Association of Nigerian Scholars for Dialogue
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A PERSPECTIVE ON
NIGERIA'S INVOLVEMENT IN
THE SIERRA LEONE IMBROGLIO
Nowa Omoigui, MD
It is debatable whether it is time to bring our combat troops home, giving the importance of the commitment for Nigeria which views itself as a regional power. My position (based on the foregoing perspective), is that it is time to do so. Whether this should be done in one fell swoop or in gradual phases depends on the tactical and political situation on the ground. But the direction should be clear.
Sierra Leone's civil war has been going on since 1991. Nigeria had nothing to do with it. It started against a backdrop of decades of resentment by disenfranchised, particularly young rural folk against a corrupt older coastal urban elite. This resentment has spread to engulf foreign elements (including Nigeria) viewed as propping up the Kabbah regime which is seen, along with the money-driven electoral process that brought it to power, (fairly or unfairly) as representing a system that has consistently exploited the country's resources for its own personal interests while looking down at the rural aborigines with contempt. Encouraged and fostered in part by conflict in neighboring Liberia (since 1990) diamonds have also been a key factor. Mercenaries have fought on both sides usually with a tacit quid pro quo for payment in diamonds. To complicate matters, the RSLMF, a descendant of the West African Frontier Force (WAFF) like its Nigerian and Ghanaian counterparts, has been rendered dysfunctional by multiple coups (since 1967), poor leadership and corruption. This frustrated the lower ranks who have been driven to exasperation in fighting a brutal counter-insurgency on behalf of a system that it owed little or nothing. The now disbanded RSLMF is an active part of the problem, rather than a partner in helping to reestablish order and legitimacy.
To be sure, the RUF does not (at this time) have palpable mass support, primarily because of its (allegedly) brutal tactics. Much of the savagery in the war has been attributed to the RUF although the Kamajors and even ECOMOG have been accused (by the UN) of human rights abuses, including summary executions(1) It must also be a cause for pause that a movement that supposedly has no mass support has been able to wage an eight year long insurgency and create problems for the Nigerian dominated ECOMOG equipped with artillery and ground attack aircraft. The young ragtag fighters care little for their personal safety and are fanatically loyal to their commanders.
The tendency to view a resistance movement as illegitimate and not worthy of attention and respect simply because it is savage in its behavior on the battlefield is shortsighted. Disgusting reports of machete mutilation by RUF rebels are not original. As far back as 51 B.C., Julius Caesar crushed a rebellion in the town of Uxellodunum and cut off the hands of all Gauls who had risen against Rome. Barbarous savagery was also a characteristic of the RENAMO rebels in Mozambique. This did not prevent a negotiated settlement to that country's long civil war in 1992. The Islamic front in Algeria has not been particularly civil either, not to mention the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda and Burundi. Furthermore, the technology of amputation should not mislead us. The most effective method of mass amputation is not a machete. It is the landmine, produced cheaply by many "developed" countries many of which have expressed horror at the RUF while doing little to curb the production of mines. To this day, Africa remains the most mined continent on earth. Angola has about 70,000 amputees - not to mention those who did not survive and the 40 individuals who get killed monthly.
In the subregion, history teaches us that wholesale burning of towns and massacres are not new either. King Jimmy burnt Freetown in 1787. The British burnt entire towns and villages in the hinterland during the Temne and Mende Hut Tax wars. In Liberia, massacres were frequent during the civil war, including the notorious Marshal massacre in August 1990 during which 1000 Ghanaian immigrants and their associates were slaughtered by Charles Taylor's NPFL in retaliation for Ghana's involvement with ECOMOG. But Taylor was not alone. Samuel Doe's soldiers sealed off the Lutheran Church premises and liquidated more than 600 citizens from the Gio and Mano ethnic groups from which Taylor drew support. Roosevelt Johnson was also notorious for savagery. Most will remember the manner in which he supervised the "slicing" to death (on videotape), of late Samuel Doe, who was not a saint either, having savagely murdered William Tolbert and others with bayonets. But Taylor eventually became Liberia's President while Johnson became a cabinet minister! Their style is a feature of the "Mano river" political landscape.
