IRIN-West Africa Weekly Roundup no. 81 for 1998.12.31

IRIN-West Africa Weekly Roundup no. 81 for 1998.12.31


Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Integrated Regional Information Network for West Africa

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IRIN-WA Weekly Roundup No 81 of Main Events for West Africa covering the period 25-30 December 1998

SIERRA LEONE: Nigeria strengthens forces in fight against rebels

Nigerian reinforcements poured into Sierra Leone during the week to strengthen the West African intervention force ECOMOG fighting rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

As the fighting neared the capital Freetown, foreign nationals were evacuated and the special committee on Sierra Leone set up by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) met in emergency session in Cote d'Ivoire on Monday to discuss the situation. ECOMOG commander General Timothy Shelpidi accused Liberia of helping the rebels, prompting Monrovia to threaten to pull out of the special committee over what it called a "crisis of confidence".

ECOMOG spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jimoh Okunlola told IRIN on Wednesday that more Nigerian reinforcements had been flown in, but declined to say how many. News reports said 1,000 troops arrived on Tuesday, bringing to 3,000 the number of Nigerian reinforcements flown in since Sunday. Okunlola said the reinforcements were being deployed where needed, including the town of Lunsar, about 80 km northeast of Freetown. ECOMOG has been consolidating its positions since its recent tactical withdrawal from Makeni, another 80 km northeast of Lunsar.

Okunlola said the rebels did not have the capacity to hold ground after their attacks and Makeni was occupied by the government's Civil Defence Forces (CDF). Civilians were beginning to return to their homes and ECOMOG troops would return to Makeni "in a very short while", he said.

General Shelpidi told IRIN on Tuesday his troops had withdrawn because supply lines had become too stretched. He stressed that Freetown was safe. The rebels had been split into small groups by ECOMOG attacks and were now raiding people's houses for food.

Britain's Royal Air Force nevertheless evacuated about 80 European citizens from Sierra Leone on Friday following fighting near Freetown. The US closed operations at its embassy and ordered all US government personnel to leave and NGOs also evacuated international staff. The WFP, UNICEF and UNOMSIL still have some staff in Freetown, but other UN agencies have evacuated their personnel to Guinea and Cote d'Ivoire, a UN official told IRIN.

Reuters reported on Monday that the rebel army numbered between 15,000 and 20,000 men and that many of its soldiers were youngsters press-ganged into fighting. ECOMOG has not disclosed its troop strength but news reports have estimated there are up to 12,000 men in the country. A military analyst told IRIN in Abidjan on Monday that ECOMOG would need at least a 6:1 superiority to overwhelm the rebels. Not all the troops in the country were actively involved in fighting the rebels, the analyst said. Many were tied up guarding strategic positions while the rebels were free to attack at will.

West African Ministers condemn rebels

West African foreign ministers strongly condemned the rebel atrocities against the civilian population in Sierra Leone in a communique issued after their meeting on Monday. They also appealed to the rebels to accept the legitimacy of the government in Freetown, stop fighting and take advantage of an amnesty offer by President Alhaji Ahmed Tejan Kabbah.

The Sierra Leone committee expressed "total support" for the government in Freetown. It called on the UN Security Council to reaffirm support for the government and for the international community to ensure that the rebels knew they would "never be accorded recognition as the legitimate government of Sierra Leone". It appealed to all countries that have pledged troops to honour their commitments immediately and to the UN, OAU, EU, and the Contact Group on Sierra Leone to provide transport and communications to ECOMOG to improve mobility and the force's effectiveness.

ECOMOG commander accuses Liberia of arms shipments

General Shelpidi told IRIN on Tuesday in Abidjan that the international community, especially the United States, should review policy towards Liberia to force Monrovia to stop helping rebels in Sierra Leone. "Charles Taylor does not understand diplomacy," Shelpidi said, suggesting the US and other states suspend aid to Liberia and even consider imposing sanctions. He said Liberia had been breaking a UN embargo on arms supplies to Sierra Leone at will.

He said helicopters had been operating into Sierra Leone for "a very long time" and mostly at night, in violation of the embargo, supplying arms to the rebels. He said prisoners captured in March by ECOMOG had said the helicopters, manned by Liberian troops, had supplied them with arms, food and petrol, and took back with them diamonds from Sierra Leone. The RUF and the ousted Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) rebels have been operating around Sierra Leone's rich diamond fields.

