DATE May 23, 2000 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Professor Joseph Opala discusses the time he spent in
Sierra Leone and the collapse of the government there that has led
to civil unrest
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Sierra Leone is in chaos. The country is an example of what can go wrong when
a government that is corrupt and inept collapses, leaving a void for terrorist
militias to unleash a campaign of murder and mayhem. Sierra Leone is also an
example of the tough choices left to the international community. Last
summer, diplomats from the US, Britain, the UN and several African nations
brokered a peace agreement in Lome, Togo, that created a power-sharing deal
between Sierra Leone's president, President Kabbah, who was elected in a
ground-breaking democratic election in 1996, and Foday Sankoh, the leader of a
group of terrorists and bandits known as the RUF, the Revolutionary United
Front. The agreement also granted the RUF amnesty and made Sankoh vice
president of Sierra Leone. This was controversial in Sierra Leone because the
RUF had tried to terrorize the population into submission by amputating the
arms and legs of thousands of people.
Now Sankoh's forces are being held responsible for the capture of about 500 UN
peacekeepers. About half of them have been freed. Last week, after nine days
in hiding, Sankoh himself was captured by pro-government soldiers. He's being
held in custody. The UN secretary-general is proposing sending in more
peacekeeping troops. Nigeria had led a force from West African countries,
trying to stop the atrocities. They pulled out and are considering
re-entering if they have sufficient financial backing from the West.
My guest, Joe Opala, is an American anthropologist who lived and taught in
Sierra Leone for about 20 years and became active in the pro-democracy
movement. He was one of the last Westerners to leave the country during the
1997 coup. He currently teaches at James Madison University in Virginia. We
spoke yesterday. Opala says the situation in Sierra Leone has been
misinterpreted by the international community as a civil war when the actual
problem is the total collapse of the government.
Professor JOSEPH OPALA (James Madison University): If you look at the
situation on the ground, what you find is that through years and years of
official corruption, the state not only disintegrated, it literally ate itself
alive. For a long period--20 years or more--the job of a Cabinet minister was
to sell off all the resources of his ministry and to sell off any foreign aid
that might have been channeled through his ministry and then pass the lion's
share of the money up to the president, but keep a substantial bit yourself.
So after a few years of this, government ministries simply ceased to function
and there are ministries I could take you to now in Freetown in which no
useful business has been conducted for 10 years or more. You'll go into a
government office and find that the secretaries sold off the typewriters and
the filing cabinets long ago because they weren't paid, their civil service
salaries didn't come. And so government lost not only its ability to rule, it
also, of course, lost its authority and its credibility among the people. In
fact, Sierra Leoneans hold the entire political class in the utmost contempt.
What's clear to every Sierra Leonean, from illiterate people on up, is that
the RUF, the rebels, are not a political faction of any sort. They're simply
bandits. And, you know, when a government stops functioning, when there's no
effective police power, obviously--I mean, it's logical, isn't it?--that
bandits and criminals are going to come out of the woodwork and they'll become
bolder and bolder every day that they're not stopped from doing what they're
GROSS: When you say that banditry took over in the absence of a real state,
in the absence of real government, give us some examples of how it grew early
on. Foday Sankoh is the leader of the rebel group, the Revolutionary United
Front, the RUF. What was some of the early banditry that this group was
responsible for and how did it kind of step into this void left during the
collapse of the state?
Prof. OPALA: Well, the so-called rebel war began in 1991. And at that point,
Foday Sankoh and his rebels crossed the border from Liberia into Sierra Leone
and they began doing the atrocities that they're still doing, but they were on
the margins. They were way out, quite some distance from the capital and
literally on the edges of the country. And almost like eating an apple, they
began to come in from those edges closer and closer into the core, and
ultimately have attacked now the capital city twice. But this didn't happen
overnight. It's taken nine years for this process to develop. And I guess,
from my point of view, what's so agonizing about watching this is that it was
also easily dealt with. The international community up to this very moment
has not really understood the problem, and what I have been forced to watch,
what Sierra Leoneans have been forced to watch these last nine years, is the
international doctor making the wrong diagnosis and then constantly giving the
wrong treatment and so the patient just gets--the patient, the country, just
gets sicker and sicker.
GROSS: So you're saying the diagnosis was civil war instead of collapse of
the state, therefore the medicine was wrong. What would the medicine have
been for a collapsed state as opposed to a civil war?
Prof. OPALA: Again, what's so agonizing about this is that the medicine
really is very, very simple. With a civil war, what you do obviously is you
bring the parties together when you have legitimate factions that represent
religious interest groups or regional interest groups or different ideologies
or different tribal affiliations. You bring them together. You have some
sort of useful negotiation with a third party and then you accommodate everyone
so that everybody's got a share in the power. But if you do that with a
collapsed state, you'll only make matters worse. You can't bring bandits into
the central government and expect any good to come out of it.
