Help for Sierra Leone

Out of the chaos of the Sierra Leone peacekeeping operation, Washington has a chance to lead a winning international effort. This will require quick action, bold vision, and a significant American engagement in Sierra Leone.

Unless the US is willing to make such a commitment, it would be best to leave Sierra Leoneans to their own fate.

Dispatching captured Rebel United Front (RUF) leader Foday Sankoh, now in government custody, is the first order of business. Foday Sankoh has broken two peace agreements, attacked United Nations forces, and engineered a campaign of ghoulish atrocities against thousands of civilians, including children.

Sankoh's acts have led Nigeria's Nobel Prize-winning poet, Wole Soyinka, to ask "What new kind of monster has been born in Africa?" Two failed peace agreements tried to turn Foday Sankoh into a democrat. Now the UN with US prodding should set up an ad hoc tribunal to investigate war crimes in Sierra Leone, issue indictments against RUF leaders and other war criminals, and most immediately, try Foday Sankoh.

Ideally, the democratically elected government of Sierra Leone would undertake this effort. But it simply lacks the resources to hold a fair trial, and time is of the essence. The longer Sankoh's fate remains in limbo, the weaker the Sierra Leone government looks, particularly to RUF troops, some of whom believe in Sankoh's "supernatural powers."

A successful prosecution leading to life-long, incommunicado imprisonment would do a great deal to boost the government's legitimacy and demoralize the RUF; a failure would damage it.

Besides stripping the RUF of its leadership, the international community must help the Sierra Leonean government to disable the RUF militarily.

There is no time to waste. With the backing of 800 British troops, UN forces and the Sierra Leone Army and associated militias have had the RUF on the run. The Sierra Leone people, victimized by the RUF's barbarity, want to vanquish the rebels. But they need help. An international force, under the UN banner or not, must be given adequate equipment and training, top leadership, and a forceful mandate to render the RUF into the small gang of thugs that it was in the early 1990s.

From Washington's end, this means providing essential logistical support to Nigerian troops and others in West Africa willing to fight. Nigeria, which has already expended considerable lives and treasure in Sierra Leone, has expressed a willingness to fight more intensely there, as have five other West African countries. British troops have been aggressive with the RUF, and the US should encourage Britain to keep playing a critical role.

Defeating the RUF requires neutralizing Liberia. Liberian President Charles Taylor, who himself fought his way to power and governs through intimidation, has long supported the RUF, supplying it with weapons in exchange for diamonds, despite Liberia itself being under a UN arms embargo.

President Taylor should be ostracized, and more. He should be made to realize that the US has the ability and the will to undermine his rule should his support of RUF continue.

This course of action requires a significant American and international commitment. But the stakes warrant it. More than the future of Sierra Leone is on the line. West Africa's future may be in the balance, as Sierra Leone's chaos could spread, which is why Nigeria and other West African countries are willing to send troops to fight and die in Sierra Leone.

The implications are even broader though. The RUF's terror tactics, if successful, would assuredly be replicated elsewhere in the world. Would-be Foday Sankohs are watching to see how the world confronts this barbarity. A defeat of the RUF by the Sierra Leone government and others would be a significant victory for humanity and order.

If Washington is not prepared to galvanize the international community to make a full-bore effort in Sierra Leone, then any half-measures deserve contempt, not support. It was immoral to ask the people of Sierra Leone to disarm and place their hopes in the hopeless peace agreement last year, as the US did. Rather than go the route of appeasing Foday Sankoh and the RUF again, it would be better to abandon Sierra Leone and encourage its people to fight for their lives and dignity.

*US Rep Ed Royce (R) of Califorina is chairman of the House subcommittee on Africa.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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