While the Nigerian military has been suppressing opposition and ensuring that elections are won by its supporters at home, Nigeria's armed forces have been sent to Sierra Leone in support of an elected civilian government ousted in a military coup. The irony of this action has apparently been unnoticed by some members of the international community, and Nigeria's intervention has been welcomed by many of the same voices that have opposed sanctions against the military government in Nigeria on the grounds that to take such measures would be interference in Nigeria's internal affairs.

On May 25, 1997, the elected civilian government in Sierra Leone, headed by Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and in office for just one year, was overthrown in a military coup led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma, following his escapefrom prison, where he had been held following an earlier attempted coup in September 1996. Supposedly acting under a defense pact with the Kabbah government and in response to a plea from Kabbah, who had fled to Conakry in neighboring Guinea, hundreds of Nigerian troops based in Liberia as part of the Economic Community of West African States (ecowas) Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ecomog) moved to the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, reinforcing ecomog colleagues already based at the Freetown airport to defend it from attacks by the Rebel United Front (ruf), which had been waging a six-year war of great brutality against successive central governments.148

Although no public statement was made, diplomatic sources indicated that the Nigerian government had delivered an ultimatum to the coup leaders, who had formed themselves into an Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (afrc) in alliance with the ruf, to leave power and restore the elected president.149 Nigerian government radio stated that the Nigerian troops would adopt a policy of "containment,"150 but on June 2, following a breakdown of negotiations for the peaceful restoration of the Kabbah government led by the Nigerian and British high commissioners, Nigerian naval vessels stationed off Freetown began shelling the capital. Guinean troops already based in Freetown, with the Nigerian ecowas contingent at the airport, supported the initiative; but Ghanaians in the same force pulled back, stating they preferred a negotiated solution. Wire services reported that at least fifty people, mainly civilians, were killed in the bombardment, in addition to several hundred killed in initial fighting. Despite their superior firepower, the Nigerian forces were eventually forced to withdraw. The afrc claimed that 300 Nigerian troops had been taken hostage and later released.151

Following this humiliation, Nigerian foreign minister Tom Ikimi engaged in a tour of West African states to consult on action in Sierra Leone. He encountered some resentment of Nigeria's decision to intervene without any official mandate from regional heads of state.152 Already, several West African leaders and commentators had spoken out against the Nigerian operation. Abass Bundu, a former executive secretary of ecowas, for example, described the June 2 bombardment of Freetown as "totally unwarranted and unjustified."153 Meanwhile, president of Burkina Faso Blaise Compaore stated in an interview with Radio France International, "The agreements betweenthe states of West Africa do not authorize military intervention to restore a regime or organize a counter-coup. This type of operation could cause further tragedies for the Sierra Leone people."154

On June 26, ministers of foreign affairs from ecowas states met in Conakry, together with the secretary-general of the Organisation of African Unity (oau), Salim Ahmed Salim, and issued a statement endorsing the aim of "early reinstatement of the legitimate government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, the return of peace and security and the resolution of the issues of refugees and displaced persons." The ministers failed to give an unconditional endorsement of further military intervention, agreeing instead "to work towards the reinstatement of the legitimate government by a combination of three measures, namely, dialogue, imposition of sanctions and enforcement of an embargo and the use of force." In a coded criticism of Nigeria's hasty unilateral intervention, moreover, the communiqué stated that: "In order to increase the effectiveness of the above measures, the Ministers for Foreign Affairs recommended prior consultations among member States at the highest level."155 A committee made up of representatives of Nigeria, Ghana, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire, with representatives of the oau and ecowas secretariats, was formed to ensure the implementation of these decisions. Negotiations were opened with the new rulers in Sierra Leone; however, on July 31, the afrc unveiled a four year transition program for the restoration of civilian rule after fresh elections. Following this announcement, which represented a breakdown in negotiations, an almost total embargo was put in place, enforced by the Nigerian navy, leading to severe hardship in Freetown and elsewhere. Despite a ceasefire agreement, intermittent clashes continued between ecomog forces and troops loyal to the afrc (a mixture of Sierra Leonean army and members of the ruf, together renamed the People's Army).

The Authority of Heads of State and Government, the governing body of ecowas, met in Abuja at the end of August. A number of other governments joined Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire in opposing the use of force against the military leaders in Sierra Leone, and the Authority endorsed the position taken at the June 26 meeting of foreign ministers, mandating ecomog only to "monitor the ceasefire, enforce sanctions and embargo and secure the peace in Sierra Leone."156 Liberia was added to the committee responsible for monitoring the situation in Sierra Leone, which was raised in status to the level of heads of state and government. Since the August meeting, a stalemate between the afrc and ecomog forces has continued. The enforcement of the embargo on Sierra Leone-including allegations that ecomog forces had shelled boats carrying cargoes of rice and killed tens of civilians at a dockside market in the process-led to expressions of concern from the International Committee of the Red Cross and others at the blanket nature of the blockade and at a potential humanitarian crisis among the civilian population.157