Liberia has consistently denied involvement in Sierra Leone and said so again on Monday at the special committee meeting in Abidjan. Liberian Foreign Minister Monie Captan called for an international investigation to settle whether or not Monrovia was supplying the rebels. Shelpidi said Liberia would easily mask its involvement by only showing investigators the major routes across the border and not the numerous small paths which could be used for arms smuggling. Liberia said on Tuesday it might withdraw from the committee if governments continued to accuse it of helping the rebels. In a government policy statement it said the"crisis of confidence" surrounding Liberia's involvement in the Sierra Leonean war made it difficult for Monrovia to contribute effectively to the sub-region's effort to end the conflict. Liberia said it had made several overtures to disprove its involvement in the war but its approaches had been ignored. Humanitarian situation

An estimated 8,000 IDPs have arrived in Segbwema, 250 km southeast of Freetown, over the last three weeks, an official at the United Nations Humanitarian Assitance Coordination Unit {HACU), who was relocated to Abidjan recently, told IRIN on Tuesday.

The official said that movement of IDPs into this area began around the time rebels attacked the northeastern district of Kono in mid-December. There has also been a steady stream of IDPs into the southeastern city of Bo, Sierra Leone's second largest town. The official said only 300 of the 1,020 newly arrived IDPs will be housed at an MSF camp normally used for cholera cases. Only the most vulnerable are to be sheltered.

WFP worried about effects of new fighting

The World Food Programme (WFP) said in a news release received by IRIN on Wednesday that renewed fighting in Sierra Leone would seriously affect humanitarian assistance throughout the country.

WFP deliveries to war-affected people in the interior had been halted for two weeks because the main road linking Freetown to the rest of the country was unsafe, WFP said, but it had managed to move 90 mt of food out of Freetown for delivery to the southern towns of Bo and Kenema on Monday.

There was enough food in the two towns to meet needs over the next month, it said, but it did not have access to depleted stocks in Makeni, affecting food distribution to 24,000 people. "WFP and its food aid partners have sufficient food stocks for all the country in Freetown but with the increased rebel activity, trucking companies face serious security constraints to deliver our food to vulnerable people in the interior," said Patrick Buckley, WFP Representative in Sierra Leone.

WFP said the upsurge in rebel attacks in northern and eastern parts of Sierra Leone and near the capital, Freetown, had resulted in the displacement of an estimated 80,000 people over the past few days.

NIGERIA: Oil price fall cost Nigeria US $2.3 billion

The fall in crude oil prices has cost the oil-rich country at least 200 billion naira (US $2.3 billion) in 10 months, military ruler General Abdulsalami Abubakar told the newspaper 'This Day' in an interview published on Monday. The report, quoted by AFP, said the fall from an average of around US $22 per barrel when the budget was announced in January to $9.9 by October "has messed up the budget."

Nigeria had projected 424 billion naira as total revenue for the fiscal year which began in January and ends in December 1998. Of this, 257 billion naira was expected from the oil sector and 167 billion naira from non-oil revenue.

Nigeria, the sixth largest oil exporter in the World, produces around two million barrels per day and earns about $10 billion annually from the sector.

Government unable to pay salaries

The Nigerian government announced it would be unable to pay civil servants the salaries agreed in a new pay structure as pledged in October because state coffers were empty, Nigerian television said on Tuesday. Mallam Mohamed, the press secretary to the presidency, was quoted as saying that if no remedy was found to the critical financial situation, it would be a "time bomb for the new civilian regime". He added that there would be a pay increase but it was unclear by how much. The Nigerian head of state, General Abdulsalami Abubakar, had promised a salary increase of 300 percent.

Oil company expects peaceful end to ultimatum

A Shell company spokesman in Nigeria said on Tuesday it was working towards a peaceful end to an ultimatum for oil multinationals to leave Ijaw areas in the main southeastern oil region, Reuters reported. "We are in dialogue with their representatives. All parties are reasonable and we expect a peaceful end." the spokesman said. Ethnic Ijaw groups scattered across Nigeria's oil delta area issued a joint ultimatum early in December to oil firms to leave their land by 30 December or face unspecified action over alleged pollution of land and deprivation of oil wealth.

However, the Ijaw National Congress (INC), an umbrella body for various Ijaw interest groups, dissociated itself on Tuesday from the ultimatum. It said in a statement that the decision to ask multinationals to leave was "never tabled before the highest decision-making body of the Ijaw nation". An upsurge of violence by armed militants, including sabotage and seizure of oil installations, has affected Nigeria's oil output in recent months.

Government to review fuel price hike

The Nigerian government set up a committee on Tuesday to review a recent increase in fuel prices that outraged labour unions, according to the Nigerian daily 'The Guardian'. Information Minister John Nwodo said the committee would review the hike and arrive at a "consensus" price on fuel products. The Nigerian Labour Congress withdrew threats to strike but warned that the government would face "workers's wrath" unless it reversed the higher prices.

The price of petroleum products soared last week. The price of a litre of kerosene went up from seven cents to 27 while gasoline jumped from 14 cents to 29. Transport fares have quadrupled, AFP reported.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian currency has been under intense pressure following economic concerns and an unusual year-end rise in the demand for US dollars. Bank traders said one dollar was selling for between 92 and 93 naira up from 90 last week, Reuters reported yesterday. The economy has been under serious strain as a result of falling world oil prices.

GUINEA BISSAU: Togo sends troops to Bissau

Togo has sent troops to Guinea Bissau as part of its contribution to the West African peacekeeping force, ECOMOG, due to be deployed there under a peace accord signed by rival civil war factions, a Togolese foreign ministry official told IRIN on Monday.

He said the ministry could not confirm the exact number of troops sent and how many more would follow. But Reuters reported that the first contingent numbered 80 and the French news agency, AFP, reported later that another 40 were to be flown in. Reuters said the contingent's first mission would be to open Bissau airport.

The troops are to be joined by contingents from Benin, Gambia and Niger. The total number of troops to be deployed has not been fixed but is expected to be between 1,400 and 1,500. The agreement to send troops was reached in a peace deal in November between the government of President Joao Bernardo Vieira and General Ansumane Mane, his sacked defence chief, in Abuja, the Nigerian capital.

The French foreign ministry said in a press statement on Wednesday it was evaluating how it could support the Abuja peace accord on Guinea Bissau. In the Gambian capital, Banjul, the French ambassador, Andre Lewin, told reporters on Tuesday that France was ready to help Gambia fulfill its commitment to send troops to Guinea Bissau, AFP reported. He did not say how France might help. The deployment of ECOMOG troops is a requirement for the withdrawal of Senegalese and Guinean troops sent in to support the government of President Joao Bernardo Vieira who was almost toppled by the self-styled Military Junta headed by General Ansumane Mane.

GUINEA: Conde on television for the first time

Guinea's detained leading opposition politician, Alpha Conde, has appeared briefly on television in what Guinean commentators said on Tuesday was a measure aimed at dispelling speculation about his health. Local reporters told IRIN that Conde appeared on television on Wednesday last week. He was smiling and was giving the V for victory sign. But the editor in chief of the 'L'Independent', a Conakry newspaper, said the footage lasted a "fraction of a second", making it difficult to determine Conde's physical condition.

Conde, one of the main challengers to President Lansana Conte in the 16 December presidential polls, was arrested the following day and accused of trying to cross into Cote d'Ivoire when the borders had been closed for the duration of the election. His arrest sparked protests and demands for his release.

BURKINA FASO: Commission probes journalist's death

A grouping of civic organisations and opposition parties in Burkina Faso set up an independent commission on Monday to investigate the death of journalist Norbert Zongo in unclear circumstances earlier in December, Reuters reported. In a statement, the commission said it would take the opportunity to investigate "all other unpunished crimes in Burkina Faso" adding that it would draft a report with recommendations on how to proceed in Zongo's case.

The Paris-based press watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF), criticised the police for the way they were handling the inquiry into Zongo's death. RSF said the police had not performed an autopsy, had not questioned witnesses or Zongo's family and had not compiled a report on the car in which Zongo's body was found. Zongo and three other people were found burned to death in a car near the capital, Ouagadougou.

Zongo was an editor of the weekly 'L'Independent' and was known for his critical views of the government. His death prompted demonstrations in several towns in Burkina Faso.

Abidjan, 31 December 1998, 16:15 GMT


Date: Thu, 31 Dec 1998 16:23:34 +0000 (GMT) From: UN IRIN - West Africa <> Subject: IRIN-West Africa Weekly Roundup no. 81 for 1998.12.31

Editor: Ali B. Ali-Dinar

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