Nor is the tendency to renege from signed agreements new to the subregion. Temne chiefs did so in 1787 and 1801. The Creole-aborigine trade wars of the late nineteenth century were a study in misunderstood expectations and broken promises. The British took possession of Sierra Leone in 1896 and began taxing it without bothering to inform any local inhabitants. The events surrounding the elections and coup of 1967 & 1968 (described above) were consistent. So were the preemptive coup of 1992 to forestall the results of an agreed upon plebiscite, followed by Strasser's attempt to back out of the promised 1996 elections, and the failure to follow-through on the Abidjan and Conakry agreements. More than 200 years of such behavior cannot be an accident.(2)
These factors make Sierra Leone a slippery political slope for any outside nation seeking to get too deeply involved. One possible good that may come out of our adventure in both countries may be a sobering recognition of what can go wrong in Nigeria.
Are There Similarities With Vietnam?
After the RUF attack on Freetown in January, I made the observation that the RUF's dry season offensive was somewhat reminiscent of the Vietnamese TET offensive of Jan 1968 and the gradual escalation of Nigerian involvement bore similarities to US involvement in Vietnam. But by publicly stating that there was no intelligence failure on the part of ECOMOG (as happened during Tet), Sierra Leone's Defence Chief, Brigadier Khobe, has blamed the Freetown disgrace on poor leadership, singling out the Nigerian Battalion Commander of the 93 Mechanized Infantry Battalion, who is supposedly the subject of a Board of Inquiry. He also complained bitterly about lack of timely reinforcements and disunity within ECOWAS. Other reports have raised questions about the loyalty of Ministry of Defence officials in Freetown who leaked details of ECOMOG deployments. Even NGOs have not been spared suspicion. The Red Cross was accused of providing electronic communications support for the RUF. However, getting preoccupied with tactical specifics in Freetown risks missing the forest for the trees. Let me draw some lessons and parallels from Vietnam.
TET [Tet Nguyen Dan], is the Vietnamese lunar New year Festival. It is the most important of their holidays. Tet is both the celebration of the beginning of spring and the new year. It is typically reserved for family reunions, exchanging gifts and best wishes. The TET offensive actually began in September 1967 when the Vietcong (VC) began prepositioning for it by gradual infiltration into multiple cities using civilians as cover (shields). Before year's end they launched the diversionary siege of Khe Sanh - a remote American jungle outpost near the border between South and North to draw American forces and attention away from their true objectives further to the south.
On Jan 31, 1968, to coincide with the Vietnamese New Year celebration (TET), they simultaneously attacked many cities in South Vietnam including the capital Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). In Saigon, they attacked the US Embassy as well as many government buildings including the Presidential Palace. The offensive in great details (including live pictures of the fighting in the US Embassy) was recorded on international TV and brutally brought the war home to Americans in their living rooms. The propaganda effect was devastating. Here were the Vietcong who had been said to be a guerrilla movement actually within reach of seizing the US Embassy - thus exposing the fundamental weakness of the Saigon government and its Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) troops along with its foreign sponsor, the US. US Intelligence was taken by surprise.
The US rushed in troops and fought back fiercely eventually winning, after some particularly gruesome firefights in places like Bien Hoa, Hue and Khe Sanh among many others. The conventional wisdom among US commanders on the ground was that they were forced to destroy entire towns and villages in order to save them - a dilemma that also faced ECOMOG commanders in Sierra Leone. After the conventional aspects of the battle, the CIA "Phoenix" program helped to disrupt and decapitate the leadership structure of the VC at community level through assassinations. But the US Army remained frustrated by its inability to conduct operations without political interference, and senseless waste of American lives in seizing (and then yielding, only to reseize) tactical objectives of uncertain strategic value.