At the oau heads of state and government meeting taking place in Harare, Zimbabwe, at the time of the June 2 bombardment, Nigerian Foreign Minister Tom Ikimi stated "This is not interference. We at ecowas have always been interested in explosive situations that take place in our region which we see as endangering civilian lives and disturbing peace. Together with the international community we must not allow such a situation to continue. Nigeria is going to ensure that peace, stability and a legitimate government are restored in Sierra Leone."158 He insisted alsothat "we, as Nigeria, are not in Sierra Leone as Nigeria. We are there because we have always been there as ecomog."159

Although Nigeria's military intervention was not expressly endorsed, the oau summit implicitly accepted it-in stark contrast to its usual stance on "interference" in internal affairs, including those of Nigeria. oau Secretary-General Salim Ahmed Salim stated "We universally condemn the usurpers of power in Sierra Leone. It is in the interests of both Sierra Leone and Africa as a whole that everything must be done to restore constitutional legality in that country."160 The countries of the region were urged to act through ecomog; at the same time a spokesperson for the oau secretariat insisted, despite evidence that ecowas countries were not happy with the intervention, that "Nigeria didn't take the action, it was ecomog."161 Robert Mugabe, chair of the oau meeting in Harare, promised a tough line from the oau on future military coups: "The oau merely used to admit coups had occurred, but now we want to address them. There is now a definite attitude to coups and illegitimate governments."162

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, present at the oau meeting, told a press conference that the international community should do "all in our power" to restore democracy, and that, while he hoped force could be avoided, if it became a "last resort," then "the member states would be prepared to go the distance."163 A U.N. Security Council Meeting on July 11 condemned atrocities committed by Koroma's government against civilians and demanded the "immediate and unconditional restoration of constitutional order," expressing "full support for the objectives" of the ecomog efforts in Sierra Leone, but stopping short of endorsing all the proposed means. On August 6, the Security Council promised "appropriate measures" to restore civilian government, but again stopped short of whole-hearted endorsement of the ecomog action.164 A special representative for Sierra Leone has been appointed by the U.N. secretary general. On October 8, 1997, the Security Council adopted a resolution imposing mandatory sanctions on Sierra Leone, including an embargo on arms and oil imports and travel by members of the afrc.

Commonwealth Secretary-General Emeka Anyaoku, himself a Nigerian, implicitly backed the Nigerian government action, stating that intervention by foreign countries to restore democracy would be "welcome."165 The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, meeting on July 10-11, condemned the military coup and announced Sierra Leone's suspension from the Commonwealth pending the restoration of the legitimate government. Meeting again in September, cmag welcomed the ecowas decision to impose sanctions and adopted a set ofrecommendations (not made public) that would be presented to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (chogm) in Edinburgh at the end of October.

Nigeria's intervention in Sierra Leone has come at a time when its seven-year presence as head of the ecomog force in Liberia, for which the peacekeeping force was created, is coming to an end-following elections in July 1997 and the installation of faction leader Charles Taylor as the new president of the country.166 Although the ecomog mandate in Liberia has been extended by ecowas for "an extra period to be mutually agreed," this period has been stated to be six months.167

Despite the disquiet among members of ecowas, Nigeria's intervention in Sierra Leone appears calculated to provide it with a measure of international support and a bargaining tool in international fora. Throughout its presence in Liberia, which Nigeria claims has cost it US$3 billion,168 Nigeria has repeatedly reminded the international community of its commitment to peacekeeping in its neighborhood in the face of the reluctance of the U.N. to make the same investment, using this commitment as an argument to deflect criticism both of its domestic performance and of the performance of its troops in the field.169 At the inauguration of Charles Taylor as president, Nigeria was heaped with praise; in September 1997, the new Zimbabwean high commissioner to Nigeria, presenting his credentials, paid tribute to Nigeria's leadership in ecowas and reportedly described the end of the Liberian war as "a classic in the history of peacekeeping in the world."170 Nigeria has already used the same arguments in Sierra Leone, with appreciable success in gaining international credibility and support for its actions, despite the fact that its decision to use force was essentially unilateral, only reluctantly endorsed by members of ecowas.

Yet Nigeria's record as the dominant force among the ecomog troops in Liberia has been, at best, mixed. Nigerian ecomog soldiers have been involved in serious human rights violations from the time of first intervention in 1990 up till today; both commanders and ordinary soldiers have enriched themselves at the expense of local populations.171 The very short period between ceasefire and elections in Liberia, endorsed or driven by Nigeria, with little effort at serious demobilization of forces, holds little hope for a lasting peace built on respect for the rule of law. The pattern to date of Nigeria's intervention in Sierra Leone does not encourage hope that ecomog's performance will improve or that Nigeria has suddenly developed a genuine commitment to democratic government. Certainly, Nigeria's intervention in Sierra Leone should not be allowed to deflect criticism from its domestic failures to respect human rights.

