Sierra Leone is to deploy a battalion of troops to Somalia in June. The militant group Al-Shabab have warned them not to step foot on the soil of their country threatening dire consequences. So should or shouldn’t Sierra Leone send troops to the war-torn country? Following are two articles arguing for and against the deployment. Further down you will read an argument by Tanu Jalloh in favour of the troop deployment. But first Isaac Massaquoi argues on why sending our troops there is ill-advised.
No Salone Sojas for Somalia, please!
Not too long ago, I bumped into a very good friend of mine who is a Captain in the RSLAF close to military headquarters on Wilkinson Road, on my way to Hamilton in the Freetown Peninsular. I pulled over for the normal brief chat and I was very interested in finding out how he was getting on especially after he was seriously wounded in the war to liberate Freetown from Eldred Collins and his “operation no living thing” gang in 1999. On this day, he looked reasonably well eventhough he walked with a slight limp and I was surprised he was still in the army despite his injuries and all this talk about war wounded soldiers being declared “chronically ill and mentally imbalanced” and discharged from the army.
After some catching up on those fun moments of the past, my friend told me something that shocked me a bit. He said he was looking forward to being part of the Sierra Leone contingent to be deployed to Somalia. “Is this guy really serious”? I asked myself. “Does he truly want to go to Somalia of all places?” He noticed from the expression on my face that I was surprised he was looking to go into another war. Well that’s what soldiers are trained to do but even after my school days at Services and all those physical drills conducted by the late Amadu Kargbo and indeed my interaction with friends at Juba, Wilberforce and Murray Town barracks; friends who ended up in the army, I still believe that people who give themselves up to be trained as soldiers are made of something different from the rest of us who depend on them to secure our country, our properties and our lives.
Back to my friend, I thought about him again last night after reading a news agency despatch quoting an Al-Shabab commander who basically threatened the RSLAF and Sierra Leone against deploying troops to his country under the banner of the African Union project – AMISOM. That should be expected from a beleaguered commander of an al-quaeda off-shoot that has been taught bitter military lessons in the last few months.
Now, I said, my friend has the opportunity to fulfil his dream of going to Somalia. However, I hope he is not selected, never mind the cash he will lose, because he noted that as one of the reasons why he wanted to go to Somalia. In fact, left with me alone, Sierra Leone will deploy no troops for so-called “peace-keeping” in that country. There is no peace to keep and we have no geo-political or economic advantage to gain from sending our troops into harm’s way. Yes we will be recognised as one of those countries that sent troops to help out in that failed state. And what else?
As a Sierra Leonean, I expect people to immediately accuse me as being ungrateful because more than a dozen countries sent troops here to help bring peace to our country in the late mid to late 90s. That’s a fact and we will always be grateful to Nigeria and others in ECOWAS, The UN and the British.
Let’s be clear though about what our troops will be up against in Somalia: here is a country that has been at war with itself and its neighbours for my entire adult life; the Somalia issue has proved intractable for the most powerful armies in the world and there appears to be no interest among some of their people to make peace.
It was six years after civil war broke out in Somalia, that Sierra Leone “tasted the bitterness of war” in Charles Taylor’s words. Sierra Leoneans killed each other for eleven years and this is the tenth year since that war ended, Somalia is more politically more polarized today than it was in 1991. Rogue states have helped divide up the place into lawless fiefdoms called “independent States”, gun men are roaming free, there are no clear battle lines, Somalia is busy exporting terror to neighbouring countries; it’s producing pirates who are attacking vessels in far away places like Seychelles and The Maldives and above all they have now openly affiliated themselves to al-quaeda.
I don’t think we should be under any illusions that when our troops land in Somalia, Al-Shabab will try to get at us in the same way they have done to Kenya and Uganda. If they attack our troops on the ground, I have no problems with that because I am sure our troops are perfectly able to defend themselves and give Al-Shabab a bloody nose. But let’s not forget that they will try to stage a spectacular suicide attack in Freetown in the same way they attacked Uganda and are now busy attacking Kenya.
