The Road to Iraq: Tony Blair’s Intervention in Sierra Leone

For years Lionel Cliffe, the founder of ROAPE, was a leading member of the editorial board of the review, ensuring that the quarterly publication produced radical and cutting edge political economy. Often he would write notes for members of the board about developments on the continent or provide analysis on important debates. In May 2010, in one of these notes, he wrote about a paper delivered by the anthropologist Paul Richards on Sierra Leone. Richards had spoken at a conference in Leeds and had systematically demolished Tony Blair’s so-called humanitarian intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000. Heralded as a blueprint for ‘humanitarian intervention’ around the world, the involvement of British forces in the West African state was used to justify military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Reeling from the damning evidence of the Chilcot report Tony Blair still points to the success of New Labour’s ‘liberation’ of Sierra Leone. Yet as Lionel wrote in 2010, ‘the actual claims made about various dimensions of the strategy systematically mangle and distort the historical record.’ ROAPE’s Tunde Zack-Williams provides a detailed background to the war in Sierra Leone that led to the intervention, he then introduces Lionel’s paper which publishes for the first time at the end of post. As Zack-Williams concludes, ‘Lionel’s paper … questions: in whose interests do we intervene in conflicts in foreign land? Are we in a position to always tell the good guys from the bad guys?’

On Reading Lionel Cliffe: Paul Richards and the Sierra Leone Civil War

By Tunde Zack-Williams


War broke out in Sierra Leone in March 1991, when a rag tag rebel group calling itself the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), led by a former army corporal Foday Sankoh attacked the south-eastern corner of Sierra Leone adjacent to the Liberian border in an attempt to remove from power the corrupt and dictatorial one-party-state regime of the All People’s Congress (APC), a regime that silenced the voice of the people for the best part of 30 years. Externally, Sankoh was aided by Libya Colonel Ghadafi, and Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. Both bore grudges against the Sierra Leonean leadership: the Libyan leader thought he had been duped by Siaka Stevens whom he supported for the position as chair of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1980, but Stevens failed to reciprocate when required, which meant that the Libyan dictator never had the opportunity of becoming the head of the OAU. As Stevens handed over power to his Force Commander, Major-General Joseph Momoh, the latter was caricatured by Ghadafi as a ‘boy scout’ since soldiers seize power rather than have it bestow on them. Taylor was unhappy that at a point when his troops were about to capture Monrovia, Sierra Leonean authorities allowed Nigerian Alpha jets to  use Freetown airport to bomb his front line positions. He never forgave Sierra Leone and decided to arm Foday Sankoh whom he had met in Benghazi during military training in Libya.

The nature of this insurgency, i.e. its concentration in the rural districts of the South meant that the elite in Freetown denied the existence of the group and its mysterious leader. It was not until the 1992 ‘Captain’s coup’ led by 27 year old Captain Valentine Strasser, and the National Provisional Revolutionary Council (NPRC) which removed the by now totally discredited APC from power that the elites in the capital realised the gravity of the uprising. The instability continued to spiral with the removal of Strasser from office in ‘a palace coup’ to be replaced by his number two, Julius Maada Biu. Furthermore, pressure from domestic activists and the international community led in March 1996 to the NPRC handing over power to Ahmed Tejan Kabba the elected leader of the country’s oldest political party, the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) following the first free and fair election in the country for 30 years. However, in May 1997, the legitimate government of Tejan Kabba was removed from office by a faction of the army calling itself the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), who promptly invited the leader of the RUF to join him to form a ‘peoples’ army’. It was this bloody and costly onslaught on the nation’s capital with the amputation of limbs of innocent children, women and men, by young thugs that brought Sierra Leone to the fore of international news and in particular the attention of the Blair administration.

