Sierra Leone: The nightmare legacy of imperialism

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Sierra Leone is a very rich country in diamonds and bloodshed. The reason for the protracted civil war tearing Sierra Leone apart is the legacy of British colonialism and the struggle by the ruling cliques to rob the country's wealth.

"If you want to know the value of a diamond here you should take all the arms and legs they chopped off and put them on one side, and all the diamonds dug up over the past ten years and put them on the other, and then you divide one into the other. That is the value of a diamond in Sierra Leone." Jonah Dumbuya, his right arm and ears hacked off.

Sierra Leone is a very rich country in diamonds and bloodshed. It is in the grip of a nightmare. Following the crisis of Zimbabwe, we now have the renewed crisis in Sierra Leone.

The Labour government has committed 700 heavily armed paratroopers and several ships for "humanitarian" reasons to evacuate UK and European citizens, and provide back-up to the "peace-keeping" UN forces involved in Sierra Leone's civil war. As each day passes, and with the capture of the rebel leader Sankoh, it is clear that British forces are being drawn deeper into the conflict.

According to Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, and architect of Labour's "ethical" foreign policy, the whole intervention is to be kept under review. Now the British paratroopers have been engaged in fighting the rebels, four of who were shot dead.

The reason for the protracted civil war tearing Sierra Leone apart is the legacy of British colonialism and the struggle by the ruling cliques to rob the country's wealth. This small west African country of only 4.5 million people has suffered from eight years of civil war, which has left 50,000 dead and forced half the population to flee their homes.

Many of today's problems stem from the way in which Sierra Leone was established. In 1787 the British founded Freetown as a base. It later became Britain's biggest naval base in the South Atlantic. Later in the 19th century, British forces conquered the tribes inland, and organised a state based upon different peoples, speaking 23 languages and hundreds of dialects.

With the anti-colonial struggle of the 1950s, Britain was forced to grant Sierra Leone independence in 1961. But power was handed over not to the people but to a clique of powerful families who set about plundering the country. Britain, however, propped up these corrupt regimes right up to the present time. When the government was overthrown in 1997, Sandline, a British security company, tried to provide weapons to help restore the exiled government, but fell foul of a UN arms embargo, to the embarrassment of Robin Cook.

As a reaction to the corrupt governments that ruled Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was formed under Sankoh. In 1991, the RUF started an uprising against the corrupt government which is still continuing. The rebels have used the most brutal methods to achieve power, including the mutilation of children. In reality, it is a brutal conflict between two sets of gangsters. While cynically resting on the aspirations of the masses, both sides are determined to plunder the country for themselves, determined to seize control over its vast diamond reserves. From these resources they are able to purchase weapons supplied by the imperialists.

One of the RUF's most important allies is President Charles Taylor of neighbouring Liberia. "Taylor has provided a safe haven for RUF fighters and has helped to establish their trade in diamonds, in return for a large share of the profits", according to Africa expert Comfort Ero. As long ago as 1987, Taylor planned to use Sierra Leone as a base for launching the 1990-97 civil war in Liberia. As a bourgeois bonapartist Taylor secured power in 1997, strengthened his presidency, eliminated his opponents and imposed tight controls on the media.

"Mr Taylor's assistance and encouragement was the single biggest cause of the war that has transformed diamond-rich Sierra Leone into a graveyard populated by the maimed victims of a nightmarish conflict", explains the Financial Times.

Last July a "peace" agreement between the three main rival groups was signed, which gave each a share in the government and promised their war crimes would be forgiven. To make sure the agreement held, the United Nations sent 11,000 troops to Sierra Leone to help police the country. The warring factions were supposed to disarm, but Sankoh, who was made chairman of the country's Strategic Mineral Resources Commission, made secret preparations to restart the war, topple Kabbah and seize power.

The UN troops were met with fierce resistance from the RUF and Sankoh, who were determined to hold on to the diamond areas. UN units were attacked, robbed of their equipment and more than 500 of them kidnapped. It was an enormous blow to their prestige.

Now the Liberian gangster Charles Taylor, who has backed the RUF for his own ends, is being involved in mediation talks, making in the words of the Financial Times "an extraordinary transition from notoriety to quazi-respectability." The latter notes ironically that "Mr Taylor came to power in a process every bit as brutal as the one that has brought rebel leader Foday Sankoh to international prominence."

The sanctimonious Sunday Times recently stated that "Post independence has shown that most African states have neither the ability or determination to manage their own affairs." This is false. It has been the role of imperialism which has backed different crooks that has caused this mess. To one degree or another, all the wars which are taking place in Africa at the present time - twenty in all - are being fought out by agents of the different imperialist powers, keen to establish new spheres of influence.

Neither the British army nor the United Nations will bring peace and stability to Sierra Leone. They represent interests that have contributed to the turmoil on the African continent. It is capitalism and the stranglehold of imperialism that is the underlying cause of the crisis. Only the working class can resolve the problem armed with a socialist programme that can transform the continent. Only the working class can overcome the national and ethnic divisions and lay the basis for a socialist Africa, linked to a socialist federation of the world. Only then can the misery of war, poverty, hunger and violence be ended for ever.

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