Yenga’s occupation by Guinean forces presents a unique problem for Sierra leone that has faced two succeeding governments.
The SLPP government led by Ex-Pressident Ahmed Tejan Kabba appeared to play down Yenga’s occupation leading some Sierra Leoneans into wild speculations. Some alleged that Ex-President Kabba’s silence on the issue may have been the result of a surreptitious deal between him and the President of Guinea that transferred ownership of Yenga to the latter.
But one year into the Presidency, his Excellency, Ernest Bai Koroma has treaded cautiously on the issue of Yenga. The occupation of Yenga by foreign forces is no where closer to a resolution and there are reports of low level abuses perpetrated by Guinean forces.
Yenga is a territory in the Kailahun District that borders the Republic of Guinea. Guinea’s claim to Yenga dates as far back as the 1960’s following independence. Government officials of both countries have met repeatedly to discuss the disputed territory of Yenga but such talks had been kept as top secrete and never disclosed to the public.
In spite of Guinea’s claim to Yenga during the past four decades international relations between Guinea and Sierra Leone never soared. In fact relations between the two countries were strengthened by the development of ECOWAS, Manor River Union, and several bilateral relations including the ratification of a common defense pact between Sierra Leone and Guinea in the 1970’s.
But the controversy over Yenga took a dramatic turn when Guinean forces occupied Yenga following the ten year civil war in Sierra Leone. This new development means that the two countries shifted sides in the conflict making Guinea the occupier and Sierra Leone the complainant.
During the Ten Year civil war in Sierra Leone, Guinean forces like those of Nigeria and the international community fought alongside the exiled Sierra Leone government to defeat the Rebel groups. In the retreat, following the restoration of the exile government of Sierra Leone to power, Guinean forces laid settlement in Yenga and never left ever since.
The occupation of Yenga by Guinean forces has all the appearance of an aggression. But one wonders if the case of this disputed territory was ever brought to the United Nations and or to the Organization of African Unity, now called the African Union (AU), in light of the secrecy involved. If so, then the case is a pending matter and Guinea’s action in light of a case pending in the United Nations and or the AU may very well be a violation of either chatters.
A lot should be said, however, about Guinea’s actions in the past forty years since first making the claim to Yenga. Unlike other territorial disputes that quickly resulted in war, Guinea consistently acted responsibly throughout seeking to negotiate rather than go to war. Even now, no blood was spilled in the occupation making it hard for international organizations to classify the dispute as an urgent matter. But a failure by international organizations to condemn Guinea’s action, assuming that the matter was pending for adjudication, would be tantamount to recklessness.
The occupation of Yenga has often been discussed in Sierra leone fora and many salient points emerged during those discussions assessing the options available to Sierra Leone. Though Sierra Leone has the right to self defense when its security is breached and its territory seized, the Sierra Leone government, by all indications, will not exercise the right to defend itself militarily as publicly pronounced by the Minister of defense, Paola. According to the Minister of Defense war is not an option.
Although some in the Diaspora reached the same conclusion as the government of Sierra Leone that war should not be an option, but it was for a different reason. Some in the Diaspora speculate that Guinean forces are stronger leading them to conclude that it would be unwise to wage a war of liberation.
Aside from Guinean forces been allegedly stronger, one significant point that surfaced in most discussion regards the current psychology of the multitude of Sierra Leoneans caused by the experience of the ten year civil war which reportedly resulted in the loss of nearly 50,000 lives and devastated Sierra Leones infrastructure and economy. It is argued that the experience of the civil war is still fresh in peoples minds and that the people are still in a state of mourning thereby making it inconceivable that they would opt for war.
The cards are stacked up against Sierra Leone as the debate on Yenga also reveals startling information about the economic dependency of Sierra Leone on Guinea. There are those who believe that Sierra Leone is so dependent on Guinea that it would be disingenuous to attempt to close the boarder and recall Ambassadors. They argue that Sierra Leone traders have a lot more to loose in a boarder closing.
Economics is a major consideration in the search for a rational approach to the Yenga problem. Today, Sierra Leone is ranked at the bottom of the world’s economic index and regarded as one of the world’s poorest countries. The government of his Excellency Ernest Bai Koroma has made as his highest priority the resuscitation of Sierra Leone’s economy. War with Guinean forces will create a counter productive environment for the government’s economic program. In fact it is highly unlikely that Yenga will do well in a pole of the general public that ranks the nations priorities at this given time.
Yenga has switched sides in the boarder dispute between Sierra Leone and Guinea during an unfortunate incident that left Sierra Leone vulnerable and Yenga an easy target. This was a bloodless take over by Guinean forces making the boarder dispute in this region still a civilized one that is crying for attention from international bodies. The African Union and the United Nations should take the opportunity to resolve this conflict peacefully in order to demonstrate to the world an example of a civilized handling of boarder disputes and to commend Sierra Leone and Guinea for their maturity displayed in the conflict.
Sierra Leone should use every opportunity to bring the matter to the UN Security Council and to the African Union and it should readily make public all its efforts in that endeavor lest it appears that the government is doing nothing.