Africa Confidential, April 1998SIERRA LEONE | DIAMONDSChronology of Sierra Leone
How diamonds fuelled the conflictPrint this special report
23 March 1991: A motley group of about 100 fighters comprising Sierra Leonean dissidents (mostly former university students), Liberian fighters loyal to Charles Taylor, and a small number of mercenary fighters from Burkina Faso invaded eastern Sierra Leone at Bomaru, Kailahun district. A second flank was opened in Pujehun District by a group entering from the Mano River bridge linking Liberia and Sierra Leone. The RUF was unknown to most Sierra Leoneans at the time; most believed it to be a front organisation for Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia. It was the start of a civil war which has destroyed Sierra Leone's development prospects and led to an almost total dependence upon paid mercenary forces and foreign troops.
Since 1985 Sierra Leone's government had been run by the former head of the military, President Joseph Momoh, a well-meaning drunken womaniser with few political skills or leadership qualities. He had taken over from the ageing Siaka Stevens (a.k.a. Shaking Stevens in his later years), the dominant political figure in the country's post-Independence history.
April 1991: More details emerged about the mysterious rebels who were terrorising Sierra Leone's hinterland. A communiqué announced the rebellion had been started in the name of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) whose leader was Foday Sankoh, an ex-army sergeant and professional photographer in his 50s. The RUF initially waged a war against farmers, villagers and alluvial miners, rather than against the central government in Freetown. The RUF espoused a crude ideology of rural resentment against exploitation; they used brutal tactics to terrorise civilians - often mutilating and amputating their limbs - in their efforts to exploit the inability of the Freetown government to protect its citizens. The rebellion worsened and civilian casualties mounted.
May 1991: Momoh, who knew his own army well, became increasingly worried about the threat the rebel RUF presented to internal security and fearful of the subversion of his own dissatisfied soldiers. Momoh looked towards Britain, the former colonial power, and expected Whitehall to help him out. Ties with Britain had been strong: the Royal Navy had used Freetown's port as a staging post during the Falkands War. Momoh himself had served in the West Africa Frontier Force along with senior British officers during the colonial era. He asked for military advisors to boost the Sierra Leone Army's capacity to deal with the terror threat, and to improve communications and intelligence capacity. Although individual officers were highly sympathetic to Momoh's request for help, the Ministry of Defence turned it down. After this point, officers in the SLA and government officials began to cast around for help from foreign mercenary troops against the RUF rebels.
October l991: There were clear signs that not only was the SLA losing the war against the RUF rebels, but that many of its brigades had become totally demoralised - and some were cooperating with the rebels. The government army was beginning to split into factions which made the RUF's operations (often backed up by intercepts of government intelligence reports) increasingly effective.
January 1992: A series of daring operations by the rebels in the diamond-rich south-east of the country indicated their strategy was to escalate from terrorising civilians to attacking economic targets
March 1992: There were more successful attacks by rebels on government army convoys. Some dissident soldiers appeared to have a secret alliance with the rebels: they were christened 'sobels'- rebels by day and soldiers by night. Morale in the army was deteriorating further.
29 April l992: Junior officers led by 26 year-old Captain Valentine Strasser delivered a démarche to Momoh's office in Freetown complaining about sinking army morale. Momoh, fearing the officers were trying to topple him, fled his office and told his guards to resist with military force. Capt. Strasser and his fellow officers then overwhelmed the guards while their supporters in the north of the city seized the government radio station and declared that the Momoh government had been overthrown.
1 May 1992: Capt. Strasser declared himself head of state (the youngest in the world at the time) and appointed Solomon Musa, another even younger junior officer as his number two. [Both are now in British Foreign Office-financed exile as law students in Britain.] Strasser presented himself as 'The Redeemer' - a reforming, popular figure in stylish fatigues and sun-glasses who would clean up the country's politics and end the rebel war. He initially tried to negotiate with RUF leader Foday Sankoh but several attempts at talks failed because Sankoh's preconditions were unacceptable to the Freetown government.
