Log ind

Lean peacekeeping turns mean: Crisis and response in Sierra Leone


Mark Malan, Institute for Security Studies.


UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced on 7 March 2000 that he was appointing an international panel to look at every aspect of United Nations peacekeeping, and to make recommendations on how missions can be more effective.1 At the news conference where the appointment of the panel was announced, Annan drew specific attention to the problem of how to use force, as provided for in the Charter, in support of UN peace missions.2 Two months later, the capture by rebel forces of some 500 UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone was making media headlines the world over. The UN soldiers had offered virtually no resistance, despite the fact that they had been authorised by Council, acting under Chapter VII of the Charter, to use force to protect themselves and their mandate. The Report of the UN Panel on Peace Operations, or the ‘Brahimi Report’, released on 23 August 2000, contains twenty-two sets of recommendations. However, these are aimed mainly at the organisation and mechanics of UN peacekeeping, including the issue of more rapid deployment, and do little to address the dilemmas faced by the forces in Sierra Leone. The single recommendation on “Peacekeeping doctrine and strategy” is summarised simply as follows:

“Once deployed, United Nations peacekeepers must be able to carry out their mandates professionally and successfully and be capable of defending themselves, other mission components and the mission’s mandate, with robust rules of engagement, against those who renege on their commitments to a peace accord or otherwise seek to undermine it by violence”.3

The Brahimi Report also confirms the truism that: “… [T]he United Nations does not wage war. Where enforcement action is required, it has consistently been entrusted to coalitions of willing states, with the authorization of the Security Council, acting under Chapter VII of the Charter”. 4 While recognising the need to assist poorer countries with the requisite logistic and training support for participation in UN “peacekeeping” operations, the Panel did not address the inability of African countries to provide a credible deterrent or enforcement capacity. The latter deficit has been glaringly obvious in what Hutchful has described as 'lean peacekeeping' operations in Africa - missions that operate under sub-optimal conditions that would not normally support military operations.5 The advent of lean peacekeeping under regional auspices was heralded with the ECOMOG6 intervention in Liberia in 1990. It continued, with varying levels of absurdity, with the private, regional and international peace support initiatives in Sierra Leone, as pursued from 1996 to present. The aim of this article is not to provide a detailed evaluation of the Brahimi report, or the UN Secretary-General’s report on implementing its recommendations.7 The purpose is rather to provide a brief chronological synopsis of the evolution of crisis and response in Sierra Leone as a case study in incrementalism, which has had such bizarre consequences that the various interventions defy orthodox categorisation. However, the intention is indeed to use the example of ‘lean peacekeeping’ in Sierra Leone to illustrate that the the Brahimi Report is no panacea for effectiveness in nonbenign peace support environments. Rather, it is fraught with ambiguity around the key issue of proactive military force, and it does not address the major challenge posed to the panel by Annan during the media briefing that heralded the launch of the Panel, viz:

“Under our charter, we are allowed to use force in the common interest. But there are questions that we will have to answer. What is the common interest? Who defines it? Who defends it? And under what authority and under what circumstances?''8

Immediate origins of the crisis in Sierra Leone

The current crisis in Sierra Leone is a continuation of a war which began in March 1991, when Liberian warlord (now President) Charles Taylor armed a group of dissident Sierra Leoneans to hit back at the Freetown government for allowing its territory to be used by Nigerian planes on bombing missions against his forces. Led by former army corporal Foday Sankoh, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) soon became infamous for its particularly brutal practice of hacking off limbs in order to terrorise and subjugate the population. Faced with weak and incoherent opposition from the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces (RSLMF)9, the RUF was consistently able to overrun government forces, and began to seize diamond mining properties, the main source of hard currency for the government. By early 1995, RUF forces had effectively laid siege to the capital city of Freetown. Anarchic conditions soon prevailed, with thousands of civilians being slaughtered, raped and maimed in a relatively short space of time – without any action being taken by the UN Security Council. While the UN vacillated, Sierra Leone had had to rely on the peacemaking assistance of diverse agglomeration of uncoordinated actors, each with their own agendas. These included the United States government, the Nigerian government, the International Monetary Fund, and a variety of UN agencies. Private military advice and assistance was provided first by Gurkha Security Guards, then by Executive Outcomes and Sandline International. A Nigerian Army Training Assistance Group (NATAG) was later established, and in April 1997, Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom signed an agreement under which British military experts were to train two battalions of a new Sierra Leone army. The most controversial (and perhaps most effective) intervention aimed at terminating the civil war was conducted by Executive Outcomes (EO), a South African based private military company. This was ‘lean peacekeeping’ at its best, with the company originally contracted by the Sierra Leone government (NPRC and later the SLPP)10 to deploy 160 of its personnel in Sierra Leone from May 1995 to March 1996.11 After training up company-sized contingents of the RSLMF and enlisting the support of the Kamajors (traditional hunters with exceptional bushcraft skills), EO provided the leadership, helicopters and fire-support necessary prosecute a successful war against the RUF. By late 1995, the siege of Freetown had been lifted and the RUF headquarters to the east of Freetown was destroyed. The Koindu diamond area and the Sierra Rutile area had been liberated and were again open for operations.12 Executive Outcome's presence was widely regarded as a crucial stabilizing factor, which led to the initiation of peace talks between the government and the RUF on 22 February 1996. However, instead of the usual ‘UN-prescribed’ pattern of cease-fire, peace agreement, disarmament, demobilisation, and then elections, the ‘formal’ peace process in Sierra Leone began with the staging of elections. The people of Sierra Leone went to the polls on 26 and 27 February 1996, long before there was any sign of a firm cease-fire or peace agreement. After two rounds of voting, and amidst gross intimidation of the electorate, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP emerged as President in mid-March. A series of peace talks between the government and the RUF followed, and Kabbah was eventually persuaded to terminate the contract with EO that had been signed by his predecessor. EO was notified that its contract was terminated with effect from the end of January 1997, even though they had been informed in December that the earliest their contract would end would be March 1997. Contract termination was supposed to have been dependent upon the timely deployment of the promised UN observer mission, but the latter never materialised.13 Sierra Leone’s short-lived experiment with democracy was terminated on 25 May 1997 (95 days after EO’s departure), when Kabbah was violently overthrown by Major Johnny Paul Koromah in a typical palace coup d'etat. The United Nations responded with immediate condemnation of the take-over, with the Secretary-General reiterating that the UN and the international community firmly uphold the principle that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of governments and that governments, democratically elected, shall not be overthrown by force.14 On 26 May 1997, the Organisation of African Unity also condemned the coup and called for an immediate restoration of the constitutional order, urging the leaders of the Economic Community of West African States to take immediate action against the coup makers.15 Nigeria was quick to respond to the challenge with a naval bombardment of Freetown, followed by ground assaults and air strikes some weeks later - all under the auspices of ECOMOG, and without Chapter VII authorisation by the Security Council. The mandate of ECOMOG operations was thus extended from Liberia to Sierra Leone, in order to counter the anarchy, chaos, destruction of lives and property – and the total break-down of law and order.

