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Where Angels Fear to Tread

Sierra Leone, the last Clinton betrayal.

Even for the Clinton administration, it was an extraordinary lie. “The United States did not pressure anybody to sign this agreement,” State Department spokesman Philip Reeker proclaimed at a press briefing in early June. “We neither brokered the Lomé peace agreement nor leaned on Sierra Leonean President Kabbah to open talks with the insurgents... It was not an agreement of ours.” Observers were stunned. The dishonesty, said one Capitol Hill Africa specialist, was “positively Orwellian.”

Orwellian because the peace agreement signed in Lomé, Togo—an agreement that forced the democratic president of Sierra Leone to hand over much of his government and most of his country’s wealth to one of the greatest monsters of the late twentieth century—was conceived and implemented by the United States. It was Jesse Jackson, Bill Clinton’s special envoy to Africa, who in late 1998 pressed President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to “reach out” to Foday Sankoh—a man who built his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) by systematically kidnapping children and forcing them to murder their parents. In May 1999, the United States, led by Jackson, brokered and signed a cease-fire agreement between the government and the RUF. In June, U.S. officials drafted entire sections of the accord that gave Sankoh Sierra Leone’s vice presidency and control over its diamond mines, the country’s major source of wealth. U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone Joseph Melrose even shuttled back and forth between Lomé and Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, to cajole the reluctant Kabbah. In March 2000, after the accord was signed, American officials hosted repeated meetings at the U.S. embassy to carry it out.

Barely any of this made the American press. And then this May, when the RUF took hostage 500 of the U.N. peacekeepers meant to supervise Lomé’s implementation—simultaneously detonating the agreement and catapulting it onto the front page—the United States washed its hands of the whole thing. Said Reeker on June 5, “We were not part of that agreement.”

The Clinton administration’s Africa policy will probably go down as the strangest of the postcolonial age; it may also go down as the most grotesque. In dealing with Africa, previous U.S. administrations were largely unsentimental. Africa was too poor to affect the U.S. economy, too alien to command a powerful domestic lobby, too weak to threaten American security. As a result, past presidents spoke about Africa modestly and not very often.

Not Bill Clinton. He has proclaimed frequently and passionately that Africa matters. He has insisted that black suffering has as great a claim on the American conscience as white suffering. He has vowed that the United States will no longer be indifferent. These words have borne no relation whatsoever to the reality of his administration’s policy. Indeed, confronted with several stark moral challenges, the Clinton administration has abandoned Africa every time: it fled from Somalia, it watched American stepchild Liberia descend into chaos, it blocked intervention in Rwanda. But Clinton’s soaring rhetoric has posed a problem that his predecessors did not face—the problem of rank hypocrisy. And so, time and again, the imperative guiding his administration’s Africa policy has been the imperative to appear to care. Unwilling to commit American blood and treasure to save African lives, and unwilling to admit that they refuse to do so, the Clintonites have developed a policy of coercive dishonesty. In Rwanda, afraid that evidence of the unfolding genocide would expose their inaction, they systematically suppressed it. And in Sierra Leone, unwilling to take on a rebel group that was maiming and slaughtering civilians by the thousands, the Clintonites insisted that all the rebels truly wanted was peace and a seat at the negotiating table.

Abandoning Africans is nothing new. But the Clinton administration has gone further. It has tried to deny them the reality of their own experience, to bludgeon them into pretending that the horrors around them do not truly exist—so that they won’t embarrass the American officials who proclaim so eloquently that their fates are inextricably linked to our own.

SIERRA LEONE, a former British colony whose capital was founded in the late eighteenth century by freed slaves, was a pretty nasty place even before the birth of the Revolutionary United Front. After an initial bout with democracy upon gaining independence in 1961, it slid into dictatorship and kleptocracy and stayed there through the 1970s and ’80s—consistently near the bottom in world rankings of infant mortality, per capita income, and life expectancy.

