Sierra Leone: In the News & Off The Record

Michael von der Schulenburg's report to the Security Council at the United Nations on March 22, 2012 sent shock waves around the blogosphere last week. Schulenberg's long-awaited speech at the end of his assignment to Sierra Leone as executive representative of the Secretary-General didn't disappoint.

First, he shared fond memories of the people—their warmth, openness and directness. Then he praised  the successes Sierra Leone has made over the last decade and contributions of the two previous governments led by former president Ahmad Tejan-Kabbah and President Ernest Bai Koroma. Next up for recognition were the contributions of Sierra Leone's traditional leaders, faith community leaders, civil society organizations, journalists and musicians.

Schulenberg also put human faces to what he called the "tremendous traumas that 17 years of one-party rule, 13 military coups and finally eleven years of civil war have left behind." He recalled young people who still held hope of finding members of their family still missing a decade after the war that ended in 2002; those still haunted by dark memories of what they suffered at the hands of their abductors: stolen childhood, stolen lives and blighted bodies. Schulenberg spoke of his personal security guard, who chose to defend his daughter from being taken by rebel forces and was penalized by having both his hands hacked off with a machete. He also spoke of the amputee footballers who play on the beaches of Freetown every Saturday who had their limbs cut off during the war when they were small children. Through it all, the human dignity of the war survivors he encountered had left him with a great sense of admiration and deep sense of humility.

Although the Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Integrated Peace building Office in Sierra Leone (covering the six-month period from 1 September 2011 to 29 February 2012) noted the “considerable progress” in consolidating peace and laying a foundation for development, it sounded a warning about the ramp up of political violence across the country and tensions between supporters of the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) and the major opposition party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP)—in advance of presidential, parliamentary and local council elections planned for November this year.

Against that background, Schulenberg said, he was greatly concerned by reports that the government of Sierra Leone had imported millions of dollars worth of assault weapons in January to equip a recently enlarged paramilitary wing of its police force, known as the Operational Services Division (OSD).

While Sierra Leone was under no arms embargo, he said, its progress in establishing peace and security throughout its territory, along with its relatively low crime rate, made it unclear why the police would need such a shipment.

“Especially this shipment,” Schulenberg added, which, according to a leaked bill of lading, appeared to include heavy machine guns and even grenade launchers. “I would urge the government to clarify these reports, and if true, explain the intended use of these weapons.”

Responding to questions during an exclusive interview in New York with Cocorioko, a leading Sierra Leonean operated online newspaper based in the United States, Sierra Leone's foreign minister, J.B. Dauda, reportedly accused Schulenberg of fear-mongering. According to Cocorioko, Dauda said that the alarm raised by Schulenberg was mischievous.

“Every nation has a right to beef up its security forces,” Cocorioko wrote. “There is no country in the world that is not amassing defensive weapons. No country wants to be taken unawares as it happened to us on March 23, 1991,” Dauda said.

Sierra Leone's civil war (1991-2002) began on 23 March 1991 when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), with support from the special forces of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, intervened in Sierra Leone in an attempt to overthrow the Joseph Momoh government. The resulting war lasted eleven years and enveloped most of the country. Some 50,000 people died in the war in which horrific atrocities were committed. Reports say although there are yet no reliable statistics on the number of amputees and war victims in Sierra Leone it is thought the figure may run into several thousands.

In the Cocorioko interview, the minister also explained that Sierra Leone had an unfortunate experience nineteen years ago when the armed forces were so ill-equipped that they had to abandon the battle field when RUF rebels, led by Foday Sankoh, invaded the country. “We cannot wait until there is war or threat to our national security again before we arm ourselves. We have to beef up our security forces before any attack on our sovereignty."

Minister Dauda also said, according to Cocorioko, that there was no secret around the arms importation because it was routine.

“The arms importation was followed by the normal documents that follow shipment. Those documents can be got from the Customs Department. There was nothing illegal about it,” the minister is reported to have said.

Commenting on the minister's remarks, a Sierra Leonean observer who spoke off the record, and is long retired from Sierra Leone's civil service, said he sees a  problem with what the minister said.

"For very good security reasons, the military import their arms separately; account for them separately and are not subject to requirements of  the National Procurement Act," he stated. “That way, what we kit our army with is not known to potential enemies.

