Letter: Sierra Leone's freedom

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The Independent Online
Sir: For the first time that I have seen, a correspondent (Letters, 13 May) has sought to set out the views of the Sierra Leonean people in the current rumpus.

The facts, which have been considerably muddied when not ignored, are that on 25 May 1997 the government of Sierra Leone, elected only a year previously in a remarkable demonstration of power by a people determined to rid themselves of military control, was overthrown in a brutal coup organised by the army and the dissident Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

No recognition was given to this regime, which called itself the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), least of all by the people, who maintained a brave stance of non-cooperation. Thousands fled the country, while those that remained risked death and mutilation as well as looting.

Attempts to remove the AFRC by negotiation, led by West African states with the full co-operation in particular of Britain, were abortive. Sanctions, here again with Britain taking the lead in the UN, were imposed and the task of trying to ensure compliance was given to the Nigerian-led peace- keeping force Ecomog, which had been assembled to operate in Liberia (and in which there was a Sierra Leonean component).

Sanctions proved ineffective. The AFRC was able to obtain arms and recruit mercenaries to maintain itself in power while it continued to repress and to plunder. Finally Ecomog took forceful action. Freetown was liberated in a few days: but up-country AFRC forces committed unbelievable acts of savagery (killing, maiming, rape and destruction) as they were forced to give ground. Can anyone seriously contend that these thugs could have been negotiated away?

Now President Tejan-Kabbah has been restored. Refugees are returning. The people's human and civil rights have been restored, and except for Kono, where an AFRC rump is holding out, they can go about their ordinary business and reconstruct their lives.

The people know that it was a Nigerian-led force that liberated them. They know that international support was mustered by Britain. Hence the adulation given to Peter Penfold as Britain's representative - although they also acknowledge the part played by Tony Lloyd as the minister responsible, who quickly visited them as a member of a Commonwealth ministerial delegation.

Old and discredited Sierra Leonean politicians who hoped to get back under the wing of AFRC have been feeding misinformation to gullible politicians with a voice in Britain. A company whose trade is war is claiming a role that is certainly exaggerated. The media and the Opposition here are seeking to embarrass our government for reasons of domestic political advantage.

Yes, claims and allegations of breaches of UN sanctions have to be investigated. But the Prime Minister's firm statement putting matters in perspective is assuredly to be welcomed. Let us celebrate with the people of Sierra Leone the freedom that we have helped restore to them.


London SE16

The writer was High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, 1986-91