So the outside world barely noticed when, in 1991, a group of about 100 guerrillas launched a campaign to take over the country. But the RUF—backed by Charles Taylor, a warlord in neighboring Liberia—quickly established itself as a rather unusual rebel group. For one thing, it had no discernible political philosophy or agenda. For another, it was almost unimaginably brutal. Typically, RUF troops would enter a village and round up its children. Girls as young as ten would be raped. Boys would be forced to execute village elders and sometimes even their own parents, thus cutting themselves off from their past lives and beginning their absorption into their new rebel “family.” Once children were conscripted, their loyalty was maintained through drugs—they were injected with speed, which numbed their sensitivity to violence and rendered them dependent on their adult suppliers—and violence. When conscripts tried to escape, RUF leaders amputated their limbs. Refugees even accused the RUF of cannibalism.

For several years after its initial invasion, the group terrorized the Sierra Leonean countryside, periodically closing in on Freetown and being pushed back by a succession of military dictators. And then, in 1996, something remarkable happened—a burgeoning civil-society movement, backed by the United States and led largely by women’s groups, rose up against Sierra Leone’s military overlords and cleared the way for the country’s first presidential elections since 1967. The RUF did its best to keep people from the polls—chopping off the hands of would-be voters—but almost two-thirds of the electorate cast ballots nonetheless, electing as president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a longtime U.N. official. After the election, hundreds of Sierra Leoneans danced outside the U.S. embassy in Freetown in gratitude for America’s support.

The euphoria did not last long. In May 1997, 14 months after Kabbah’s election, disgruntled government soldiers—known as “sobels” because of their collaboration with the rebels—staged a coup, forcing Kabbah into exile in Guinea. The coup leaders invited the RUF into their junta, suspended Sierra Leone’s constitution, emptied Freetown’s prison of its worst criminals, and literally held the city’s residents hostage, placing artillery in the hills around the capital and threatening to bombard the civilians below if removed from power.

No one expected the United States to send troops to restore democracy; this was, after all, Africa. But it didn’t need to. Nigeria, a country that long fancied itself the region’s hegemon, already had its own intervention force in Sierra Leone under the auspices of an organization called ECOMOG, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group.

While Nigeria, a country in perpetual economic crisis, spent some $1 million per day battling the criminal regime in Freetown, several mid-level State Department Africa hands began lobbying their superiors to request funds from Congress to bolster ECOMOG’s work. But the administration refused, saying such a request was pointless because Congress would say no. And, while the Clintonites were right that the Republican Congress wasn’t usually enamored of foreign aid, the struggle for Sierra Leone might have offered the administration an opportunity to put its vaunted commitment to Africa into action. Indeed, several sympathetic members of Congress—Republicans and Democrats—even urged the State Department to challenge Congress to rise to the occasion. But the challenge never came. “It was totally bizarre,” says one person with knowledge of the internal squabbling. “A decision was made that the State Department was just not going to ask for it.”

IN FACT, not only did the Bureau of African Affairs not request additional money from Congress, it didn’t even spend the money Congress had already given it. For months, $3.9 million sat unspent in the bureau's budget for voluntary peacekeeping operations. In February 1998, ECOMOG liberated Freetown and restored Kabbah to power—proving that the RUF's child soldiers were no match for a bona fide adult military. As the rebels streamed back into the countryside, the Nigerians saw an opportunity to finish them off for good. But ECOMOG lacked the resources to take the war into the Sierra Leonean hinterland, and still no money came from the Clinton administration. “The only way they ECOMOG soldiers could eat is because the people of Sierra Leone gave them food and places to sleep,” says one U.S. official. By spring, the window of opportunity had closed. The RUF, freshly resupplied by Liberia, was back on the offensive with a campaign of systematic killing, mutilating, and raping called Operation No Living Thing. In late May, long after it could have made a real difference, the administration finally allocated the $3.9 million to ECOMOG.

Nigeria, visibly tiring of its proxy war, began to look for a way out, and the United States faced an even starker version of the same dilemma it had confronted all along. It could make a major financial and political commitment, in conjunction with the Nigerians or others, to save a fledgling democratic government too weak to save itself. Or it could abandon that government, leaving Sierra Leone to Sankoh and his child butchers—because, after all, Sierra Leone did not remotely affect America’s vital national interest. The Clintonites, typically, did neither. Against all the evidence that Sierra Leone could be saved from the RUF only through war, the Clinton administration set out to make peace.