July 1992: Strasser reorganised the cabinet, replacing most of the military officials with civilians appointees. The idea was to allow the military members of the government to concentrate on winning the rebel war.
November 1992: Strasser decided to launch a major military offensive against the RUF after attempts to negotiate failed. The government army dislodged the RUF from its hold on the alluvial diamond mining areas in south-east Sierra Leone. For some months the rebels were pushed across the border into Liberia.
March 1993: As the war continued, the RUF were helped with military aid and logistics by faction leader Charles Taylor in Liberia. The RUF regrouped and infiltrated into the countryside again, waging an increasingly savage - and increasingly successful - rural revolt and exploiting rural grievances against Strasser's government. Taylor, (now President Taylor of Liberia after elections in mid-l997) had interfered in Sierra Leone since 1990 in order to shore up his own position and counter the influence of the regional power - Nigeria. The Nigerian military presence had supported successive Freetown governments, including Stevens and Momoh. Nigeria, which had a peace-keeping force based in the Liberian capital, Monrovia, moved two battalions of troops to assist Strasser's war efforts against the rebels. Nigeria also based its Alpha Jets at Freetown's Lungi airport from where they flew bombing raids into Liberia against targets occupied by Taylor's forces.
January 1994: The Strasser government launched an army recruitment drive, often signing up poorly-educated youths from the city streets, including orphans and abandoned children from age 12 upwards. The government army grew from 5,000 in l99l to 12,000 men in early l994.
February l995: The situation grew even more desperate when well-organised and ruthless groups of RUF fighters advanced towards the capital. Strasser's government was increasingly dependent upon foreign troops, particularly the 2,000 Nigerian troops stationed near the capital. The SLA was even more grossly ineffective, although it had swollen in size to over 14,000 by l995. Strasser requested further foreign assistance, initially from a group of former British Army Gurkhas, as the rebel war became international news with the capture by the RUF of groups of Western hostages (a group of Italian nuns, British VSOs and expatriate mine workers). The Channel Islands-based Gurkha Security Group, despite their fearsome reputation, proved ineffective. They got off to a poor start, embroiled in a road ambush in rural Sierra Leone. The RUF killed their Canadian commander, Colonel Robert MacKenzie, and other troops in February l995. The 50 Gurkha soldiers departed soon afterwards.
March 1995: Strasser then invited in the South African private security force, Executive Outcomes. By that stage the RUF rebels were less than 20 miles from the capital, although their hold on the rest of the country outside of the main diamond mining areas was intermittent. The RUF then had control of and was asset-stripping most of the mining operations in the country: diamonds, rutile and bauxite. This hit the government's revenue base. EO started by initiating training programmes for the army. EO was run by Eeben Barlow, formerly of the 32nd Battalion of the South African Special Forces, which was active in South Africa's destabilisation policy against its neighbours in the l980s. Many key figures in EO are also from the 32nd Battalion and served in covert operations in Angola and Mozambique. Barlow left EO in l997 but maintains close links with Sierra Leone, Sandline and its affiliated mining house, DiamondWorks, in which he has shares. EO's initial operation involved defending Freetown in collaboration with Nigerian and Ghanaian troops, at a time when it was felt that the capital would fall to the RUF and many expatriates were leaving. A bloody fight on the outskirts of Freetown in May l995 - less than 15 miles away with the gunfire clearly heard in central Freetown - led to a retreat by the RUF despite their pincer-movement attack with thousands of well-armed fighters. EO's operations in Sierra Leone were highly controversial. Many thought that because of their South African connections they were - in effect - sent by Nelson Mandela.
December 1995: EO expanded their operations into rural Sierra Leone, re-taking the diamond mining areas by the end of l995. And EO provided the security which enabled internal refugees to return home. They also started to co-operate with one of the rural militias (the Kamajors) which had emerged to provide a local defence force in the absence of help from the incompetent and corrupt government army. EO's assistance helped the ethnically-based Kamajors (their members were Mendes from the largest ethnic group) to become a powerful fighting and political force; they provided training and logistical support for the militia under the command of Hinga Norman.
