NEWS OF THE capture of Sierra Leonean rebel leader Foday Sankoh was cheered last week by most residents of Freetown, the embattled capital of the small West African nation. But the U.S.-brokered peace accord and a United Nations peacekeeping mission there still teeter on the brink of collapse.
While Sankoh is in government custody, an estimated 15,000 Revolutionary United Front (RUF) guerrillas still control large parts of the country and remain the single largest threat to peace.
The security situation in the diamond-rich country improved somewhat after last week's insertion of 800 British marines, the promised airlift of 1,800 Nigerian troops, and the re-arming of pro-government militias and former Sierra Leonean soldiers.
The RUF still holds most of the 500 U.N. peacekeeping troops it took hostage, however, and without a robust and sustained international response, which should include U.S. military support, the crisis in Sierra Leone will not suddenly disappear.
The blame for most of Sierra Leone's continuous suffering falls upon Foday Sankoh. But his ruthless RUF commanders continue to operate, as they did after 1997, when Sankoh was imprisoned in Nigeria for two years. Even though Sankoh has once again been sidelined, the RUF command-and-control structure remains intact. And rebel commanders may be even more difficult for the international community to deal with than Sankoh.
Nine years ago, RUF thugs began the civil war in Sierra Leone. They were backed by Libya's Col. Muammar el Kadafi and the maniacal Charles Taylor, who was then leading his own campaign to wrest control of neighboring Liberia.
Unfortunately, the U.S. paid little attention to Sankoh then. Through the years, the RUF has provoked the outrage of the international community through a pattern of human rights abuses not seen since the days of Pol Pot. These include the murders of innocent civilians; mass rapes; the kidnapping and forced induction of children into Sankoh's guerrilla army and, most notably, the horrific amputation of limbs of countless adults and children.
It has been a reign of terror that has shocked and horrified the world, yet one for which Sankoh has shamelessly and repeatedly denied any knowledge or responsibility.
Last July, negotiations between the RUF and Sierra Leone's democratically elected government resulted in an agreement in Lome, Togo, to end the civil war. The rebels agreed to disarm and demobilize under U.N. supervision.
As part of the agreement, RUF representatives were given four seats in the Sierra Leonean cabinet, including control over the country's diamond mines - its main source of revenue. The rebels were also given a general amnesty for the atrocities they committed.
The 1999 agreement - hopelessly flawed - was a hard one to swallow for most Sierra Leoneans and President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, whose government had been reinstated the year before by ECOMOG, a Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force.
The Clinton administration, which helped pressure Kabbah to accept, said the deal was necessary to end the bloodshed. It was a politically expedient deal, which essentially legitimized Sankoh's tactics of shooting and hacking his way into power in a region that has seen a rebirth of democratization.
From the start, the peace agreement was on shaky ground. In recent months, RUF rebels have regularly kidnapped U.N. personnel, only to release them later amid new pledges of cooperation. But the rebels have repeatedly refused to complete the process of disarming and demobilizing. They also have refused to allow U.N. troops to take positions in the diamond-rich areas of the country.
The recent crisis has exposed Foday Sankoh's real objective, which is not peace, but the seizure of power by force in defiance of the United Nations.
It is obvious that this "Milosevic of West Africa" and the RUF regard the cease-fire as only temporary. If the RUF prevails - with or without Sankoh's leadership - their rule would doubtless produce even more bloodshed, another flood of refugees to neighboring countries, as well as further plundering of Sierra Leone's mineral wealth.
Allowing a small-time megalomaniac like Sankoh, or other RUF commanders, to thumb their noses at the United Nations will simply embolden others to follow his example
We cannot endure another Somalia, a case where the international community blinked in a stare-down with another tyrant, Mohamed Farah Aideed.
The Somalia debacle was followed by the genocide in Rwanda, when swift military intervention by the West could have prevented the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
Failure to act now in Sierra Leone could doom planned peacekeeping operations in Congo-Kinshasa and elsewhere around the world. It most certainly would undermine the credibility of the United Nations and especially that of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, himself a West African.
Diplomatic protests from podiums in Washington, New York or any other place will not dissuade the likes of Sankoh, who respond only to force or the threat of force.
The Clinton administration is unlikely to send American troops or military advisors to Sierra Leone to bolster peacekeeping forces already there. But there is more the Clinton administration could do to improve the security situation.
The U.S. should strongly support an enhanced redeployment of Nigerian troops (working in tandem with the United Nations) to Sierra Leone, by providing logistical support. Washington should also re-arm and re-equip Nigerian forces in Sierra Leone, as well as provide them with counter-insurgency training necessary to confront RUF rebels.
Long before NATO and U.S.-led interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo, it was the Nigerian-led ECOMOG forces that held together the security situation in Liberia and Sierra Leone. Without their presence, diplomats would not have had the time to fashion peace agreements to end both conflicts.
The two operations cost Nigeria an estimated $10 billion over a decade - a huge sum for a country faced with its own severe economic problems. The U.S. contribution of $100 million defrayed only a fraction of Nigeria's expenses.
The Nigerian military role in Sierra Leone has always been controversial. But a commitment to regional peacekeeping has been a hallmark of Nigerian foreign policy from the past dictatorships to today's democratically elected government.
Despite its problems, Nigeria is an emerging democracy and, perhaps, America's largest and strongest ally in West Africa.
Nigeria's role in re-engaging in Sierra Leone and stabilizing West Africa is pivotal. To facilitate the enhanced deployment of peacekeeping forces in Sierra Leone, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and State Department Operations, should release the balance of the $96 million the U.S. promised to support the operation in the first place. This should be a down payment to a more generous subsidy to allow the Nigerians to play a direct peacekeeping role that the U.S. wants to avoid.
The administration erred in supporting the Lome agreement, but it must be prepared to see that a peace accord is implemented. Nigeria's help in this regard is indispensable. If the RUF does not immediately comply, the blanket amnesty should be revoked and Sankoh and his band of killers should be tried as war criminals.
A failure by the United Nations and the U.S. to act now will almost ensure that there will be future "Sankohs" and more "Sierra Leones" in Africa, and throughout the world. And the cost of an enhanced redeployment in Sierra Leone will be far cheaper than the loss of credibility for the international community and the rule of law.
Leonard H. Robinson Jr., is the president and CEO of the National Summit on Africa, in Washington, and a former Deputy Assistant Sec retary of State for African Affairs. A turning point in Sierra Leone 'Milosevic of West Africa' Foday Sankoh will destroy his country unless we stop him.