Declan Walsh: Mr Blair may have his critics at home, but he is welcome in Africa

'The common view is that Britain has the courage and political will to help rebuild a shattered nation'
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A mocking chorus was ringing in Tony Blair's ears yesterday as he left for a four-day tour of West Africa. Critics charged that he should be minding his own business instead of embarking on a missionary-style quest to cure the ills of a hopeless continent. He should keep his healing hands in his pockets, they said.

But the sneers of London will be quickly forgotten when the Prime Minister lands in Sierra Leone on Saturday. "De Wor is Don Don" read the Krio banners all over Freetown – the war is over. And for many war-battered citizens, it is all thanks to Mr Blair and Britain's muscular intervention.

According to a recent survey of Freetown residents by the Campaign for Good Governance, a local rights group, 54 per cent of people think Britain is most responsible for the peace process. By contrast, only 36 per cent credit the United Nations, which was also beaten hands-down in several other tests. It belies the numbers – Britain has 360 troops in Sierra Leone, the UN has 17,400, the largest such operation in the world. UN troops oversaw the disarmament of over 47,000 combatants; they currently provide security for most of the country.

But the common view is that Britain has the courage and political will to help rebuild a shattered nation. The army commander and the chief of police are both British. The International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT), which aims to turn the rag-tag national army into a fighting force, is 90 per cent British. And British officials have been drafted in to help a nascent anti-corruption commission get off the ground.

Feelings are running so high that some have asked British officers to consider re-colonising the country. "It's inconceivable, but if Britain suddenly wrapped its shoulder around Sierra Leone, the locals would probably be delighted," said Col Paul Farrar, director of the army training programme.

But Sierra Leone is not in the clear yet, and neither are Mr Blair's white-knight policies. Yes, the displaced camps are closing, the rebels have disarmed and rebuilding has started. But once-glorious African missions have a habit of going disastrously wrong. Just ask the Americans, or the Somalis.

One significant threat lies with Sierra Leone's troublesome neighbour, President Charles Taylor of Liberia. He is battling rebels from the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, a shadowy rebel group operating along Liberia's border with Sierra Leone. He is also though to be sheltering Sam Bockarie, a former rebel commander of Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (the RUF), who is rumoured to have 4,000 men under his command.

The fighting in Liberia is puzzling even to its victims. At a feeding centre in the eastern town of Kailahun, a malnourished refugee woman was asked why the rebels attacked her town. She clapped her hands and opened her eyes wide. "It means she doesn't know," said the interpreter.

There are growing fears that the instability could spill into Sierra Leone. Although the UN force commander Lt-Gen Daniel Opande says that up to "99.9 per cent of the combatants" have been disarmed, not everyone is so sure. The RUF is thought to have kept "emergency supplies" near the Liberian border. Nobody can estimate how much, but, as the RUF showed in 1991, it does not take much to empty scores of villages overnight.

Officially, however, the rebels have turned to talking. A political party, the RUFP, was born from the ashes of the RUF, and its secretary general, Pallo Bangura, predicts that it will garner 90 per cent of the vote at the May election. He is, however, being more than a little optimistic – there is widespread support for the incumbent, President Tejan Kabbah.

The RUF's most immediate problem will be to field a presidential candidate. Its founder and leader, Foday Sankoh, is being detained by the government in a number of secret of locations. He is expected to take centre stage at the Special Court, a UN-sponsored war crimes tribunal that is being set up. But that road is also pitted with dangers.

The Special Court will try up to 30 "most responsible" war criminals, but it will have to overcome scepticism about international justice – the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, for example, has produced just eight convictions after years of trials. And while a Sankoh trial would undoubtedly send the message that mindless violence will not go unpunished in the regions, the sight of the charismatic but psychopathic figure in the dock could also provoke unrest among the RUF's hard core, who hold him to be their true leader.

But President Kabbah's government is also part of the problem. Although the RUF's initial manifesto of banishing official corruption and mismanagement were soon lost in an orgy of violence and greed, the grievances remain. With some exceptions, such as Mr Kabbah himself, the same faces are in power today as at the outset of the war in 1991.

To speed along necessary reforms, Britain has appointed several officials to help with a nascent anti-corruption commission. The lucrative diamond business will need special attention. The commission has, however, been hampered by lack of political will – only one minister has been suspended for dirty dealing – and prosecutions are almost impossible due to a nearly collapsed judicial system.

Nevertheless there are many signs of hope. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission will run alongside the Special Court. It will, it is hoped, help heal the national wounds by establishing a record of the conflict and allowing victims and perpetrators to be heard. And the IMATT has retrained over 9,000 soldiers and started to integrate a further 2,300 former rebels into the army.

From July, the British commitment will be cut by two-thirds, to 120 troops, if all is going well. But that is a big "if". First there will be elections in May, and politics has failed Sierra Leone many times before. Then there will be the Special Court trials, a necessary but potentially dangerous initiative.

And Mr Taylor and his shady friends and enemies is constantly lurking in the background. Tony Blair can justly be proud of Britain's achievements in Sierra Leone. But the final hurdle has not yet been crossed. Lasting peace, and the success of Mr Blair's great African adventure, depend on his continuing engagement.

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