Eye witness

January 29, 1999

In Sierra Leone, a fragile ceasefire has made little impact on the fierce battle for Freetown, the capital, between rebel forces and Nigerian troops who form the mainstay of the ECOMOG peace-keeping force.

There are already signs that Nigeria's involvement in support of the Kabbah government is creating strains at home and may impede Nigeria's transition from military rule to democracy.

There has been little official information, but reports in Lagos tell of secret burials of up to 150 troops killed in the battle for Freetown and mounting casualties that drove ECOMOG commanders to call for reinforce-ments from Nigeria and Liberia.

Arnold Hughes, professor of African politics at Birmingham University's centre for West African studies, said that the costs of Nigeria's peace-keeping commitments in the two states were mounting as the country's revenues were being hit by a fall in the price of oil.

Nigeria's emerging democratic government would not be able to shelter behind the kudos of forming part of an international peace-keeping mission.

"All they (the rebels in Sierra Leone) need are a few hundred people and they can keep the guerrilla war going for ever, particularly as they control the country's diamond industry," said Professor Hughes.

"It is an open-ended commitment in a country where there is no way to solve the problem. It could drag on and it could be politically more challenging for a civilian government."

During the fighting the rebel Revolutionary United Front briefly occupied Fourah Bay College - the oldest higher education institution in West Africa, and, inevitably, academics were among the casualties.

Throughout the five-year rebellion, the university community never hid its dislike of the RUF's anti- intellectual tendencies and gross and flagrant violation of human rights, some comparing the rebels to the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot.

Fourah Bay was eventually liberated by Nigerian troops under the aegis of the ECOMOG peace-keeping force but it has been closed indefinitely until calm is restored in Freetown.

David Jobbins with additional reporting by Tunde Fatunde

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