Africa on the brink
By STEPHANIE NOLEN, The Globe and Mail
PORT LOKO, Sierra Leone -- The night of the 236 hands was the night John Bangura decided to get out of the soldiering business.
He had been in the army for 22 years, but in 1997, Sierra Leone's rank and file joined rebels in a coup. Disenchanted at not being paid and angry at the government for arming a civilian defence force, they joined their former foes in the Revolutionary United Front to become a force people called "sobels" (soldier-rebels).
After occupying the capital, Freetown, for a year, the sobels were driven into the bush by troops from neighbouring West African nations. They retreated north, and one morning in 1998 took the town of Kono. But the West African troops drove them out. Grateful villagers embraced their West African rescuers, saying "you have driven those bastards from our town."
But the sobels had fled only as far as a nearby hill. When the foreign troops left in late afternoon, they returned to seal off the town. Their commander, "Colonel Savage", had every man, woman and child form a line, and announced: "We are the bastards and we have come back again."
Then the people of Kono had to step forward one at a time as he asked them, "left or right?" He went to work with "changa bulanga," his pet name for his favourite knife. Before long, bloody black hands littered the ground like fallen leaves.
This went on for three hours until the colonel had cut 236 people, sparing only children less than a year old. His troops just stood there, too afraid to intervene. "Who were you," Mr. Bangura explained, "to stop him or even make a face?"
So he watched as the people screamed, fainted and in some cases died on the spot. "And that night, I thought, 'I got to get out of the warring business.'
"I moved to fight with other people, away from that Savage man. And then, when the peace came, I signed up for the DDR. I'm tired of destroying things."
To heal the wounds of a decade of shockingly violent civil war, Sierra Leone created the National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration -- the DDR. Official records say about 46,000 men, women and many, many children, both from the rebels and from the Civilian Defence Force, have turned in their weapons and signed up for training, as tailors, soap makers, carpenters, farmers or computer programmers (although Sierra Leone has almost no electrical service, let alone computers).
The government wanted to give people a way to move beyond the war, but as Mr. Bangura, now 47, has discovered, it's not the easiest thing to leave behind.
Thanks to the DDR, he has learned a new way to make a living. He was trained to operate a power saw, and was supposed to be given one of his own so he could set up a workshop. That was more than a year ago.
Now, once a month, he comes to the DDR office in Port Loko, a grim town 250 kilometres north of the capital, seeking his $40 allowance and any news of the saw. Waiting in the ferocious heat for his money with 400 other men, most of them much younger, he explained that the allowance and a vegetable garden are all he has to support his two wives and five children.
Mr. Bangura pointed out that he is an easy-going sort of fellow, but his enthusiasm for his new life is hardening.
He is not sure where to go -- back into the bush, to subsistence farming? Or maybe try to get back to the army? "I could do any job, I could work anywhere. But there is no work."
John Bangura's story is much like that of his country -- and of his continent. He is ready to turn his life around; all he needs is a power saw. The solution seems simple, but the obstacles are complicated and intractable.
The African problem, and how to solve it, is supposed to dominate the agenda as the leaders of the world's richest nations gather in Alberta next week for the Group of Eight industrial nations' Kananaskis summit. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien has championed the cause; he toured Africa recently to build momentum and hinted that the summit may produce a substantial new initiative. It is time for the G8 to get serious about Africa, he has said, spurred in part by moral obligation and also a belief that an entire continent should not be kept outside the ever-expanding global economy.
The region has serious problems, of course: Half of the people of sub-Saharan Africa lives on less than $1.50 a day -- just as they did in the 1980s. Decades of "development" have not altered the reality of subsistence living for millions of people.
Ostensibly, there are new ideas on the agenda in Kananaskis: G8 leaders feel that global trade and private-sector investment can do what traditional aid has not. At the same time, African leaders are making new commitments to good government, democracy and human rights, in exchange for increased aid and trade breaks.
It all looks great on paper. But standing in the crowd with Mr. Bangura, in a town without electricity, clean water or any economic activity beyond a grimy bar and a few hair salons, talk of global trade and partnership looks hopelessly naive. The most basic things are needed here, but stubborn problems stand in the way of providing them, and there may be little the G8 can do.
The war in Sierra Leone, for example, destroyed not just thousands of buildings, but also the nation's social fabric, from the patchy dictatorial rule that passed for government to its most basic institutions -- family and community. Even now, no one here seems certain that peace will last, and the statistics do not inspire confidence: Half of all warring states that declare peace fall back into conflict within three years.