Early January 1996: EO also retook the Sierra rutile mine, although the plant was looted by an SLA contingent led by Johnny Paul Koroma. In concert with the Nigerian troops, EO took the war to the RUF, fighting the RUF in its rural redoubt in the Kangari Hills in early l996. Sankoh's forces were badly defeated in a series of set-piece' encounters and quickly initiated peace negotiations with Strasser. Elections were scheduled, after British and American pressure, for 25 February 1996.
16 January 1996: Brigadier General Julius Maada-Bio overthrew Strasser who, he claims, was clinging to power. Many suspected Maada-Bio's motives: his sister, Agnes Deen Jalloh, was a senior member of the rebel RUF. But Maada Bio insisted he would go ahead with the elections as planned and that he did not aim to prolong military rule. He was close to Nigerian military leader Gen. Sani Abacha who had advised him to postpone the handover to civilian rule. Freetown's market women, suspicious that Maada-Bio was conspiring with local politicians to delay the handover to civilian rule, marched through the city and threatened to expose those politicians who had received bribes from the military to postpone the elections.
26 February 1996: Presidential and legislative elections were held, contested by 13 political parties and monitored by international observers. None of the presidential candidates won the required percentage of votes in the first round of the polls.
15 March 1996: In the second round of voting in presidential elections Ahmad Tejan Kabbah leader of the southern-based Sierra Leonean People's Party was elected President with 59.9 per cent of the votes; but the runner-up, John Karefa-Smart, leader of the northern-based United National People's Party, complained of widespread fraud. Kabbah, a self-effacing former UN diplomat who had been out of the country for many years, agreed to keep on the foreign security companies, including South Africa's EO, Britain's Defence Systems Limited, and local affiliates such as Lifeguard (which EO director Eeben Barlow says he owns) and Teleservices. Under Kabbah, EO's training programme for the Kamajors intensified and the militia became an increasingly important force, militarily and politically. Kabbah appointed former Kamajor leader, Hinga Norman, as Deputy Minister of Defence
July 1996: Criticism mounted at the slow pace of change under the Kabbah government. His decision to use the Kamajors as a de facto Presidential guard made him very unpopular with the army, which was increasingly factionalising into loyGlist and pro-rebel groups. Matters were made worse by Kabbah's announcement that he was planning a dramatic reduction in the size of the forces and a retraining programme. Kabbah's critics argued he was kept in power only by the combination of an ethnic militia, South African mercenaries and Nigerian troops.
August 1996: With the Nigerian troops in l996, EO took the war to the RUF: fighting the RUF in its rural redoubt in the southern Kangari Hills in early l996. Sankoh's forces were badly defeated in a series of encounters. They then proposed peace negotiations with Freetown. Sankoh offered serious negotiations and the recognition of Kabbah's government on condition that the EO troops be withdrawn. London-based International Alert positioned itself as a mediator for the RUF, handing out copies of Sankoh's ideological pamphlets to puzzled journalists. International Alert tried to organise talks between the RUF and Kabbah in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire.
September 1996: A public row erupted about the cost of the EO contract to the Kabbah government. EO was charging US$ 1.8 mn a month for the services of less than a hundred personnel, along with two Russian Mi 17 helicopters and logistics. Freetown politicians complained that EO were exacerbating the civil conflict and that there were covert elements in its fees which meant the government was paying well above the US$1.8 mn monthly fee it had declared. There were growing allegations that individuals linked to EO were engaged in illegal diamond extraction and export. The International Monetary Fund, which was pressuring the government to cut spending, told it to reduce payments to EO and improve accountability in the mining sector. Kabbah renegotiated EO's fee down to US$ 1.2 mn. But independent sources reported that the Kabbah government still owed Executive Outcomes US$30 mn in arrears.
