The Guinea–Sierra Leone border dispute
Time for ECOWAS to intervene
2009-09-03, Issue 446
A necessary and mutually applauded security measure taken by Guinean forces during Sierra Leone’s brutal rebel war has escalated into a border dispute which threatens the stability of both states. But while the issue – the Yenga dispute – is often cast in romantic and highly inflammatory terms by Sierra Leonean poets, so-called civil society activists and journalists, the entire story is steeped in bathos. Before the war, Yenga was a tiny impoverished fishing village of fewer than 100 people and 10 old shacks. But it is strategically placed among a system (albeit largely undeveloped) of inter-connected waterways tied to the large Moa river and formed by the convergence of three other rivers emanating from Guinea, the Mellacourie, Fourecaria and Bereira. Much of this area, extending far into northern Sierra Leone and including Rio Pongas and Rio Nunez in Guinea was once known collectively as Mellacourie.
Until its recent notoriety, hardly anyone emerging into Yenga from the humungous grassed and potholed road would take any particular notice; the more important places were Kailahun, Koindu, Bomaru and Sienga on the Sierra Leonean side and Guekecdou and Forecariah on the Guinean side. It was a sleepy fishing hamlet, separated from Guinea by the Moa river. However, this cartographic factor was purely fictive for the people living on both sides of the river: movement from Sierra Leone into Guinea and vice versa was unrestrained by border guards, and people on either side of the river maintained families on both sides.
Believe it or not, this was exactly the vision of the colonial powers, Britain and France, when they demarcated the area between the two competing empires. The new political and geographical reality was only expressed in the two dozen or so beacons planted by the Europeans, over them flying two flags at the close of the 19th century. They rudely separated the Kissy people and even separated families living in the area, forcing them into states they never bargained for. The border demarcation wasn’t exactly as perfunctory as the carving out of Uganda, given as a birthday gift to Britain’s Queen Victoria by an English adventurer marauding through East Africa, but the logic was the same: there was scant consideration for the Africans living in these places and of course no concern about the future viability of the hastily created states. It is mainly for this reason that Amos Sawyer has made the important suggestion, as of yet not taken up elsewhere, that more concrete steps should be taken towards a political union of all three Mano river basin states (Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia).
So why do people in the poverty-stricken and militarily disabled Sierra Leone and Guinea, who just recently emerged from brutal wars (with Guinea still crippled by political instability) speak about this strip of land as though they want to ignite another violent conflict in the region? There is obviously a need for a serious reality check.
I recently spent a grim afternoon with a very senior (and overfed) Sierra Leonean army officer who told me rather blithely and against all available evidence that all the Sierra Leonean military needed was the order from 'the civilians' and Yenga would be recaptured from the Guineans promptly. And as I write, there is a virtual movement in Sierra Leone quaintly named ‘Save Yenga Save Salone’, a campaign that has attracted media activists, poets, ‘civil society’ and some politicians. One such politician, Musa Tamba Sam, belonging to the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) recently tried to get Yenga debated in parliament, but the effort was wisely rebuffed by the speaker. The issue, the speaker said, was being handled diplomatically by the government. The honourable Sam is from Yenga, born at a time when the village was still part of the Kissi-Teng Chiefdom in Kailuhun District in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone.
The (uncharacteristic) restraint of the Ernest Koroma government on the Yenga issue, which mirrors that of the previous Kabbah’s, is admirable. If every serious national issue since Koroma came to power would have been approached the same way, calmly and deliberately, then a lot of the serious errors of judgment – the churlish sacking of civil officials believed to be supporters of the opposition, attacks on opposition infrastructure and many other acts of venality and peevishness that his government has committed – would have been avoided.
The Yenga issue is, as hinted above, the legacy of two searing historical factors: European colonialism and a brutal post-colonial civil war. Surprisingly, both now carry equal resonance. However, for all the right reasons the emphasis should be on the more recent past. For Guinea entered Yenga not as an enemy but as a friend in pursuit of a common enemy, a 'rebel' force of medieval barbarity. Guinea, in fact, has been a very good neighbour of Sierra Leone, on countless occasions coming to the aid of the desperately inept Sierra Leonean army as well as taking up tens of thousands of Sierra Leoneans fleeing the depredations of the rebels, as refugees. I will return to this point, but first to the colonial provenance.