In early spring 1998, a group of U.S. policymakers gathered on the sixth floor of the State Department to plot strategy. One senior official summarized their goal: “We need to appear to be doing something.”

To make peace with Foday Sankoh and the RUF, the Clintonites had to go through Sankoh’s political godfather, Liberian dictator Charles Taylor. Taylor and Sankoh attended the same school—a Libyan secret-service camp known as al- Mathabh al-Thauriya al-Alamiya (World Revolutionary Headquarters), a sort of university for revolutionary guerrillas from all over Africa. When they met, Taylor had recently returned from the United States, where he had escaped from a prison in Plymouth, Massachusetts, while awaiting extradition back to Liberia on charges of embezzlement. Sankoh, imprisoned in the ’70s for his role in plotting a coup, had been working as an itinerant photographer in the Sierra Leonean countryside. Each man dreamed of overthrowing his native government, and they pledged to help each other do so.

Taylor got his chance first, on Christmas Eve 1989, when he launched a civil war that would become a model for Sankoh’s a year and a half later. One of Taylor’s first military innovations was his creation of the Small Boys Unit, a battalion of intensely loyal child soldiers who were fed crack cocaine and referred to Taylor as “our father.” Soon, refugees from the Liberian countryside began recounting stories of horrific cruelty. Taylor’s soldiers were seeking out pregnant women and placing bets on the sex of their unborn children. Then they would rip open the women’s wombs and tear out the babies to see who was right. Evidence of cannibalism also began to trickle out. One soldier told Reuters, “We rip the hearts from their living bodies and put them on the fire, then eat them.” A Liberian human rights organization claimed cannibalism in Taylor- controlled territory was so widespread that “there is fear of persecution based on one’s fitness for consumption.” Taylor’s own defense minister accused him of taking part in the practice himself.

BY 1991, Liberia looked a lot like Sierra Leone would look seven years later. Troops from ECOMOG defended a weak government in the capital, Monrovia, while Taylor controlled the other 90 percent of the country. Taylor developed a vast warlord economy, selling off Liberia’s minerals and raw materials, trafficking in hashish, and reportedly reaping an annual income of about $250 million. But he wanted to expand his lucrative empire even further—to include the diamond mines just across the border in Sierra Leone. What’s more, he wanted revenge against Sierra Leone, which had served as a base for the ECOMOG troops that were preventing his total victory in Liberia.

So he kept his deal with Sankoh. In March 1991, a number of Taylor’s fiercest fighters accompanied Sankoh and the fledgling RUF into Sierra Leone, where they headed straight for the diamond mines. Taylor appointed Sankoh “governor of Sierra Leone,” and his soldiers jokingly referred to Sierra Leone as their Kuwait. Sankoh frequently visited Taylor at his headquarters in the Liberian town of Gbarnga.

And then in 1996, with Liberia in ashes and 13 failed peace agreements—“Taylor reneged on all of them,” says a former senior State Department official—Taylor offered his Sierra Leonean protege the ultimate lesson in the politics of terror: he took power. Taylor agreed to stand for election. He had the largest army and the most money, and he made it clear that if he did not win, he would resume the killing. A country exhausted by war elected him president. During the run- up to the vote, Taylor’s child soldiers took to the streets, chanting what became his unofficial campaign slogan: “He killed my pa. He killed my ma. I’ll vote for him.”

TO BRING “PEACE” to Sierra Leone, the Clinton administration first had to show that Sankoh and Taylor were men with whom one could legitimately do business. “Their whole policy was to 'mainstream' them—that was the word used by someone at State,” explains an aide to the House International Relations Committee. “ ‘If you treat Sankoh like a statesman, he’ll be one.’ ... A State Department official used the term to explain what they had done with Taylor and what they were trying to do with Foday Sankoh.” In Jesse Jackson, appointed “Special Envoy for the President and Secretary of State for the Promotion of Democracy in Africa” in October 1997, Washington had the ideal man for the job.