What you should do in a situation of state collapse is, first of all, forget
about accommodating the bandits. The issue here is that the institutions of
government are gone and you need a very fulsome international presence to come
into the capital city and into the provinces and literally retrain the
bureaucrats in how to run their ministries. And you need also, of course, to
be there for some period of time so that an election can take place and so
that a new political elite that has not been corrupted by these long years of
corruption can then begin to have their chance to rule the country.
GROSS: That could be seen as very patronizing where, you know, like, say, the
West steps in and says you know, `We'll show you how democracy is done. So
first we'll give you lessons and then we'll let you try again.'
Prof. OPALA: Well, I can understand why people in the Western world would see
it that way, but they're not understanding the situation and they're not
empathizing with people who have had to live through years and years of no
effective police power, of just being naked. My last five years in Sierra
Leone, I slept with a loaded revolver next to my bed and most of my friends
did as well.
GROSS: Well, what were you expecting?
Prof. OPALA: I can only tell you...
GROSS: What were you expecting?
Prof. OPALA: When there's no police--the police won't come. You'll call
them. They won't come. You'll call them and tell them that they've killed
your wife and they're raping your daughter and they're looting your house and,
if you're lucky enough to have a functioning phone, they'll say, `Well, we
don't have any gasoline for our vehicle, so we can't come.' And maybe, if
you're fortunate enough, you can negotiate a bribe on the phone and they will
come. But people who have lived in that sort of situation for years on end, I
can tell you, if an international group were to come in like that and
manhandle, quite frankly, the political elite, they would be singing `Hosanna'
in the streets. What Sierra Leoneans don't understand is why the
international community does not come in and do that very thing.
GROSS: Tell us a little bit more about what it was like for you when you
lived in Sierra Leone to live in a place that had no real functioning
government, where the state had collapsed.
Prof. OPALA: It was gradual process. I guess my first really serious
awakening to the situation from a personal point of view was when three
soldiers, each carrying AK-47s, burst into my house in the middle of the
night, tied me up and a young American graduate student who was visiting me
from the States, tied us both up, dragged us into the back bedroom on our
bellies, looted the house. It was very clear from their speech that they were
stoned on something much more than just marijuana--probably cocaine or
heroin. And after looting everything, they stood over our bodies there on the
floor and debated among themselves whether or not to kill us before they left.
They finally decided just to leave us. None of my neighbors would come close.
They had tied up my watchman, who managed to escape and go into the village
and try to call for help but, of course, no one came. And it was not until
the next morning in broad daylight when the whole village came basically to
see what happened. I'm sure they were quite prepared to take what was left of
my belongs had they found me dead there. And that's the effect of terror.
GROSS: And who were the people who tied you up and threatened to kill you?
Prof. OPALA: They were three army soldiers. And the very next day I went to
see the army commander for that particular area, he was very kind; he ushered
me into his office. When I explained the situation, he locked his office door
and he listened to me and he said, `Joe,' he said, you know, `this is not the
army I joined and I pray to God that when I retire, this will not be the army
that Sierra Leone has.' He said, `I'm terribly sorry, but there's absolutely
nothing I can do for you, because if I attempted to discipline these soldiers
who did this to you, they would kill me and what would that accomplish?'
GROSS: So the leaders of the military had no authority within the military?
Prof. OPALA: What's hard I think for Americans to understand--I mean, in many
respects we live in the most successful government that has ever been created,
and government permeates every part of our lives in this country. So it's
hard for us to imagine a situation of true chaos. It's not just the army.
Every single institution of government and most institutions of civil society
have been totally corrupted over a period of time. And any semblance of
professionalism in government ministries, in the mass media, in the bank of
Sierra Leone, in the civil service, in the police--all vestiges of
professionalism died long ago.
GROSS: My guest is Joe Opala, an American anthropologist who lived and taught
in Sierra Leone for over 20 years. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Joe Opala, an American anthropologist who lived in Sierra
Leone for over 20 years and became active in the pro-democracy movement. Now
your point about Foday Sankoh, the head of the rebel group or the terrorist
group, the RUF--your point about him is that he's not a political leader, he's
a bandit who has organized a militia of bandits. Does he have no political
agenda at all? What is his agenda?