Sierra Leone is hardly an isolated case. In fact, one of every five people in sub-Saharan African lives in a conflict zone. Angola and Eritrea are just beginning to rebuild after decades of fighting. Forgotten wars rage on in Sudan, the Congo and Uganda, while Kenya, Algeria and Zimbabwe have violent political struggles that could escalate at any time. Mozambique and Nigeria still struggle with the legacy of their civil wars.
These countries have proved stubbornly immune to development's best efforts, but the G8 sees opportunity. In Sierra Leone at least, plenty of people want out of the war business as badly as John Bangura does. The United Nations may consider this the poorest place on Earth, but there is optimism.
A month ago, former UN bureaucrat Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was elected president in a vote that international observers declared fair, and 17,400 troops (the largest UN mission anywhere) are here to keep the peace. The government has abolished fees for primary school, and enrolment has increased substantially. Britain has pledged $140-million in aid to its former colony, and is retraining the police and the army. Two-thirds of the population was displaced in the war, but every week now, trucks bring more refugees home from years of exile in camps next door in Guinea, ready to rebuild their homes.
This could be the moment Sierra Leone finally gets its chance. And if a battle-scarred, traumatized nation saddled with thousands of amputees, drug-addicted former child soldiers and diamond smugglers can do it, there must be hope for the rest of the continent.
Mr. Bangura's problem is the kind that Mr. Chrétien believes can and should be solved: The man wants to turn in his gun, so get him a power saw and wish him well. This is classic development thinking: provide the training and resources for "income-generating activities" (that's development speak for work), and make people self-sufficient.
But the power saw is not the problem. There should be enough money to buy it, as well as such things as soap-making kits and cloth-dying equipment, for all the ex-combatants. The DDR was well financed (by international donors and a large, low-interest loan from the World Bank), but the money hasn't reached Port Loko.
"Sometimes the allowances are late coming from Freetown," explained district "reintegration officer" Foday Conteh. "I think the worst was a month late." That's a long delay for a man supporting seven people on $40.
And what of the money to buy the saw? "We do not have all of that at this time -- an administration problem, I believe," Mr. Conteh said, uncomfortably.
The truth is, this kind of financial distribution is more than Sierra Leone's government can manage. Men in pickup trucks bring the cash to Port Loko in plastic bags. This town of 15,000, perhaps 10 per cent of whom are literate, has no banks. It has no phones.
In Freetown, the DDR is overseen by a fledgling government staffed by people who have shown themselves, over the past two years of interim rule, to be naive and inexperienced or completely corrupt.
This is one of the great stumbling blocks to development across Africa: The most basic elements required to implement plans such as the DDR simply do not exist. There are, at best, limited financial accounting systems, no disbursement channels, nobody with the management capacity to oversee training or procurement of equipment.
And everywhere, there is corruption, people in power helping themselves to public money with no system in place to detect, let alone stop, them. A small, educated urban elite has access to the resources and rewards that come with government, while the bulk of the population, rural farmers, is entirely excluded.
But even if Mr. Bangura had his saw, what would he produce? "Tree felling is quite lucrative," he said in fine English, learned back in the colonial schools. "I would cut timber to sell to people who are building things." Is there a lot being built in his village? He shrugged and grinned. Would there be enough business to live on? Mr. Bangura began to laugh. "We trust God," he said.
In Port Loko, dozens of DDR-trained carpenters have erected booths made of thatch along the main dirt road. "Carpentry Workshop No. 23" or "Hill Top Carpentry Workshop," their laboriously hand-lettered signs announce. Arrayed in front are fine tables and chairs that the newly trained carpenters have made.
Nobody is buying. Sierra Leone's per-capita annual income is estimated at about $180, but almost everybody relies on subsistence agriculture. Nobody can afford a handsome new table. "The DDR creates new problems, because it creates very high expectations," observed Osman Turay, district repatriation officer for Port Loko. "And there is nothing for them."
And there isn't much more for their country. Sierra Leone has virtually no industry; two bottling plants in Freetown (one for Coca-Cola, the other for beer) appear to be its only active manufacturing. In the words of Valentine Collier, head of a commission fighting corruption, "No businessman in his right mind would come here."