ECOMOG and UNOMSIL The first attempt to dislodge the junta was launched on 2 June 1997, one week after the coup. This was met by very stiff resistance as the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), with a military strength of about 14 000, had by this time become aware that force would be used against them. They had ample time to mobilize the assitance of the RUF, who came with more reinforcements for the junta forces than the approximately 2 000 Nigerian troops in Sierra Leone at the time. Without the means for a military victory, the ECOWAS authorities and the international community made every effort to find a peaceful solution to the problem. While these negotiations were going on, Koromah went ahead and announced a new Cabinet. It was then clear that the junta was not disposed to negotiations for a peaceful settlement, and this led to many countries evacuating their nationals from Freetown. A Ministerial Committee of four comprising the Foreign Ministers of Nigeria, Guinea, Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana was subsequently set up to tackle the Sierra Leone problem. A series of negotiations were held to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis. During the second meeting between the Committee of Four and the junta; Koromah suspended the constitution of Sierra Leone and announced his program to remain in power until the year 2001. This of course led to the breakdown of further negotiations with the junta. In view of the intransigence of the junta, on 28 and 29 August 1997, the ECOWAS Authority of Heads of State and Government decided to adopt a package of sanctions and to establish a blockade against the regime as a further measure to force the early restoration of the democratically elected president. This led to the further extension of ECOMOG's mandate, aimed at enforcing the sanctions, monitoring a cease-fire agreement and carrying out disarmament. At this point, the Committee of Four was enlarged to include the Republic of Liberia thus becoming a Committee of Five. The subsequent open support of President Charles Taylor to the Sierra Leone rebels was seen as a complete betrayal of the trust and confidence placed in him to contribute to the restoration of peace in Sierra Leone. In February 1998, in response to an attack by junta forces, ECOMOG launched an attack that finally led to the collapse of the junta and its expulsion from Freetown. ECOMOG then expanded its force deployment in an attempt to secure the rest of the country. On 10 March 1998, President Kabbah was returned to office. Subsequently, the ‘peace process’ devolved into a bloody but inconclusive enforcement engagement by the Nigerian-led West African coalition forces. ECOMOG was not able to stamp its authority on the hinterland much beyond Freetown, and rebels continued to terrorise and brutalise the civilian population. Meanwhile, the international community became concerned about the heavy-handed approach of the ECOMOG peacekeepers. On 17 April 1998, the Security Council, while commending ECOMOG on its important role in supporting the restoration of peace and security in Sierra Leone, authorised the deployment of up to ten United Nations military liaison and security dvisory personnel. This was followed by a Council decision, in June 1998, to establish the United Nations Observer Mission to Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL) for an initial period of six months. By the end of August 1998, UNOMSIL had completed the first phase of the deployment of its military component, consisting of 40 military observers, a Chief Military Observer and a medical team of 15 personnel.16 The mission was supposed to help with national reconciliation and with the demobilisation of former soldiers. But the mission's task remained elusive as the dislodged junta and its allied forces continued with an armed struggle against the restored democratically elected government. No meaningful progress could be made towards the UNOMSIL mandate in a highly unstable security environment. Indeed, on 6 January 1999, rebel fighters belonging to the deposed Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the RUF overwhelmed the defenses of Nigerian ECOMOG forces and swept into Freetown, killing thousands of civilians and systematically dismembering and raping tens of thousands of others. The fighting resulted in the deaths of some 5 000 people, including rebel fighters, ECOMOG soldiers and large numbers of civilians. Up to 150 000 people were displaced in and around Freetown, and the rebels burnt down large numbers of public buildings and homes.17 Immediately prior to this attack, UNOMSIL had evacuated all its international personnel, many of its vehicles and much of its equipment to Conakry, Guinea. This was followed by a substantial reduction in the number of staff, in particular military and civilian police. By 1 March 1999, the mission comprised only nine civilian and military personnel under the leadership of the SRSG. On 12 January 1999, the Security Council extended the mandate of UNOMSIL for only a further one month, expressing deep concern over the deterioration of the security situation and requesting the Secretary-General to submit recommendations on the future deployment of UNOMSIL.18 On 4 March 1999, Annan complied, recommending to the Council that UNOMSIL should “remain in a position where it is capable of rendering further assistance to the peace process”, and that the mandate be extended for a further period of three months, until 13 June 1999.19 The Secretary-General also indicated his intention to re-establish UNOMSIL in Freetown as soon as possible, and to increase the number of military observers from 8 to 14, while the remaining staff would stay in Conakry until the security situation was considered acceptable.20 Thus, while the UNOMSIL mission was granted a short reprieve, it was never more than a ‘lame duck’ UN presence, of minor significance next to the regional ECOMOG force. Nigeria was, at this stage, providing between 10 000 and 11 000 troops out of the total ECOMOG strength (which varied between 12 000 and 15 000).