October 1996: Reports of its heavy fees and activities in the diamond fields turned public opinion against EO, Lifeguard and the mining companies it was linked to as well. EO's arrival in Sierra Leone had preceded the rapid expansion of the Isle of Man-registered Branch Energy's activities in Sierra Leone's mining sector. Branch Energy's Managing Director, Alan Paterson, was formerly head of Sierra Leone's National Diamond Mining Company. Branch Energy (in which Kabbah's government had a 30 per cent stake) said it had invested US$12 mn. in exploratory mining between 1994-96 - a period in which almost all the other mining companies pulled out. Branch Energy was taken over by Canada's Carson Gold in August 1996; and later that year Vancouver-based DiamondWorks bought 100 per cent of the Branch Energy stake.
November 1996: A peace agreement was signed in Abidjan between the Kabbah government and the RUF. An important provision of the agreement was that EO would leave Sierra Leone by January 1997. But EO's affiliate company, Lifeguard, which was registered in Sierra Leone, renewed its security contracts with several mining companies.
January 1997: Executive Outcomes formally withdrew from Sierra Leone. The Kabbah government established a power-sharing multi-party cabinet. The rebel RUF was also supposed to participate indirectly in government through a series of peace, reconciliation and demobilisation commissions. But Kabbah's administration was damaged by indecision and drift. Worst of all was its handling of the military. The army was due to be substantially reduced in size under a plan drawn up by British military advisors. Junior officers were accused of a number of coup attempts in late l996 and early 1997. Kabbah was increasingly reliant on the Kamajor militias for his security and ever more distant from the SLA. The Nigerian army maintained two battalions of troops in Freetown.
February 1997: Kabbah announced that a Nigerian-led security investigation had pinpointed members of the previous Maada-Bio government as coup plotters. RUF leader Foday Sankoh flew to Nigeria, apparently on an official mission. But he was arrested soon after his arrival and held under surveillance in the Sheraton Hotel, Abuja.
April 1997: After a row within the main opposition party, the UNPP, the government suspended its leader, Karefa-Smart, from parliament for a year.
25 May l997: Major Johnny Paul Koroma,33, led a successful coup d'etat against the Kabbah government. Kabbah's Nigerian and Kamajor guards appear to have been surprised and the President was airlifted out to Conakry in neighbouring Guinea. Maj. Koroma was a poorly educated soldier who had been over-promoted with the rapid army expansion of the early l990s. Fearful that he would be dismissed when the army was 'down-sized', he had already been implicated in one coup plot. Earlier Koroma had also been involved in corrupt accumulation, including asset-stripping of the rutile mining operation. He put together a ramshackle military junta amidst widespread popular unrest against his intervention. Dressed in a tee-shirt and baseball cap, barely articulate, he made an unprepossessing head of state. After the coup, there were days of looting by soldiers who commandeered cars and persecuted members of Tejan Kabbah's party. The Ministry of Finance was torched.
28 May 1997: An attempt by Nigerian troops to oust the Koroma junta ended in fiasco after Nigerian troops and foreigners were trapped in the Mammy Yoko Hotel in Freetown and surrounded by junta forces. Some South African soldiers working with Lifeguard fought alongside the Nigerians to try to force back the junta soldiers. Foday Sankoh gave interviews to the BBC from his hotel room in Abuja, praising the overthrow of Kabbah. Koroma declared that Sankoh was the ideological leader of his coup; Nigerian officials moved Sankoh from the Sheraton Hotel to a local security installation. British High Commissioner to Freetown Peter Penfold successfully escorted several hundred foreigners out of the city after negotiating with junta officials and threatening (without any likelihood of it happening) that US troops would intervene unless the foreigners were let through.
1 June 1997: Maj. Koroma invited the rebel RUF to join his junta and the feared RUF fighters came to town to misrule in the name of the merged 'People's Army'. Koroma's junta was internationally isolated, an unstable, brutal, populist regime. Its main military challenge was from the Kamajors and from the Nigerian troops who maintained their military bases north of Freetown and on Lungi Island.
July 1997: Kabbah was described as a 'rabbit caught in a car's headlights' at the time of the coup by one of his associates. Invited to set up a government in exile in Conakry he failed to do so. Instead he was surrounded by a group of Sierra Leonean politicians of dubious credibility, Nigerian military advisors and security men. Also spending time in Conakry were a group of supportive UN and international community figures - and British High Commissioner Penfold. Nigeria moved 4,000 troops from its operations in Liberia to Freetown.