Sierra Leone is a textbook example of what keeps sub-Saharan Africa out of the global economy. It has outrageously high import duties -- more than 100 per cent for many products -- and requires that domestic investors have majority control of any company. Business-registration laws are impenetrable and involve a half-dozen government bureaucracies, most of which operate on a system of "brown envelope" (cash) incentives. If, after all that, a business turns a profit, only a small percentage can leave the country.
Far greater than all of these problems, though, is a lack of human resources. Even when Freetown is added to the mix, the literacy rate of the nation's 5.5 million people is only 20 per cent. Andrew Kromah, a Freetown businessman, used to rent heavy equipment to miners, but could not find anyone who knew how to drive or repair a tractor or a grader, let alone a computer. "When we wanted to fix the radio tower, I had to climb up to the top myself, carrying the instruction manual in one hand," he said.
Of course, there are other ways that men like John Bangura can make money. Liberia's warlord president Charles Taylor still supports a 3,000-member rebel force camped just inside his border. But fighting isn't the real temptation.
"The curse of this country," said Canadian-born Frances Fortune, who has lived here for 14 years, "is that, when it rains in Kono, you can pick up diamonds from the ground."
Ms. Fortune, a native of Burlington, Ont., who heads a peace-building program for the U.S.-based organization Search for Common Ground, isn't exaggerating. Like so many African nations, Sierra Leone is absurdly rich in natural resources -- rutile, gold, bauxite, virgin stands of prized timber and, recent rumours suggest, oil reserves.
Its stream beds and dark red soil also cough forth fairy-tale diamonds: faceted, clear and sparkly. The poorest person, equipped with a sieve, can gather them -- and when wealth is that easy to scoop up, everyone wants their hands on it. The RUF used profits from smuggled diamonds to arm itself and Mr. Taylor is determined to control that wealth once again.
Diamonds are the source of the few incongruous patches of wealth in Freetown -- Mercedes-Benzes, a casino, a handful of villas. There is no obvious sign of diamond wealth in Kassim Basma's dingy office, at the top of two flights in a fetid stairwell, but Mr. Basma is the country's top diamond exporter. Mr. Basma was born here to Lebanese parents a half-century ago; it is the Lebanese families, and a few Pakistanis, who are Sierra Leone's mercantile class.
All day long, small groups of men shuffle into Mr. Basma's office. They greet him obsequiously and then each man in the parade pulls a handkerchief or small twist of paper from his sweat-stained pocket. He hands it to Mr. Basma, who unties it and dumps a small river of diamonds across the top of his heavy wood desk. Then he leans over and uses his long pinkie fingernails to flick the stones into various piles -- big, small, flawed, industrial-quality.
The men across the desk, who have panned for these diamonds, or bought them from others, watch silently. When the sorting is done, a lengthy negotiation begins, and finally Mr. Basma's son, Ahmed, pulls a brick of Leon notes from a large safe. As the men scuff out in their flip-flops, the dealer rolls a diamond the size of a sugar cube between his fingers.
There is an international campaign to stop the illegal trade in diamonds, especially those from conflict zones, requiring that a stone's place of origin be certified. Mr. Basma said all his diamonds go out through the government export agency, where he pays a 3-per-cent tax. But exporters do not ask where the gems on their desks have come from, and could not verify an answer in any case. Stones that leave legally get a certificate, but in a place where police or customs officials earn perhaps $30 a month, it isn't hard to find someone willing to take care of the paperwork.
Diamonds are all that Sierra Leone has in the way of international trade, and that can be cold comfort. "The only investors we get are those who come for diamonds," explained Unisa Sesay, a spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce. "And these are not investors; they are thugs and smugglers."
Much of the legacy of the war here is visible: the still-blackened lines where razed houses one stood, and the limbs that ends abruptly without hands or feet. But the invisible wounds are worse.
Halfway up a hill above Freetown, 10 young women live in makeshift rooms in the shell of an unfinished building. Abducted by the RUF and turned into child sex slaves, they now earning a living from their bodies.
Sia Kombo was only 4 or 5 when the rebels captured her. She was forced to carry their loads, wash their dishes and serve them sexually. Now she is 15, living in Freetown, with no way to earn money for food than selling sex at 35 cents a client. She is heavily pregnant.
"I don't know anybody in Kono any more," she said, her face looking impossibly old. So she isn't going home. "The rebels killed my family. I have a new one now."
She looked around at the other young women; she knows they all have stories like hers. Sexual violence was endemic in the war. In a survey of 1,000 households conducted by Physicians for Human Rights, 94 per cent reported at least one instance of abduction, rape, torture, killing or beating. More than half of all women who had direct contact with the RUF were raped; one-third were gang-raped.
