Sierra Leone: A Small-Arms Depot

A UNAMSIL peacekeeper checks the weapon he had just received from a combatant. (Photo: SL)

In Sierra Leone, the gruesome consequence of the flow of small arms is there for all to see. The streets of the capital, Freetown, and other towns are littered with amputees, casualties of the long civil war. Everyone in the country is an expert on guns. When gunfire breaks out, civilians listen to determine whether the sound comes from a homemade single-barreled gun (local blacksmiths have become proficient at making guns from scrap metal) or an imported Russian- or German-made rifle. In this way, people distinguish between “friendly” fire and that of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

The RUF war started in 1991 in a small border town called Boumaru, close to the Liberian border. From the beginning, the RUF rebellion was supported actively by the now-defunct NPFL (National Patriotic Front of Liberia) led by Liberian President Charles Taylor. Evidence given by captured rebels supports the theory that Taylor has been stoking the war in Sierra Leone by supplying arms to the rebels in exchange for diamonds from the rich Sierra Leonean diamond mines. According to the human-rights organization Partnership Africa Canada (PAC), “By the end of the 1990s, Liberia had become a major center for massive diamond-related criminal activity, with connections to guns, drugs, and money laundering.”

The number of people who may have died as a result of the unbridled illicit arms trade is pegged at 75,000 by PAC, which did a study last year on the conflict in Sierra Leone. But the emergence of auxiliary forces, like the local hunters known as Kamajors, who largely use locally made guns and other traditional weapons, makes it difficult to quantify the number of small arms in the country. What is known is that small arms are the commonest and favorite tools of destruction in Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war. Easily portable, concealable, and requiring minimal maintenance and logistical support, they are smuggled through a porous border. Light and unmarked aircraft are used to transport arms to remote areas.

Without foreign support... the fight against small arms in Sierra Leone would seem to be a losing battle.

For now, very little is being done to control the flow of arms. Apart from occasional cordon-and-search operations by police, the Sierra Leonean government has not seized the initiative to halt the proliferation of weapons. The borders remain unpatrolled, while gun-toting fighters roam the countryside with impunity. Without international support to increase the country’s capacity to police its borders and train customs officials and other security agencies, the fight against small arms in Sierra Leone would seem to be a losing battle.

On May 7, the British-supported United Nations sanctions imposed on Liberia came into force. Under the sanctions regime, diamond exports from Liberia will be banned in an effort to halt the smuggling of so-called “blood diamonds,” used to purchase small arms from rebel-held areas in Sierra Leone. Foreign travel by senior Liberian officials will be restricted—ostensibly to bring pressure to bear on the Liberian government to halt its military support for the Sierra Leonean rebels.

The Liberian government strenuously denies that it has been doing any gunrunning for the RUF. But a U.N. panel of experts that draws its membership from specialists in diamonds, aviation, and law enforcement says that “[Taylor] and a small coterie of officials and private businessmen around him are in control of a covert sanctions-bursting apparatus that includes international criminal activity and the arming of the RUF in Sierra Leone.” The team found “conclusive evidence of [arms] supply lines to the RUF [that run] through Burkina Faso, Niger, and Liberia.”

Taylor is just the tip of the iceberg. The U.N. experts also implicated Gambia, Guinea, and nationals from Belgium, Israel, Kenya, the Netherlands, Russia, South Africa, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and the United States in these illegal operations.

Britain and the United States are in possession of unequivocal evidence dovetailing Liberia and Burkina Faso’s gunrunning activities. A BBC report from Aug. 6, 2000, titled “West African Diamond Racket Exposed” alleges that RUF rebels, Taylor, and Burkinabe President Blaise Compaore met in Burkina Faso on June 5, 2000, where RUF rebels allegedly brought diamonds to pay for “material support” from Burkina Faso. It is also alleged that RUF representatives and President Taylor met in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, a few days later, at which meeting the RUF bought more military hardware.

Everyone in the country is an expert on guns...

The evidence also reveals that Campaore supplied manpower and equipment, including weapons from Eastern Europe with false end-user certificates. Statistics quoted in the BBC report show that 40 percent of the trade in diamonds from Sierra Leone passes through Burkina Faso and 60 percent through Liberia. Proceeds from the diamond sales are used to buy arms and light weapons.

Of the estimated 500 million small arms and weapons that exist globally, it is not immediately known how many have found their way into Sierra Leone. Florella Hazeley of the Christian umbrella organization Council of Churches, which has been spearheading a campaign to stem the flow of small arms into Sierra Leone, says, “Because of the war situation and the pending elections, there is so much stockpiling of arms going on. People don’t trust each other. It is difficult to quantify the arms flow in the country.”

Figures released by the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization, and Integration (NCDDR), which was set up in 1998, estimate that 45,000 combatants are armed. As of April 17, only 28,189 have been disarmed, and 16,216 guns and 299,526 rounds of ammunition have been collected. Some 2,500 child soldiers have joined programs to rehabilitate them into civilian life, but thousands more remain in the bush. For Sierra Leoneans, the sanctions against Liberia come as welcome news. As long as the country’s rich diamond fields remain under RUF control, it seems unlikely that any amount of persuasion or roundtable talks would make Taylor halt Liberia’s involvement in the Sierra Leonean crisis. Against the risk of punishing innocent Liberian citizens must be weighed the enormous human toll that Taylor’s actions have exacted on Sierra Leone.