148 "ecowas intervenes to restore democracy," Africa Today (London), July/August 1997. On March 2, the Nigerian government had detained Foday Sankoh, the head of the Sierra Leonean Rebel United Front, as he entered the country, supposedly on the grounds of firearms offenses. Commentators in both Sierra Leone and Nigeria assumed that the detention was on behalf of the Sierra Leonean government, and as a result of Sankoh's prevarication in peace negotiations to end the civil war. Initially held in a suite of a five-star hotel in Abuja, Sankoh was transferred to prison following the coup in his home country. On June 1, Major Koroma named Sankoh deputy head of state in the new Sierra Leonean government. However, Sankoh was still held in Nigeria at the time of going to press. 149 James Bone, "Nigeria in army coup ultimatum," The Times (London), May 28, 1997. 150 "Nigeria to Adopt Containment Policy in Sierra Leone," text of broadcast by Voice of Nigeria, as reported in fbis-afr-97-149. 151 Howard W. French, "Combat in Sierra Leone," The New York Times, June 23, 1997; "Koroma's Coup," Africa Confidential vol.38, no.12, June 6, 1997. 152 The ecowas Protocol on Mutual Assistance in Defence, adopted in 1981 and entered into force in 1986, established a legal regime for military intervention by invitation in case of attack on an ecowas member state or "armed conflict within a member state which has been engineered and supported actively from outside." In 1991, a Declaration of Principles adopted at Abuja enjoined ecowas countries to "unwavering commitment to the establishment and smooth functioning of democratic institutions in each member state." However, the provisions of the 1981 protocol have never been implemented, nor, even had that been the case, was there any decision by the ecowas Authority of Heads of State and Government to intervene in Sierra Leone, as required by its terms. Abass Bundu, "The case against intervention," West Africa (London), June 30 - July 6, 1997. 153 Antony Goldman, "Humiliated Nigerian army retires hurt," The Financial Times (London), June 4, 1997. 154 "Nigeria reinforces in Sierra Leone, backing mixed," Reuters, June 4, 1997. 155 Text of final communiqué, issued as U.N. Document S/1997/499, June 27, 1997. 156 "Text of West African Communiqué on Sierra Leone," Reuters, August 30, 1997. 157 "Update No.5 on icrc Activities in Sierra Leone," icrc, Geneva, August 25, 1997; U.N. Integrated Regional Information Network (irin) West Africa, Daily Media Updates, August and September, 1997. 158 "Nigerian foreign minister denies `interference' in Sierra Leone," South African Press Association (sapa), June 3, 1997. 159 "Nigerian foreign minister clarifies country's role in Sierra Leone," text of Voice of Nigeria broadcast, June 3,1997, as reported by swb AL/2937 A/1, June 5, 1997. 160 Andrew Meldrum, "Annan endorses Nigerian intervention," The Guardian (London), June 3, 1997. 161 Spokesperson for the oau secretariat, Ibrahim Dagash, quoted in "oau gives `green light' for use of force in Sierra Leone," sapa, June 3, 1997. 162 "oau summit ends with promise to get `tougher' on coups," South African Press Association, Johannesburg, June 4, 1997. 163 sapa, June 3, 1997; Andrew Meldrum, "Annan endorses Nigerian intervention," The Guardian (London), June 3, 1997. 164 Anthony Goodman, "U.N. Council calls for reversal of Sierra Leone Coup," Reuters, July 11, 1997. 165 Claudia McElroy and Peter Beaumont, "Invasion ultimatum to Freetown mutineers," The Observer (London), June 1, 1997. 166 See Human Rights Watch/Africa "Emerging from the Destruction: Human Rights Challenges Facing the New Liberian Government," A Human Rights Watch Short Report, October 1997. 167 Paul Ejime, "ecowas lifts embargo on Liberia," Pan African News Agency (pana), August 30, 1997. 168 "Nigerian government spends $3 billion on peace in Liberia," text of Radio Nigeria broadcast, August 3, 1997, as reported in fbis-afr-97-215, August 5, 1997. 169 In July 1996, President Mandela, speaking about the possibility of sanctions against Nigeria ahead of the oau summit in Yaounde, Cameroon, acknowledged that he had "received representations from countries in West Africa as well as from [U.N. Secretary-General] Boutros Boutros-Ghali," who had reminded him that "Nigeria is responsible for law and order in Sierra Leone and Liberia." "Appeals from UN, West Africa Softened Mandela Stance on Nigeria," afp, July 2, 1996. 170 "Abacha receives new Zimbabwean, Saudi Envoys," text of Nigerian TV broadcast, September 12, 1997, as reported in fbis-afr-97-256. 171 See Africa Watch (now Human Rights Watch/Africa) "Waging War to Keep the Peace: The ecomog Intervention and Human Rights," A Human Rights Watch Short Report vol.5, no.3, June 1993; Janet Fleischman, "Human Rights and the Civil War in Liberia," Liberian Studies Journal XIX, 2 (1994); Human Rights Watch/Africa "Emerging from the Destruction."