Working for the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone for four years in the early part of this millennium made me appreciate the vigour that peacekeeping requires and the rigours it sometimes entails. I would sometimes look at some peacekeepers and could not help but laugh that a kick from a drugged rebel would send them tumbling down. But I could also not help but admire the courage, dedication and discipline the peacekeepers exhibited. It almost always made me think to myself that if I was a soldier I would like to serve my country and the rest of humanity.
But such was the understanding they were not here to fight that when some peacekeepers were killed, some countries withdrew their troops saying they had not been deployed here to be in harm’s way. No country sends troops as peacekeepers when the risk of death is palpable, unless when it has some geopolitical interests in that country such as Guinea and Nigeria did in Sierra Leone.
It is a pride for anyone to see their country serve in peacekeeping missions. This is why I cannot help but feel proud that the tricolour of green, white and blue will soon be flying alongside the blue of the UN. It is unimaginable how far the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces have come from a rag-tagged and ill-equipped band of traitors and coupists to a crop of some of the most-disciplined, best-trained and finest armies anywhere in West Africa. How time has flown! How clearly things have shown!
Around the turn of the war era in Sierra Leone, the British-born Chief of Staff of the UN Mission here, Brigadier O’Reilly made a series of strong cases for the RSLAF to participate in peacekeeping operations. Such was his passion about it that following one of his presentations in one meeting a senior military officer of a respected UN troop contributing country nodded in agreement. He later told me that our military, if they continued as they had started off following the war, their future was sparkling.
Seven years since that war ended, the RSLAF are preparing to go on international peacekeeping to give to the rest of the world what they gave to us in those difficult times. As well as serve humanity, UN peacekeeping brings with it badly-needed foreign exchange. Pakistan and Bangladesh, two of the most consistent trop contributing countries to UN peacekeeping get a massive chunk of their foreign exchange earner from it. In a country such as ours, such an enterprise will mind our poorly-paid men and women in green from anti-people intentions and actions. It brings to the family the comfort that money begets.
Again working as a UN civilian peacekeeper in the past, I talked out my uvula, without success, to let most people understand that UN peacekeepers only keep the peace not make it. Many Sierra Leoneans at the time would abuse and even ask the UN to leave whenever they did not use force against the rebels. Even Chapter 7 of the UN charter which mandates peacekeepers to use force, does not necessarily allow them to deploy without a peace to keep.
Last week, I heard Sierra Leone’s defence minister Paolo Conteh put a brilliant argument on the BBC in support of his intention to deploy troops to the Sudanese province of Darfur and Somalia. In the last year or so, the Sierra Leone Police have performed brilliantly in Haiti as UN Civilian Police and they continue to do so in Darfur. Frankly I always stopped to wonder why Zimbabwe, whose police have such terrible human rights record, could send UN civilian police to help train and mentor the SLP. I especially felt bemused after I had visited Liberia, I think it was in 2003, with a representative group of SLP senior officers among them Kadi Fakondor and Richard Moigbeh. Such was the brilliance of their performance that I kept asking why they had not been deployed by the UN.
In any case opportunity comes when it should come. Exactly the same thing Brigadier O’Reilly once told me. Darfur is a place I think our troops can be deployed in. The factions there are in agreement with the deployment of troops even if there are intermittent breaches and skirmishes by some supposed pro-government militias. In other words there is a peace to keep. Our soldiers can go there and do extremely well for themselves, country and humanity. Money bags! I cannot say the same when it comes to sending them to Somalia. Body bags!
Somalia is a gravy train and can only be blocked with the hands of King Kong. If you have watched the Hollywood blockbuster movie Black Hawk Down, you would need no further explanation. The experience of the Ethiopian troops in that country just a few months ago is another testament to what awaits a force that is not deployed with the approval of all factions in that country. And if anything, the situation has worsened in Somalia since those debacles.
UN peacekeeping does not always bring back money bags. It also brings body bags. We don’t want body bags back here. Body bags are definitely sure to come with a deployment to Somalia. It is a failed state. Bigger, better-equipped and better-trained armies have failed there because the factions are not yet tired of fighting. Once a peace agreement is signed by all the factions and they agree to the deployment of peacekeepers, we can then send our troops.
I clearly understand why the government would be interested in sending our military to serve overseas. But this is different from those young unemployed youth that successive governments sent to Iraq and defended their action. I am not sure our soldiers are as keen to be deployed in Somalia as our youth are to go to Iraq.
That said, the deployment to Darfur should be done very judiciously and without undue consideration. UN peacekeeping deployment is the treasure of most third world military and police. But it can bring divisiveness in the force when it is done with favouritism. By Umaru Fofana