Blair’s Forgotten War

8 August 2006 at 00:49 | 3840 views

"The political classes have much to answer for. President Kabbah and his Sierra Leone People’s Party (the SLPP) - Blair’s ‘good guys’ - won a 70 per cent majority in 2002, but the government is spectacularly ineffectual, and corruption still trumps law. When I ask Abdul what he thinks of Kabbah, he replies, solemnly, ‘A fockin’ disaster.’

Clemency Burton-Hill, Spectator Magazine

When the kid in the hangar finally yells ‘Nombair tree!’ in his singsong Krio, I rise, like everyone else holding a wooden spoon painted with a ‘3’, and follow him into the tropical night. Clambering into the rickety helicopter which is supposed to transfer us from Lungi airport to Freetown, I recall that when Tony Blair was last in Sierra Leone he had no such need to put his life in the hands of a dodgy-looking Ukrainian pilot, as I am about to do. Touching down in February 2002, Blair barely lost sight of Lungi as President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah journeyed across the river to shower him with gratitude for Britain’s continuing support of the war-torn former colony.

Reminding assembled crowds of his familial links to Sierra Leone (his father Leo taught here occasionally in the 1960s), Blair praised the country’s ‘friendly and warm people’ and reiterated his ‘unbending commitment’ to them all. But such ‘commitment’ entails more than a fondness for nice people or nostalgia about his dad’s postcolonial teaching days. It was events in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war that had first presented Blair with the ideal opportunity to exercise his conviction of the ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention and to galvanise the ‘new doctrine of international community’ he had introduced in a 1999 speech (and which has since been refined and rolled out to justify action in Afghanistan and Iraq). In May 2000, when 500 members of the UNAMSIL peacekeeping force were kidnapped by Foday Sankoh’s rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF), Blair sent in a flotilla of British warships and a thousand paratroopers, marines and special forces soldiers to restore order and halt the RUF advance on Freetown. Despite the fact that UNAMSIL (the UN Mission in Sierra Leone) constituted the largest UN peacekeeping force ever deployed (some 20,000), Blair refused to let British troops be subsumed into the sea of United Nations blue - much to the chagrin of Secretary-General Kofi Annan. He may have described such ‘activism’ as ‘the internationalisatio n of the human conscience’, but make no mistake: this was Blair’s mission; Blair wanted the credit.

And credit he duly got. Although there were a few critical eyebrows raised at the time - mostly regarding our apparent breach of Article 2 of the UN Charter, which concerns ‘the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state’ - the question of whether we were right to intervene in Sierra Leone is now largely academic. Britain remains a primary source of aid in this 90 per cent donor economy, having contributed $120 million since 2002 as part of a ten-year memorandum of understanding (cynics might say it is an ‘understanding’ that the state remains a strategic partner for vital resources and stable enough not to impel yet more thousands of refugees to seek UK citizenship) . Meanwhile, a host of young British development economists, civil servants, military instructors and lawyers are dedicating themselves to rebuilding the country, prompting one wit to nickname the place ‘Sloaney Leoney’.

On paper, things could be said to be going to plan. Historic free and fair elections have been held, quashing for good the lethal RUF and its political wing; UNAMSIL soldiers have finally departed the country; trials of indicted war criminals have got under way at the Special Court; and there has even been a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission to try to assuage the psychological trauma wreaked on the population. Lacking as it does the controversy that still dogs other ‘humanitarian interventions’ in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, Sierra Leone has rather dropped off the public radar - if indeed it was ever on it.

But we should be wary of assuming that life is sweet in ‘Salone’, as Krio locals prefer to call it. To put it bluntly, development is not working here. Hundreds of millions of foreign-aid dollars flow into the country, generated by a complex blend of moral purpose, international showmanship and self-interest. In turn, hundreds of millions of foreign-aid dollars end up lining the pockets and offshore bank accounts of a select few and their families. Corruption is so endemic that even the Anti-Corruption Commission, with its high-end steering committee of World Bank, DfID, EU and UN experts, has been accused of corruption. Life expectancy is an appalling 34 years and school enrolment rates are some of the lowest in the world. Freetown may be vibrant but it is squalid and chaotic, with scant basic services. The hydroelectric plant in nearby Bumbuna which has been under construction since the 1980s shows no sign of being completed, and even in the capital there is no healthcare to speak of - as I discovered to my dismay, having contracted something ghastly towards the end of my trip. ‘Ee’s a good thing you go tomorrow,’ my driver Abdul told me, shaking his head gravely as I clutched my stomach and begged him to take me to a doctor. ‘You get sick in Salone, you die.’ My friend Adam confirmed this. ‘Yep. You die, or you get medivacced out,’ he said cheerfully, dispensing me a couple of Ciprofloxacin and telling me to be brave and sweat it out until I get home. Two days later, he emailed to tell me I had left ‘just in time’. ‘Unfortunately they’ve switched off the water supply to Freetown because the reservoir’s run dry,’ he wrote. ‘One million people without drinking water is going to get very messy, very quickly. What a crazy place. Hope you’re feeling better.’ Eek, I suddenly was.