For Tony Blair, the Sierra Leone crisis posed an opportunity to test his new ethical foreign policy, based on global responsibilities (as demonstrated in the crisis in the former Yugoslavia). These interventions it seems fit in elegantly within the foreign policy structure that produced interventions in Bosnia, later in Iraq and Afghanistan, as the Prime Minister declared that whatever the situation, in the end Britain was backing ‘the good guys against the bad ones’. One additional dimension promulgated by the Sierra Leone governing class is that Tony Blair had a long attachment to Sierra Leone: his father was a university professor in the country’s university and the young Tony had fond memories of visiting the once dynamic capital during his school holidays. There is also a third dimension, which relates to the significant number of diasporic Sierra Leoneans in places like London and Manchester who had worked within the labour movement and who became activists within the Labour Party, who with a sense of despair during the ‘RUF amputation spree’ called on their government to come to the rescue of ‘their beloved, loyal, royal Sierra Leone’. People like Mrs Edith Macauley MBE, former Mayor of Merton in London; late Mrs Yomi Mambu, former Lord Mayor of Manchester; and the late Mrs Fadima Fatmata Zubairu also once a Manchester City councillor. [1]

What is clear from analysing the aetiology of this bloody conflict, is that contrary to a widely held view, the strike at the Sierra Leone state by these young people was not premised on greed as broadcast by some commentators, a point which no doubt together with the humanitarian disaster influenced external intervention in the country. It is clear in the analysis of all serious scholars of this small West African country that the youth who rose up against 30 years of economic and political decadence had a genuine grievance against those corrupt gerontocrats that had made life miserable for them, as they saw no future for themselves under those conditions. Another related myth by the ‘greed not grievance’ brigade is that diamonds were the cause of the war. Indeed, it was only towards the end of the war that the mining of diamonds became a serious issue. For example, Lance Gberie has pointed out that the nature of this reading of the war was designed, ‘with an eye to influencing Western policy towards the largely neglected crisis in Sierra Leone’ (180-81). [2]

Other Western writers such as Robert Kaplan interpreted the activism of the young Sierra Leoneans who stood up against decades of exploitation, oppression and neglect as anarchy and criminal violence. Surprising that after criticising Kaplan’s work, Gberie ended up by accepting the posture of diamond causation, thus depriving young Sierra Leoneans of political agency. This is rather curious, given the fact that he drew attention to Libya’s President Gadhafi financing the activities of the RUF under Foday Sankoh.

This criticism aside, Gberie is right to draw attention to the fact that once the war became associated with ‘blood diamonds’ or ‘dirty pebbles’, pace Naomi Campbell, and the threat to the diamond trade, the war became an important issue for the international community to resolve.  Finally, new wars such as the RUF campaign  was seen as a threat to global peace that needed to be resolved or ‘put down’ promptly, as the Americans tried to do with Somali warlords resulting in what became known as the Black Hawk Down incident. This incident marked the end of an epoch of superpower involvement in African (new) wars. For the US, no more American lives were to be lost on African soil, hence the setting up of Africom with headquarter in Stuttgart, Germany. The fact is that the RUF would not pose a serious threat to as well-armed and well-trained an army as the Royal Marines, who were sent to Sierra Leone to evacuate British and Commonwealth citizens. The Marines presence in Sierra Leone was also designed to save the UN from further embarrassment after a number of its officers and vehicles were seized by rebel forces. It must not be forgotten either, that by the time the Royal Marines arrived to evacuate British or other citizens, the Nigerian-led ECOMOG forces had chiselled the rough edges of the RUF and its ally, the Westside Boys.

Lionel’s commentary on Paul Richards’ lecture in Leeds on the Sierra Leone civil war points to the chasm that prevails between left and right researchers on the aetiology of the war and its solution. I recall a telephone call from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) inviting me to participate at a conference on local governance in Sierra Leone as the war was drawing to an end. I asked the caller what the conference was about, and I was told that it was on local governance, and that the British (Tony Blair’s) Government planned building houses for chiefs, to enable them to lead the internally displaced subjects and former fighters back to their chiefdoms. I was alarmed that the British government was aiding the legitimacy of chiefs who had not been in their chiefdoms in some cases for up to a decade, and whose actions had alienated large numbers of young people leading them to challenge the gerontocracy for state hegemony.  In my anger I said to the caller: ‘What are you after?  Are you trying to modernise feudalism? Are you aware that the actions and behaviours of some of these chiefs were underlying causal factors for the civil war? Are you aware of the role the chiefs played in the first military intervention in the country?’ The official was taken aback, and replied: ‘well, that is why we want you at this meeting; no one has mentioned any of these points to us’, the official retorted. I then went on to ask why clinics were not being built, in place of chiefs’ palaces.