Prof. OPALA: He's actually mad. I mean, he's clearly insane. He is a
psychopath. And if you listen--occasionally I've been given recordings of him
haranguing his so-called troops and I'm listening in the local language and I
can't make any sense out of it whatsoever. It's just babbling. I think
probably the best comparison to him is Charlie Manson. You know, Charlie
Manson was a lunatic but had a certain amount of charisma. He dragged young
people--disoriented at a time of social upheaval in this country, dragged them
to him. He gave them drugs and he sent them out on a lunatic mission to
murder people. And that's precisely what Foday Sankoh is about except writ
very, very much larger. Instead of just killing a few people, Sankoh's
responsible for the deaths of perhaps 50,000 people and many, many rapes and
GROSS: How does he recruit people?
Prof. OPALA: He and his people would go into a village--they don't give you
a chance to join, and you can see from that that they have no real political
agenda. What they typically will do is take the paramount chief, the man of
authority locally, murder him but torture him in front of his people and then
they would take the young boys, the adolescent boys, they would inject them
with heroin or cocaine and they would force them, in front of the entire
village, to shoot their parents and maybe cut off your mother's head, this
sort of thing. And by the time they take these boys away, they'll tell them,
you know, `Of course, you're never going to be able to go home. Your own
people will hate you now.'
One of the things, though, that has not as much as needed gotten into the
international media is what they do to the adolescent girls. They also kidnap
them and they treat them as sexual slaves. They essentially rape them to
death. All the women in the situation die unless they find some way to
escape. I've done a number of pro bono depositions for these girls who
manage--a few of them have actually managed to make their way over here and
I've read their accounts, I've talked with them on the phone and I've read the
doctors' reports as to what's happened to them. This is hideous beyond
belief and it's on a scale much, much larger than the horrible mass rapes that
we read about in the former Yugoslavia.
GROSS: Who was Foday Sankoh before he became the head of the RUF, before he
became this chief terrorist?
Prof. OPALA: He was a cashiered army corporal. He had been a very minor
figure in a failed military coup back in the 1970s and was imprisoned. He was
actually an army photographer at that time. He was a small fish in that
particular attempted coup. He spent a few years in prison and then he left
Sierra Leone and went into exile into Liberia. We understand that in Liberia
he was contacted by some of Gadhafi's agents, that he went at least for a year
or so to Libya for guerrilla training. And I think during that period in
Liberia as well, various disgruntled young Sierra Leoneans, especially Sierra
Leoneans with college degrees who were angry at the corruption in government,
they went down there and actually tried to tutor him in some sort of
revolutionary philosophy, but it didn't take. I mean, I think Foday has been
a psychopath for a very long time. I mean, to put it simply, he's crazy.
GROSS: The international community brokered a peace plan in Sierra Leone. It
was a power-sharing plan in which Foday Sankoh, the head of the terrorist
group the RUF, became part of power sharing. He became a vice president and
commissioner of diamond resources, and diamonds are the country's main source
of wealth. What's he done with the diamonds and did he have any connection
to the diamonds in Sierra Leone before he got this position?
Prof. OPALA: Well, the RUF has always funded itself through digging diamonds,
through illicit diamond mining. And so this was a sweetheart deal for Sankoh.
I'm sure that offering him that position was, you know, an important
inducement for him, making his deal with the international community at that
point. And yes, of course, he's remained very much involved in the diamond
trade. This is what has fueled the war. To a large extent, this is what paid
for all those weapons.
GROSS: Diamonds. How can a country so rich in resources like Sierra Leone,
which has all these diamonds, be so poor? I mean, I think it's the poorest
country in the world.
Prof. OPALA: By many indexes, various--World Bank, IMF, United Nations, they
occasionally release these lists of the poorest nations in the world and
Sierra Leone is always either on the bottom or two or three steps from the
bottom. It in fact is, as you're implying--it's an extremely rich country,
really. It's got diamonds. It's got gold. It's got huge quantities of iron
ore and bauxite. It has unlimited rainfall each year, and so you have--it's
tremendous for rice and various types of agriculture. Its offshore fishing is
extremely valuable. Until I went to Sierra Leone, I'd never seen a shrimp a
foot long, but that's fairly common in Sierre Leone.
What happened is what we've been talking about, state collapse. Over a period
of time, Sierra Leone's leaders destroyed their own government and took
everything that wasn't nailed down. And so the people got poorer and poorer
as time went on and we finally reached a point in which government had so
destroyed itself that it had ceased to function.
GROSS: How would you compare the UN peacekeeping forces with the peacekeeping
forces from West Africa, which is called ECOMOG? That's the name of the
multinational West African peacekeeping force that also has had many troops in
Prof. OPALA: Well, one of my frustrations has been noting that the American
press will often say that the intervention by the West African forces was a
failure. It actually was not a failure at all. There's an organization
called ECOWAS, which is a trade union of 16 African nations. They sent in a
military intervention force, peacekeeping force, made up largely of Nigerian
troops and that's ECOMOG. And the Nigerians just did a tremendous job over a
period of years fighting the rebels. They took a lot of casualties and Sierra
Leoneans have great respect for the ECOMOG Nigerian forces. The problem was
that year after year, the African governments pleaded with the United States
and Britain and other powers for logistical support and they never got it.
