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Monograph 68: Peacekeeping in Sierra Leone: Unamsil Hits the Home Straight, Mark Malan, Phenyo Rakate and Angela Mcintyre
1 January 2002

The spark that ignited the armed conflict in Sierra Leone came in March 1991, when Liberian warlord (now president of that state) Charles Taylor armed a group of dissident Sierra Leoneans. Over the next decade, the violence continued despite regional attempts to broker peace. Numerous agreements, elections and ceasefires were negotiated over the years, only to be derailed by more violence, coups and general destabilisation. After a series of incoherent interventions by major powers, regional powers, and private military companies, national elections were held on 26 and 27 February 1996, long before there was any sign of a firm cease-fire or peace agreement. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of the Sierra Leone People`s Party emerged as President, but this premature experiment with democracy ended on 25 May 1997, when his government was overthrown. Socio-economic conditions continued to deteriorate, and the UN eventually established an observer mission alongside the regional ECOMOG force, in June 1998.

The humanitarian emergency in Sierra Leone made international headlines when, despite the presence of peacekeepers, Freetown was sacked by rebel forces in January 1999 - an event which precipitated the negotiation of the Lomé Agreement, signed in July 1999. This peace agreement led, in turn, to the withdrawal of ECOMOG and to the establishment of a UN peace mission in October of that year.

The UN force arrived in the (usual) piecemeal fashion, and the available troop strength was too low to allow a widespread deployment. Following the RUF`s offensive in May 2000, the entire peace process reached an impasse. The RUF`s aggression against the peacekeepers, culminating in widespread hostage taking in May 2000, made UNAMSIL realise that compliance with peace accords and Security Council resolutions cannot be taken for granted, and that the force needed an effective deterrence capacity.

After a six-month hiatus, the Abuja Ceasefire Agreement, signed on 10 November 2000, and the Abuja Ceasefire Review Agreement of 2 May 2001 (Abuja II), provided a breakthrough in the peace process, with the Government and the RUF agreeing to the simultaneous disarmament of all combatants belonging to the RUF and the Civil Defence Forces, and both parties accepting the need for the government to restore its authority throughout the country.

This monograph provides a brief overview of the inconclusive interventions in the Sierra Leone conflict, up to and including the initial phase of UNAMSIL deployment. It reports in more detail on the subsequent advances made in the peace process, with specific emphasis on the present role of UNAMSIL in support of the Abuja II Agreement. While the focus is clearly on the political-military process that is geared towards taking the people of Sierra Leone to the polls in May 2002, attention is also paid to a number of interrelated and often thorny issues that, though beyond the mandate of the UN Mission, undoubtedly impact upon the prospects for security, justice and economic recovery. The latter include British support for security sector reform, the extremely contentious diamond industry, the use (and abuse) of children as soldiers and the debate on whether war criminals should be prosecuted or given amnesty.

After a disastrous first six months, and a subsequent hiatus of nearly a year, it is clear that UNAMSIL has, especially since May 2001, made significant strides towards achieving its stated objectives of:

  • Assisting the efforts of the Government of Sierra Leone to extend its authority, restore law and order and stabilize the situation progressively throughout the entire country, and

  • Assisting in the promotion of a political process that should lead to a renewed disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programme and the holding, in due course, of free and fair elections.

By November 2001, UNAMSIL was up to its authorised strength of 17,500, and was better led and more fully equipped than at any time since its inception. The Pakistani brigade and the Russian air wing provided the mission with a powerful deterrent capacity, and the re-trained and re-equipped Sierra Leone Armed Forces were contributing to the overall ability to deal firmly with any potential spoiler of the peace process. UNAMSIL had succeeded in deploying to all the districts of Sierra Leone, and was affording and facilitating a degree of protection, freedom of movement and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to civilians.

The key to stabilisation and security has always been seen as the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants. The purpose of stabilisation measures is to wrest power and the means of violence from local militias and warlords, and to recentralize it at a much higher level. In other words, the success of the whole intervention process hinges on the degree to which warring factions can be effectively disarmed.

Disarmament has proceeded apace in Sierra Leone since May 2001. As this monograph was going to print, on 7 January 2002, UNAMSIL declared that the disarmament of former fighters under the Sierra Leone government`s DDR programme had formally ended. According to the UN Mission, 45,449 former combatants had handed over weapons to the authorities between 18 May 2001 and 6 January 2002. The collection of weapons not covered under DDR was continuing under a community arms collection programme.

While disarmament and freedom of movement are primary military concerns, the demobilisation and reintegration into society of former combatants is widely recognised as a civilian challenge. This aspect of the Sierra Leone peace process remains problematic, in a society where the formal economy hardly exists and the vast majority of the population eke out a living either through subsistence agriculture or the exploitation of natural resources. The lure of diamonds is, and will undoubtedly be, an important factor in the decisions as to means of earning a livelihood taken by former combatants on all sides.

While there are many structural and objective impediments to meaningful reintegration - not just of the RUF, but of all former combatants and civilians disrupted and displaced by the war - there is an urgent need for the RUF to receive meaningful assistance in converting itself into a political party. This is surely a sine qua non for mission success, if the political indeed takes precedence over the military in any peace process. Yet this has been one of the most neglected aspects of engagement in Sierra Leone. This omission may well come back to haunt those who would like to see the RUF marginalized in the forthcoming elections.

The neglect of the RUF`s conversion process is, perhaps, an inevitable outcome of the emphasis placed on the extension of civil (Government) authority throughout the territory of Sierra Leone. This has been regarded as the all-important benchmark to be achieved before the staging of elections, and extension of civil authority has been at the centre of recent reports of the UN Secretary-General, Security Council resolutions, and indeed, the mandate and mission statement of UNAMSIL. However, international assistance with this imperative continues to focus on the military and the police, with little attention devoted to the broader aspects of civil administration - such as health, education, and social welfare.

It is a truism that the success of a peace operation depends not only on the security dimension, but also on the aspects of democracy, governance, economy and development. Moreover, the Special court for Sierra Leone and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) both have a critical role to play in building institutions that the citizens can trust. Access to justice remains one of the acute problems facing Sierra Leoneans, especially for rural residents. Of special concern is the need to begin a sustainable longer-term process of judicial reform, as a necessary adjunct to the Special Court and the TRC. This would involve a process that could take at least ten years, and will require further bilateral and multilateral support, as UNAMSIL is, by definition, a short-term intervention.

It is commonly accepted that the roots of the Sierra Leone conflict lie in poor governance, which was responsible for a disappearing formal economy, youth unemployment, grinding poverty, poor education and a weak infrastructure. If this is so, then it is also important to look beyond the elections and to muster ongoing international support for fostering good governance practices and long-term economic development. This is absolutely vital if the enormous investment in peacekeeping and emergency assistance is not to be squandered.

While this monograph attempts to document, in broad outline, both the setbacks and the progress made in Sierra Leone to date, it is too soon to pronounce the Mission an unqualified success. Nevertheless, the international community, the UN, and especially the leadership of UNAMSIL have stayed the course, and have turned what appeared to be abject failure into a very visible (though qualified) success. To continue on this trajectory, and to ensure that the Mission reaches its desired end-state, both UNAMSIL and the people of Sierra Leone need and deserve the continued support of all national, regional and international interlocutors and donors.