Among factors that triggered off the civil war were the widespread unemployment, marginalisation and alienation of youth; a sense of powerlessness among young people in the country with the assault and exploitation of young people by traditional rulers. Prior to 1991, one could hardly speak of the existence of social citizenship in Sierra Leone: the right of the child, though enshrined in colonial legislation was neglected and violated as the state gradually abandoned any right to social citizenship in the ignominious route to one-party dictatorship. Throughout the 1970 and 1980s the country’s economic performance continued to deteriorate. Child neglect and injustice was the hallmark of childhood in pre-war Sierra Leone as both the formal and informal mechanisms of safeguarding children had collapsed under the strain of booty capitalism. What the war did was to bring the parlous state of children in Sierra Leone to the rest of the world.

Ironically, this helped to politicise the nation’s youth and gave them a sense of empowerment as the two main political parties continue to seek their support at elections, which are always fraught with allegation of corruption by the losing side.  The young people utilised the new found space provided by the return to democratic rule to position themselves for the protection of their interests. Thus as members of the rebel fighting corps they felt empowered over unarmed civilian adults; thus for a while the traditional authorities had to listen to their grievances, and they were extremely concerned about unruly young men who were now challenging traditional authorities by demanding a new order. The young men were not prepared to return to the bad old days of cruel and autocratic rule by the chiefs and their Freetown allies. In short, there was an inter-generational confrontation between the traditional chiefs and the urban elites on the one hand, and the young men and women who were not only victims of the war, but also had played a major part in trying to bring about change to their social conditioning.

Given this reversal of roles the elders refused to accept the status quo and would not forgive the ‘cadets’ for the atrocities they had unleashed on the community: rape, amputation and murder. The cadets retaliated by blaming the elites for loss of educational opportunities, political and economic marginalisation. According to Susan Sheller there was a third force in this encounter, not an impartial observer or judge, one that demands the subjugation of the cadets to ensure business as usual: this force was Western donors, the new definers of African culture and morality, who now argue that the Fanonian reality of ‘the first shall be the last and the last first’ is untenable and un-African. After all, it is this docility of the producers of surplus value that help in warding off the tendency of the rate of profit to fall by cheapening the cost of raw materials. Now it was accepted by the local element of the hegemonic class that without the consent of this revered fraction of the ruling class, it was felt that the liberal peace could not be delivered. Now, as the process of reintegration approached , the gerontocrats (those for whom the Blair Government was building houses) felt very much empowered as their consent was needed if the young people were to be pardoned for their past acts in order to be reintegrated into society. There was strong demand to return to the governance pattern of the pre-war years, with the chiefs as the voice of the people. It appeared as if the cadets were destined to lose out to this alliance of Western governments and their local protégé in the non-governmental communities who decided that it was imperative to return to the governance pattern of the pre-civil war years, with the chiefs as the voice of the people.

At the head of the re-traditionalisation of governance was the British Department for International Development, which failed to build constructive relationships between chiefdoms and local governments, instead as Jackson has put it, they simply reshuffled the agrarian class relationships between chiefdoms and local governments. In no time, the rights of the young people had disappeared as the alliance between external donors, the political elites and the traditional chiefs pushed the people into their role of submissive subjects. It is also important to note the close historical ties between Britain and Sierra Leone: Freetown the country’s capital was founded for freed slaves who had been promised freedom for their role as ‘empire loyalists’ fighting for the Crown in the American Revolution. They were promisedland in Nova Scotia, but having spent a bitter landless winter in Canada they decided to migrate to London, where they became known as the Blacker Moor or Black poor and by the early eighteenth century they constitute 2 per cent of the population of London. As one of the earliest attempt at a Powellite solution to race relations, these unfortunate souls were transported to Sierra Leone as the bridgehead for British imperial design in West Africa.

Finally, Lionel’s paper is of tremendous relevance to contemporary discourse on foreign intervention in Africa and other war-torn areas, as we have seen with the recent revelation by the Chilcot Report. It is true that David Richards and his troops ‘had a good campaign in Sierra Leone’  despite what can be seen as mission creep: they were able to destroy the brutal RUF and its ally the Westside Boys and ensure UN peacekeepers were freed and their weapons returned, thus effecting a face-saving strategy for the UN peacekeeping mission. One wonders if the success of Sierra Leone emboldened Blair for what some see as his illegal adventure in Iraq. In this sense, Lionel’s paper is important in that it reinforces the central question: in whose interests do we intervene in conflicts in foreign land? Are we in a position to always tell the good guys from the bad guys? These are some of the issues that Lionel’s paper invites us to debate.