A local organization called the Centre for Co-ordination of Youth Activities is working with former child soldiers and their victims, trying, on a minuscule budget, to give them opportunities. The centre is teaching these young women, many as pregnant as Ms. Kombo, to read, to give them skills to get out of sex work. A tutor comes to their encampment each day and, after his students have lowered themselves slowly to the floor in a half-circle behind him, draws lessons on a small chalkboard: "4 x 4 = 16" and "brush your teeth each day." (There are classes on the importance of condoms, as well, but none of these women can afford them: A package of three costs two weeks' wages.)
Ms. Kombo is desperate to find a way out. She wants to learn to read. "I want to leave this life. I want to be a policewoman." Rising from the lesson, she approached CCYA co-ordinator Ngolo Kata, pulled at his hand and said in a flat, urgent voice, "You have to find someone to take this baby. I cannot have this baby. I need someone to adopt me. I cannot be a mother. I need parents."
Investing in youth, the bulk of Africa's population, will be a key G8 message at Kananaskis. But problems such as Ms. Kombo's cannot be solved by even the best-financed training program or the most favourable trade agreement. Development must be about more than providing tools and training, Mr. Kata pointed out -- but here the most basic bonds of society have been destroyed, and there is no manual on repairing those.
Nonetheless, the international community is trying all the standard tactics to help Sierra Leone recover. Next year, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission like that of South Africa will begin hearings, allowing victims and perpetrators alike to tell their stories. And a special court, half-domestic and half UN-run, will prosecute some of the worst offenders of the war, although many were granted immunity in a failed peace deal in 1999.
None of this makes Jabati Mambu feel any better.
Mr. Mambu was at home when the rebels sacked Freetown in January, 1999. He was 16. His parents and brothers had already died in the war, and he had moved into the city to stay with friends. The rebels threw gasoline on the house, then ordered the young men outside. The first three were shot; the rebels decided, for some reason, to spare Mr. Mambu.
Instead of executing him, they knocked him to the ground and held him flat. "They tried to chop my left hand, but then they said, 'Oh, you are a student,' and they decided to chop my right hand instead, so I could not write."
At dawn, Mr. Mambu regained consciousness, his face lapped by the blood still oozing from the stump where his hand had been severed. West African troops got him to a hospital, and he recovered; now the DDR is putting him through school. He is in Grade 9 and says he would like to go to law school, although there is no one to pay for that.
Mr. Mambu walks with a swagger when with he is with other young men in the amputee camp where he lives in Freetown, but in quiet conversation he has a self-possession far beyond his years. "When we are living in these conditions, we cannot think about forgiving," he said.
Today, his right arm ends just below the elbow; his strong left arm has a bracelet of puckered scar tissue around the wrist. He has had no counselling -- and he has had no apologies. He sees RUF members in town, and he senses no remorse.
"We cannot forget, when we look at the part that's missing," he said, his voice measured. "It's my history, it's not easy for me. I cannot just forgive. If we do not reconcile, history will repeat itself. But for now, I don't feel like talking about reconciliation."
This kind of bitterness has hardened the young people who will be charged with rebuilding this country -- and so many others across sub-Saharan Africa.
Frances Fortune sees the bitterness and has a cold vision of what it may produce. She came here long ago as a volunteer teacher and is now a respected figure, a woman everyone comes to for advice.
She knows this is a precarious moment: The past may come roaring back to plague Sierra Leone. An AK-47 assault rifle can still be bought for only $14. She said she personally knows of three arms caches, and is sure there are many more.
"There are 3,000 RUF camped over the border in Liberia just waiting for a chance to come back. If this is going to work, there's going to have to be money, a lot of it. For a long time. And they must keep the pressure on the government."
Aid donors must force Sierra Leone's rulers to let Mr. Collier's anti-corruption commission do its work, she said, and to help, not just the Freetown elite, but the country's vast rural areas, still untouched by all those years of development. And even then, "it may all start again."
Ask Mr. Bangura, though, and he says it won't start again. He said this with great confidence. "It can't."
That hot day in Port Loko, he waited four hours. He got his allowance, finally, but there was no word on the saw. He waited a while longer, and then gave up.
As Mr. Bangura stepped out of the shade and started to walk up the dusty hill away from town, three young men did the same. When they were boy soldiers, they followed him in his warring days. They still follow him today.
Part Two: The bumpy road out of poverty