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Vicious Cycle Diplomacy Over Yenga

By Mohamed Juma Jalloh

It is often said that it is only a fool who would continue doing the same thing and expect different results. The maxim mirrors the diplomatic deadlock confronted by successive Sierra Leonean governments over the Yenga border dispute with neighbouring Guinea. The current diplomatic push by the Bio led government would certainly end up in cementing another agreement by way of both countries signing a communiqué.

Agreements can be signed but whenever the reality sets in, Sierra Leone becomes a crying baby over Yenga with no alternative but to pursing a diplomatic approach.  From the Sierra Leonean perspective, diplomacy has proven to be redundant and superfluous as the Guineans would always device excuses to breathe over Yenga.

The justifications of the Guineans constantly take the form of political, security and economic concerns. Conversely, Sierra Leone reminds the Guineans of the indispensable historical and family ties between the two countries.  Given the inextricable ties between the two states, these allegations could be repeated by the Guineans whenever there is a pretext to play hegemony over Sierra Leone.

The Bio led government is throwing another dice hoping to find a lasting solution to the border dispute with neighbouring Guinea through bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Only time would tell, whether the Yenga dispute can be permanently laid to rest by President Bio and Conde.

Every now and then the flexing of muscles over Yenga is dictated by political dynamics in Conakry irrespective of how the Sierra Leone government feels or thinks of the situation. The screws can be further tightened when Sierra Leone is perceived as having an interest in effecting political change in Guinea. Before elucidating further, it is important to trace the antecedents of diplomatic advance initiated by Sierra Leone. When the guns went silent after the civil war, Sierra Leone recognized the occupation of the Yenga village by the Guinean armed forces (GAF), which is a tiny mud and roof thatch dominated settlement along the Makona/Moa river in Kissi Teng Chiefdom Kailahun District.

Apprehensive in jeopardizing the historical and social ties with Guinea, late President Tejan Kabbah opted for a diplomatic move.

Former President Kabbah used his acumen as an accomplished United Nations diplomat to get himself, Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and Lansana Conteh of Guinea to row across the Makaona/Moa River in a locally made dugout canoe in 2004. Legal experts in the Kabbah led government such as Francis Gabbidon had advised for an arbitration in the International Court for Border Disputes(ICBD).Lawyer Gabidon`s advise was regarded as bold and hot headed that could jeopardize relations between the two sister countries. However, Late president Kabbah scored a diplomatic success as he pointed out to the other leaders of the Mano River Union (a subregional grouping) that the makona/Moa river is the historical and colonial boundary between the two countries. The same deiplomatic approach was also replicated by Former President Koroma in 2011. As said by Napoleon Bonarparte the 19th century war Emperor of France “agreements are on paper the strongest can violate with little or no consequences”. This an attitude the Guineans have adopted over the Yenga border dispute with her conjugal and eternal neigbour-the Republic of Sierra Leone. Ever since Yenga came under Guinean Occupation, efforts at regaining the enclave by Sierra Leone have always ended in a vicious circle. In 2005, the Kabbah led government and Lansana Conteh, the former president of Guinea signed a joint declaration on the border dispute. The freedom of movement of people`s and goods were guaranteed from Both sides of the Moa/Makona river, the natural boundary dating back to the colonial era. With the signing of the declaration, many Sierra Leoneans were of the conviction that the issue has been amicably resolved. However, Political events in Guinea have the tendency to change the status of Yenga which ultimately has bilateral consequences for the two countries. Before expanding further, it is vital to set the historical/context of the Makona Moa river which serves as the point of territorial demarcation. This river has been persistently emphasized by Successive governments on the Sierra Leone front as the indelible frontier that demarcates the land border between the two sister countries. Without advancing reasons to be cynical, the Guineans are not oblivious of the fact that the Makona/Moa River is the ineffaceable demarcation accepted by both the French and the British following the Berlin Conference of 1885. Pan Africanist organizations and other Black conscious groups cannot stop cursing the organizers of the Berlin conference, as the event would eternally be remembered as the most destructive conference to the continental unity of Africa.     

 This was a conference convened by the German chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck to properly carve out Africa in a mode that avoids physical confrontation between and among the European Colonial powers. Thus, rivers, lakes, Mountain ranges are nonetheless settled upon by colonial giants as points demarcating mutual spheres of territorial interest. In most instances families living across the river can now be found to be different citizens by way paying taxes and allegiances to different foreign powers.

Therefore, the Makona/Moa River has for more than a century permanently served as the ineradicable boundary between Guinea and Sierra Leone. When the Civil war broke out in neighboring Sierra Leone in 1991 coincidentally in the same Kailahun district, Guinean troops (acting upon Mano River Security agreement) crossed the Makona/Moa River. A huge garrison was stationed at Daru obviously the first major town enroute to Freetown, the Capital City.

As the War was declared over in 2002, the Guineans only retreated to the border village of Yenga about seven miles from the river inside Sierra Leone territory.