No economy can grow without a competitive, job- and income-generating commercial and industrial base, nor be sustained without a sound civil administration. Despite its plethora of foreign advisers (most of whom are tearing their hair out), Sierra Leone has neither. What it does have is an absurd wealth of resources: coffee, cocoa, palm oil, fish, cassava, rutile, rice, gold and, yes, diamonds. These are the fabulously beautiful blood-stained diamonds which fuelled and funded its civil war, facilitated September 11 (in July 2001, al-Qa’eda had its Lebanese brokers in Sierra Leone convert millions of dollars into the most movable commodity in the world), and are probably adorning an elegant left hand somewhere near you - particularly ironic given the RUF’s predilection for amputating hands. But although mechanisms such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act and the Everything But Arms scheme exist specifically to assist Least Developed Countries like Sierra Leone, trade is stagnant and commerce almost non-existent, exports are sluggish and the current account deficit frightening. This is the world’s 135th hardest country to do business in, unless you are Chinese or Lebanese, and while the institutional trappings of a nation-state have been constructed, the concept of having to deliver an output has not. Lucrative fishing, forestry and mineral resources may be up for grabs, but when I poke my nose around various ministries, including trade, some of the staff are asleep at their desks; the rest are watching football on the television.

The political classes have much to answer for. President Kabbah and his Sierra Leone People’s Party (the SLPP) - Blair’s ‘good guys’ - won a 70 per cent majority in 2002, but the government is spectacularly ineffectual, and corruption still trumps law. When I ask Abdul what he thinks of Kabbah, he replies, solemnly, ‘A fockin’ disaster.’ Abdul is a devout Muslim and not exactly prone to swearing, so this is revealing. He also lost most of his family to the crazed, cocaine-addled, machete-wielding child soldiers of the RUF, so should in theory be well behind SLPP. ‘A fockin’ disaster,’ he repeats quietly to himself, shaking his head. Elections will be held next year, but although the RUF has been entirely discredited, many of Sankoh’s professed grievances - namely gross social inequality and exploitation - still lurk, threatening to derail peace. Rumours of another coup are rife, and there are in any case doubts about the judiciousness of a unicameral parliament in a multiparty democracy. ‘Some days I end up so depressed that I just want to come back to a society that works, and forget Sierra Leone exists,’ sighs one British expatriate. ‘You get ground down by the lack of leadership and progress, and all the squandered opportunities.’ He pauses, reflects. ‘But then again, I can’t help but feel a deep affinity for this place. I mean, I want to make it work.’

As well he might. Sierra Leone is a beautiful country with a devastating history. It deserves a future. Dabbling one’s feet in the sparkling turquoise waters of the North Atlantic off stunning Tokeh Beach, drinking ice-cold ‘Star’ beers with highly gifted young development professionals, even chatting with locals over fried plantain and cassava stew in a Freetown street café, one can almost delude oneself that one day it might happen. But as tempting as it is to feel morally vindicated that we did, and are continuing to do, ‘the right thing’ here, the case of Sierra Leone raises some awkward questions, Article 2 notwithstanding. Most pressing of these questions concerns aid, because the voguish international model of maintaining huge cash inflows to encourage poor nations to develop at their own pace has seen only peripheral improvement here, leaving unaddressed more fundamental problems of governance, leadership and human resources. The alternative is unfashionable but bears rehearsing, because as long as we keep pumping money into Sierra Leone without seeing - or demanding - much return, we run the risk of fostering a dependence from which it will never be weaned. This may be anathema to us in the rich, guilt-ridden West, determined as we are to make poverty history from the organic brunch bars of Notting Hill, but the unappetising reality is that a short-term price probably needs to be paid if any long-term objective of genuine, accountable and sustainable self-government is to be attained.

Blair has emerged as the most interventionist prime minister since the era of decolonisation. But as the Iraqs and Afghanistans grab headlines and his initial pet project fades from memory, Sierra Leone remains the world’s poorest country; rock-bottom of most human and economic development indexes. The next time Blair deigns to drop by, I suggest he braves that precarious antique helicopter and goes to see for himself.

Photo: Tony Blair