The only thing they got was just crumbs off the table. And so ECOMOG could
have defeated the RUF. The problem was that at various times they had no
trucks or they had no gasoline, they had no spare parts, they had no field
radios. But they were a disciplined force and on the occasions that they did
have the logistical support they needed, they really tore the rebels up and
everyone knows that.
What happened, unfortunately, is that the Clinton administration pulled the
plug on them. As late as 1998, they gave them $4 million for the entire year
when the Nigerians alone were spending over 300 million, a developing country.
And because the Clinton administration didn't want to continue supporting this
operation, they pulled the plug and announced that the military intervention
was a failure. What was a failure was the international community's
unwillingness to back that force. Now we see the Nigerians--the Sierra
Leoneans crying out for a return of the Nigerian troops. The Nigerians have
agreed and now, of course, the Clinton administration is keen on showing that
it does have some funds that it can provide for this group. All of this--none
of this needed to happen. All of this was avoidable.
As far as the UN troops are concerned, they really aren't soldiers. They're
there more or less as a kind of symbol. And, of course, they never should
have been sent there in the first place at the time that they were sent.
Many, many of us told the international community that the power-sharing
agreement was going to explode in our faces. No one listened. And
unfortunately those UN peacekeepers had to pay the price for the international
GROSS: You left Sierra Leone in 1997 very reluctantly. You were one of the
last Westerners to leave the country after the coup. I think from what you
told us the last time you were on the show you doubted you'd be alive if you
stayed behind. Would you like to return to Sierra Leone sometime?
Prof. OPALA: You know, I went back last summer. I was there for the month
of June during a very tense period and I loved it. In fact, when I arrived at
the airport, to my surprise and delight, every single official got up off his
bench and came over and hugged me and said, `Welcome home.' And people wanted
to know what I'd been doing. Some news had gotten back about our political
efforts on behalf of Sierra Leone over here and so everyone wanted to talk.
And I think was on TV or radio or had a newspaper interview almost every day
all the 30 days I was there. I cried, of course, the last day when I had to
leave. I really--it was very hard leaving. But, yes, I hope sometime to be
able to go back and live there. I think it would be reasonably safe for me to
go back now.
The problem is that the decisions for poor Sierra Leone are being made in
Washington and New York. And I think if I were to leave and go back now, I
would not be able to do as much for the country as I can from over here. What
I've also found is that, due to all the chaos in Sierra Leone, there is now a
wonderful class of young professional class Sierra Leoneans in their late 20s
and early 30s who are flexible enough and young enough to understand the way
the system works here in the United States and they've made wonderful allies
and we've gone door to door in Congress at times with these people and I'm
tremendously proud of them as well and what they're doing for their country.
GROSS: Joe Opala, thank you so much for talking with us.
Prof. OPALA: Thanks a lot.
GROSS: Joe Opala is an American anthropologist who lived in Sierra Leone for
about 20 years. He now teaches at James Madison University in Virginia. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Coming up, we continue our conversation about Sierra Leone with a phone call
to Zainab Bangura in Freetown. She's a leader of the pro democracy movement.
And we'll hear from Susan Rice, assistant secretary of State for Africa in the
US State Department.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Zainab Bangura, pro-democracy leader in Sierra Leone,
discusses the current government crisis there
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Zainab Bangura is one of the leaders of the pro-democracy movement in Sierra
Leone. Along with Joe Opala, who we heard from earlier, she co-founded the
group the Campaign for Good Governance which helped organize Sierra Leone's
1996 democratic election. Two weeks ago, rebel leader Foday Sankoh went into
hiding. As his home was surrounded and ransacked by angry protesters, about
20 of the demonstrators were killed. After several days in hiding, Sankoh was
captured by pro-government forces and is now in custody. Yesterday, we called
Zainab Bangura at her office in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. I
asked her what the popular opinion is in her country regarding what to do with
Foday Sankoh, the man who has led the campaign of amputation, rape and murder
but was made vice president of the country in last year's power-sharing
agreement brokered by the US, Britain, the UN and several African countries.
Ms. ZAINAB BANGURA (Pro-democracy Leader): Well, I think everybody is saying
that he shall be tried for war crimes, taking into consideration the
atrocities that he has committed, but more important, because of the 20 people
that were killed in front of his house during the demonstration against him.
And also, by trying him internationally to give us an opportunity to also try
those who have been involved in the supply of arms and in the sale of diamonds
from Sierra Leone. So we call it the war diamonds. It is only through an
International Tribunal war crime that we can be able to get our hands on them.