"Secondly,"he added, "the army is funded separately from a fund not subject to the usual requirements of Audit and it is ring-fenced. Not so for the police who, while operationally independent, are part of the Ministry of Internal Security. So we talk here about two totally separate entities."

The observer went on to explain that in the bill of lading referred to by Schulenberg, the Consignee was the Inspector General of police, indicating that the arms were for the police.

“The items landed in Sierra Leone and, on the last page of the landing documents, they were accounted for, all six hundred boxes, and stamped Accountant General’s Stores Dept. The presumption must therefore be that indeed,  the IG [inspector general of the police] received them,” he said.

Responding to Schulenberg’s other allegation that there was an expansion of the Operational Services Division (OSD) of the police, Foreign Minister Dauda told Cocorioko that too was routine. “We have to increase the size of the police to be able to deploy throughout the country if there was any threat to the peace and security of the nation. As a government , we have a duty to ensure that we are able to respond swiftly and efficiently to threats to our national security. This is what any efficient government that is committed to the welfare of its people does.”

"That being the case," the political observer commented, "I worry about the fact that for instance, Item No. 5 is for grenade launchers—100 of them—and, with a very short range of only 300 meters that is alarming," he said. "It is alarming that the police who are charged with internal security can be armed with grenade launchers which can only be used against its own people.

"Do we really need that when in larger Senegal, where they only had tear gas, water hoses and dummy bullets, six people died ahead of the first round of elections?" he asked.

"These are not the sort of weapons the IG should be taking consignment of. Rocket propelled grenades, of any sort, should not be part of the armory of the police and, because of the nature of military expenditure, he cannot procure them on behalf of the army."

Furthermore, the observer said, Sierra Leone operates a central accounting system in which all real money goes through the Accountant General’s office, which explains why their Stores stamp is on the final document.

"All procurement in Sierra Leone is done under the Procurement Act of 2004 and in S.2 of the Act, procurement entities are defined to include all government-owned bodies including local government. Within each “Procurement Entity,” he said, S.18.1 of the Act establishes a Procurement Committee.

“What you will see from the above is that, it is not possible for the army and police to buy arms jointly not least because the army is not subject to the same rules of accountability and they both have their own separate Committees within their entities. Each Procurement Entity is headed by the head of that department and typically, he is totally involved.

“Therefore, because S.155 of the Constitution establishes the office of the IG as head of the police force, he heads the procurement entity in that force. Sitting on top of him but not subject to them in operational matters is the Police Council – S.157 of the Constitution. I mention this fact because S.158 says thus:

158. (1) The Police Council shall advise the President on all major matters of policy relating to internal security, including the role of the Police Force, Police budgeting and finance, administration and any other matter as the President shall require.

"So the whole activity starts and ends with the IG, and equally so with the Commander of the armed forces who in turn heads the entity in his area and works with the Director of Procurement in the Ministry of Defense. Their entity is unique because they have exemptions from having to follow the universal requirements of the Procurement Act 2004 and in my view, rightly so.

"I am no expert in military matters," the observer concluded, "But I know enough to know that a weapon with a range of only 300 meters even in military terms will be close-arm combat. If they must buy weapons for civilian control, I believe we should be moving to more tear gas and water hoses which is why I believe Schulenberg was right to bring it up and JBD [JB Dauda] has not explained himself especially when you know how the army and police account for expenditure and the source of their funds.”

"When you look at the massive and magnificent developments that this government has undertaken, it would be foolhardy for anybody to think  that this government would go on the path of chaos that will destroy these infrastructure it had labored to put up, ” the Minister pushed back in the Cocorioko interview.

Critics say however that after the civil war, peace, and now democratic dispensation, people of all sorts of description will be going out on the streets more and more and, in circumstances where we know the president has powers to call on Military Aid to Civilian Police, in extremis.

“That is what we should expect and not to kit the police with such lethal weapons.  The police are an internal security force who by definition will have to be facing their own people and killer ammo have no place given our very recent past,” they say.

Next Scheduled Presidential Election: 17 November 2012
Next Scheduled Parliamentary Election: 17 November 2012
Political Parties: APC - All People's Congress,  PMDC - People's Movement for Democratic Change,  RUFP - Revolutionary United Front Party, SLPP - Sierra Leone People's Party, UNPP - United National People's Party


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