The Labour government’s decision to intervene in Sierra Leone marks the largest mobilisation of British forces since the Gulf war in 1991. Under the cover of its ‘ethical foreign policy’, and in the name of ‘morality’, New Labour promise to rescue the innocent population from the terror of the marauding gangs high on drugs. The truth is that British imperialism’s role is not that of peace maker, but of actively fuelling the war in Sierra Leone. It is also flexing its muscles to show its imperialist rivals that it’s a force to be reckoned with on the international stage and in future conflicts.
Sierra Leone gained independence from Britain in 1961 and was relatively stable until the present civil war broke out in 1991. The African ‘peace-keeping’ force Ecomog, largely made up of Nigerian troops, failed to stop the war and in 1997 the Kabbah government was overthrown by the army general Koroma with the support of the RUF. The UN imposed an arms embargo but with the help of British mercenaries working for Sandline, who broke the arms embargo, the Nigerian forces drove the RUF from Freetown in 1998, committing many atrocities themselves. The Britishrocities themselves. The British government was ‘cleared’ of any involvement in the Sandline affair and forced Sandline to end their contracts with Kabbah.
But the facts show that British imperialism itself took up the baton and pumped military aid into the country to back its local pawn Kabbah, in order to maintain a firm foothold in this strategically important region of West Africa.
"More money, more aid per head of population and more political action has been directed at the former British colony than any other African country. The Labour Government has committed more than £65m since March 1998" (BBC Online, 11/5/00).
After the UN dropped its embargo on arms supplies to Kabbah’s forces, "Britain shipped £10m worth of weapons to Freetown last year. They included machine-guns with 2 million rounds of ammunition, more than 2,000 mortars, and 7,500 rifles" (Guardian, 25/5/00).
There have also been reports that the Marines and SAS have been training the Sierra Leone Army since 1998. This military aid strengthened the Kabbah regime to the point where its former enemies in the army rejoined its ranks and in July 1999its ranks and in July 1999, faced with the scaling down of the Nigerian forces, Kabbah signed a peace agreement with the RUF which brought them into the government. The Nigerian forces were decreased and the UN took control of the disarmament of the RUF.
Faced with the humiliating collapse of the UN mission, the British government decided once again to directly intervene and take advantage of this great opportunity. Tony Blair said that, "Whilst the days of being a global policeman are long gone, it does not mean you can’t show leadership and do what you can to help" (Guardian, 16/5/00).
The rapid deployment of the British troops and naval back-up has been seen as a great success for British imperialism. While certain parts of the British media have warned of the threat of ‘mission creep’, and that the politicians are being pushed around by the military commanders on the ground in Sierra Leone, the government was not surprised by the turn of events. Its ability to rapidly send advance troops by air and a naval task force of 4 ships, including an aircraft carrier, is an example of how Britain is trying to ‘punch above its weight’ and show its rivals that it is still a force to be reckoned with.
The government also intend this intervention to be a long term commitment with the aim being nothing short of the complete reconstruction of the state in Sierra Leone. Robin Cook has made it clear that, "Britain will not abandon its commitment to Sierra Leone" (Telegraph, 9/5/00).
In effect this means that as well as the military aid, "administratively, Britons have been seconded to most major government ministries in an attempt to establish a functioning state...Key positions are held by the British under a bureaucratic form of re-colonisation" (Telegraph, 21/5/00).
The poor need food, Britain gives them guns
British imperialism has once again made use of the ideology of ‘humanitarianism’ to justify its latest intervention. The scenes of mutilated children are indeed shocking but it is rarely explained in the media that many of the pro-government forces that Britain is backing have carried out and continue to carry out such atrocities. There has also been much use made of the ‘child soldiers’ which Britain says must be taken out of the conflict. This hypocrisy was fully exposed when it was revealed that ted when it was revealed that the British government had decided to give 10,000 rifles to the Sierra Leone Army at the end of May. The fact that these weapons have already fallen into the hands of child soldiers was brushed aside by British officials. Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries on the planet with an adult life expectancy rate of just 36 years. This explains why there are an estimated 15,000 child soldiers in Sierra Leone – a large percentage of the adult population is already dead by the age of 40!
A French film director who went to Sierra Leone to make a film about the link between charity and politics was so sickened by the UN’s and Britain’s complicity in the atrocities carried out in the civil war that he documented this instead! The reviewer of this film said, "What passes for the UN in this part of the world...doesn’t just allow cold blooded murder, but actively takes part" (‘New World Order (Somewhere in Africa)’, Guardian, 25/5/00).
Imperialist rivalries in West Africa
For the moment those major powers with vested interests in West Africa - the US and France - have kept a certain distance from the chaos in Sierra Leone. But thiaos in Sierra Leone. But this doesn’t mean they aren’t watching the situation carefully. The US has sent its envoy Jesse Jackson to the region; in contrast to Britain’s vilification of the rebels, he compared the RUF leader Foday Sankoh to Nelson Mandela. The RUF has close links with Liberia which it uses as a conduit for the sale of diamonds in exchange for weapons. The president of Liberia, Charles Taylor, is supported by the US and the French, so they presumably aren’t too happy that Sankoh is being held by the British.
The US does have one other card to play. The BBC have reported that, "Because of the successful experience of the Nigerian-led Ecomog forces the US is discussing the possibility of financing the return of Nigerian battalions to the country to take on the RUF again." (BBC Online, 10/5/00). This would cause problems for the British who have muscled in on the terrain once held by the Nigerians.
The bourgeois media have always portrayed the civil war in Sierra Leone as a conflict about who controls the fabulous prize of the country’s diamond mines. The diamond trade is indeed a lucrative trade for whoever controls it, but it is not the basic cause of the war. When we covered the civil war in Liberia, Sierd the civil war in Liberia, Sierra Leone’s neighbour, in 1996 we pointed out that, "The war in Liberia, like the wars and civil conflicts ravaging Somalia, Sudan, Algeria, Rwanda, Burundi, Angola, Mozambique and elsewhere is a striking expression of the decomposition of capitalist society…The economic disaster then accelerates the social collapse, as different factions battle over diminishing spoils, and the whole of society right down to its children is sucked into a vortex of looting and gang massacres" (WR 195, June ’96).
The British bourgeoisie want us to believe that by propping up the ‘democratic’ government in Sierra Leone it can hold out against this tide, the historical collapse of the capitalist system. In reality Britain and the other major imperialist powers are doing the opposite, exacerbating the social collapse in Africa by arming its local clients and literally giving them ammunition to fight more wars.