Ian Brownlie’s 'African Boundaries: A Legal and Diplomatic Encyclopaedia', published by Hurst (London) for the Royal Institute of International Affairs in 1979, at 1355 pages long is the invaluable guide to the historical basis of African borders. I picked up a copy at Hurst’s offices in London recently. The book reproduces a number of documents, including agreements and letters and memoranda from British and French officials which formed the basis of the Sierra Leone–Guinea border. The first was the Anglo-French Convention of 28 June 1882 (preceding the Berlin Conference which officially partitioned the African continent among the Europeans, by two years). The British recognised French claims to Mellacourie (of which, as I noted earlier, Yenga would have formed a part) which now meant French control of the entire Futa Jallon region, the basis of their colony of Guinea. Article 11 of the convention stated that the 'Island of Yelboyah and all islands claimed or possessed by Great Britain on the West Coast of Africa lying to the south … as far as the southern limit of the … colony of Sierra Leone' shall henceforth be recognised by France as belonging to Great Britain and the 'Matacong and all islands claimed or possessed by France on the West Coast of Africa to the north … as far as Rio Nunez' shall be recognised by Great Britain as belonging to France.
This document is rather imprecise when broken down into parts and successive agreements between the two European powers would modify it considerably. In fact, the present border was only firmly agreed on in 1912–13. The original agreement, for example, placed Pamalap and a large part of Kabala District under French jurisdiction. However, pressure from British merchants (the area was lucrative in the groundnut trade) forced the British authorities to renegotiate with the French. Consequently, these places were ceded to the British. Then British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, who never visited West Africa, proposed the final adjustments in January 1911. The new agreement defined the Moa or Makona river as the physical boundary dividing the two entities; none of the documents – which are exact about place names and physical conditions ('ruined villages', etc.) – mention Yenga. It almost certainly did not exist at the time. But the final protocol delimiting the boundary is precise: 'the frontier … follows the thalweg [a line connecting the lowest points of successive cross-sections of a valley] of the River Meli [from Guinea] to its meeting with the Moa, or Makona, on the understanding that the islands marked by Letters A and B on the attached map belong to France and that the island marked C belongs to Great Britain.' The protocol, signed at Pendembu on 1 July 1912, accepted Grey’s proposal that within six months of the signing of the agreement 'the natives in the transferred territories shall be permitted to cross the frontier to settle on the other side and to carry with them their portable property and harvested crops.'
Grey had also proposed – and this was accepted – that where 'a river forms the boundary, the populations on both banks shall have equal rights of fishing'. And there’s the rub. What if something more valuable than fish, oil or diamonds say, are found in the river? How would this agreement work? The agreement simply said that the use of 'hydraulic power' in the river would only be authorised by agreement between the two states. Furthermore, using a river as a boundary is problematic, since rivers can dry up (there is the greenhouse effect, which no one knew about then) and damming can change the course of any river.
In fact, it all worked well until the recent war in Sierra Leone and with it, the Revolutionary United Front’s (RUF) discovery of diamonds in the Moa and subsequent Guinean occupation, initialised by RUF incursions into Guinea. It worked rather too well, in fact. Graham Greene, idling for a day or so at that border area in the early 1930s walked from Kailahun into Guinea (then French Guinea), but of course he does not mention Yenga in his classic travel book of this West African trip, 'Journey without Maps' as almost certainly, he wouldn’t have taken notice. The border between the two colonies, Greene wrote, 'is the Moa River, about twice the width of Thames at Westminster'. Then Greene makes a very sapient observation: 'The curious thing about these boundaries, a line of river in a waste of bush, no passports, no Customs, no barriers to wandering tribesmen, is that they are as distinct as a European boundary; stepping out of a canoe one was in a different country. Even nature had changed; instead of forest … a narrow path ran straight forward for mile after mile through tall treeless elephant grass.'
I recently visited the area. The lush rainforest on the Sierra Leonean side that so impressed Greene has been largely denuded by unrestrained logging activity, generally no husbandry, etc. One now sees the same humungous or elephant grass that Greene saw on the Guinean side harassing the tiny motor road leading to Yenga. Guinean troops are now firmly in control and recently forced a Sierra Leone political contingent to disarm its security before entering the place.
A bad sign, but in fact it was not always like that. The problem began in September 2000 when the RUF attacked a number of Guinean border towns south of the capital, Conakry. The area had become home to tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees fleeing attacks on civilians inside Sierra Leone, part of the RUF’s 10-year campaign of terror and destruction in that country. Not long afterwards, the RUF attacked Guinean towns and villages in the ‘Parrot’s Beak’ area of the country, emerging from Sierra Leone and from points along the Liberian border. Here they caused much greater destruction and dislocation, driving Guineans out of their homes along with as many as 75,000 Sierra Leonean refugees who had been living on the Guinean side of the border for several years.