The Lomé agreement and establishment of UNAMSIL

The sacking of Freetown narrowly preceded the staging, in February 1999, of elections that were to free Nigeria at last of years of military rule. However, after a decade of providing the backbone of ECOMOG forces in Liberia and then Sierra Leone, the new democratically-elected government of Nigeria could no longer sustain its ECOMOG commitments, and informed the world that it would be pulling its troops out of Sierra Leone. Although the Revolutionary United Front had been driven out of Freetown, they still controlled the countryside and the diamond-mining areas that create most of the country's wealth, and no peace deal was possible without Sankoh and the RUF. Sankoh was in jail at this stage, awaiting execution for the terrible atrocities that he had commissioned. The tense security environment and impending Nigerian withdrawal led to a frantic scramble among West African states, as well as Britain and the United States, to broker a peace agreement. The UN Special Representative initiated a series of diplomatic efforts aimed at opening up dialogue with the rebels. Negotiations between the Government and the rebels began in May 1999. With coaxing from the UK and USA, a controversial peace agreement was signed by President Kabbah and Corporal Sankoh in Lomé, Togo on 7 July 1999. The Lomé accord granted total amnesty to Foday Sankoh and members of the RUF, promised reintegration of the RUF into the Sierra Leonean army, assured the RUF several cabinet seats in the transitional government, left the RUF in control of the diamond mines and invited Sankoh to participate in UNsponsored elections. In exchange for senior government positions for its commanders and a blanket amnesty for atrocities committed during the war, the RUF pledged to disarm, along with pro-government civil defense forces and other paramilitary units. According to the Lomé accord, ‘[t]he Government of the Togolese Republic, the United Nations, the OAU, ECOWAS and the Commonwealth of nations shall stand as Moral Guarantors that this Peace Agreement is implemented with integrity and in good faith by both parties.”21 However, there was little that was ‘moral’ about an agreement that legitimized and pardoned some of the worst atrocities of modern history. Although Lomé had the support of President Kabbah and "the people" of Sierra Leone, they had little choice in the face of Western abandonment. Reluctantly, the Sierra Leone government decided that, in the absence of a serious international military deployment, their martyred country needed peace more than justice.22 Western supporters of the deal argued that Lomé is the last chance for peace, that amnesty is the price of that peace, and that it is naive to think that an accounting for savagery is possible. Despite its obvious flaws, the UN was obliged to back the agreement with a peacekeeping mission. The Lomé accord requires that: “A neutral peacekeeping force comprising UNOMSIL and ECOMOG shall disarm all combatants of the RUF/SL, CDF, SLA and paramilitary groups. The encampment disarmament and demobilisation process shall commence within six weeks of signing of the present Agreement in line with the deployment of the neutral peacekeeping force.”23 This process was to be completed within 60 days, according to the draft implementation schedule.24 The Lomé signatories specifically requested the UN Security Council to urgently: “… amend the mandate of UNOMSIL to enable it to undertake the tasks provided for it in the present Agreement; [and] to authorise the deployment of a peace-keeping force in Sierra Leone”.25 On 20 August 1999, the Security Council authorized an increase in the number of military observers to 210. On 22 October 1999, Council authorized the establishment of UNAMSIL, a new and much larger mission with a maximum authorised strength of 6 000 military personnel, including 260 military observers, to assist the Government and the parties in carrying out provisions of the Lomé peace agreement. At the same time, the Council decided to terminate UNOMSIL. According to Security Council resolution 1270 (1999) of 22 October 1999, UNAMSIL had the following mandate:

• To cooperate with the Government of Sierra Leone and the other parties to the Peace Agreement in the implementation of the Agreement

• To assist the Government of Sierra Leone in the implementation of the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration plan

• To that end, to establish a presence at key locations throughout the territory of Sierra Leone, including at disarmament/reception centres and demobilization centres

• To ensure the security and freedom of movement of United Nations personnel

• To monitor adherence to the cease-fire in accordance with the cease-fire agreement of 18 May 1999 (S/1999/585, annex) through the structures provided for therein

• To encourage the parties to create confidence-building mechanisms and support their functioning

• To facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance

• To support the operations of United Nations civilian officials, including the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and his staff, human rights officers and civil affairs officers

• To provide support, as requested, to the elections, which are to be held in accordance with the present constitution of Sierra Leone.