GROSS: So you think that the amnesty will be ended?
Ms. BANGURA: Well, the amnesty only cover the period from the day he started
the war until July 7th when the agreement was signed in 1999. But the amnesty
also doesn't apply beyond the borders of Sierra Leone. So if we try him
outside Sierra Leone, the amnesty doesn't apply to him; that's what the United
Nations said to us. And secondly, I don't think we can afford the cost. But
more important, I think Foday Sankoh has been a lot of problem to our lives,
so we want to put him outside and continue to move ahead with our lives. By
trying him in Freetown is going to consume our time, he's going to affect our
resources, and he's also a security risk.
GROSS: Is there any functioning government now in Sierra Leone?
Ms. BANGURA: Well, it's very difficult. Not exactly because, as we all
know, the RUF is controlling over 50 percent of the country. And the country
is sort of disconnected from each other. The south and eastern province, even
though they're supposed to be under the government control, most of the
institutions of government have not been established. There are no courts
operating. The police are just starting to go back before this latest crisis
came. So you cannot actually see a functioning government in Sierra Leone.
There is a government in Freetown, the city, but the government is here to
take control of the rest of the country.
GROSS: Is there any order in the streets?
Ms. BANGURA: Yes, in Freetown there is because Freetown is well protected by
the UN forces as well as by the British. So in Freetown there is some
semblance of sanity and security. But beyond Freetown, it's difficult to
GROSS: Have you been outside of Freetown lately?
Ms. BANGURA: Well, you can't because you're not allowed to go there. You
know, it's only--you know you travel by air to go to other parts of the
country that we have UN forces, in the south and east. But you definitely
cannot travel by road out of Freetown. So I dare not because I'm on the list
of wanted people by the RUF, so I will not bother to go out of Freetown.
GROSS: Now the RUF terrorized the population of Sierra Leone with mass
amputations, rapes, the looting and burning of homes. Is the RUF still
terrorizing the people?
Ms. BANGURA: They are still, because as I talk to you now, we just got
reports from Kambia that they're doing massive recruitments, each and every
able-bodied young man is being recruited by the RUF from the Kambia district,
from the Port Loko district and they're taking them to Oscalone(ph). They are
right now retreating from Bombali(ph) district in the northern province and
while they retreat they are burning each and every house on site. So as I
speak to you now, there is massive destruction taking place. Nobody can
verify these things because nobody's there to come and tell us. The UN
forces--the UN human rights people are leaving tomorrow morning to go to
Guinea to talk to some of the refugees who are running away from the northern
province. So there is a lot of problem going on in the northern province, but
there's no government presence or UN presence to verify this. So people who
are sneaking in--out and coming to--they are telling us that all the young men
have been taken away; the women are being raped. We've not heard anything
about amputation, but we know that the properties--houses have been destroyed
and the entire villages and towns have been burned.
GROSS: Do you have any idea why that was part of their technique for
terrorizing the population? Why amputations?
Ms. BANGURA: Well, the amputation actually started after--or before the
election of 1996, which was to force people not to go out and vote because if
you don't have arms, then you can't vote. But when they failed in that,
people still went out and voted, they now use that to sort of subject the
communities to terror, because they feel that if they cannot control them,
they will use terror. And so when they do that, the people are afraid to deal
with them, they are afraid to deal with government, they are just totally and
completely intimidated by the government. So now is anybody here gonna get by
RUF. They run as fast as they can. It is a way of subjecting the entire
population to terror and forcing the community to accept them. Because even
when the women demonstrated in front of Foday Sankoh's house on the 6th of
May, most of the people who were standing in unfinished buildings around the
house, demonstrated to the women that they're going to chop off their arms,
they're going to cut their throats. It is a way of intimidating the
population for you to accept them, to understand that they can do anything
they want to do, nobody can protect you.
GROSS: Now is this mostly in the countryside, or did this happen in the city
of Freetown, the capital city, as well?
Ms. BANGURA: It's only happened in Freetown after the January 6th invasion.
It's all done--for the past nine years, it was done out of the capital city,
Freetown. But when they came into Freetown and they realized that the ECOWAS
were going to drive them out of Freetown, they resorted to amputation and they
ended up amputating over 7,000 people.
GROSS: In Freetown?
Ms. BANGURA: Yes.
GROSS: And ECOWAS that you just mentioned, that's the West African forces
that were sent in...
Ms. BANGURA: West African peacekeeping force.
GROSS: Yeah. So do you see a lot of people in the streets of Freetown now
who have had limbs amputated by members of the RUF?
Ms. BANGURA: Oh, yes, we have a camp they call the war victim and amputees
camp. It's in the west end of Freetown, and there we have about 500 of these
people who are there and who have children as young as five months old who
were amputated when they were two months old. You know, we still have them.