Kabbah then opened discussions with Indian-born Thai banker Rakesh Saxena who offered to provide up to $10 million in finance for a counter-coup in return for Sierra Leonean diamond concessions. Saxena contacted Colonel Tim Spicer of Sandline International and commissioned on 3 July an intelligence assessment of the military and political situation in Sierra Leone. Spicer claims that he has a 'very good' relationship with Kabbah and with the Nigerian-led Ecomog force; he asked Saxena for $70,000 for the first week's work and said that further intelligence work would be charged at a rate of $10,000 a week. A four-nation nation committee of Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Ghana was formed by the sub-regional Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas) to negotiate a return to constitutional rule with the Koroma junta. The four-nation Ecowas committee imposed an embargo on military supplies to the Koroma junta; the Nigerian navy mounted a naval blockade of Freetown and told the junta to clear any cargo ship with Ecowas officials first. The UN Security Council met, condemned the coup and endorsed Ecowas measures to resolve the crisis through diplomatic means and sanctions. In Resolution UNSC1132 it imposed a ban on arms shipments to all parties in Sierra Leone.
August 1997: A number of businessmen approached Kabbah with offers to finance an operation to reinstate his civilian government. They included Chief Executive of American Mineral Fields (AMF) Jean-Raymond Boulle, whose company played a key role in financing the successful rebellion against Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaïre earlier in 1997. AMF has a majority stake in Nord resources, a major mining house in Sierra Leone. Among the companies offering security services to Kabbah were Defence Systems Limited and Sandline, both based in London and with strong links to the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence.
September 1997: With Kabbah winning increasing diplomatic support from the British government, there was an invitation to the Commonwealth Conference in Edinburgh in October 1997 - as the guest of Prime Minister Tony Blair - and British government funding for conferences on a 90-day reconstruction plan later that month. Much of this was pushed forward by High Commissioner Penfold, rather than Kabbah and his advisors. British policy was driven as much by enthusiasm to return Kabbah and a constitutional government to power in Sierra Leone as by concern that Nigeria's Gen. Abacha was posing (bizarrely) as a guardian of democracy in Sierra Leone. Also Whitehall fearred that the Abacha regime had plans for a type of pro-consul role in Sierra Leone if it was able to restore Kabbah to power.
October 1997: Nigeria's Foreign Minister Tom Ikimi stepped up his country's diplomatic role after the Nigerian navy and Air Force had tightened the embargo on Freetown. The Koroma junta accused the Nigerian air force of bombing civilian targets. Liberian soldiers detained a plane at Spriggs Payne Airport, Monrovia, which was found to be carrying several South African mercenaries working for EO, some Kamajor militia men and assorted arms and military equipment. After pressure from Nigerian troops in the Ecowas peace-keeping operation in the country, the Liberian officials released the plane. President Charles Taylor and most of his cabinet had remained highly sympathetic to the Koroma junta.
Another round of negotiations between the Koroma junta and the Ecowas Committee on 22-23 October produced a peace treaty of sorts and a promise by Koroma's ministers that the junta would hand over to civilians by 22 April 1998. Nigeria lauded this as a great diplomatic breakthrough and requested an invitation to the Commonwealth Conference in Edinburgh on 24-27 October (Nigeria's membership of the Commonwealth was suspended in November 1995 after its military government executed Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other Ogoni activists). Kabbah attended the Commonwealth meeting, yet his officials admitted they had no knowledge of the Nigerian-brokered deal with Koroma and were skeptical about its viability.
November 1997: Several plans for the ousting of the Koroma regime were floated. Efforts were made to interest South African officials in the plan and to win the Organisation for African Unity's backing. A secret mission to South Africa ended in fiasco after a Nigerian plane and its crew are impounded on landing at a military airbase near Pretoria. South Africa declined a request to provide air-logistical support for a Nigerian operation to oust Koroma; Pretoria's military advisors feared huge casualties in Freetown should such an operation have gone ahead.
