In 2002, Sierra Leone emerged from a decade-long civil war and as Allan Little discovers, much of it was thanks to a little-known British brigadier.
The Paras had been sent to Freetown to simply evacuate foreigners
It was an astonishing thing to witness: the fortunes of a whole country transformed in the space of a few days by a single, decisive intervention.
Eight hundred British paratroopers landed at Freetown airport just as the city was about to slip into the terrifying chaos of a rebel invasion and suddenly, unexpectedly, the shape of Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war was altered.
Or so it seemed to me at the time.
It was, in fact, a little more haphazard than that. And, I’ve subsequently learned, the British reporters on the ground in West Africa – myself included – seem, unwittingly, to have played a small part in it all.
The British Government sent paratroopers to the capital Freetown as a precautionary measure and to carry out a very limited operation.
Their task was to secure the airport and evacuate a few hundred British and other foreigners who were living in the city. The operation would take seven to 10 days, after which time the British troops would get out and leave Sierra Leone to its fate.
Freetown, we reported, was in a state of terror. Its citizens knew what a rebel assault would mean.
The rebel force, the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, was known for its brutality.
Its soldiers, often children, sometimes fuelled by drugs and drink, were merciless. The hacking off of limbs was their signature atrocity.
When the British arrived, the people saw them as saviours, and in the end that is what they turned out to be.
For the force commander, a little-known brigadier called David Richards, had other ideas. He saw a chance, took a risk, and changed the fate of the country.
David Richards is now General Sir David Richards and head of the British Army. I went to see him this week in London and this is his story.
“I could see,” he told me, “that with a little robustness, we could make a difference.”
If it had gone wrong, they’d have cut me off at the knees
General Sir David Richards
He went to see the president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who was preparing to flee the country.
“There was a helicopter parked beside his house,” General Richards told me. “I told him, you won’t be needing that I promise you.”
At that meeting, held within hours of the British landing in Sierra Leone, Richards promised the president that Britain would supply arms and ammunition to the government forces.
British helicopters would be made available to move men and material around the battlefield.
And he, General Richards, would, with a small team of British staff officers, take personal command of the war and seek to end it by defeating the rebel forces. In other words, Richards was committing Britain to taking sides in Sierra Leone’s civil war.
However, there was one important difficulty. The general’s political bosses in London had sent him to carry out a quick evacuation and then leave.
“So,” I asked him 10 years on, “you were promising the president all this before you had the political authority from London to do so?”
“Er, yes,” he said, “I’m afraid I was, yes.”
For several days, the political leaders in London stuck with the evacuation narrative, while their man on the ground got on with fighting a war.
I needed to get a message up beyond the Ministry of Defence
General Sir David Richards
“Fortunately,” he told me, “the military activities and equipment we needed for an evacuation were remarkably similar to what I needed to push back the rebel forces. So in terms of constructing a tale for London, that was useful.”
“So wait a minute,” I said, “London was kitting you up for a quick evacuation operation, and you decided to use that kit to intervene in the war?”
“Yes,” he said.
For a few days he came under pressure from the Ministry of Defence to carry out his evacuation and then get out.
The problem was now that the British were there, Freetown felt safe and most foreigners did not want to be evacuated.
“I needed,” he told me, “to get a message up beyond the Ministry of Defence. I needed to get to the next level up. I needed to get to Prime Minister Tony Blair. And I did that through you reporters on the ground, including you.”
I look now at some of my reports from the time. “There is no longer any pretence,” I say in one, “that this operation is about evacuation. It is about much much more than that.”
Very quickly, it became clear that the intervention would be successful. The British government backed the brigadier’s bold change of plan.
“If it had gone wrong,” he said, “they’d have cut me off at the knees.”
It became, after Kosovo, the second of what would come to be known as “Blair’s wars”, an early example of the kind of liberal interventionism that would later take Britain to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Did it,” I ask, “embolden British politicians, and lead them to think of war not as a last resort but as just another policy option?”
“There might,” he said, “be something in that.”