In early December 1999, the first company of 133 Kenyan soldiers flew into Lungi International Airport as the advance unit of the first new UNAMSIL battalion to join some 223 UN military observers from 30 countries, already on the ground. Four ECOMOG battalions already in Sierra Leone (composed of troops from Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria) were ‘re-hatted’ as UN peacekeepers. In the tradition of lean peacekeeping in Africa, the rest of the formed units were to come from India, Jordan, Bangladesh and Zambia – with only a few military observers being volunteered by the developed world. Deployment of the remaining units, as is customary for UN operations, was painfully slow. At the beginning of April 2000 (more than five months after Resolution 1270), UNAMSIL force commander Major General Vijay Jetley complained that he did not have sufficient troops to deploy into the diamond-rich Kono district, because he was still waiting for the Jordanian and Zambian peacekeeping contingents to arrive.26 Although the Lomé agreement guaranteed the UN unhindered and safe access to all areas of the country, the UN peacekeepers deployed into a tense and volatile security situation. They were often denied freedom of movement, amidst frequent cease-fire violations that included ambushes against civilians and UN personnel, the maintenance of illegal roadblocks, RUF troop movements, and denial of freedom of movement for the peacekeepers.27 It was also not entirely clear who was doing the disarming – UNAMSIL or the belligerents. In January, peacekeepers from Kenya and Guinea surrendered at least 110 assault rifles, several rocket-propelled grenade launchers, four armoured personnel carriers, communications equipment and other military gear in at least three ambushes by elements of the RUF. In each incident, the troops put up no resistance. The contingent of more than 100 well-armed Guinean soldiers surrendered to a far smaller group of rebels on 14 January 2000. UN officials said the Kenyans were severely outnumbered in two ambushes, while the Guinean troops had not yet come under UN command. The Guineans were en route to Freetown to begin their UN assignment when they were stopped at a rebel roadblock. Apparently under orders from their government to avoid combat, they put up no resistance.28 On 18 January, RUF rebels at Makeni also disarmed and detained 14 ECOMOG soldiers who were providing escort for NGO staff that were on their way to collect child combatants at Kabala.29 The peacekeepers' failure to respond with force caused US, British and some UN officials to worry that the rebels would step up their armed challenges to the UN forces as they assumed greater responsibility for security from the departing Nigerian-led West African force. On 3 February, CIA Director George Tenet told Congress the rebels were "poised to break a tenuous cease-fire and resume a campaign of terror."30 In response to the above and other incidents and concerns, Council voted unanimously, on 7 February 2000, to approve the Secretary-General’s plans for strengthening the UNAMSIL mission in Sierra Leone. This not only raised the maximum authorised strength from 6 000 to 11 000, but also granted the mission an expanded mandate under Chapter VII of the Charter.31 In particular, Council:

“ … authorises UNAMSIL to take the necessary action to fulfil …[its] tasks … and affirms that, in the discharge of its mandate, UNAMSIL may take the necessary action to ensure the security and freedom of movement of its personnel and … to afford protection to civilians under imminent threat of physical violence …”.32

Resolution 1289 thus provided the legal framework for coercive action by UNAMSIL in pursuit of its disarmament mandate, but this could not be translated into assertive and credible action on the ground.

UNAMSIL falls apart

Despite the more robust mandate, General Jetley continued to defend the peacekeepers' ‘soft’ approach, saying that while the RUF is "not as fully committed to disarmament as it would like people to believe," patience is necessary. Jetley stressed that "[UNAMSIL is] a peacekeeping force, not a combat force," and that "peace is already here; we don't want to shred it … a peacekeeper's role is very delicate … restraint and neutrality are the watchwords."33

