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Is Nigeria a Coup Cop or Bully in Sierra Leone?

Efforts to restore democracy in Sierra Leone mark Nigeria's latest attempt as peacemaker in West Africa

Humiliated at the hands of what it had described as a rag-tag army of mutinous soldiers and bush rebels, Nigeria says it will continue to spearhead regional efforts to return to power the elected government of Sierra Leone, which was ousted in a military coup May 25.

"Legitimate government, peace, and security will be restored," said Tom Ikimi, Nigeria's foreign minister, after a meeting of heads of state at the annual summit of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, Tuesday. "Our actions have been fully supported."

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Mr. Ikimi said he was concerned not only about the need to ensure the return of constitutional rule in Sierra Leone, but also to prevent instability spreading to neighboring Liberia, itself only now hesitantly emerging from a seven-year civil war. Nigeria has had troops stationed there since 1990.

Nigeria's failed effort Monday to oust coup leaders in Sierra Leone followed the collapse of efforts by Western diplomats to persuade the coup leaders to stand down in the face of the international community's universal condemnation. Officials say that while they were close to a deal with Maj. Johnny Paul Koroma, the self-declared head of state, the conspirators' new allies in the rebel Revolutionary United Front bitterly opposed an agreement with the ousted civilian government and Nigeria. Both the rebels and the mutineers have grown increasingly disenchanted with an agreement signed last November designed to end the country's brutal six-year civil war.

Nigeria's mandate for marching into Sierra Leone is uncertain. Despite words of encouragement from regional leaders, there was no authorization from the United Nations for military intervention, nor from the OAU. There has been no meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Abbas Bundu, a former executive secretary of the subregional grouping, has described Nigeria's actions as "totally unwarranted and unjustified."

Exactly what Nigeria hopes to achieve in Sierra Leone has been the source of much speculation. Gen. Sani Abacha, Nigeria's head of state, himself came to power after his army annulled elections widely regarded as free and fair in 1993. His ministers have persistently railed against Western criticism, both of the takeover and subsequent allegations of human rights abuses, as unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of an independent sovereign nation.

Nigeria's now-robust involvement in the affairs of its tiny, impoverished neighbor, ostensibly to restore democracy, is an irony that has been gleefully seized upon the coup leaders' radio station in Sierra Leone. Broadcasts have called on Africa's most populous nation to sort out its own problems before tackling theirs.

Warming up to the West

Officials say the close cooperation between Nigerian troops, US Marines, and British military officials in the days that followed the May 25 putsch in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, may have encouraged General Abacha to believe that by acting as a can-do regional policeman, he could ease the mounting problems he faces at home and abroad.

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The European Union this week voted to extend the watery measures it has in place against Nigeria's military rulers, while London and Washington had both been speaking about new, tougher policies. The country was attracting the kind of pariah status usually associated with countries accused of sponsoring international terrorism - Sudan, Libya, Iran.

"A swift, clean operation would have shown the world of what we are capable," one defense official in Lagos says. "We could have eased this talk of sanctions and presented ourselves again as the friends of Western interests."

Above all, intervention provides welcome relief from problems at home. It gave an example of how very much worse things can become when security is challenged, a demonstration of the army's willingness to act, and a challenge to any junior officer tempted to follow their Sierra Leonean counterparts. While Nigeria's independent media has been unequivocally supportive - "Flush Out The Rascals" says the daily Vanguard - there is increasing frustration over economic mismanagement in a country marked by massive inequalities of wealth and manipulation of the program scheduled to return the country to civilian rule next year.

High cost of failure

But while success has its attractions, the consequences of failure are probably too great even too contemplate. "It's not a question only of prestige and status," says one defense attach in Lagos. "Their authority abroad and at home would be fatally damaged by anything less now than the reinstallation of President Kabbah."

Even if Nigeria succeeds in bringing Ahmed Tejman Kabbah back from exile in Guinea, there are further problems on the horizon.

After elections widely praised as free and fair early last year, Sierra Leone's civilian government has been accused of tribal bias by a hostile army and of failing to deliver peace. It has also failed to breathe life into an economy now one of the poorest in the world, despite a wealth of natural resources.

"To put Mr. Kabbah back in power will be difficult," says one Western diplomat. "But to keep him there, with hostile rebels across the country, will be harder still."

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