Jackson first met the Liberian dictator on an official trip to West Africa in February 1998. Taylor, worried that Jackson, like prior American diplomats, would hector him about human rights, invited an old Liberian friend of Jackson’s named Romeo Horton to brief him on America’s new envoy. Horton says Jackson and Taylor’s meeting went extremely well. “Instead of meeting an adversary,” says Horton, Taylor “met a friend.” The following month, when Clinton touredAfrica, Jackson arranged a 30-minute phone call between the two leaders from Air Force One. Upon returning home, Jackson organized a conference on “reconciliation” for Liberians at his PUSH headquarters in Chicago. According to Harry Greaves Jr., co-founder of a Liberian opposition party, who attended the Chicago conference, “The message was, ‘Taylor’s been elected, and let’s give him a chance.’ It’s all about p.r., and Jackson is part of that campaign.” As Leslie Cole, an old friend of Taylor’s, wrote to the new president soon after Jackson’s conference, “Getting Jesse on the bandwagon was a good and smart idea.”

So it’s not surprising that by the time Jackson began the diplomatic push that would lead to Lomé, he and Taylor were giving the same advice to the democratic government of Sierra Leone: Cut a deal with the RUF. In November 1998, Jackson traveled to West Africa again, meeting with Taylor and Kabbah in Guinea and then, in Freetown, with Kabbah alone. During his five- hour stop in Sierra Leone, Jackson, who arrived just days after fresh reports that the RUF was beheading children and disemboweling pregnant women, urged Kabbah to make concessions to the rebels. “The government must reach out to these RUF in the bush battlefield,” Jackson told Sierra Leonean leaders. Much of Freetown believed otherwise. “Think again, Jackson, the RUF is not a civilised body to be trusted,” implored one prominent newspaper. A local journalist asked Jackson why he was telling Sierra Leoneans to negotiate with the RUF when the public was against it. “I remember very clearly what he said,” says Zainab Bangura, a prominent member of Freetown’s democracy movement. “ ‘That is what leadership is about: to mold public opinion, not to follow public opinion.’” Sierra Leone’s current ambassador to the United States, John Leigh, remembers Jackson’s trip well. “When he went to Sierra Leone in 1998,” Leigh says, “what he was doing was pushing Charles Taylor’s position.”

Seven weeks after Jackson departed, as Bangura put it recently, “All hell broke loose.” The “hell” was the January 1999 RUF assault on Freetown, which, hard as it is to believe, set a new standard for rebel atrocities. Capitalizing on ECOMOG’s weariness, the RUF marched into the capital surrounded by a human shield of civilians that prevented the Nigerians from launching an effective counterattack. Divided into squads with names like “Burn House Unit,” “Cut Hands Commandos,” and “Kill Man No Blood Unit” (the last group specialized in beating people to death without spilling blood), the RUF burned down houses with their occupants still inside, hacked off limbs, gouged out eyes with knives, raped children, and gunned down scores of people in the streets. In three weeks, the RUF killed some 6,000 people, mostly civilians. When the rebels were finally forced from the city by an ECOMOG counterattack, they burned down whole blocks as they left and abducted thousands of children, boys and girls who would become either soldiers or sex slaves.

Incredibly, the Clintonites didn’t abandon their efforts to “mainstream” the RUF in the weeks following the attack; they intensified them. In February, just weeks after the assault, the State Department hosted the RUF’s “legal representative,” Omrie Golley, for talks in Washington. While Golley was at the State Department, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Howard Jeter organized a phone call between him and Kabbah, establishing the first formal contact between the government and the rebels. Golley remembers the experience fondly. In contrast to the British, who he says treated his group with disdain, Golley gushes that he “was always very impressed with the American approach to the whole conflict.”

GOLLEY ALSO MET with New Jersey Representative Donald Payne, probably the most important member of Congress on Africa policy. Within the Congressional Black Caucus, it is common knowledge that members take their cues on Africa from Payne. And, given the overriding importance of domestic politics—particularly domestic racial politics—on the Clinton administration's Africa policy, Payne wields substantial influence.

Among Capitol Hill Africa specialists, Payne’s sympathy for Taylor and Sankoh is the stuff of legend. In February 1999, for instance, after his meeting with Golley, Payne wrote to Kabbah imploring him to pursue negotiations with Sankoh, who had been temporarily captured by the government and was actually awaiting execution for treason, even while the RUF continued the war. “Successful negotiations must be without precondition and include the permanent release of Mr. Foday Sankoh,” Payne wrote. “That letter is exactly what Charles Taylor was saying at the same time in Liberia. He was saying Sankoh should be freed,” says Ambassador Leigh. “That letter that Payne wrote to President Kabbah is exactly the type of agreement that the State Department pressed Kabbah to accept.” And, indeed, Sankoh was released as part of the run-up to Lomé.