We have younger--the youngest amputee we have at the moment I think is
about a year, six months or so. But both of them, a girl and a boy. The boy
lost a leg, and the girl lost her arm. Both of them were amputated when they
were two months old.
GROSS: Now do you think that the RUF has accomplished its goal of terrorizing
people into accepting the RUF, or are people still willing to vote against
them if there is another vote and--yeah.
Ms. BANGURA: Well, at least I think I'll be able to answer that because I
wish you were here on the 8th of May when they demonstrated against Foday
Sankoh, and we had over 100 to 200,000 people who turned out to demonstrate
against him. And then when he was captured, most of the people thought that
they should amputate his arms and limbs and ...(unintelligible) just cut them
off. But luckily, the police intervened and also left ...(unintelligible)
insisted that they take him to the police station. People are determined to
fight against him, no matter what it cost. They're determined to fight
against him. They're determined to prevent him from kidnapping what they have
decided that is what they want, and that is democracy. So I don't think any
amount of terror can subject the people of Sierra Leone under the RUF rule.
GROSS: My guest is Zainab Bangura, a leader of the pro-democracy movement in
Sierra Leone. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Joining us by phone from Sierra Leone is Zainab Bangura, a leader of
her country's pro-democracy movement.
Have you or other people who you know who worked on the election in 1996
become disillusioned about the ability of a democratic election to really
change the future of Sierra Leone?
Ms. BANGURA: Well, we don't look at it that way. We feel that if only we
had been given the opportunity to allow our democracy to flourish, we can,
because we feel that our democracy has been sabotaged and manipulated by
people who are supposed to be defendants of democracy worldwide and who will
force us to accept the RUF in the government of power sharing, even though
these are the people who have terrorized us, who have committed some of the
worst atrocity; they insisted that we change the constitution to accommodate
(unintelligible), and these are all things that do not go well for democracy.
If only they had supported us in what we were pursuing and trying to rebuild a
democracy in Sierra Leone, I think we would have been able to achieve more.
But rather than that, they forced us to compromise our democracy and, in a
way, which has taken us back to where we did not expect to be. So I think the
fact that the democracy did not work in Sierra Leone also was the contribution
of some of the countries outside who have refused to encourage us to do
GROSS: You're referring to the peace-sharing plan as being what compromised
Ms. BANGURA: We're referring to the Lome agreements. I mean, which took
us--I don't want to say on radio, but which was completely contrary to the
principles of democracy, completely detrimental to the good of democracy in
Sierra Leone. And the fact that we have to bring the RUF in who do not
believe in the principles of democracy, who do not work according to the rules
of the game, means that we have to compromise. And by compromising, even the
difficult people, the reluctant people who were very reluctant to come along
with us, also do not now come to say, `What the hell were we fighting for?'
So I think if we had been left on our own as a country and as a people, we
could have achieved much more.
GROSS: What do you think of Jesse Jackson's visit to Sierra Leone?
Ms. BANGURA: I--to be honest enough, I am not very impressed with him because
I was here in Freetown in November of 1998 when he visited, and I remember him
making the remark in the United States Embassy when questioned that how is he
going to force President Kabbah to negotiate to the RUF when the rest of the
country do not, or when the population generally do not want him to negotiate,
and his remark was, `That's what makes a leader. A leader is supposed to mold
the public opinion. A leader is not supposed to follow public opinion.' And
I think I found that very insulting because it goes beyond my principle of
And I believe that democracy is for leaders to listen to the opinion of their
people, and that is what they're for. It's not for the leader to manipulate
that opinion and force the people to accept what they don't accept. So I was
not very impressed with ...(unintelligible) and I have never been impressed,
and I find it very insulting that somebody would have so much regard for--that
we have read about in the United States and that we thought should stand there
and fight for us as Africans, is here now trying to sabotage and trying to
encourage somebody like Foday Sankoh to continue to commit some of these
atrocities. Because without the encouragement of people like that, I don't
think Foday Sankoh would have the audacity to commenting that he should lead
this country. Because he knows how much we feel about him. He knows how much
the people hate him, and he knows how much destruction he's caused for this
country. But you cannot explain it to people outside.
GROSS: The elections failed to create a lasting difference in Sierra Leone.
International intervention failed. What is the solution that you would
recommend for making things better in the country now?
Ms. BANGURA: Well, I think until we're able to deal with the RUF we'll never
be able to have peace in Sierra Leone. And as I speak to you now, the pro-
and government forces are right in the half of the northern province running
after the RUF. You know, I think all the forces, even including their former
allies who have realized now that they made a mistake, that the greatest
mistake they made in their life was to join forces with the RUF--have now
turned against the RUF, and they are the ones who are running after the RUF.