The RUF attacks attracted little attention, except as a humanitarian footnote to the more notorious conflict in Sierra Leone. I spent two weeks in Guinea at the time researching a report for Partnership Africa Canada and I reported then that Guineans themselves appeared to be confused. Following rebel attacks on Forecariah, less than 100km from the capital Conakry and home to tens of thousands of refugees from Sierra Leone and Liberia, in early September 2000 the Guinean President Lansana Conté broadcast an inflammatory statement on state radio and television. He blamed the incursions on the refugees, provoking widespread attacks by Guinean police, soldiers and civilian militias on the already traumatised refugees.
The attacks on Forecariah, by RUF rebels operating from Kabala, a Sierra Leonean town close to the Guinean border, were diversionary and the rebels withdrew without much resistance after Guinean forces counter-attacked. However, better planned and more coordinated incursions were soon to follow. In January 2001 the RUF moved from Sierra Leone, along with Charles Taylor’s forces into the diamond-rich areas around Macenta (in the so-called Forest Region), Madina Oula (near Kindia) and the important trading city of Guéckedou, which like Forecariah, was home to tens of thousands of refugees. The attacks on Macenta and the destruction of Guéckedou alerted Guineans to the seriousness of the crisis. The attacks quickly spread, threatening to engulf the districts around Bonankoro.
Then finally Guinea responded proportionately. With crucial help from the United States (which maintained an annual C-JET training program with the Guinean army) and France, Guinea acquired some armoured helicopters and some old MiG fighter bombers which were used to pound rebel bases in both Sierra Leone and Liberia. Guinea also helped to train over 1,000 Donsos (the Kono name for Kamajors or the Civil Defence Forces) made up of Konos and Kissis from the Yenga area and Kono District, all along the Guinea–Sierra Leone border, deploying them against the RUF. I saw about a thousand of them during my visit and also saw British officers who had an open-ended military commitment to Sierra Leone, helping to train the Guineans and the Donsu militia. Guinea routed the RUF, helping to accelerate the disarmament process in Sierra Leone; in effect, Guinea defeated the RUF. It then occupied the Sierra Leonean side of the border, including Yenga.
After the war ended, Kabbah negotiated the withdrawal of most of the Guinean forces but renegade officers, now engaged in lucrative mining at Yenga, refused to move and the ailing Guinean leader was simply a hostage of the military. An agreement was signed on 15 November 2002, months after the war officially ended by Sierra Leone’s internal affairs minister the late Hinga Norman and his Guinean counterpart, El-Haj Moussa Solano, affirming the colonial-era border agreement. But the agreement was not conclusive, it called for the setting-up of a committee to work towards a resolution that would restore Yenga to Sierra Leone but assure Guinean border security – a very legitimate issue obviously. But the talks have become open-ended and there is no assurance that Yenga will be restored to Sierra Leone soon, or perhaps ever at the current pace.
Personally, I see little problem with the Guinean presence at Yenga, but clearly it is a volatile issue, what with the attempt to politicise it. But all loose talk about reclaiming the village by force should be discouraged. Inflammatory steps by some NGOs like World Vision’s (a notoriously vulgar group which is in the habit of showing poor and sick black and brown kids on TV to raise money) which a couple of years ago claimed that it was prevented from building a school at Yenga by Guinean troops, should be firmly suppressed. Many of the impoverished villages on both sides of the border do not have functioning schools, so why pick on beleaguered Yenga?
The flamboyant Sierra Leonean Defence Minister Paolo Conteh has been quoted saying that there is no point in negotiating with the Guinean junta since it has not been recognised by either the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS) or the African Union (AU). He has a point, though it is utterly impolitic of him to have gone public with such a statement; street corner talk has its place, but it should be allowed in the Defence Ministry or State House.
While President Koroma can make his very loud votaries and supporters feel good by declaring that Sierra Leone and Guinea are sister countries who are working together to resolve the Yenga issue without resort to international mediating bodies, the overheated rhetoric elsewhere is not reassuring. I think it is time that ECOWAS takes tentative steps to engage both nations on the issue. There is a clear early warning signal here…
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* Lansana Gberie is a Sierra Leonean academic and journalist.
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