The VC suffered horrendous casualties. But the long term damage to the US war effort and will was done. The already war-weary and divided US public lost its stomach for the war and the anti-war movement gained ground, eventually forcing the US government to accept the futility of the conflict. This played out in President Johnson's decision not to contest for reelection and eventually influenced Nixon's plan for a graceful exit from Vietnam. Ofcourse, more was yet to come to nudge the VC (and North Vietnam) to the Paris talks, including the secret bombing of Hanoi, but eventually the US pulled its troops out in 1973. The ARVN collapsed and Vietnam became one country again in 1975 under the North Vietnamese/ Communist sponsored VC.
After some diversionary attacks outside Freetown, the RUF in Sierra Leone infiltrated Freetown in the same way. They launched their attacks like the VC, seized the Nigerian Embassy (as the VC tried to do with the US) and seized the Sierra Leone State House (as the VC tried to do in Saigon). They laid siege to Nigerian troops in the Lungi airport and other ECOMOG staging areas (like the VC did to US units in BienHoa). Nigeria was caught flatfooted but rushed in troops (like the US) including the 72nd airborne battalion in Makurdi (because of the heliborne nature of operations - just like Vietnam). The ARVN (South Vietnamese Army) was inept and many of its soldiers were VC sympathizers (just like the Sierra Leonean army and its ties to the RUF). General Westmoreland (US Commander in Vietnam) kept asking for more troops and the freedom to use maximum military force. Generals Shelpidi and Khobe faced similar challenges. They kept asking for reinforcements to "finish the job." ECOWAS never grasped the seriousness of the situation on the ground. Even the Nigerian authorities were slow to appreciate the scale of the requirements. Indeed a Nigerian Commander of the 93 Mechanized Infantry Battalion was left in place in spite of complaints from officers in the field that he was not up to the job - primarily illustrating the dangers of remote command and control. Less charitably, this development was perhaps a hint that the dysfunctionality of prolonged involvement of the military in government has eaten deeply into the Nigerian Armed Forces itself.
The Sierra Leone involvement long ago ceased to be a peace-keeping (or monitoring) operation. It evolved into a peace enforcement / counter-insurgency operation with bursts of full scale conventional war requiring overwhelming force running side-by-side with dishonest political dialogue. The ratio of space to force in such a strategic context demands a force configuration that ECOWAS was simply not willing to commit. At one point during the peak of the RUF offensive, only one helicopter was available to ECOMOG at Lungi, rendering the force dependent on truck transport and vulnerable to ambush. ECOWAS reportedly expected every unit in the Army to contribute 100 soldiers each of whom was issued 5-10 bullets - as if it was an internal security operation against unarmed university students!! When member countries were asked to send their complement of troops they dragged their feet, asking for guarantees against combat!
In the short term, my prediction is that ECOMOG will prevail temporarily in a tactical military sense (like the US) but the horse has left the barn. The Nigerian public is appropriately questioning the whole adventure with increasing disquiet (like the American public did) and the outgoing government is now looking for an exit strategy (as the US did in 1973). Nigeria will continue to assist in retraining the Sierra Leonean Armed Forces. Nigeria may punish Taylor for sponsoring the RUF (just as the US bombed North Vietnam) in order to force a respectable peace treaty with the rebels. But eventually, my hunch is that Kabbah will fall unless he takes drastic statesmanlike action to associate with and assimilate his enemies, while 'containing' the new RSLMF. There will be many refugees (as with Vietnam). Even the 'amputee' brutality of the RUF against civilians, policemen and civil servants 'collaborating with ECOMOG and Kabbah' is classic VC style to ensure "political correctness." Khmer Rouge insurgents also targeted all educated cadres in Cambodia. During TET, the VC were horrendously brutal against civilians, journalists, foreign missionaries and civil workers, but the international press was preoccupied with US excesses such as occurred during the My Lai massacre - in much the same way as the UN seems to be placing the alleged human rights abuses of ECOMOG troops out of context.