And I hope that it will get them out of the northern province and then can now
follow them to the diamond area. Because the reason why people like Charles
Taylor and the others are supporting the RUF is because they have access to
our diamonds. So instead of our diamonds being a blessing to us, they're now
being a curse. These are the resources that are being used to kill our
people. So we are going to fight the RUF; we're going to fight them to the
last day and make sure we get them out of the ...(unintelligible) of Sierra
Leone so that we can have peace, for once. I mean, I still believe democracy
is the way. I still believe in the principles of democracy, and I believe
that if only we can be allowed to have a function in democracy I think the
future for Sierra Leone will be very, very good.
GROSS: Are you on an RUF hit list? Are you? Yeah.
Ms. BANGURA: Well, if I am in the hit list--well, I know they don't like me,
that much I can say, you know. And that has been said to me several times by
the RUF leader himself. So I don't want to say I'm in their hit list, but I
know for a fact that RUF do not like educated people. RUF do not like people
who voice other opinion against them. RUF do not like who criticize them.
RUF do not like intellectuals; they don't like educated people. Foday Sankoh
said in one of his interviews that he was going to develop a concentration
camp, and this has seen thousands of our educated people live in the shelter
of Freetown because they are fighting for their health. So I am not
surprised. I know that RUF possibly can get rid of me if they have the
opportunity, and I know they have tried on three occasions. But I'll continue
to fight them.
GROSS: Has it been difficult for you to keep yourself safe?
Ms. BANGURA: Well, to some extent, yes, but I have been able to have
protection from ECOWAS, so to a large extent I'm protected inside my house.
And so I'm safe as long as I'm within the shelter of Freetown. That's why I
don't wish to go out of Freetown.
GROSS: Where are you talking to us from now?
Ms. BANGURA: I'm speaking from my office in Freetown.
GROSS: And can you see any signs around you of the war?
Ms. BANGURA: Oh, I mean, right opposite me a house was burned, because when
the rebel came in January 1996 they actually attacked our house--sorry, our
office. And because it's a main office that has been used by all the civil
society, but luckily for us it's such a strong building and it's so protected
that they couldn't get access into the building. So what they did, they burnt
all the buildings around the office. So I don't need to get out of my
building to see the level of destruction. And on a daily basis we have people
who come here, amputees, you know. We do a lot of work with the amputee camp
(unintelligible) in terms of the civic education and give them air time on the
radio to talk about some of the problems. So, I mean, the evidence of the war
is a daily part of my life.
GROSS: Zainab Bangura, I have one more question for you. I know you're a
parent. Can I ask how old your child or children?
Ms. BANGURA: My son is 14 years old.
GROSS: Knowing that children have had their arms and legs amputated by the
RUF, are there special things that you've tried to do as a mother to protect
Ms. BANGURA: Well, interestingly, my son, actually, has joined a human
rights group. They have a children's human rights group, and he's visiting
the camp, he's collecting old clothing, going to this amputee camp and working
with the children. I think he's also getting involved with the kind of job I
do, and so he's also started working. He's founded his own small organization
with his colleagues between the ages of 13 through 16, and they go into this
police camp and provide charity and food and old clothes for those children.
I don't think--I mean, I believe that what I'm doing I'm doing for my country,
and I'm also doing it for my son because I believe that my son deserves to
have a better country where he can live. And so as much as I try to protect
him, I also try to get him to face the reality of the situation and understand
that he has a role to play.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. BANGURA: Thank you.
GROSS: And good luck, and stay safe. And thank you very much.
Ms. BANGURA: Thank you.
GROSS: Zainab Bangura recorded yesterday by phone from Freetown, the capital
of Sierra Leone. She's a leader of the pro-democracy movement in her country.
Coming up, we speak with Susan Rice, the State Department's assistant
secretary for African affairs. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Interview: Susan Rice, assistant secretary for African affairs,
US State Department, discusses the situation in Sierra Leone
TERRY GROSS, host:
Our guests today have been critical of the peace agreement in Sierra Leone.
The US was one of the countries that brokered it. Earlier today we called
Susan Rice, assistant secretary for African affairs in the US State
The peace agreement gave Foday Sankoh a share of the power, made him vice
president, gave him control of the diamond mines. Now he was the man
responsible for, you know, murder, amputations, as well as the burning and
looting of homes. Then his men were responsible for kidnapping the UN
peacekeepers. In retrospect, do you think it was a mistake to give him a
share of the power in Sierra Leone?
