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Sierra Leone: from ‘rational violence’ to peace

While rebel groups are disarming, there are concerns that Sierra Leone's new-found peace may not last because the underlying factors that led youths to join the rebel movement remain.

Government soldiers and rebels in Sierra Leone are no longer restless since a ceasefire agreement signed last November ended 10 years of civil war. "It's been like paradise since that time," said Sule Musa, editor of the independent newspaper, the Advisor.

Areas previously declared as 'no go' are now being opened up by the rebels to UNAMSIL, the UN Peace Keeping force who have been maintaining a fragile peace.

The process of disarming, demobilising and reintegrating ex-fighters on both sides is taking place in fits and starts. Kono, the diamond-rich district controlled by the rebel RUF is next in line. Demobilisation there would enable the government to regain control of an important source of revenue to refill its depleted coffers.

However, the prospect of lasting peace is slim unless the roots of the conflict are addressed, a British academic warns.

In his study, Sierra Leone: War and its Functions in the book War and Underdevelopment, Dr David Keen of the London School of Economics offers a controversial perspective on why this war has been so difficult to stamp out. Uneven development and corruption by the state sparked the conflict, he says, but it was prolonged by the war's economic and psychological functions for young people.

War and violence were attractive to young people for being able to "enhance incomes, protect the body and excite the mind." The study is provocative for suggesting that violence is rational. "We need to understand not just what war can do to people, but also what it can do for them," Keen says.

He explains how "the system of patronage among politicians and their cronies created deep resentment among those excluded from this system of profit and power."

The rebel movement, The Revolutionary United Front, under the leadership of former army corporal Foday Sankoh, initiated the war to end three decades of one-party rule, government corruption and ensure that ordinary people benefited from mineral wealth. Tragically, before the war, Sierra Leone remained one of the poorest countries, and as late as 1987 life expectancy in the south was only 21 years, despite its abundant mineral and fertile soils.

For lasting peace, the government and donors must recognise the "rationality" behind the violence and "restore a sense of self-worth" in youth on all sides of the conflict. Keen advocates a revamped education and job market, and demobilisation schemes that "capture the imagination" of ex-combatants.

Keen points out that in the absence of employment and education opportunities, war became a way for young people to make money from looting goods and cash from civilians.

Many groups who had been marginalised found that the rebellion provided them with a means of achieving some form of redress for their grievances. Students, the unemployed, even former lecturers joined the RUF. In this way, "violence was nurtured within society."

Sallymatu Sesay, a college student, was raped by rebels, and forced to become a 'wife' of a rebel commander. She was put in charge of all the abducted girls and became a feared fighter.

"I did not join voluntarily but later the RUF became attractive to me as I had little chances of getting a job after completing college," she says. "Looking back I do not regret being part of a movement that has changed the political climate of Sierra Leone. I believe that the RUF has opened the eyes of people that they should not just sit back and allow other people to rob them of what is rightfully theirs."

Alimay Sesay, a former rebel fighter said he joined the RUF to seek revenge on his former accountant boss. "My boss's TV and stereo were stolen and he accused me. He dismissed me without paying me a cent. I decided to join the RUF to teach him a lesson – he was lucky he died soon afterwards."

For millions of youths, job opportunities still are non-existent. The government has drawn up a national plan for economic reconstruction and the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of ex-combatants. But these pose a daunting challenge to a country plagued with poverty, a weak export sector and heavy debt burden.

The International Monetary Fund in a February report criticised the fact that "the benefits of recovery have been largely limited to areas controlled by the government."

"It remains a jigsaw puzzle which the government and even the private sector need to urgently address to hasten the peace process and ensure stability," says Freetown-based social scientist, Dr Henry Gbao.

Many viable industries closed down after rebel attacks on their premises. "It will need a lot of coaxing to get big investors to return until a climate of security exists – and this will take some time," cautioned a former senior employee of Sierra Rutile, a mining company which employed 40 per cent of the country's workforce before its equipment was vandalised in 1997.

Key to reform will be improving the poor education system which, Keen suggests, helped boost the ranks of both rebel and government troops. "A lot drop out of school early, and these do not have fair job opportunities and having gone to school, they do not want to go back to their villages and till the land."

Under pressure from donors trying to foster democracy, the government has taken steps to reform education. But many youths are cynical: "There are too many glitches in the system," said one, recalling how scholarships and training were reserved for relatives of top government functionaries.

For Henry Kpapindu, a former RUF rebel, "we have not totally achieved this but we have made the mark and sounded the alarm bell that enough is enough. Now people are conscious of their rights."

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Panos London

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07/01/2001

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