A comment about the French is apropos. Back in 1968 they criticized the US policy in Vietnam. In 1999 they are not excited about the regional projection of power in West Africa by Anglophone countries like Nigeria and Ghana with British and American assistance. So it is no surprise that we are witnessing certain passive aggressive resistance from Francophobe countries secretly backing Taylor to humiliate Nigeria. The French have always had designs on the Sierra Leonean hinterland.
Having established some similarities with Vietnam, let me point out that it was not until 6 years later that the US eventually packed its bags out of Vietnam, but the die was cast after TET. What appeared like a military victory after the brutally efficient counter-attacks against the VC only concealed the strategic failure of the US in Vietnam. We need to be wary of a similar situation in Sierra-Leone. Even as we herald the establishment of a new garrison in Freetown (under Col. Buhari Musa), legitimacy has to come from within through political dialogue and the reestablishment of a social contract between the leaders and the led. One cannot legislate or decree a political culture by force imposed from afar unless long term colonization is the goal and one is willing to forcefully impose oneself over decades. The Sierra Leonean quarrel is very deep and years of brutality and counter-brutality have undermined a basic sense of civility. The economy is in ruins.
The US entered Vietnam to prevent the domino spread of communism
threatened its ruling class. Nigeria entered Liberia and eventually
to prevent the domino spread of warlord instability in West Africa,
of a precedent that would someday threaten the Nigerian ruling class.
1990, our own dictator, General Babangida, himself a coupist (like
Doe), sent Nigerian troops to Liberia to prevent Taylor from coming to
power. But Taylor eventually did and has (understandably) kicked out
Nigerians (ECOMOG). In Vietnam the Vietcong/North Vietnamese (backed by
China and the Soviet Union) eventually won.
Lessons from Vietnam
One should not discuss Vietnam without identifying lessons of that conflict and their possible application to our situation. For this one must be grateful to former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara's perspectives "in retrospect."
Projecting force internationally requires a clear definition of objectives and acceptable costs as well as a prospectively formulated exit strategy.
Nigeria needs to avoid misjudging the geopolitical intentions of the RUF/AFRC and their ally, Charles Taylor, along with those Francophobe countries acting as surrogates for France. While they need to be assessed, overstating the danger they pose to Nigeria's stability could very easily lead us into an abyss. Much of the Gulf War oil windfall may have been sucked up by our Liberian adventure. Practically speaking, with or without Taylor, among ECOWAS states, Guinea and Liberia will always have the greatest opportunity to influence Sierra Leone because of proximity. In the present conflict, however, Burkina Faso and Libya appear to be playing a geopolitical role that needs to be carefully studied and understood. We need only recall our own experience during the Nigerian civil war to avoid being frustrated by the lack of unanimity among countries in the region. African countries took sides then Why does it surprise us that they take sides now?
The bottom-line is to determine the threat to Nigeria. But we know that the greatest dangers to Nigeria's stability are internal. What eventually becomes of Nigeria depends on how we handle our own affairs. The closest thing to an 'across border warlord affliction' in Nigeria today is represented by the activities of fanatically religious Chadian rebels in some parts of northern Nigeria. Destroying the RUF in Sierra Leone will not solve this problem.
In the long term, it may be unwise to view the people and leadership of Sierra Leone through a Nigerian (or ECOWAS) prism. Their short and long term collective goals may not be identical to ours. We need to understand the history, culture, politics and habits of the various leaders of that country as well as the other "players" in its conflict. Much of this essay has been dedicated to this understanding.
Lastly, we must not underestimate the resolve of the RUF. Winning the hearts and minds of the generality of the Sierra Leonean people (rather than the elite) needs to underlie a more subtle and far-sighted strategy in the region.
Why Not Go for a Knock-out Punch?
Raw military force is not always the answer. But if required, we need to be assured of the real support of others. The US, for example, can offer satellite technology to pinpoint sanctuaries and arms trails. It can also fire stand-off missiles to destroy targets to minimize the risk of human lives. There is no reason why every commonwealth country cannot support Sierra Leone with money and troops.