The RUF did not appear to be impressed by the concepts of restraint and neutrality. Human Rights Watch reported in March 2000 that the RUF was regularly committing atrocities, including rapes, abductions and looting near where UN forces were stationed in Port Loko. Intelligence sources also warned that, despite Sankoh's public pledges to disarm, he had told his commanders that there will be no disarmament until after the election is held and the RUF wins. An RUF defector confirmed this assessment, stating that: "The commanders keep telling us to wait, that there is no demobilization order yet and there won't be until after the elections … they tell us Foday Sankoh has not given the order to disarm yet."34 Although the total number of disarmed combatants passing through five UNAMSILsupervised camps stood at around 23 000 by mid April 2000, the UN had expressed concern over the low quality of surrendered weapons and the ratio of collected arms to the number of ex-combatants. Many fighters reported for demobilisation only with ammunition or hand grenades.35 As of April 15, according to the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration, only some 5 000 weapons had been handed in by Sierra Leonean belligerents, who reportedly number about 45 000.36 Most of these weapons appeared to have been surrendered by former members of the Sierra Leone army, rather than by RUF fighters. On 17 April 2000, the United Nations attempted to correct matters by opening four new camps - two of which were in the central RUF-held towns of Makeni and Magburaka. Instead of disarming, the RUF fighters obtained further weapons, many of them seized from peacekeepers, but many more purchased through illicit diamond sales, and in clear contravention of the Lomé agreement. It became obvious that Sankoh was playing a double game: participating in the transitional government, while keeping his war options open.37 The UN force therefore came under increasing pressure (inter alia from the UK and USA) to end the RUF game. On 29 April, General Jetley declared that his forces expected to take over all diamond areas under RUF control by the end of June, and he informed reporters in Freetown that a Zambian contingent would deploy to Koidu (the seat of the RUF diamond-mining center in the Kono district). 38 This obviously amounted to a direct challenge to Foday Sankoh. On several occasions before the announcement, rebels had prevented UN troops from conducting reconnaissance missions to Koidu. Only unarmed military observers had been allowed access to the town, and then for only one night at a time. Moreover, as the UN presence intensified in rebel territory, the newly established demobilisation camp in Makeni became the flash point. On 1 May 2000, a bunch of rebels who were drunk and apparently angry that their comrades had chosen to comply with the peace agreement and give up their guns demanded that UNAMSIL return 10 RUF fighters. When the peacekeepers refused, the rebels took 10 Kenyans hostage, with Sankoh accusing the United Nations of forcibly disarming his fighters. On the same day, seven Indians who were ferrying supplies by helicopter were captured, along with their aircraft, in Kailahun in the east.39 Significantly, these incidents coincided with the final departure of the last of four battalions of Nigerian ECOMOG troops. On 2 May 2000, emboldened RUF forces again attacked UNAMSIL positions in Makeni, as well Magburaka (the site of the other newly-established demobilisation camp). According to a UN spokesperson, UNAMSIL peacekeepers of the Kenyan battalion returned fire, but the contact resulted in the death of seven Kenyan soldiers (the deaths were later confirmed as four). Three more Kenyans were wounded and about 50 other UNAMSIL personnel were captured in the clashes with rebels. By 4 May the number of reported UN hostages had increased to 92, and by 5 May to over 300 – or over 500, if one includes the ‘disappearance’ of a second Zambian contingent of some 200 troops. The confirmed Zambian hostages also lost 13 armoured personnel carriers (APCs) to the RUF forces. Using the captured APCs, the rebels began advancing on Freetown – some of them dressed in the uniforms of UNAMSIL peacekeepers.

Immediate responses and reactions to the crisis

The immediate response of the UN Security Council to the hostage-taking and RUF aggression was one of shock and outrage, even though they had had ample warning that things were going very wrong with the UNAMSIL mission. As David Rieff puts it: “Only in the Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere of the UN, where officials can simply deny realities everyone else sees plainly, could the RUF's defiance and the deaths of the peacekeepers have come as a surprise.”40 Concerned about the safety of the UN hostages, the only plan that UNHQ could come up with was to speed up the deployment of the outstanding national contingents earmarked for UNAMSIL. The idea was to increase the number of peacekeepers from 8, 700 to the full authorised strength of over 11, 000 as soon as possible. Kofi Annan was also quick to call for a ‘rapid-reaction force’ to be deployed immediately, to stabilise the precarious situation and bolster the UNAMSIL forces. Bemoaning the poor state of training and equipment of the existing UNAMSIL force, Annan was looking particulary to the UK and the USA to provide professional, combat-ready forces. Both the United States and Britain, who had warned their nationals to leave the country, made it quite clear that they would not send troops for UN service. However, on 7 May, the British Ministry of Defence announced that it was sending a battalion of paratroops and five warships to protect British nationals. The Ministry statement stressed that the deployments were "precautionary measures to ensure that we are best placed to respond quickly to safeguard the security of British nationals, if that becomes necessary".41 It is now generally accepted by the outside world that the British force kept the UNAMSIL mission from total disintegration. According to a UN official: "They stiffened the spines of everyone around by coming in, taking charge and simply stating that the RUF would not be allowed to succeed."42 While Senior British officers maintained that their primary mission was still to safeguard their citizens, the troops were defending parts of Freetown and Lungi international airport, and had set up patrols on the streets of Freetown and the main highway leading out of the capital. Moreover, British officers, despite being outside the UN chain of command, were sitting in on UN military planning sessions and had assigned a full-time adviser to the Sierra Leonean military, in order to bring some organisational cohesion to the irregular units fighting on the government side.43 The British began co-ordinating the advance of the government forces, and pushed for the government to not just move the rebels back to their traditional areas of control, but to seize the key diamond-mining regions that rebels controlled and used as their primary source of funds. With Special Forces operating in the countryside and paratroops patrolling Freetown and manning roadblocks, Britain was, according to UK Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon, "to all intents and purposes running the day-to-day operation of UN forces". 44 On the other hand, there was an intense internal debate within the British parliament on the limits of British military engagement, and the UN appealed to the SLA to exercise restraint and to cease military attacks on RUF, out of concern for the safety of the remaining UN hostages.45 While the British Army did not exactly provide the kind of rapid reaction force that the UN Secretary-General was looking for, it certainly put a halt to RUF designs on Freetown - and received the heartfelt thanks of Kabbah and the UN for this role. By contrast, Annan lambasted the USA for its reluctance to provide anything more than token assistance. It was perhaps naïve of the UNSG to expect the United States to commit troops to another African engagement, unless his calls were intended to shame the US into abandoning its doctrine of ‘no more Somalias’. While US officials said that they were committed to salvaging UNAMSIL, they saw the provision of ‘logistic support’ as the way to do this. The United States confirmed its willingness to ferry approximately 700 Bangladeshi troops, and possibly a Jordanian special operations force of about 300 soldiers into Sierra Leone. But this support was not offered gratis – it came at a price that was evidently too high for the UN to pay.46 On the other hand, the US was more than willing to extend its largesse, in the form of transport planes, communications equipment and other logistical support to a Nigerian-led coalition of West African states. On 9 May, ECOWAS leaders met in Abuja to discuss the emergency in Sierra Leone. The communiqué of this meeting stated the intention of the ECOWAS heads to "use all means at their disposal, including the military option, to foil any attempt to take over power through the use of force." It was envisaged that Nigeria would form the backbone of an ECOWAS stabilisation force, that would probably also include troops from Ghana and Guinea. Nigeria already had more than 3 000 troops serving under UN command in Sierra Leone. It was prepared to commit an additional 1 600 to 2 000 soldiers, officials said, to a fighting force with a clear mandate to compel the RUF to comply with the Lomé peace agreement. A team of military officers from the US European Command met with officials in Abuja, the Nigerian capital that is home to the ECOWAS Secretariat, to assess what help the regional coalition would need to conduct a military operation. However, Britain, France and UN Headquarters were not too keen on the notion of a West African force operating outside the UNAMSIL framework.

