Opala Discusses Sierra Leone's Unrest
Published: Friday, November 3, 2006
Updated: Monday, January 18, 2010 16:01
The international community has invested over a billion dollars in Sierra Leone, but according to Joseph Opala, they may have done more harm than good.
The lecture, entitled "Don´t Give a Fool an Onion to Peel," held this Thursday at the Homer Babbage Library, focused on the deteriorating state of Sierra Leone.
Opala, a history professor at James Madison University, began the talk with the war that erupted there in 1992. That year a group called the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, began raiding rural areas of south and east Sierra Leone, a tiny West African nation of five million people. They raped, pillaged, burned and killed with incredible brutality, becoming what Opala called "thieves and baby killers."
This conflict did not grow out of any divisions within the nation, Opala said. Sierra Leone is amazingly integrated, and the rebels were purely criminal.
Opala lived in Sierra Leone for 17 years, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1975 and later becoming as a history professor. He became a pro-democracy activist after the government fell.
Even while the government was still in power, however, the RUF roamed the country at will. This grew out of what Opala called the government´s disastrous decision to stop paying civil salaries early in the conflict. Police, civil administrators and teachers began stealing everything from desks to medical equipment and charging for once-free services such as education.
"Your basic African 'Kleptocracy,'" Opala said. He described living off of corruption "like a man eating his own fingers."
With the police hamstrung by lack of funds, Opala said a man named Foday Sankoh, whom he likens to murderer and cult leader Charles Manson, assembled a group of followers that grew into an army of thousands of bandits who recruited by kidnapping, drugging and brutalizing men and young boys. Many members of the unpaid army simply joined the bandits.
"A civil war would have been less destructive," Opala said, because then there would have been leadership to control parts of the country.
While in Sierra Leone, Opala said he became convinced the outside world was wrong about the war.
"[The outside world] had no intellectual resource to understand what was going on," Opala said. Many on the right believed the violence was simply caused by "primitive people with a primitive culture," while some on the left, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Black Caucus, believed the RUF were freedom fighters.
Jackson eventually pushed the Clinton administration to recognize the RUF and make Sankoh the Vice President of Sierra Leone, which allowed his followers to pillage the gold and diamond areas more freely. Later, when Jackson went to visit Sierra Leone, his plane was met by an angry mob. Opala, along with many others, spent time trying to convince the government not to cooperate with the RUF and were ignored.
The only positive impact during most of the fighting came from a small number of ill-equipped Nigerian Army troops and a group of South African mercenaries called Executive Outcomes.
Opala told of a firefight between the RUF and the Nigerians he witnessed.
"They put themselves between me and the bandits," he said. The Nigerians were never strong enough to stop the RUF, however, and the mercenaries, who Opala called "real soldiers," were later forced to leave when they lost the support of their corrupt military financiers.
The end of the conflict came, Opala said, when 300 British Special Air services sent by British Prime Minister Tony Blair fought the RUF for only a few weeks and killed thousands. The surviving bandits fled and no longer posed a threat.
But since then, "white collar bandits" have replaced the "blue collar bandits." The same corrupt government is back in power that ran the country before the emergence of the RUF, as they were the only ones that had the money to run a campaign.
"The people who had the money for elections were the ones who had destroyed their country," Opala said.
The elections have maintained the situation that allowed the bandits to thrive. The one billion dollars spent in aid has been seized by these administrators, allowing a new rebel force to grow in the countryside, doing more harm than good, Opala said.
"If I spend $200,000 to treat you for cancer when you have heart disease, what I´m doing is killing you," Opala said.
The audience, though small, seemed visibly affected by the speech.
"They don´t have any idea what´s going on," said Amy Gehring, a painter, when asked about the international response.
"It seems his assessment is right on...dropping into a country and saying 'here´s a bunch of money' may not work," said Theodore Van Alst, a graduate student.