Sierra Leone is practically a failed state. With the scale of destruction done over the last eight years to its state apparatus and infrastructure, (which was marginal to begin with) it will take many years of loyal and consistent military and police support along with a cease fire among combatants for the country to be rebuilt from scratch. Just bringing the ubiquitous and intangible RUF insurgency under control, blocking arms trails and searching for and destroying sanctuaries along and on either side of all borders may require the entire Nigerian Army. Brutal (and probably unacceptable) methods may need to be employed as was done by the British during the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya. One particularly nasty operation - "Operation Anvil" - led to the clearing of Nairobi. Modern superior technology could theoretically be made available by Western countries, supported by political (and military) pressure on external sponsors. The country's borders can be electrically fenced (as General Graziano did in Libya). But even then, high technology and brutality may not prevail against popular will unless the interests of the disenfranchised are aligned with those of the leadership. We need to recall that the Nigerian Military grew from 10,000 to 262,000 between 1967 and 1970 in response to a civil war over an area that is roughly the size of Sierra Leone.
How Sensitive Should We Be to Nigerian Casualties?
Whenever I want to get a reality check about any foreign military adventure, I ask myself whether it would be worth it if my father, brother or son were to die during such an operation. If the answer is "No," then I become reluctant to send other people's parents, children and brethren into harms way. The attitude of other countries may also help place this in perspective. After Somalia, the US became very uninterested in placing the lives of its servicemen on the line in Africa. Africa (which Europeans scrambled over in the last century), just isn't worth shedding "white blood" for today. The Belgians left town in a hurry when some of its peacekeepers were killed in Rwanda. The UN Security Council turned a blind eye to credible intelligence reports predicting the Rwandan genocide because the US did not have the political will (or interest) to take decisive action. Right now in Sierra Leone, the US and Britain (as 'step-parents' of Liberia and Sierra Leone) are playing a stand-offish role in the conflict, offering small aliquots of cash, some logistical backing and plenty of moral support but being careful not to place the lives of their citizens at risk or get involved in combat. Every time the RUF approaches Freetown there are calls for a massive evacuation of foreigners ("as a precaution"). Even UNOMSIL observers can only be deployed alongside ECOMOG units if the security situation permits - because contributing member countries are quite clear about precisely what role they expect their citizens to play and what risks they will accept, irrespective of their moral support for "democracy." It is, therefore, important for the Nigerian leadership to develop sensitivity to "Nigerian life" in much the same way. It's got to be worth something!
There are other dangers to Nigeria of prolonged involvement in foreign wars. They include the transmission of AIDS (from high risk returnee soldiers to the domestic population) as well as exposing Nigerian businessmen and travelers abroad to terrorist reprisals by aggrieved combatants. I have already cited one such example suffered by the Ghanaians in Liberia.
Given the increasingly prohibitive human and material costs of the campaign, it is vital that there be an honest national debate in Nigeria about the limits of our involvement in Sierra Leone. Fortunately, the advent of civil rule in the country enhances such a debate. It will be important to see Sierra Leone in the context of genuine regional and international consensus, unless our security is directly threatened, necessitating unilateral action. Regional indicators of genuine security need should prohibit personal ego or ambition from guiding our decisions on military spending. Lastly, it is important to recognize that there are problems that cannot be solved. No matter how desirable it may be to take certain actions, if costs are too high, one must develop the discipline to resist temptation and seek alternative approaches. Pragmatic politicians know, for example, that one should generally avoid forcing a vote on an issue unless one has the votes to win.
I have heard some say that Nigeria has a "responsibility" to lead as the "Giant of Africa." In my view the concept of an economically impoverished, undemocratic, politically unstable and extremely corrupt Nigeria as the 'Giant of Africa' is frivolous. One hundred million souls plus some barrels of Oil do not make one a giant. Nigeria is a poor country. There is just no way one can justify spending 1 million US dollars daily for the Sierra Leonean conflict. The experience of the Soviet Union teaches us that projecting super-power status abroad is NOT a game for an economically unstable multiethnic country to play. [The USSR was simply outspent by the US and then dissolved into small nations. ]
What If Active and Retired Nigerian Soldiers Choose to Fight
in Sierra Leone "On Contract" for the Democratic Government?