December 1997: After discussions with Penfold, a meeting is arranged between Kabbah and Sandline International. They propose a plan to Kabbah and financier Boulle for the ousting of Koroma. But Boulle, a commercial rival of DiamondWorks, was unconvinced. Instead Rakesh Saxena made a definitive offer to finance the overthrow of Koroma, following his receipt of intelligence submitted by Tim Spicer in August. Saxena paid $1.5 million to Sandline as the first instalment of the operation. His second instalment was held up after Canadian police arrested him in Vancouver on charges of being in possession of a forged Yugoslavian passport.
28 January 1998: Penfold visited Sandline's Office in Kings Road, Chelsea for a briefing on the development of its military plan in Sierra Leone.
February 1998: A Nigerian-backed offensive by the Kamajors began in south-east Sierra Leone. Sandline provided intelligence and logistical support for the operation and flew an attack helicopter in the area. President Taylor accused Nigerian troops in Ecomog of transiting South African mercenaries across his territory. The Ecowas Committee of Four, led by Tom Ikimi, travelled to New York to brief the UN Security Council about progress on negotiations with the Koroma junta and the prospects for its handing over by 22 April. When questioned about reports of a Nigerian led-offensive against the Koroma junta, Ikimi denied it and dismissed the fighting as isolated skirmishes. No attempt was made to inform the Security Council about what was really going on in Sierra Leone or to seek its endorsement. As such the operation to oust Koroma was illegal under the terms of the UN resolution. However, within days Nigerian-led Ecomog troops launched an assault on Freetown.
15 February 1998: The Koroma junta was put to flight after less than a week of fighting in Freetown and Nigerian troops took over the government in Freetown, saying they had to stabilise the security situation before Kabbah's return. A British Foreign Office official expressed disappointment that the Nigerian forces didn't inform the UN Security Council of what they were up to as they would 'probably' have won approval for the plan. When asked at a Foreign Office reception what he thought of the Nigerian-led ousting of the Koroma junta, Minister of State for Africa Tony Lloyd replied 'Two cheers'.
2 March: The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group met in London about the situation in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Lloyd insisted that the Nigerian action in Freetown was illegal but Ghanaian Foreign Minister Victor Gbeho said it was fully backed by Ecowas and that the Commonwealth should support it.
6 March 1998: The newsletter Africa Confidential published a report on the detailed planning between Sandline, Kabbah and Nigerian forces and on the financing of the counter-coup and it pointed to the involvement of Penfold as a key player in the plan. Africa Confidential said that the way Koroma was ousted had raised awkward questions for Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's 'ethical foreign policy' and its ban on military cooperation with Abacha's government. Later that day the Foreign Office confirmed that Penfold had met with Sandline about Sierra Leone.
10 March 1998: British Customs & Excise launched an investigation into Sandline's role in Sierra Leone, in particular claims that it had illegally shipped arms there.
12 March 1998: In a parliamentary debate on Sierra Leone, Tony Lloyd made no reference to the ongoing customs investigation into allegedly illegal arms shipments to Sierra Leone, the foreknowledge of his officials about the counter-coup or the involvement of Sandline. Instead he condemned press reports as 'scurrilous' and 'ill-informed'.
30 March 1998: Andrew Breaden, an inspector with the British Customs intelligence unit requested a meeting with Sandline Director Michael Grunberg about possible illegal arms shipments to Sierra Leone.
3 April 1998: Customs investigators searched Sandline's premises at 535 Kings Road, London and two of Spicer's houses. They took away paper and computer records relating to the Sierra Leone operation. Customs investigators requested Guernsey-based Hansard Management, which handles Sandline's administrative and financial affairs, to hand over documentation relating to the company's security operations.
24 April 1998: Sandline's solicitors, S J Berwin & Co, wrote to Foreign Secretary Cook on behalf of Spicer and Grunberg to complain of harassment by British Customs about arms shipments to Sierra Leone. The letter argues that from the beginning its operations in Sierra Leone were known about by both Foreign Office officials in Whitehall and High Commissioner Penfold in Freetown.