BEFORE WE DEPLOY
I am sure the decision to deploy in June has already been taken by Dr. Koroma and his government. In fact last week I received emails from some friends in East Africa asking me to confirm that Sierra Leonean boots were already on the ground. Obviously the troops are still here. What I am not sure about is the extent to which this issue of Sierra Leone sending troops to Somalia was discussed in parliament or directly with the people. May be that is not the way such decisions are taken.
You know, before Britain joined the Bush “Coalition of the willing”, the Labour government had to make a case for UK’s participation before the British parliament. Yes the issue became extremely problematic later on when doubts emerged about the credibility of the so called Iraq Dossier and the issue became a long drawn affair as a consequence of which a government scientist committed suicide and the BBC’s image as most credible and fair news organisation in the world was slightly dented. All of that is history now but the real point I am trying to make is that the people’s representatives were consulted and there was a free debate outside parliament. It was never a question of New Labour against the Conservatives as we are prone to look at things here each time a serious national question is being debated. And before you take issue with me, I fully understand the kind of political system they have in the UK. Deploying troops abroad is an extremely serious matter: therefore it will be wise to hear from as many Sierra Leoneans as possible on the issue.
I can only hope that between now and June when our troops are due to leave, the government will explain our deployment to Somalia a bit more to our people besides the argument that Sierra Leone must help others in the same way we were helped out of our problems.
We should never underestimate the determination of a desperate group like Al-Shabab. Those ordinary Ugandans who went to watch the world cup finals in that pub, bombed by Al-Shabab sympathisers never thought that there will be bloodshed before the match was over. I am sure when Kenyans converge at bus stations these days, they always think of drive-by shootings and people in balaclava lobbing grenades at them. Can you imagine Al-Shabab launching a suicide attack at a political rally or some other event witnessed by thousands of people, like a football match in Sierra Leone? Please don’t tell me we are far away from Somalia. The most difficult thing is to stop a determined man. We should learn some lesson from what the indicted war criminal; Charles Taylor did to this country from just across the border.
The government must prepare the nation for the consequences of this deployment. This is no scare-mongering and we should resist the temptation of playing this out in the political arena as we are likely to do if we started a debate on this issue now because once it gets there, the whole conversation in that public sphere will be poisoned by rough partisan language which some of us don’t subscribe to.
I have no problems with our troops deploying anywhere in West Africa, say Mali or Guinea Bissau, the sick men of West Africa. Our geo-political interests in those countries are clear and the goals are not difficult to define – our people will understand that absolutely easily.
For clarity sake, I must repeat that I am implacably opposed to our troops joining AMISOM. But if, as is now abundantly clear, we will be there, then let the government do its job properly at home. Our internal security system must never be caught off guard because the consequences of Munu telling the nation he had no actionable intelligence about an impending Al-Shabab attack will be too much in lives, property and national confidence.
Salone, Somalia & Regional Peace
By Tanu Jolloh
News about Sierra Leone’s role in regional peace operations and indeed global politics was not going to come so soon without a cost. But for the war, 1991 – 2002, even news about her natural wealth was not attractive to news vendors. Now a beacon of peace, transitional justice, reconciliation and post-war recovery, the country still keeps that history of how she suffered in the hands of her people. Today she represents probably the most successful unique hybrid approach to conflict resolution on the continent.
A beneficiary now a benefactor
It was Chinua Achebe who warned us in his classic novel Things Fall Apart that those of us whose palm kernels were cracked by a benevolent spirit must not forget to be humble. Sierra Leone, a beneficiary of global peacekeeping efforts, has got every reason, as a benefactor now, to partake of peacekeeping in countries like Somalia. If the country was isolated like it seems very much the case with Somalia today, and if nobody dared to intervene irrespective of the costs in terms of human lives, wealth and energy, we could be reeling in anarchy today.
