A good British force

John Pilger (18 September) paints a picture of Britain wanting to "recolonise" Sierra Leone to grab the diamond wealth. The reality is that Britain has spent most of the past three years desperately trying to avoid military involvement there, despite equally desperate pleas from Sierra Leonean democrats for the former colonial power to come to their aid. At one point, far from moving in on the diamond wealth, the British, terrified that they might get dragged into the war, backed a shameful peace deal that handed the diamond mines to rebels responsible for widespread atrocities against civilians.

Now British policy has changed, and there is a limited military presence in Freetown, training and advising the government army. That presence is popular with almost everyone except the rebels, whose murderous activities have been condemned by Sierra Leonean pro-democracy groups, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the UN high commissioner for human rights - indeed, almost anyone who has visited the country.

Pilger claims to have found hypocrisy in the actions of the British troops that mounted a military attack on the kidnap gang that seized 11 British soldiers (not to mention dozens of Sierra Leoneans). The gang were, he says, erstwhile allies of the government that Britain backs. This is a parody of the truth. The West Side group is a maverick force as closely allied to the main rebels of the Revolutionary United Front as the government.

The people of Sierra Leone know their government is far from perfect. But, imperfect though President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah may be, he was elected to power. The rebels were not. In 1999, Britain encouraged a reluctant Kabbah to cut a deal with the rebels. The deal failed because the rebels didn't want to share power, but it succeeded in another aim which was, at the time, to avoid sending British or US troops to defend the elected government.

In May this year, 900 British troops suddenly arrived by Chinook helicopter on the Freetown peninsular. I don't know what process in London made Tony Blair change his mind, because I was in the thick of it in Sierra Leone. But I do know that the British soldiers were cheered by the people of Freetown. They came at first under the cover of evacuating British citizens. But it soon became obvious that Brigadier David Richards, the soldier in charge, had a bigger plan. His men and women made a huge difference. They stabilised the situation around the capital, shored up a weak UN force already in place, and began training the Sierra Leonean government army. And then, just as suddenly, a few weeks later, Brigadier Richards and the bulk of his troops announced they were leaving. Now just a few hundred British soldiers remain to train and advise. It was a patrol from this training team that was kidnapped by the "West Side Boys" and that led to the British attack on their jungle camp.

I am as naturally suspicious of British motives in Africa as John Pilger. But not everything fits into the neat pattern set by 19th-century colonialism. I would argue that the British have been a force for good. Far from wanting to recolonise Sierra Leone, they have intervened only tentatively, and on a smaller scale than most Sierra Leoneans would wish.

Mark Doyle
BBC West Africa Correspondent
Abidjan, Ivory Coast

This article first appeared in the 02 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Nightmare on Downing Street