Tunde Zack-Williams is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Central Lancashire. He was President of the UK African Studies Association from 2006 to 2008. His books include The Quest for Sustainable Peace: The 2007 Sierra Leone Elections (2008). He is an editor of the Review of African Political Economy and a member of the Africa Panel of the British Academy.


‘Humanitarian Intervention’: The Case of Sierra Leone

By Lionel Cliffe

BBC programmes, on radio and TV’s Newsnight, offered two instances underlining why the 1990s intervention by the British Government must not be just put to rest. Both illustrated what has become the official version of history in UK: a ‘success’ where determined military intervention brought conflict to an end, being then followed up by support toward nation-building and recovery that delivered a democratic outcome and sustainable peace and growth. A recent interview with Blair had him celebrating this outcome and pointing to it as a model for humanitarian intervention elsewhere. The only question the programmes raised was whether circumstances, in say Afghanistan, were so different as to make the SL model applicable – thus taking for granted the verdict that it had been a success.

This was not the view that came out a week before in the annual Leeds Africa Lecture 2010 given by Paul Richards. Although intervention was not in the title or the main thrust of a presentation which was concerned more with using the civil war in Sierra Leone to critique current anthropological discourses, implicitly in the lecture and in the subsequent discussion he did, however, offer a thorough-going and outspoken critique of the standard orthodoxy. Rather than the sceptical arguments that have been raised, to the effect that the Sierra Leone circumstances may not allow for the strategy to be replicable or that morally it cannot be justified even if it in some sense ‘worked’, Paul showed more comprehensively than I have seen articulated anywhere else that the actual claims made about various dimensions of the strategy systematically mangle and distort the historical record. Yet the completely mythical nature of these claims are hardly realised by a wider public, even among Africanists, and continue to go unchallenged.

Very succinctly, the main thrust of this critique can be summarised:

  • The decision to deploy South African mercenaries and British troops far from being the decisive and only move to end war, occurred just at the point when a negotiated solution was on the cards
  • What followed was classical counter-insurgency, to intervene just on one side, which did not recognise or in the end allow for dealing with underlying grievances
  • The method used, following measures used in Mozambique and Angola, and KwaZulu by the apartheid regime was to form an irregular, ‘third force’ (the ‘hunters’) allied to government, marked a qualitative step in the brutalisation of the conflict
  • The much-hailed introduction of ‘democratisation’ in fact excluded the opposition from the elections
  • A key and much-lauded dimension of state rebuilding was to incorporate aspects of ‘tradition’ and reinstall chiefs – but they had been the main target of the youth protests which had sparked the rebellions (partly as they were seen as the obstacle to getting land). In general the ‘recovery’ policies reversed the demands and processes that favoured the younger generations
  • The much-heralded demobilisation, through training etc., led to few jobs and was counter-productive in many ways
  • In the aftermath of a diamond-funded civil war, and with no diamond industry surviving, land and agriculture based livelihoods the only option, access to land for young families is blocked, instead there is an elite-led land-grab to hand over big tracts to foreign sovereign funds and corporations.

These profound insights have to become more widely addressed and spread, not only to set the Sierra Leone record straight and provide a more realistic view of the sustainability of what the intervention put in place, but also because the spurious claim that it was a ‘success’ is still being trotted out as justification for global strategies of intervention – as Blair did once again on Newsnight.

I myself must stand indicted, as I never followed through on misgivings I had 2 or 3 years ago, about this image of successful intervention, beyond raising the matter with fellow-editors of ROAPE. But I, like so many, never realised the full degree to which the claims could be and needed to be contested empirically. Paul Richards who brought their mythical nature home to his audience, was apologetic that he had not set out this case in his writings, because the task of taking on the ‘Blair legacy’ has been too demanding up to now for a mere field anthropologist.

It is about time that the ‘success’, the nature of its programmatic component, its questionable justification and its dire long-term consequences, as well as the generalised logic of humanitarian intervention globally, be taken on frontally. I send this round to colleagues at Leeds who may have been equally stirred by Paul’s lecture, to fellow editors of ROAPE and other Africanist friends, in the hope that some of you might meet the challenge.

Lionel Cliffe (May, 2010)


[1] Conversation with the Late Mrs Zubairu at a reception to mark her award of the Member of the British Empire (MBE).

[2] Gberi, L. 2005, A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone, Hurst & Company, London.


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