On the House Africa Subcommittee, where Payne is the ranking Democrat, both Republican and Democratic staff members say he has bashed ECOMOG and questioned whether Taylor was really aiding the RUF. In May of last year, Payne fought to remove from a resolution language accusing Liberia and other countries of supporting the rebels, even after the State Department formally acknowledged that Taylor “continues to actively support the rebels in Sierra Leone, including the provision of arms and ammunition.” Says one Democratic aide, “Whenever there is talk of sanctioning Taylor or of threatening Liberia ... Mr. Payne is always the first one to jump to their defense.” Former Liberian Ambassador to the United States Rachel Diggs says Taylor “had free access to Don Payne and Jesse Jackson ... whenever there was a problem, these were the people whose ear Taylor had in the U.S. and who had his ear in Liberia.”

Indeed, Payne’s relationship with Taylor goes back to the early ’80s, when Taylor was in jail in Massachusetts and Payne, then a member of the Newark municipal council, spoke out against his extradition to Liberia. Payne says he was simply helping Taylor at the behest of a friend and didn’t actually meet the Liberian until 1997, when he attended Taylor’s presidential inauguration in Monrovia. But since then the two men have clearly become friends. One visitor to Payne’s office tells of watching the congressman hang up the phone with Taylor and remark that the Liberian president had just told him he was tired of dealing with Jeter, the U.S. envoy for Liberia. (Taylor is known to dislike Jeter, once referring to him as a “burnt-out” diplomat.) Taylor suggested that Payne become the U.S. envoy instead. “What surprised me was that Payne didn’t say anything,” says the visitor. “He seemed flattered.” Payne says he does not remember any such conversation.

At one point, according to an associate of Payne’s, the New Jersey congressman jokingly complained that he was getting so many calls from Taylor that he was tired of talking to him. Payne insists he has talked on the phone to Taylor no more than half a dozen times.

WITHIN THREE MONTHS of Golley’s February 1999 visit to the State Department and the congressional offices of Donald Payne, the phone call initiated by Howard Jeter had led to a government/RUF cease-fire. With striking unanimity, Sierra Leonean intellectuals believe that Kabbah, a rather weak president, agreed to the cease-fire under pressure from Jackson and against the advice of some of his ministers and prominent members of civil society. Days before the cease-fire, Jackson and Kabbah met up in Ghana, where both were attending a conference. From Ghana, Jackson abruptly flew Kabbah to the talks in Lomé, Togo, where the cease-fire agreement was signed. One Freetown newspaper even reported that Kabbah was “kidnapped” by Jackson. “The story was,” explains Zainab Bangura, “that he was kidnapped, because Kabbah went to the conference in Ghana with his finance minister and information minister”—at the time both men were thought to be against signing the agreement—“and they all went to the airport to go to fly to Lomé, and Jesse Jackson said there were no seats for them. So they didn’t go.”

The cease-fire paved the way for the Lomé peace talks themselves. And, once again, the United States took the lead. U.S. Ambassador to Sierra Leone Joseph Melrose was a constant presence at the negotiating table. “They oversaw the whole peace talks,” says Abu Brima, who attended as the leader of a delegation representing Sierra Leonean civil society. “Melrose was very, very active and literally kind of led it, I would say.” Bangura adds: “Every time the talks were about to fall apart, Melrose would fly over to Freetown to pressure the president.” According to Leigh, Melrose’s “job was to soften the Sierra Leonean delegation to accept the agreement.” The Clinton administration even sent a technical team, led by a USAID official named Sylvia Fletcher, that actually drafted parts of the accord.

The final agreement at Lomé, signed on July 7, 1999, awarded the RUF four ministerial posts, made Sankoh vice president, placed him in charge of a new commission to oversee Sierra Leone’s diamonds, and granted the RUF blanket amnesty for all crimes. After the agreement was signed, Fletcher and Melrose held meetings establishing the diamond commission—which included Sankoh, members of Kabbah’s government, and representatives from De Beers and other diamond companies—at the U.S. embassy. As one U.S. government official put it, “The message we sent with Lomé is that you can terrorize your way to power.”