When Lansana Conteh died in 2008 and Captain Musa Dadis Kamara took over the mantle as head of state, Guineans returned back to Yenga. As highlighted earlier, political changes in Conakry automatically affected the status of Yenga. The river was not only crossed by the Guineans but the occupation was accompanied by armoured tanks and heavy artillery directed towards Kailahun Town. From 2008-2011 the occupation was deeply entrenched by the Guineans. Reports were rife of a deprivation like treatment meted out to residents of Yenga village. Human right abuses were rampant as indigenes were prevented to cultivate farm lands, Sierra Leoneans were prohibited from operating commercial boat transportation on the Makona/Moa River. The Guineans went as far as exploiting minerals such as gold in the form of artisanal mining. The Year 2012 was an election year in Sierra Leone and Former president Koroma was keen on gaining re-election. Back then the opposition SLPP had seized on the paralyses of the Koroma led government to solve the Yenga dispute. The opposition was trumping the issue as a surrender of territorial integrity to the Guineans. After President  Alpha Conde was voted in to power in Guinea, former president Koroma used his Diplomatic prowess and was confident in engaging a civilian constituted government as opposed to the military government of Capt. Daddis Kamara. Again in 2011 a joint communiqué was signed between President Conde and President Koroma. The armoured tanks and gigantic artillery were rolled back across the Makona/Moa River. The freedom of movement of goods and people`s were also guaranteed leading to the signing of a second Communiqué between the two countries on Yenga. For the second time, it was of a feeling of certainty that dawn on many Sierra Leoneans that the Yenga crisis has been diligently handled diplomatically. A gift of 2,000 tonnes of rice was donated by President Conde, to the people of Sierra Leone. A fanfare was made of the rice donation but a critical tabloid sounded a note of caution “even though we must not find fault with a generous offer but we must be wary of Greeks when they make an offer”.

After completing his two terms of 5 years each  constitutional mandate, democratic and political pundits were shocked when President Conde announced that he would run for a third term as president of Guinea. He successfully fiddled with the constitution and organized a referendum for a third term that legitimized his candidacy as a presidential aspirant in 2020.The ensuing election was fiercely contested between incumbent Alpha Conde and the main Opposition Cellou Dallen Diallo who was mainly backed by the Fullah ethnic group. Competing socio- ethnic interest across the sub-region creates simmering tensions and raised the stakes high during the elections. President Conde openly accused Sierra Leone of meddling in the internal affairs of Guinea given that the former has a Fullah as Vice president. Bilateral relations deteriorated, prompting the closure of the main border crossing points between the sister countries. Despite the consideration of a negative economic impact emanating from the closure of the borders, both countries could be able to navigate through a protracted border closure. However, a massive incursion of Guinean troops in Yenga in mid January 2021 raised eyebrows creating some foreboding in the Sierra Leonean government. According to some Yenga residents the incursion by the Guineans is precipitated by the removal of a buffer zone demarcation pillar as a result of a road construction initiated in the district by the Bio led government. It simply begs the question how can a buffer Zone be created in Sierra Leone territory when the Makona/Moa River has always served as the original boundary between the two countries? If there is buffer on the Sierra Leonean side of the river it is only fair as dictated by international law for another buffer to be created on the Guinean side of the river. To the Guineans, Yenga has a strategic security value, because of its high altitude; the area could be used as a launch pad to repelling enemy attacks thereby by proactively averting a spillover of conflict into Guinean territory. Therefore, it is easy discerning that the Guineans fit Yenga into a long-term security plan. These are observations made by Rtd Major Palo Conteh the erstwhile Minister of Defence and Internal Affairs when he visited Yenga in 2011.

The Guineans are also wary of cross border security crimes such as carjacking, drug trafficking, human trafficking, which has further informed the tightening of the border screws. One of the recommendations in the current deliberations to resolve the dispute has been joint border patrols and security information sharing by both countries.

To Sierra Leone, Yenga is the first outpost for a West Africa economic adventure, the village does not only share border with Liberia and Sierra Leone, it is a gateway to countries such as Ivory Coast and Burkina Fasso whose proximities are not far from Yenga. The skeletal security presence on the Sierra Leone side of the river has served as a stimulus for intermittent incursions into Yenga by the Guineans. Comparatively, as remarked by the Human rights Commission of Sierra Leone that was on the ground to explore human rights violations, confirms a huge military and gendarme presence on the Guinea side of the Makona Moa River. Given the historical and socio-ethnic ties between the two neighbouring countries and the regional consequences a conflict over Yenga may spur, Sierra Leone has pursued a cautious policy over the years. However, Sierra Leone can no longer entertain the provocative incursion by the Guineans over Yenga that is often precipitated by political dynamics in Conakry. As consistently emphasized by the Bio led government, Yenga is undisputedly part of Sierra Leone`s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Even with the signing of two declarations and an impending one, hoping to be cemented in Conakry by President Bio and President Conde. It remains unclear whether the Guineans would allow Sierra Leone security forces to have an encampment at Yenga. Even when Guinean troops make occasional fall backs across the river, Sierra Leonean troops are prevented from returning to Yenga in Kissi Teng Chiefdom Kailahun District. It is true that Sierra Leone has pursued two diplomatic efforts over Yenga which is violated depending on the circumstances affecting the bilateral relation between Guinea and Sierra Leone at the moment. It is with great optimism that the present Bilateral and multilateral diplomatic efforts initiated by the Sierra Leonean government would bury the Yenga dispute to the dustbin of history with a resolve of never to be resurrected. If three successive Sierra Leonean presidents cannot solve the Yenga dispute diplomatically, it is high time there was arbitration to the International Court for Border Disputes (ICBD) for a permanent foreclosure. Afterwards, the Cameroonians pursued diplomatic and military efforts in the Bakassi peninsular conflict against Nigeria, her last resort was to seek international justice by way of an arbitration to the (ICBD).Another option is to pursue a policy of military deterrence as is the case with small Rwanda that is surrounded by huge intimidating neighbours such as Kenya, Uganda and Democratic republic of Congo. By strengthening it military capabilities little Rwanda has ceased to be the punch bag of her powerful neighbours. Sierra Leone could adopt a similar policy in relation to her powerful Mano River neighbours particularly Guinea that normally pursues a bullying attitude towards Sierra Leone. In puzzlement to some observers, they can hardly fathom how a country that is almost three times the size of Sierra Leone continues to harry her neighbour over a tiny village inside her own territory.      


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