The vote for hope in a country that once had no future

Declan Walsh
Thursday 27 February 2014 04:32

The choices used to be so much starker in Sierra Leone. "Long sleeve or short," the drug-crazed rebel would ask in a macabre game of wits. Answering "long sleeve" meant he hacked off your hand. "Short sleeve" meant the whole arm.

That was the last election, when rebels ruthlessly punished anyone who supported the poll. But this time, delighted Sierra Leoneans had only to decide between eight men and one woman for president, as they voted for the future of a country that once appeared not to have one.

Thousands rose in the pre-dawn cool and started queuing long before stations opened at 7am. Some had to ink their ballots with their big toes because their thumbs and fingers had been chopped off. In other lines were found the gunmen who committed such atrocities, now reduced to pathetic figures of distrust.

"This is going to be a new beginning of life after 10 years of war," Lamin Janka, a 43-year-old man who has no hands, told one reporter.

Only two years ago, all this would have been reckless fantasy. But that was before Britain's muscular intervention in May 2000, which tipped the balance against the bloodthirsty Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and paved the way for the world's largest UN peace-keeping force.

Now Tony Blair and his Foreign Office mandarins must be rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Out of the ashes of the Sandline mercenaries controversy – the first crack in the discredited "ethical" foreign policy – has emerged a triumphant victory. Although the 330-strong British contingent is vastly outnumbered by the 17,400 UN troops, Britain has pocketed the credit for arriving at a crucial moment in the war.

Britons hold critical positions in the army, police and the civil service. Anywhere else in Africa, a continent pillaged by foreign interests, Britain would be accused of neo-colonialism. Some cynics murmur theories about an interest in exploiting Sierra Leone's massive diamond reserves. But you won't hear that from ordinary Sierra Leoneans who, one survey revealed, would trust the management of their country to Britain before the UN.

During February's flying visit by Tony Blair, many openly complained that they had been cheated of a chance to thank him properly for his services. It's enough to make Alan Jones, the British high commissioner and straight-talking Welsh man credited with delicately managing Britain's intervention, blush with embarrassment.

But as voters crowded into the polling stations, the drums of war were beating furiously in neighbouring Liberia. The embattled President there, Charles Taylor, a one-time RUF godfather now hobbled by a UN arms embargo, dispatched his troops to repel a rebel offensive on the capital, Monrovia.

That was a dark reminder of the chaos that plagues this corner of West Africa, and that could yet suck Sierra Leone and more than 17,000 international troops back into conflict.

If peace holds in Sierra Leone, this election should spell the end of the RUF. At the height of the fighting the rebels terrorised swaths of the country with its notorious combination of cocaine abuse, child soldiers and indiscriminate murder or mutilation of anybody who got in the way.

The January 2000 invasion of Freetown was particularly horrific, with a wave of amputations, burning to death of civilians, sexual assault and summary execution carried out by the RUF and its allies.

These days the rebellion has appended a "p"– for "party" – to its name and operates from small, sweaty offices on Lightfoot Boston Street in downtown Freetown. Its election candidate is a softly spoken academic, Pallo Bangura, who skirts questions about atrocities but admits that his chances of victory are slim to non-existent.

Meanwhile the mercurial, some say psychotic, RUF leader, Foday Sankoh, remains in detention in a grim west African prison, where he is reportedly losing his grip on reality. The government prevented him from running for office on the technicality that he hadn't registered to vote. Instead, he almost certainly faces trial at the Special Court, a war crimes tribunal being set up under the auspices of the UN.

Once galvanised under Mr Sankoh, the RUF has cracked into factions. A recent incident involving Gibril Massaquoi, a former RUF spokesman with a ghetto rapper's taste for oversized gold jewellery, was telling.

On a tour of former RUF heartland, Mr Massaquoi was set upon by a gang of former fighters. They demanded to know what had become of the enormous profits made from diamond mining by the RUF leadership. The penniless men were so enraged to see Mr Massaquoi spinning around in a flashy four-wheel-drive that they seized and destroyed it, leaving the terrified official to scamper for his life.

The RUF was famous for its plundering of Sierra Leone's fabulous diamond wealth during the war, with the connivance of Liberia's President. It galvanised an international "blood diamonds" campaign, allowing the murky trade to flourish through the gem dealers of Antwerp. Later reports suggested that al-Qa'ida also profited from the business.