This is an interesting angle which takes away some of the official
and economic costs of the adventure from the Nigerian state. During the
Nigerian civil war there were Nigerien and Chadian mercenaries who
on the federal side as well as European and American mercenaries who
on the Biafran side. In each case, the host combatant (not their
of origin) was responsible for paying the soldiers of fortune. Even
Nigeria's colonial master and assumedly the foreign entity with the
interest in preserving Nigerian unity, only provided us weapons for a
Nothing was free. The Sierra Leonean government would have to decide
such an arrangement, perhaps as a form of insurance against its new
As we debate a pragmatic policy in Sierra Leone, we need to review the outcome of Nigeria's sacrifices for African liberation and causes during the seventies and eighties. What have we received for it? In 1964 we rescued Nyerere from a mutiny. Three years later he refused to support the Nigerian government in its civil war. In 1975/76, we stood up to the West and supported the MPLA in Angola. Today, the MPLA government does not have good relations with us. The South Africans and Zimbabweans view us with studied aloofness. Liberia (under Charles Taylor) practically wants to see us fail. Francophone Africa is nervous about our footprints in the region. The notion of Africa as the centerpiece of Nigeria's foreign policy is romantic and admirable but needs to be vigorously reevaluated and placed in context. The center piece of Nigeria's foreign policy ought to be its citizens and their individual and collective interests outside the country insofar as it affects their quality of life inside the country. Our subregional, regional and non-regional international ties need to be predicated on this basic framework. We cannot afford to be naive enough to assume any permanent friends or enemies particularly when our presumptions are not reciprocated and our economic survival is in doubt.
How Nigeria found itself playing this activist role in Sierra Leone bears comment. General Abacha went into Sierra Leone to restore democracy at a time of self-imposed international isolation. But there has always been unproven suspicion by the public that there were additional agendas. Whether investment in diamonds and the Sierra Leonean oil refinery business was a factor may never be known. But it is clear that Nigeria is not the only country with a humanitarian or regional security interest in what is going on in Sierra Leone. Therefore, the country needs to carefully reposition itself in the right orbit within the universe of other interested parties (bilaterally and multilaterally). We need to titrate our investments and risk-taking to the realities of our domestic situation and the current international environment. We need to return to multilateral peace-keeping, rather than near unilateral peace enforcement.
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INTERNET WEBSITES (Archived News Sources, Official Documents, Analyses and References):
Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity - INCORE (www.incore.ulst.ac.uk/cds/countries/sierraleone.html)
Sierra Leone Web (sierra-leone.org)
United Nations Peace-Keeping (www.un.org/depts/dpko/missions/unosil_p.htm)
UN High Commissioner for Refugees (www.UNHCR.ch)
British Broadcasting Service (www.news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/world/africa)
New York Times (www.nytimes.com)
Cable News Network - CNN (Http://cnn.co.uk/world/9803/13/africa.peacekeeping.reut)
African Policy Information Center - APIC (www/africapolicy.org)
Nigerian Guardian Newspapers (www.ngrguardiannews.com)
Vanguard Newspapers (www.afbis.com/vanguard)
International Institute for Strategic Studies (www.isn.ethz.ch/iiss)
Encyclopedia Britannica (www.britannica.com/worldgeog)
Landmines: Africa's Stake, Global Initiatives. www.africapolicy.org/bp/lmineall.htm
1. Another common complaint against the RUF is the use of "drugged" child soldiers and the targetting of children and women for barbaric mutilation. But even Kamajors have recruited child soldiers, who were also a prominent feature of the Liberian civil war. The phenomenon was similarly noted during the Chadian conflict and the Lebanese civil war. In Vietnam, children were used to deliver booby traps. During the Iraq-Iran war, they were used to clear minefields.
2. Similarly, during the Liberian civil war observers will recall that Charles Taylor was notoriously unreliable with agreements.
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