Quo vadis?

By November 2000, the rainy season was ending, and a number of observers predicted that the war would soon resume in earnest. The RUF rebels were still very strong and continued to enjoy the support of their “patron”, President Charles Taylor of Liberia. UNAMSIL still lacked direction and continued to languish in Freetown awaiting more troop contributions. The UN mission (costing about $1.5 million a day) was still the largest in the world, with some 12,500 members. However, the beefed-up authorised strength of 13,500 troops was set to decline considerably as two of the largest participants (India and Jordan, with a combined total of 4,800 troops) began withdrawing their contingents in protest against the continued lack of Western troop contributions to UNAMSIL. At the end of the year, Lieutenant General Daniel Opande of Kenya replaced MajorGeneral Vijay Jetley, who left after a disastrous political confrontation with his Nigerian lieutenants, the gist of which can be gleaned from his report on the crisis of May 2000. In addition to serious allegations of Nigerian attempts to sabotage the UNAMSIL mission through collusion with the RUF, Jetley complained in his report of serious logistic problems experienced by UNAMSIL forces – including an unacceptable shortage of basics such as transport, rations, and clean water. The General was also very forthright in his assessment of the various national contingents that had been placed under his command:

“Most units under my command other than India, Kenya and Guinea have very little or no equipment with them. They have not been properly briefed in their country about the application of chapter VII in this mission for certain contingencies. It is for this precise reason that the troops do not have the mental aptitude or the will to fight the rebels when the situation so demanded, and resorted to handing over their arms on the slightest danger to their life. This aspect enabled the rebels to gain a moral ascendancy and thereby emboldened them to take on the United Nations in the manner in which they have done in the present crisis. Guinea, Kenya and Zambia [are] case[s] in point. Also units hoped that negotiations would help the rebels see reason. The rebels took advantage of the gullibility of these units and disarmed them.” 47

Unfortunately, the phenomenon of ‘lean peacekeeping’ under the auspices of UNAMSIL seems set to continue. Although the UN Secretary-General subsequently recommended an increase in troop numbers to 20,500, few countries have been willing to offer soldiers to the ill-fated mission – which makes it difficult to place any meaningful emphasis on the quality of any further troop contributions. Moreover, despite the comprehensive review of UN peacekeeping in all its aspects, no one seems to have any idea what UNAMSIL would do with the extra troops should these ever become available. After the Indian contingent began its withdrawal, UNAMSIL troops were doing little beyond building and manning road blocks on the streets of Freetown. From the Sierra Leonean perspective, the British are the most respected of all the key players in the country. The British may be reluctant players, but they raise the level of their involvement in Sierra Leone almost weekly. The British clearly want a quick resolution, and the new British deputy force commander in UNAMSIL may be there to push for more decisive action. The RUF are militarily incompetent, and sustained pressure by better UN units, the retrained Sierra Leonean army, and the government militia may just be enough to force a new peace agreement. However, there are no signs as yet that UNAMSIL is willing to become proactive.48 The UN mission continues to seek a negotiated settlement that would give the rebels a share of power - in essence returning to the Lome deal of July 1999. This has resulted in a pervasive unwillingness to deploy peacekeeping troops into areas where Sierra Leone army units have retaken rebel-held territory. The UNAMSIL preoccupation with appeasement stands in strong contrast to certain aspects of the Brahimi report – such as the finding that: "There are many tasks which United Nations peacekeeping forces should not be asked to undertake and many places they should not go. But when the United Nations does send its forces to uphold peace, they must be prepared to confront the lingering forces of war and violence, with the ability and determination to defeat them."49 Moreover, the report challenges narrow conceptions of impartiality as follows:

“… [I]mpartiality is not the same as neutrality or equal treatment of all parties in all cases for all time, which can amount to a policy of appeasement. In some cases, local parties consist not of moral equals but of obvious aggressors and victims, and peacekeepers may not only be operationally justified in using force but morally compelled to do so”.50