Yesterday's voting was overseen by troops from the UN contingent. More than 2.3 million of the country's five million people were eligible to vote.

The incumbent President, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, is tipped to retain his job. The former UN technocrat, who has spent most of his recent past in exile, is not a particularly charismatic or vibrant leader, but Sierra Leoneans crave stability.

Alusine Bangura lost his wife to rebels during the January 2000 offensive. They gang raped her, then murdered her. Even so, he was willing to forgive them, he told me in a camp outside Freetown. "Whatever it takes, please, to get us back to normal life," he said.

President Kabbah has already been elected President once, during limited multiparty elections in 1996, but was toppled in a military coup a year later, ushering in the most brutal phase of the war. While in exile he successfully petitioned the British Government to intervene, at first with the Sandline affair and later with a full-scale military intervention.

Initially billed as an evacuation of British citizens, British troops soon found themselves securing the defence of Freetown. When some of them were kidnapped by the notorious West Side Boys militia, their comrades went after them in a daring rescue operation. The RUF sued for peace, realising that its days of bullying outside forces were numbered.

Mr Blair also has a personal link with Sierra Leone through his father, Leo, who once spent his summers marking exam papers at Freetown University.

President Kabbah's opponents include Johnnie-Paul Koroma, the former army officer who overthrew him in 1997. Although he has made veiled threats about tapping into his military support, Mr Koroma's biggest worry must be prosecution alongside Mr Sankoh.

Mr Koroma, a born-again Christian, now cuts an isolated figure. In interview at his Freetown home in January, he told The Independent his Peace and Liberation Party wanted to encourage "righteous and God-fearing people" into politics.

A greater challenge to the President comes from Ernest Koroma of the All People's Congress, a former ruling party. The APC is expected to dominate the northern vote while Mr Kabbah's Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) should clean up in the south.

But, should President Kabbah return to power, his presidency is likely to face greater scrutiny from Britain – which gives between £40m and £50m in aid – and other donors, about how their money is being spent. Although diplomats say Mr Kabbah is not corrupt, many of his entourage are known to have sticky fingers in the jar of international money.

And there is so much to spend the money on. With average life expectancy at 33, a decimated economy and a soaring HIV/Aids rate, the UN declares Sierra Leone to be the poorest country on earth.

As with the recent Zimbabwe election, yesterday's poll put the lie to the chestnut that African countries somehow "aren't ready" for democracy. But that doesn't mean Sierra Leone is out of the woods yet. The most immediate threat comes from the exploding situation in Liberia. On Monday, rebels from the shadowy Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy were shelling just 15 miles from Monrovia. Mr Taylor's demise could be near. Some Sierra Leoneans are fighting with the rebels, but others are with Mr Taylor, especially former RUF members. So the growing, volatile conflict could easily spill over into Sierra Leone's back yard.

The other danger comes from the ranks of the demobilised RUF. In the slums of Freetown and on the edge of many provincial towns, groups of these ex-fighters have remained clustered together, jobless and poor yet afraid to return home for fear of reprisals.

They could yet be galvanised into a force for violence and instability. Or a peaceful election may convince them that, as the Krio posters say, "Di war is don don" – the war is, finally, over.

The main contenders

Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
Mr Kabbah returned to Sierra Leone in 1993 after a 21-year career with the United Nations Development Programme, claiming he wanted to "rest". But after winning the 1996 poll – and being deposed in a coup the following year – he proved to be a wily politician, gaining foreign support and fending off internal challenges. Critics accuse him of being a weak leader and allowing corruption within the SLPP.

Ernest Koroma
No relation to the notorious military junta leader, Johnnie-Paul Koroma, the 48-year-old former insurance company executive poses the biggest challenge to President Kabbah. A member of the UK Institute of Directors, he has campaigned against the perceived corruption of the government. He is also expected to commandsupport from his fellow Temne tribesmen.

Zainab Bangura
Ms Bangura shot to prominence in 1996 when she led street rallies by women protesting at the continuing war. She also became famous for fearlessly criticising some of the most volatile warmongers, such as Foday Sankoh, in some cases to their face. She admits to having little chance of winning but is using the campaign to build her national profile and further women's rights.

Pallo Bangura
A former university lecturer, Mr Bangura is a softly-spoken man with a serious manner. He served in various rebel administrations that held power between 1997 and 2000 and stepped into the breach after the jailed RUFP candidate, Foday Sankoh, was prevented from standing. He says the RUF has an "image problem".

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