The Sierra Leone Web


Submitted by: John Karefa-Smart, M.D. MPH, LLD
Member of Parliament and National Leader,
United National People's Party, Sierra Leone

To: Africa Sub-Committee, Committee of International Relations
House of Representatives
Rayburn HOB, Washington, D.C.
Date: 6/11/98.



As National Chairman of the United National People's Party (UNPP), the party with the second largest number of members of Parliament in Sierra Leone, and therefore the titular Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, I am grateful to the chairman and members of the Africa Sub-Committee of the United States House of Representative's Committee on International Relations for scheduling a hearing on "reconstructing Sierra Leone." The people of Sierra Leone have, for more than twelve months, suffered the loss of thousands of lives and the senseless maiming of hundreds of men, women, and children as a direct result of Nigeria's military intervention to restore the presidency of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. We now look forward with hope to whatever help our friends in the international community, and especially in the United States, can give us in our search for lasting reconciliation, peace, and democracy.

My country's present crisis began on May 25, 1996, when a small group of disgruntled soldiers in the Sierra Leone Armed Forces (SLAF) seized power from President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, forced him to flee the country, suspended the constitution and parliament, and set up an Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) to rule the country with Major Johnny Paul Koroma as its chairman. Within a few days, those soldiers were joined by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a band of several thousand Sierra Leoneans who had been engaged since 1991 in guerilla warfare against the civilian government of President Joseph Momoh and the successive military governments of Captain Valentine Strasser and Brigadier Maada Bio. A cease-fire began when RUF combatants emerged from the bush but lasted only until Nigerian-led forces of ECOMOG, the military arm of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), initiated a series of land, sea, and air attacks to oust the AFRC junta.

ECOWAS has not achieved its declared goal of bringing about peace through military intervention because the deposed junta and its RUF allies have simply returned to the thick forests in the interior of the country, from where they are waging a guerilla war in which they have now maimed and/or killed hundreds of innocent civilians.

I appreciate the committee's desire to find an effect way to help the people of Sierra Leone and would like it to seriously consider the wise advice of a Sierra Leonean tribal adage which says that when one stumbles and falls, it is wise not to blame the spot where one falls but instead to look for the obstacle on which one stumbled. In other words, the committee must look beyond President Kabbah's overthrow and subsequent restoration in order to understand some of the factors that contributed to the RUF's 1991 insurrection and the SLAF's 1996 coup d'état.

Following are some of the factors that contributed to the breakdown of constitutional order and the ousting of President Kabbah's Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) government:

1. By 1991, for more than 15 years, despotic rule by All People Convention (APC) governments of Presidents Siaka Stevens and Joseph Momoh effectively eliminated opposition political parties and created a one-party state in which corruption and tribal patronage were deeply entrenched. A few former SLPP leaders nursed grudges against the APC, which had continuously prevented them from holding positions of power they had enjoyed from the time of the pre-independence legislative council until five years following the death of Sir Milton Margai, our first Prime Minister. There is substantial evidence to suggest that, in their search for an opportunity to recapture power from the APC, they supported and encouraged Corporal Foday Sankoh in his formation of the rebellious RUF. At the very least, they shared his determination to avenge the treatment, including incarceration in Pademba Road and Mfanta prisons, which they had received at the hands of the APC. The RUF would thus have offered them a seemingly convenient tool for regaining power from the APC.

2. By 1996, President Kabbah had begun to be perceived as unwilling to implement many terms of the Abidjan Peace Accord, which he had signed with Corporal Sankoh; he did not protest Corporal Sankoh's arrest and imprisonment in Nigeria; and he honored the claim by three former RUF leaders that they had taken over the RUF's leadership. The RUF seems to have concluded that it was no longer bound by the Abidjan Peace Accord.

3. Also, SLAF officers and members of other ranks had started to complain openly that President Kabbah had lost confidence in them and had ceded their constitutional responsibility to defend the country to the Kamajohs, a previously loosely-organized self-defense force made up of traditional hunters at the chiefdom level. The appointment of Samuel Hinga Norman, a retired army lieutenant and the self-proclaimed leader of the Kamajohs, as deputy minister of defense aggravated these grievances.

4. Finally, several actions were giving the impression that the national constitution could be disregarded, such as:

  1. the appointment of National Electoral Commission Chairman James Jonah as Ambassador to the United Nations, with cabinet rank, immediately following his announcement that President Kabbah had won the presidential run-off elections;
  2. failure by the government party in parliament (SLPP) to consult with members of opposition parties before taking major decisions; and
  3. SLPP's unconstitutional interference in the internal affairs of the UNPP, namely, its use of its majority votes to support a parliamentary motion to suspend the Leader of the Opposition from parliament for two sessions on a charge of contempt of parliament, for his protests against repeated tardiness of more than two hours in convening parliamentary sittings, as well as against the Speaker of Parliament's unilateral decisions in matters on which all parties should have been fully consulted.

Thus, when the spokesman for the AFRC junta cited some of the above factors among the many reasons for coup d'état, ordinary citizens realized that the soldiers were also aware that the country's hopes for a speedy return to true democracy after two military regimes were not being fulfilled.

I respectfully urge the Africa sub-committee to encourage the government and people of Sierra Leone to make full use of a tried and tested traditional method of solving important problems, which is to gather at a public meeting all parties which have an interest in the matter to discuss their concerns fully and frankly and then to heed emerging consensus on agreed-upon best solutions as announced by community elders. While we, the people of Sierra Leone, need all the help we can get, we and only we must assume full responsibility for solving our problems.

It is now evident to most observers that the option of external military intervention was chosen hastily before the agreement reached in Abidjan to old free and frank discussions in good faith had been given a fair chance. The result is that military intervention has failed to bring peace to all parts of the country and to end the needless loss of lives. Friends of Sierra Leone must now assist in every practical way by providing adequate material and conceptual resources to facilitate a meeting of all Sierra Leoneans who have a genuine stake in the future of their country so that, working together, they will find and agree to implement acceptable solutions to the nation's problems.

The Chinese ideogram for crisis reminds us that our national crisis offers to Sierra Leoneans a "dangerous opportunity" to put our country back on the track of peace and reconciliation, which alone will lead us to the wise use of our human and natural resources to find sustainable solutions to our problems of endemic poverty, illiteracy, tribalism, corruption, and unequal access to the riches of the one world to which we all belong.