While these elements of the Brahimi report would seem to justify taking the war to the RUF as a morally bankrupt party to the Lome agreement, the UN Secretary-General does not support such an interpretation. In his report to the General Assembly on the implementation of the panel’s recommendations, Annan holds that:

“The Panel’s recommendation regarding the use of force apply only to those operations in which armed United Nations peacekeepers have deployed with the consent of the parties concerned. I therefore do not interpret any portions of the Panel’s report as a recommendation to to turn the United nations into a war-fighting machine or to fundamentally change the principles according to which peacekeepers use force. …”51

On the other hand, both the government of Sierra Leone and the British view the military defeat or unconditional disarmament of the RUF as the only solution to the civil war. To assist with this task, British officers have been deployed throughout Sierra Leone's military ranks to help not only with training, but also with intelligence, logistics and communications. According to a senior diplomat, "We have two missions with fundamentally incompatible goals, but they are supposed to be working together. One wants to fight, the other wants to continue to treat the RUF as a force that can be dealt with rationally and brought to the table, despite the numerous setbacks."52 The United States has continued with its plan to support regional bolstering of the peace process, through training and equipping seven West African battalions to participate in the UN mission. While it appears that the US has scrapped the notion of a West African force operating outside the UNAMSIL framework, it has been urging the United Nations to be more forceful in pursuit of the mission mandate. In testimony before the Senate during October 2000, Susan Rice, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, echoed British sentiments by saying that the "RUF must cease to function as a military force" and that the United States believed the peacekeepers should "support the Sierra Leone army in compelling RUF compliance with its obligation to disarm, demobilise and reintegrate into society." 53 With the first US trained Nigerian battalion due to join UNAMSIL in January 2001, the stage is thus set for continued confusion. The Nigerians with their proven willingness to shoot at RUF rebels and American training to enhance this capacity, will be constrained by the UNAMSIL leadership with its commitment to “attrition negotiations”, or outright appeasement. Alongside UNAMSIL, the British–backed SLA will be striving for the military defeat of the RUF. Should these approaches result in another major reversal, the British “expeditionary force” will continue to provide the ultimate security guarantee for the people of Freetown.


UNAMSIL did not disintegrate, as UNAMIR did in Rwanda, with only a handful of UN troops in place and with the world ignorant of the tragedy until it was half over. It fell apart with nearly 9 000 UN troops in the country and in a very public way. And it went bad with the UN Secretary-General clearly challenging member states, particularly permanent members of the Security Council, to become part of the solution. However, in their attempts to bolster the fragile peace in Sierra Leone, both the UK and the USA continued to work outside the UN framework, whilst ostensibly supporting UNAMSIL. From a conceptual standpoint, the problem is not so much one of potential failure, but success. If this convoluted intervention recipe does (mercifully) succeed in at last creating stability and peace in Sierra Leone – how could it ever be replicated in other trouble spots? On the other hand, perhaps it is time to single out the achievers and identify the wasters in any given peace process. As David Cox has noted: “Until the UN finds a way between the hollow invocations of Chapter VII to which the Security Council is now prone, and acceptance that any recalcitrant party can sabotage a mission by withdrawing its consent, the frustration of complex UN peacekeeping operations, especially in regard to disarmament, is likely to continue”.54 The recommendations of the UN Panel on Peace Operations, if and when eventually implemented, will no doubt enhance the credibility of UN peacekeepers deployed in the field on new missions. But they offer little solace for those that are already part of a mission that has lost all credibility. For them it will remain a case, as it has always been, of muddling through in the absence of doctrinal clarity as to what exactly is expected of them in the face of armed opposition to their presence and to the pursuit of their mandate.


1 Lakhdar Brahimi, a former Algerian foreign minister and UN ‘troubleshooter’ was appointed to lead the panel. Other panel members include J. Brian Atwood, former administrator of the United States Agency for International Development; Dame Ann Hercus of New Zealand, a former representative of the secretary general in Cyprus; Richard Monk of Britain, a member of the police task force in Bosnia; General Klaus Naumann, former chief of the German defense staff and chairman of the military committee of NATO; Hisako Shimura, president of Tsuda College in Japan and a former peace negotiator for the United Nations; General Philip Sibanda of Zimbabwe, a former peacekeeping force commander in Angola; and Cornelius Sommaruga of Switzerland, who recently retired as president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. William Durch of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington was appointed to write up the report.

2 Barbara Crossette, Annan Sets Up Panel to Study U.N.'s Peacekeeping Predicament, New York Times, 8 March 2000.

3 United Nations General Assembly/Security Council, Report of the Panel on United Nations Peace Operations, A/55/305, S/2000/809, 21 August 2000, para. 55. 4Ibid. para. 53.

5 E Hutchful, Peacekeeping Under Conditions of Resource stringency: The Ghana Army in Liberia, Paper presented at a SAIIA/ISS conference with the theme 'From Peacekeeping to Complex Emergencies? Peace Support Missions in Africa', Johannesburg, 25 March 1999.

6 The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Monitoring Group. ECOWAS membership comprises Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Côte d'Ivoire, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo.

7 United Nations General Assembly, Report of the Secretary –General on the implementation of the report of the Panel on United Nations peace operations, A/55/502, 20 October 2000.

