Tag Archives: blood diamonds

Four Cases of Conflict Over Resources: #2 Private Motivation in Sierra Leone

This post is the second of four African cases that demonstrates why conflict happens. See the introduction here.

What does “private motivation” in conflict mean? It means that an individual sees war or fighting as a way to get more wealth for him or herself. It is one of the more clear-cut explanations and the easiest to demonstrate.  It is particularly applicable to sub-Saharan Africa where poverty rates are high, and thus where more needy and desperate people are willing to use conflict as a means of being less poor.

Sierra Leone and the “Private Motivation” Hypothesis (Stewart, 2002): War confers benefits on individuals as well as costs which can motivate people to fight. Young, uneducated men, in particular, may gain employment as soldiers. War also generates opportunities to loot, profiteer from shortages and from aid, trade arms, and carry out illicit production and trade in drugs, diamonds, timber, and other commodities. Where alternative opportunities are few, because of low incomes and poor employment, and the possibilities of enrichment by war are considerable, the incidence and duration of wars are likely to be greater. This “greed hypothesis” has its base in rational choice economics.

The view that private motivation plays an important role in prolonging, if not causing, conflict in some countries is well supported by work in the Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Collier and Hoeffler (2004) tested the greed hypothesis and found a significant association with conflict, although this has been challenged. They also found that greater male education to higher secondary level reduced the risk of war. They concluded that “greed” outperforms grievance in explaining conflict. I have written about this in terms of oil’s impact on the history of conflict in the Niger Delta.

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My Relatively Quick Summary of the Sierra Leonean Civil War of 1991-2002: The West African country of Sierra Leone, a former British colony, experienced decades of poverty, economic exploitation, and poor governance by the single political party in power, the All People’s Congress (APC), between independence in 1961 and the start of the civil war in 1991. The state was not weak but nearly non-functional, as the judiciary depended on bribery, parliamentarians bankrupted the national treasury, and the military served primarily as a tool of oppression of political opponents. Despite ample natural resources such as diamonds, gold, and other precious metals, Sierra Leone was one of the poorest countries in the world. Finally, the entire educational system collapsed in the 1980s when the government could no longer pay public school teachers, thus creating a generation of uneducated, unemployed and disgruntled youths who would later be drawn into rebel factions.

In 1991, former army corporal Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) implemented a rebel campaign against President Momoh by capturing towns on the Liberian border. The RUF enjoyed the support and guidance of Charles Taylor and the NPFL in neighboring Liberia, the latter actors seeking access to Sierra Leone’s diamond mines. Momoh responded by deploying troops to the border region to undermine the RUF and repel the incursion the NPFL. The two insurgent groups attacked Sierra Leone’s army in turn, and the government’s inability to quell the insurgency soon became clear.

The number of insurgents and the number of weapons they held grew faster than the government could react. The Kono and Kenema districts of Sierra Leone were rich with alluvial diamonds that could be gathered by individuals with a shovel and easily transported by hand (as opposed to other resources that cannot be looted by individuals, such as oil). This accessibility of diamonds gave individuals immense reason join the RUF forces as a means of getting diamonds and profit, and also to violently force labor by civilians who would turn over the diamonds they found. A looting phenomenon occurred in which disaffected Sierra Leoneans without access to arable land for farming joined the rebel cause as a means of also extracting cash, household items, food, livestock, cars, and even international aid shipments to enrich themselves.

In April 1992, Captain Valentine Strasser deposed Momoh in a coup, citing the poor conditions endured by the troops engaged in fighting the rebels as one of the reasons. Strasser was made head of state with a National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) as the ruling party. The civil war escalated under Strasser, with the RUF increasing the amount of territory under its control, including the lucrative mines that were the source of the “blood diamonds” used to fund wartime activities. The ease with which diamonds can be sold on the world’s black market illegally also made it vitally important that rebels use extreme violence to secure their control over these areas and the weapons the natural resources could fund. Soon, RUF, NPFL, rogue insurgents, and some government troops began committing heinous atrocities against the civilian population, including mutilation of limbs and faces, sexual violence, and forced labor on in mining and agricultural strongholds. Forced conscription was common and made many civilians unwilling participants in the conflict, including as many as 10,000 child soldiers.

 

Intense violence continued as Strasser tried unsuccessfully to beat back the RUF until he was ousted in a military coup in January 1996. The NPRC feared that he would back out of his promise to transfer power to a civilian government. General Julius Maada Bio briefly assumed control of the national government with the pledge that elections would soon be held. However, the RUF asked that elections be postponed until a ceasefire or peace accord was agreed upon. The RUF intensified its violent campaign when the NPRC refused. Elections were still held in February 1996 and Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was elected president. He signed a peace accord, the Abidjan Agreement, with Sankoh’s RUF in November which failed to bring an end to the fighting.

In May 1997, Major Johnny Paul Koroma ousted President Kabbah with the help of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), which included former RUF members. With Kahhab in exile in Guinea, Koroma quickly suspends the constitution, bans demonstrations, and abolishes political parties. The AFRC fought increasing resistance on all fronts: domestically, its troops were engaged in battle with militia forces loyal to Kabbah’s government, internationally, the British Commonwealth suspended Sierra Leone from membership for bad behavior, and the United Nations Security Council imposed economic sanctions on Sierra Leone.

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The Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) troops and international supporters helped overthrow the AFRC and restored Kabbah in 1998. ECOMOG and government troops continued to battle rebel forces until July 1999 when the Lomé Agreement proposed a power-sharing plan that included Sankoh and other rebels in the government, and required the RUF and the AFRC forces to surrender. Angry at their exclusion from the Lomé Agreement, AFRC forces began taking hostages; meanwhile, RUF rebels continued their attacks against civilians and UN workers and refused to turn in their weapons as agreed. Sankoh was finally captured in the capital of Freetown and the RUF driven out by government forces in 2000, with the help of British troops and pro-government militias. General Issa Sesay took over commanding the RUF and other heavily armed militias also held power in the country. Throughout 2001, the Lomé Agreement was slowly implemented by the United Nations and some RUF rebels and the pro-government militia members were disarmed. The RUF also released some territory to the UN that had been under its control.

The End of the War: The Sierra Leonean Civil War ended in January 2002, after an estimated 50,000 people had died, with some 2,000,000 people displaced by the conflict. These numbers are staggering in a country with a population of only 6 million people. Foday Sankoh died in prison while awaiting a war crimes indictment in 2003 and Charles Taylor was charged for his role in instigating murder and rape and arming RUF fighters when charged with war crimes in the The Hague in 2007. Unfortunately, Sierra Leone has not made the strides that Rwanda has.