Ms. SUSAN RICE (Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, US State
Department): Well, the facts are the following. A civil war had been doing
on for eight years in Sierra Leone. It was a brutal civil war in which tens
of thousands have been killed and maimed. The people of Sierra Leone
desperately wanted the opportunity for peace. There was not the capacity
within the government of Sierra Leone, or even with the regional force,
ECOMOG, to defeat the RUF and Foday Sankoh. Had that capacity been there,
then there would have been no need for a negotiated settlement. But absent
that capacity, the government and the people of Sierra Leone, with support
from the region, made the decision that a negotiated settlement was the best
possible outcome. The United States was present some period of time, about
four weeks before the negotiations began, and the president's envoy, Jesse
Jackson, helped to broker an initial cessation of hostilities. That was a
one-day involvement from Reverend Jackson. He left the region. And then a
month later the regional heads of states convened the Lome peace talks, which
resulted in this deal.
The United States' interest has been in seeing peace and justice in Sierra
Leone. That would have ideally come through a negotiated settlement in which
the parties would have upheld their obligations. But obviously the rebels and
Foday Sankoh have violated their agreements, they have not upheld their
obligations, and the prospects for a peaceful settlement along the lines of
Lome are now very much in question.
GROSS: The point one of our guests makes is that Sierra Leone didn't so much
have a civil war as it experienced the breakdown of government, and in the
void of government the terrorism and banditry led by Foday Sankoh was able to
spread throughout the country. And his point is that the prescription for the
breakdown of government is really different than the prescription for civil
war. I'm wondering what your reaction to that would be.
Ms. RICE: Well, I think either way you slice it--and I think there are
nuances here that we can all discuss and debate, but the bottom line is that
the RUF is a well-armed, well-equipped, well-organized fighting force that
GROSS: This is the RUF. Yeah.
Ms. RICE: The RUF--that either needs to be defeated or become, rather than a
military force, a political force. That was what the aim of Lome was, to see
if the two sides could fulfill their commitment to end the fighting and
compete not through the barrel of a gun but through political means. Now that
that has not succeeded, the very question remains: Is there a military
GROSS: I wonder what the Clinton administration postmortem is on this.
Because Sierra Leone is not the only country in this kind of position. Does
it work in a situation where there's this militia that is leading a wave of
terrorism? Does it work to give them a share of the power in an attempt to
appease them and attempt to stop their violence?
Ms. RICE: The short answer is sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't.
There have been a number of negotiated agreements--and I'll just focus on
Africa to name a few--where a rebel organization has committed to a peace
process in which it would play a role in an interim government and commit to
elections. That's what was planned and, in fact, successfully implemented in
Mozambique and now Mozambique is at peace with a democratic government and a
very strong opposition led by the former rebel leader. It didn't work in
Angola, where Jonas Savimbi, much like Foday Sankoh, signed an agreement,
upheld it for a period of time and then violated it and now Angola is back at
war. So the point is it has worked in some instances, like Mozambique, like
Zimbabwe, like Namibia as they came out of their colonial periods, and it has
not succeeded as it failed in Angola and is clearly in trouble in Sierra
Leone. And the question in every instance is is there sufficient will among
the parties to the conflict--both the government and the rebels--to end the
conflict by peaceful means? If that will is not there, then these sorts of
agreements are doomed to fail. But one can't judge a priority, whether that
will is there, in the absence of such an agreement.
GROSS: What are the questions facing the Clinton administration now in terms
of how to deal with Sierra Leone?
Ms. RICE: Well, obviously our interest is in seeing lasting peace and justice
for the people of Sierra Leone. And the question is how can we work best with
the government and the people of Sierra Leone, governments in the region and
others in the international community to try to bring that about? What
elements of the Lome agreement are still viable, and which need to be revised?
And, of course, what will the people and the government of Sierra Leone decide
to do about Foday Sankoh?
GROSS: Do you think that Foday Sankoh can be tried as a war criminal?
Ms. RICE: That's a decision for the government and the people of Sierra Leone
to make. Obviously he's committed some heinous crimes, and justice needs to
be done. But I don't think it's appropriate for the United States to dictate
to the people of Sierra Leone how to accomplish that.
GROSS: Thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. RICE: Thank you.
GROSS: Susan Rice is the assistant secretary of State for African affairs.
Last week President Clinton announced he had authorized the Department of
Defense to provide up to $20 million in defense goods and services to support
the efforts of the UN and other international forces to stabilize the
situation in Sierra Leone.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Today is the 90th birthday of clarinetist and band leader Artie Shaw. We'll
close with one of the last recordings he made as an instrumentalist. This is
"Love of My Life," a ballad he wrote with lyricist Johnny Mercer in 1940 for
Fred Astaire to sing in the film "Second Chorus." This 1954 recording also
features Hank Jones at the piano, Tal Farlow, guitar, and Joe Rowland(ph),
(Soundbite of song "Love of My Life")
GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.