8 Crossette, op. cit. 9 By 1994/1995, the RSLMF “had become a bloated, ill-trained organisation, which had become very much part of sierra Leone’s problem”. Ian Douglas, Fighting for diamonds – Private military companies in Sierra Leone, in J. Cillliers and P. Mason, (eds) Peace, Profit or Plunder: The Privatisation of Security in War-Torn African Societies, ISS, Johannesburg, 1999, p. 178.

10 Momoh’s government was overthrown in April 1992 by a group of rebellious army officers who, under the leadership of Captain Valentine Strasser, formed the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). The NPRC was replaced in March 1996 by the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).

11 The EO force grew to about 250 at the peak of operations against the RUF (January to March 1996), before resuming a contracted level of manpower below 100 personnel from April 1996 to the termination of the contract at the end of January 1997. EO received an average monthly payment of about $1.7 million for the duration of its 21 month contract, which compares very favourably with the estimated $1-2 million per day to sustain the present UNAMSIL force.

12 Douglas, op. cit., p. 182.

13 On 28 January 1997, the UN Secretary-General eventually outlined plans to send a 720-person UN peacekeeping force to Sierra Leone. The force was to monitor and verify the cease-fire and the withdrawal of foreign troops, the disarmament and demobilisation of RUF fighters, and the withdrawal to barracks and eventual demobilisation of government troops not required for normal security. Although the Sierra Leone government pledged to co-operate with the operation, the mission was shelved due to lack of consent by the RUF.

14 Anon., Annan Distressed Over Sierra Leone Coup, Africa News Online, 27 May1997.

15 P Ejime, Nigeria Says West African Countries May Act, Pan African News Agency, 27 May 1997.

16 The officers deployed in the first phase were from China, Egypt, India, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, New Zealand, Pakistan, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Zambia.

17 UN Security Council, S/1999/20, 7 January 1999, par. 10.

18 Jerome Hule, Mandate of UN Mission In Sierra Leone Extended To March, PANA, 13 January 1999.

19 UN Security Council, S/1999/237, 4 March 1999, par. 53.

20 Ibid., par. 54.

21 Peace Agreement between the Government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone, Lomé, 7 July 1999, Article XXXIV.

22 David Rieff, In Sierra Leone, The U.N. Had No Peace To Keep, Wall Street Journal, 8 May 2000. 23 Lomé Agreement, 7 July 1999, op. cit., Article XVI, par. 1.

24 Lomé Agreement, 7 July 1999, op. cit., Annex 5, Draft Schedule of Implementation of the Peace Agreement.

25 Ibid.

26 Interview with Reuters, 7 April 2000.

27 United Nations Security Council, Third Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone, S/2000/186, 7 March 2000, par. 10.

28 Colum Lynch, U.N. Troops Disarmed In Sierra Leone, U.S. Worried About Peacekeeping Ability, The Washington Post, 6 February 2000.

29 United Nations, S/2000/186, op cit, par. 11.

30 Colum Lynch, op. cit.

31 Reuters, 7 February 2000.

32 United Nations Security Council, Resolution 1289, S/RES/1289 (2000), 7 February 2000, par.10.

33 Douglas Farah, Diamonds Help Fill Rebel Group's Arsenal, Washington Post,17 April 2000.

34 Ibid..

35 S/2000/186, 7 March 2000, op. cit., par. 23-24.

36 According to the Britsh Army’s Draft Military Reintegration Plan (Iteration dated 31 January 2000), the 45 000 ‘ex’-combatants are from the following groupings: CDF – 15 000; RUF – 15 000; ‘paramilitaries’/mercenaries – 2 000; SLA – 6000; exSLA/AFRC – 7000.

37 Robert Block, Diamonds Appear to Fuel the Fires in Sierra Leone, Wall Street Journal, 12 May 2000.

38 Ibid..

39 Reuters, 2 May 2000

40 Rieff, op. cit.

41 Anon, UK sends taskforce to Sierra Leone, BBC News website, 7 May 2000,

42 Douglas Farah, Rebel Leader Exploited U.N. Weaknesses, Washington Post Foreign Service, 15 May 2000.

43 Ibid.

44 George Jones, British troops face UN threat to shoot, The Telegraph, 16 May 2000.

45 On 15 May 2000, Charles Taylor brokered the release of 157 of the estimated 500 UN personnel still being held hostage by RUF forces.

46 Barbara Crossette, U.N. Chief Faults Reluctance of U.S. to Help in Africa, New York Times, 13 May 2000.

47 Major General Vijay Jetley, Report on the Crisis in Sierra Leone, May 2000, paragraph 9.

48 Doug Brooks, Sierra Leone burns while the UN fiddles, South African Institute of International Affairs Intelligence Update 21/2000, 16 November 2000.

49 United Nations A/55/305, S/2000/809, op. cit., Executive Summary.

50 Ibid., par. 50.

51 United Nations, A/55/502, op. cit., par. 7. (e).

52 Douglas Farah, A Separate Peacekeeping, Washington Post Foreign Service 10 December 2000; p. A42

53 Ibid.

54 David Cox, Peacekeeping and Disarmament: Peace Agreements, Security Council Mandates, and the Disarmament Experience, in E.A. Zawels et al, Managing Arms in Peace Processes: The Issues, United Nations (UNIDIR Disarmament and Conflict Resolution Project), New York and Geneva, 1996, p. 133.