With French warplanes bombing Timbuktu, the recent announcement by Sierra Leonean President Ernest Koroma that his country would contribute more than 600 troops to the African-led International Support Mission to Mali (AFISMA) went largely unnoticed in the West.
This announcement, however, shows that Sierra Leone truly has turned a corner in its movement toward the consolidation of peace. It’s been 11 years since the end of the West African nation’s civil war, a bloody conflict that displaced more than 2.5 million people and claimed the lives of 50,000 citizens.
Moreover, an estimated 10,000 children were the victims of military recruitment by all sides to the conflict, comprising more than half of the fighting forces.
The long-term impacts of the use of child soldiers is still being felt in places like Sierra Leone, which continues to struggle with this legacy. It is palpable. You can feel it in the streets. As one young man recounted to us on our drive from Lungi to the ferry crossing into Freetown, “Welcome to Sierra Leone. Security is perfect, for now. Tomorrow one does not know.”
Things are improving. Over the past decade, Sierra Leone has demobilized ex-combatants, conducted two free and fair democratic elections, hosted a UN-mandated special court to prosecute those responsible for recruiting child soldiers and conducting mass atrocities, and is now engaged in the first attempt to train all of its security personnel on the prevention of the use of children in armed conflict and their interaction with child soldiers, a project of which my organization is a partner. It is not insignificant that many of Sierra Leone’s soldiers are themselves former child soldiers.
Still, it is hard to believe that just over a decade ago Sierra Leone had Nigerian peacekeepers on its soil, attempting to bring an end to the conflict. Sierra Leone’s commitment to send troops to Mali underscores the transition it has made from conflict-zone to troop-contributing country to African Union peacekeeping missions, as it also has contributed troops to the UNAMID force in Sudan, another hotspot for the military recruitment of children. It is currently preparing for participation in an AU mission (AMISOM) in Somalia.
This progress is partly due to the professionalization of its military by allied countries, including the U.K. and Canada. Its decision now to train its troops to prevent the use of child soldiers will be critical in conflicts where child soldiers are a significant and, at times, primary weapon of war, such as Mali. Preparing for this interaction must be at the top of the security agenda. Ttroop-contributing countries from Africa understand this reality far more intimately than their Western counterparts.
AU peacekeeping missions and regional partners such as ECOWAS and AFISMA will continue to be major players in conflicts on the continent as the UN and Western Nations continue to scale back their commitments on the continent, a trend which has continued since the early 1990s.
As such, commitments to support training and professionalization of the AU and ECOWAS troops must be a priority for Canada and other Western nations. This preparation includes understanding how to prevent and react to the interaction with child soldiers.
If Sierra Leone understands the importance of such training and preparation, surely the West can offer support through funding and resources.
Prevention of the use of children as soldiers needs to be recognized as a significant step in preventing and dealing with armed conflict – an early warning indicator that has yet to be taken seriously by those who have the mandate to do so.
As one former child soldier said to us in Freetown: “We are tired of people coming here to take our stories, who then leave and nothing changes. We want to own the change and ensure the future of our country never sees children used in war again.”
The children of Sierra Leone, Mali, Sudan, and Somalia deserve nothing less.
Senator Roméo Dallaire is a retired lieutenant-general and former Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda. Dr. Shelly Whitman is the executive director of The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. February 12 is the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers.