Africa, Headlines

POLITICS: Five Years On, Guinea Still Occupies Sierra Leone’s Territory

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Jul 21 2004 (IPS) - Angry Sierra Leoneans are demanding that their government ask Guinea to withdraw its troops from their territory which they occupied five years ago.

Troops from Guinea occupied the eastern border town of Yenga during Sierra Leone’s civil war between the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and government forces.

But, even though the civil war in Sierra Leone has been over for two years now, Guinea has yet to relinquish control of the town – a diplomatic “problem in the making”.

‘’The Guineans have no stated aim to occupy any inch of Sierra Leonean territory. The matter of Yenga is being negotiated at the highest political level. And I can assure you that it will be resolved soon,’’ remarks Kanji Daramy, spokesperson for Sierra Leone’s president Ahmad Tejan Kabba.

Daramy did not say how soon Yenga, a territory in the eastern district of Kailahun, bordering Guinea, would be returned to Sierra Leone. This has angered Sierra Leoneans following recent media reports of continued harassment of the local people by Guinean troops.

‘’The Guineans have been in Yenga for about five years and our complacent government sits by watching this illegal occupation. This is unacceptable. The Guineans must leave,’’ rants Sheku Kammara, a youth activist in the capital Freetown.

He adds: ‘’Whether or not the Guineans have a genuine reason to hold on to our territory, they must leave that place. It is Sierra Leonean territory.’’

Yenga is a small but strategic town that lies between Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Guinean army first occupied it in 1999 as a buffer against insurgents who were then crossing from Sierra Leone to attack towns and villages inside Guinea.

The Guineans then stated that their aim was to fight the insurgents inside Sierra Leone and end the cross-border raids. They also used Yenga, as a base, to fight Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front whose headquarter was in that district. Guinea contributed troops to the regional intervention force ECOMOG during Sierra Leone’s bloody civil war of the 1990s.

The war itself was officially declared over in Jan. 2001 by President Kabba. And since then Freetown and Conakry have been locked in diplomatic moves to resolve the territorial dispute. But it seems the Guinean army is in no hurry to leave Yenga.

The matter has attracted the attention of the country’s legislators. Opposition leader, Ernest Koroma of the All People’s Congress (APC), says: ‘’I think this matter should be taken at regional political level. ECOWAS must intervene before the situation deteriorates further.’’

The politician, who ran as presidential candidate for the APC during the 2002 elections but lost to incumbent president Kabba, adds: ‘’Yenga cannot be a compensation for Guniea’s help to us during the war. It’s about our sovereignty as a nation and the dignity of our people.’’

Recent media reports say the occupation force has mobilised heavy military equipment and armed troops in Yenga. They also reportedly disrupt farming activities by the local people and restrict their movements in their own locality.

”The presence of Guinean troops in Yenga is quite intimidating to residents. They harass us and make us virtual slaves in our own land. The government should ask them to leave,’’ Morie Moigua, a resident of Yenga, told IPS.

The exact strength of the Guinean contingent at Yenga has not been made public nor do the authorities in Freetown talk about the issue openly.

‘’Whatever deal they made with the Guineans is their problem. I think the Guinean troops must leave our territory,’’ comments John Mattia, a civil society activist.

It seems the Guineans are deliberately holding on to Yenga for strategic reasons. Yenga provides easy bypass roads from Sierra Leone and Liberia into Guinea. The Guineans are taking no chances, having watched their neighbours go through years of vicious civil conflicts.

Guinea also still harbours suspicion against its southern neighbour Liberia whose former president Charles Taylor it constantly accused of training rebels to destabilise the sub-region. Conakry is believed to have backed insurgents that fought Taylor’s government in Liberia.

An official from the Guinean embassy in Freetown told IPS on condition of anonymity the issue of Yenga is not one of occupation.

‘’We have been in Yenga to secure our border and that of Sierra Leone. We used Yenga to fight the rebels inside this country and we don’t intend to hold on to Yenga. It’s all for security of our common borders and the sub region,’’ he said.

He, however, acknowledged that diplomatic moves were underway to resolve the dispute. At a recent meeting of heads of state of the Mano River Basin countries – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – in the Guinean capital Conakry, president Kabba and his Guinean counterpart Lansana Conte discussed the issue of Yenga. Government sources say moves are underway to resolve the dispute diplomatically.

Colonial boundary maps have been used to demarcate Yenga but it is still not clear when the matter will finally be laid to rest.

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