In a polemic essay titled: The Tears of Somalia and published by Foreign Policy following his trip in Mogadishu recently, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan mildly slammed the international community for their mortal failure in Somalia, letting the country become its own drama that seems going to nowhere. Like Turkey, Sierra Leone is now in contrast deciding to help keep and maintain peace in that country, God willing, effective June this year. In November the government announced it would send 850 peacekeepers to support the African Union’s mission in Somalia. If Djibouti, a country with a population as small as 740,528 can offer to place about the same number of troops to Somalia, why not Sierra Leone?
In times of need Sierra Leone was not abandoned to fight and finish the war in isolation. From as close as Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria to as far as India and Pakistan, governments and people all sacrificed their lives so that Sierra Leone could live to share the glory of being thy neighbour’s keeper. Sierra Leone is a testimony to regional and global peace keeping efforts. Thus, on the list of the UN’s feat and in its history of world peace efforts, Sierra Leone has been rated the most successful peacekeeping operations since 1948. Are we counting the heads today? No, we are celebrating them.
Thinking Big for Once
War weary, yes, but as a beneficiary of global peace efforts, Sierra Leone must come out of her brooding bay now to console and, if need be, fight for regional stability. So when the protracted suffering in Somalia became a global issue, Sierra Leone who knew war and had lived with war for eleven years would always pray that no country sees war. Sierra Leone is history and would want to be read as a pioneer in the war for peace. It would be proud of her sons and daughters in the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF) who would have been part of the movement that restored peace where UN, the United States of America and Europe have seemingly failed. Experts say peacekeeping operations can be indispensable. “I think they’re essential,” says Princeton Lyman, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “In West Africa especially, peacekeeping missions have been critical to bringing countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia out of civil war.”
Meanwhile, for two decades, the war-ravaged East-African nation has been plagued by continuous warfare, recurrent humanitarian disasters and statelessness. The international community, for its discredit, has been reconfiguring Somalia’s solution for the last two decades, but never succeeded one. The latest pact of such an attempt was just concluded in London, where 50 head of international states, assembled in a one day conference orchestrated by British government, to reset a fresh tone on Somalia. While they, for twenty years, have had to rely on conferences and diplomacy the likes of Sierra Leone think it was about time the world intervened physically.
Opportunity for RSLAF
From as crude as a small ill-trained military before the war, RLSAF is now transformed, capacitated, reoriented and sophisticated. According to a military trainer Sierra Leonean soldiers used to wear mirrors because they believed they would deflect bullets – the man with the biggest mirror was the RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] deflector. When men were killed, their colleagues believed it was because the enemy’s magic was much better. That was how backward the military was. Today, the troops train and operate in the same manner as their British tutors, a respected organisation attracting global attention.
Sierra Leone, whose military is banking on their experience in the civil war that ended in 2002, was almost failing as a state at the height of the war. And then some 17,000 UN troops, the largest concentration of peacekeepers at the time, were in Sierra Leone to contain and reverse that trend. Now, with the republic’s growing stability and the assistance of foreign military mentors, her armed forces are ready to take part in peacekeeping operations. For nearly ten years the British International Military Assistance Training Team (IMATT) has been mentoring the military with a view to preparing them for peacekeeping operations. The soldiers seem determined now to put their education to good use, both on home soil and in support of their African neighbours.
With its 10,500 personnel, the country first attempted to support peace support operations for the Economic Community of West African States, the African Union and the UN in 2007 but that slipped to late 2009 when a reconnaissance company was deployed to Darfur as part of UNAMID. As if to show how far the country has come, the government of Sierra Leone was backed by international donors to provide some US$6.5 million to equip the unit and build the base camp in-theatre. We must not slip again. We must go to put our expertise to test. If other countries had been there before, why not Sierra Leone? Go RSLAF, go Salone.
(C): Politico Newspaper