FOR CLOSE TO A YEAR, the Lomé agreement did what the Clinton administration hoped it would do. With articles on pages A17 and A6, respectively, The Washington Post and The New York Times announced the accord and ushered Sierra Leone off their pages—another peace process successfully brokered by an administration committed to the well-being of Africa. As Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Susan Rice bragged last September, “the U.S. role in Sierra Leone ... has been instrumental. With hands-on efforts by the president's special envoy Jesse Jackson, Ambassador Joe Melrose, and many others, the United States brokered the cease-fire and helped steer Sierra Leone's rebels, the Kabbah government, and regional leaders to the negotiating table.”

It probably wouldn’t even have mattered that Sankoh refused to disarm—of the estimated 10,000 children fighting for the RUF, only about 1,700 were turned over to demobilization camps, as required—or that he continued the illicit diamond-trading that Lomé was meant to stop. If Lomé had simply unraveled quietly—even if Sankoh had followed his mentor in Liberia and grabbed complete power himself—it is unlikely that Sierra Leone would have made the American front pages. The Clinton administration would still have accomplished much of what it set out to do at that meeting on the sixth floor of the State Department in spring 1998.

But this May, in an ironic twist of fate, Sierra Leone leapt from the shadows into the world spotlight. Lomé had achieved one of the RUF’s central goals—the exit of the stubborn Nigerians. The U.N. peacekeepers who took their place—sent from countries like India, Jordan, Kenya, and Ghana—were ill-equipped and bound by the timid U.N. rules of engagement. And, as soon as they ventured into the RUF’s diamond heartland, the rebels stole their weapons and vehicles and held them hostage for several weeks.

The humiliating standoff brought Lomé crashing down in full public view. And U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s desperate appeals for Western countries to send troops to reinforce his peacekeepers called global attention to the very point the Clinton administration had worked so hard to conceal: its unwillingness to sacrifice anything real on behalf of the people of Sierra Leone. Instead of soldiers, the United States once again sent Jesse Jackson. But, by this time, Jackson was so bitterly despised in Freetown that the Sierra Leonean government told him it could not guarantee his safety. One group of prominent Sierra Leonean democracy activists warned Jackson, “Our people will greet your presence in the country with contempt, and we’ll encourage them to mount massive demonstrations in protest.” During a conference call with Freetown leaders in which he tried to explain himself, Jackson was openly attacked as a RUF “collaborator.” His trip to Sierra Leone was canceled.

TODAY, A YEAR after Lomé, the U.N. hostages have finally been freed. Foday Sankoh has even been captured and will likely be tried as a war criminal. President Kabbah’s government is defended by a shaky coalition of citizen militias, government soldiers, former RUF collaborators, U.N. troops, and, most importantly, military advisers from Great Britain—the only Western power to heed Annan’s call. Sankoh’s apparent replacement has been given sanctuary in Liberia by Taylor, who continues to arm the RUF. The rebels still control much of the Sierra Leonean countryside, and there are widespread rumors of an imminent RUF attack on Freetown. If the British leave, an attack is all but certain.

At the National Summit on Africa in February, President Clinton said, “We can no longer choose not to know. We can only choose not to act, or to act. In this world, we can be indifferent, or we can make a difference. America must choose, when it comes to Africa, to make a difference.” Sophisticated people understand what this kind of talk, coming from this administration, means. And the people of Sierra Leone, who now count prostheses as one of their country’s chief imports, have become sophisticated. In fact, in recent months Sierra Leonean exiles in Washington have increasingly allied themselves with Republicans like New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg. It’s a remarkable turn of events, given that Gregg and his ilk are isolationists—men who say forthrightly that America has no important interests in Africa, can’t successfully export its method of government there, and shouldn’t waste blood or money trying. After eight years of the Clinton administration, it seems, the people of Sierra Leone no longer expect very much from the United States. They’re willing to settle for truth.

This article ran in the July 24, 2000 issue of the magazine.