Are Guns-for-Hire the Answer in Sierra Leone?

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - A British-based security firm hired to support the Sierra Leone government in an earlier conflict against rebels said Thursday the continued use of private armies could have prevented the current crisis in the country.

Graham Sutherland, a spokesman for Sandline International, told it would be prepared to return to Sierra Leone if such a request comes from the elected government, "but only if the company was given a clear mandate which allowed us to properly address the threat."

The problem with the mandate of the embattled United Nations operation in Sierra Leone, Sutherland said, was that it limited the force to peacekeeping. "What is required is a mandate for 'peace-making'."

Sandline rejects the term "mercenary" to describe its operations, saying it prefers to take up missions for democratically elected governments.

U.N. peacekeepers in Sierra Leone are preparing to defend the capital, Freetown, from an expected assault by Revolutionary United Front rebels. The RUF is accused of flouting a 1999 peace treaty, taking up to 500 peacekeepers hostage, and launching attacks against pro-government forces.

Almost 1,000 British paratroopers are also in the city, and they reportedly are also helping the U.N. troops secure Freetown against attack. The UK government continues to insist that the soldiers - who have evacuated more than 300 British and other foreign nationals - will not assume a combat role there.

\plain\lang2057\f2\fs23\cf0 Sandline chief Tim Spicer said this week Freetown could fall to the rebels if British troops were withdrawn, and he questioned the U.N.'s ability to deflect the RUF.

"The RUF have given a pretty clear indication that the peace is over. You don't abduct peacekeepers, disarm people and threaten the capital unless you mean business," he said.

"I believe seizing power has always been their aim and they saw the ceasefire as simply a breathing space. Their side of the bargain was to hand in their weapons and that hasn't happened."

A British author and journalist, William Shawcross, wrote in the Guardian Wednesday that if Western countries were reluctant to contribute troops to defeat the RUF - a force notorious for its wanton brutality - then they should employ privately run armies to do the job for them.

Private Military Companies in Sierra Leone

During the 1990s, two high-profile outside guns-for-hire operations - first the South African-based Executive Outcomes, and then Sandline - played what observers said was a critical role in Sierra Leone.

Both companies supported the elected government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.

Executive Outcome's presence was widely regarded as a crucial stabilizing factor and it was popular in areas it helped secure against the RUF. With less than 160 men, the company said it helped bring the rebels to the point of signing a peace accord in 1996.

But once Kabbah was persuaded to make peace with the rebels in 1996, he dispensed with EO's services.

As EO left, it warned that Kabbah's government could fall to rebels within 100 days. Ninety-five days later, he was ousted in a coup.

The overthrown government then signed up Sandline, a company comprising former British and U.S. soldiers.

Sandline claims to have played "a material role in the planning of the liberation of Freetown" by Nigerian-led West African forces in early 1998.

The U.S. administration appeared not to have been overly fazed by Sandline's presence in Sierra Leone.

In May 1998, the State Department confirmed that Sandline was actively involved in attempts to overthrow the rebel regime and had provided intelligence before the Nigerian-led force liberated Freetown and restored Kabbah's government.

Then department spokesman James Rubin also confirmed that Sandline had "provided the State Department with information on the events in the countryside" - military intelligence - during that time.

Eventually funding for Sandline dried up and the company became the focus of an inquiry in Britain over whether it had violated a U.N. arms embargo on the West African country. Sandline claimed it understood that the embargo only applied to the military coup-leaders, not the deposed Kabbah government.

On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook told parliament in reference to Sandline that, "in the present situation, mercenaries would be nothing but a menace" in Sierra Leone.

Sandline's response to Cook's remarks, company spokesman Sutherland told, was to point out that an 8,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force had failed to keep the peace.

On the other hand, the 1995-6 involvement of just 150 EO men was "widely acknowledged, even amongst the critics of 'mercenaries,' as having created the conditions which brought the rebels to the negotiating table and facilitated the first democratic elections for many years."

"It is in Sierra Leone's interest for Mr. Cook to consider all the options open ... to resolve the continuing crisis, including the use of private military companies to supplement the resources of the present U.N. force," Sandline said. "However, he has made it very clear that any such proposal would be dismissed out of hand."

A 1996 U.N. report on mercenary activity said EO's involvement in Sierra Leone appeared to be "yet another instance of an internal armed conflict in which the involvement of mercenaries prolongs and adds to the cruelty of that conflict, while at the same time undermining the exercise of the right to self-determination of the people of the country involved."

The U.N. report called for "the immediate departure of any mercenaries" from Sierra Leone, and their removal from the entire continent of Africa "once and for all."

Sandline says it was established in the early 1990s "to fill a vacuum in the post cold war era."

It claims only to offer its services to internationally recognized governments - preferably democratically elected ones - international institutions such as the U.N. or "genuine, internationally-recognized and supported liberation movements."

It says it can provide specialist individuals or formed units to give support in areas such as command and control, communication, intelligence, special forces units (including counter terrorist and counter narcotic), heliborne reaction forces, and maritime special warfare units.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow