. However, your report exaggerates the ethnic element involved, and draws inaccurate and probably alarmist comparisons with Rwanda and Liberia.

There is no previous bloody history of ethnic conflict in Sierra Leone. Until 1991 it was a mostly peaceful, if ill-governed, country in desperate economic straits. The origins of the civil war are to be seen in the unscrupulous banditry and asset-stripping of several poorly organised rebel groups, mostly composed of former Sierra Leonean soldiers.

Since 1991, one of these, Foday Sankoh's Revolutionary United Front (RUF), has looted the state's resources, starting in the rich agricultural and diamond-producing areas in the east and south of the country (where the population happens to be Mende, Kono and Vai). Liberia's warlords have also had a hand in stirring up the conflict, but that country's recent grim history isn't necessarily a portent of Sierra Leone's future.

The taking of Western hostages from November last year, and the recent attacks upon expatriate mining companies, have humiliated the shaky multi-ethnic military government of Valentine Strasser and handed a powerful bargaining tool to the rebels.

Sankoh's RUF has been emulated by a number of other shadowy groups, including disaffected soldiers, supporters of the former President Joseph Momoh, and mercenaries from the neighbouring state of Liberia. Sporadic attacks on towns all over the country, as the rebels struggle for booty, also indicate the lack of an ethnic dimension. This isn't ethnic genocide. It is the unlawful accumulation of wealth, often using terror, in a desperately poor country.

The conflict illustrates two depressingly common features of many small African states in the 1990s. It is an indication of their political weakness when faced with determined attacks by mercenary-minded rebel groups. It is also a graphic reflection of their economic fragility when the state's economy is seriously undermined by spasmodic conflict and disorder in the major mineral export areas. There is little hope for such states until legitimate central authority can effectively quash such threats.

Yours faithfully, Stephen P. Riley Reader in Politics Staffordshire University Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire