West wades into African war

US, recalling its debacle in Somalia, may overlook flaws of apowerful Nigeria it sees as regional stabilizer.

Last year nations of central, southern, and East Africa turned against each other over the civil war in Congo. This year it's happening in West Africa with the civil war in Sierra Leone. But this time the United States and other Western nations have also taken sides.

The US and Britain are mostly bankrolling the Nigerian-led West African regional force known as ECOMOG, which is propping up the government. Sierra Leone's Army has sided with the rebels.

So has Liberia. Burkina Faso and other French West African states have also been accused of covertly supporting the rebels. Officially, all West African states back the government, which came to power in democratic elections, although the rebels were excluded.

Earlier this month the rebels overran most of the capital, Freetown, killing hundreds of civilians and burning the city.

Last week more than 15,000 Nigerian ECOMOG troops repelled the rebels from all but the east of Freetown. Tens of thousands now face starvation.

Government and ECOMOG forces have hampered humanitarian efforts, ordering UN and other aid workers to hand over communications equipment and telling the International Committee of the Red Cross to leave.

Britain has sent the warship HMS Norfolk with medical supplies and a contingent of British soldiers. Britain denies rebel claims that the ship has bombed rebel positions. But, with planeloads of British military equipment also arriving, the goal of the former colonial power is clearly to help ECOMOG.

It's not the first time Britain has sent troops to Sierra Leone. A hundred years ago it put down a rebellion against a tax on every hut in the country. Those charged with imposing the tax were the Krio, former slaves who founded the British colonial city-state of Freetown. Many were killed in the rebellion.

Today's war is still between those who support the political machine that Britain created under colonialism and those disenfranchised by years of its rule. Sierra Leone is diamond-rich, but most of its people remain impoverished.

The government's main concern is still Freetown. When the rebels overran most of it, and President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was holed up across the bay at the airport, he proposed a deal: If the rebels agreed to a cease-fire he'd hand over their leader, Foday Sankoh, who had been captured years earlier and was recently sentenced to death.

But with a British warship in the harbor and ECOMOG having chased most of the rebels back into the jungles, the deal appears to be off. The rebels still control much of the rest of the country, but the government never completely controlled "the provinces" anyway.

Not that there is much support for the rebels there. They have killed and tortured tens of thousands of villagers over the past decade. Villagers sometimes fight alongside ECOMOG.

Still the rebels are in the tens of thousands. Their main backer, Liberia's current leader, Charles Taylor, was the warlord who started the rebellion there a decade ago, which the Nigerian-led ECOMOG troops spent years trying to end. Now Mr. Taylor is Liberia's elected president and has arms to spare.

Taylor denies that he still has anything to do with the rebels, but last week it was he who announced that they would abide by President Kabbah's cease-fire. And the rebels' commander in the field, Sam Bockarie, referred to Taylor as his "chief" on the BBC when he confirmed he would comply.

At the same time, Sierra Leone's government also has puppet strings. It was Nigeria's foreign minister, Ignatius Olisemeka, who reneged on the proposed cease-fire, saying Jan. 15, "When we're ready for peace we will let them know."

Nigeria's interest in Sierra Leone is widely believed to be diamonds. There are historical links. Most freed slaves in Sierra Leone came from Nigeria.

Nigeria's stated objective is to show itself to be a superpower in the region, deserving of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. But even as Nigerian soldiers are dying in Sierra Leone in the name of democracy, their Army hasn't yet allowed democracy at home.

Because of that, the US had been reluctant to back ECOMOG. But, with Nigeria's promise of the military handing power to an elected government in May, US support has increased.

In theory, ECOMOG fits with US policy in Africa. Since US-led forces failed to bring peace to Somalia, Washington has coordinated international efforts to create an all-African army.

But South Africa's President Nelson Mandela has expressed concern that the Western states want an African army to defend their interests. When ECOMOG soldiers deserted guardposts during an attack on the US Embassy in Liberia last year, a high-ranking US official reportedly made a call to the Nigerian commander threatening to cut off aid. Suddenly they were back at their posts.

The more immediate concern with regional armies is that they turn civil wars into regional ones. ECOMOG has not remained neutral in conflicts. But countering that argument is the fact that Congo's civil war turned regional before the regional armies there were created.

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