The Arms for Sierra Leone Affair

An exercise in hindsight: who whom?

A warning on timing

This commentary was written before the publication of the report on the Sierra Leone Arms affair by the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, now (9 February 1999) available on the Web.

What did the Africa Department know and do?

A careful reading of the Legg Report[1], along with a video of the questioning by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs of the FCO’s Permanent Under-Secretary (PUS) and Head of the Diplomatic Service, Sir John Kerr (courtesy of the Parliament Channel on cable TV), and precious little useful print media coverage, at last permit some assessment of what happened, who did what and to whom, and why.

The impression which dominates all others is of a sad state of affairs at both the top and the working levels of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. The hapless members of the weirdly named “Africa Department (Equatorial)” – AD(E) – repeatedly received documents and messages which, taken together, ought to have alerted them at an early stage to the fact that a British company, Sandline, was about to export, or had recently exported, arms to Sierra Leone, and that this was or would be a breach of the UN arms embargo and of UK law. Yet each one was simply filed away, ignored, forgotten, or lost without trace: and even those officials who were supposedly the department’s experts on the problem had a badly flawed idea of the international and domestic legal situations. When, late in the day, the FCO Legal Adviser realised that there was a problem and suggested to Sir John Kerr’s Private Secretary that the “Director of the Africa Command” [sic!] – ie the Assistant Under-Secretary (AUS) responsible for Africa – should be asked to investigate and report to the Secretary of State, the Private Secretary did so, but put the papers on one side until the AUS reported (and meanwhile no-one saw fit to say anything to Robin Cook). The AUS reported to the PUS on 3 April, in terms that suggested (wrongly) that no arms shipment had occurred – AD(E) “were not aware of any shipment of arms.” At this point Sir John Kerr effectively put AD(E) in quarantine, instructed everyone to do nothing that could compromise the Customs investigation then under way, decided to take no further part in any further action in case he was later required to participate in disciplinary proceedings against a member or members of the Diplomatic Service, and asked the AUS to arrange for another official to examine the papers. The results of this examination reached Sir John Kerr only on 24 April, 3 weeks after the matter had come to his attention: too late, because on the same day, the whole affair was blown wide open by the arrival of the letter from Sandline’s solicitors to Robin Cook acknowledging that Sandline had sent arms to Sierra Leone and claiming that it had done so with the knowledge and approval of the British Government. This was the first that Robin Cook heard of the matter. Sir John Kerr told the Legg enquiry that when he first heard of the matter, three weeks earlier, “he did not think it right to inform Ministers of the allegations without having a clear idea of their weight.”[1] The remark defeats comment.

Were Ministers properly briefed for answering questions in Parliament?

The Legg report describes the briefs, each one prepared by junior AD(E) officials and approved in draft by more senior ones, as “inaccurate, incomplete and indigestible”[2], “incomplete ….  [the minister] had no way of knowing that more facts were available to his officials than had been made available to him”[3], “misleading, since [the documents submitted to ministers] appeared to be saying that the FCO had no prior knowledge of any shipment of arms …  substantially incomplete”[4].

Why did officials fail to act on the information available, or to inform or properly to brief ministers?

Legg and Ibbs[5] acquit the officials concerned of any deliberate intention to suppress or ignore information or to mislead or inadequately to brief ministers. They stress that a contributory factor in these repeated failures was that some FCO officials (and ministers) “have to work at or beyond the limits of their capacity …. even without [the additional workload imposed by Britain’s EU Presidency] significant overload seems likely to continue. If additional resources are not available, attention needs to be given to simplifying and streamlining the work, or reducing the span that is attempted [my emphasis].[6]”  Pregnant words! We shall return to them.

But Legg and Ibbs are clear that the main culprit was the system of work in the FCO and the FCO culture: ” most of the trouble originated from systemic and cultural factors[7] …. much of what went wrong stemmed from a cumulative succession of failures of communication[8] Those compiling and approving press lines should bear in mind that their readers will tend to assume that their line tells the full story. If it does not, they need conscientiously to try to avoid it being used inappropriately[9] [Another lesson to be learned] is the need to be aware of domestic political sensitivities officials need to be alert for developments which could trigger political sensitivities[10] [and of] the need to give Ministers early and effective warning, however informal, of such developments[11] the quality of Parliamentary briefings, for at least some FCO Ministers, needs serious attention[12] [my emphasis – how feline!] we were impressed by the extent to which important work was delegated to junior levels it is necessary to ensure that its recipients get adequate guidance and training[13] when difficult and exceptional situations arise, it can be useful to give another person clear and undivided responsibility for taking the lead important to ensure [that such events] are not managed in a way that cuts off the upward flow of information or causes loss of morale[14] the style of modern management is towards fewer layers in the hierarchy and greater informality, and these are conducive to effective communication and common effort  the FCO has clearly travelled a considerable way in that direction. However, we believe there is room for further movement.”[15] Rarely, except perhaps by Mr Justice Scott, can such a comprehensive and withering indictment have been so tactfully expressed. Yet, just as with the Scott report, there are signs that FCO officials are indignant at what they perceive as the unfairness of the Legg report and its findings.

Being economical with the truth

The reference in the report to the danger of assuming that an approved press line (the line to take with the press in reply to media questions on a particular issue) “tells the whole story”[9] is of special interest. A significant factor in the misrepresentations and misunderstandings which plagued this affair was the widespread but mistaken belief, or assumption, that the UN arms embargo, and therefore the UK law embodying it, applied to the illegal military junta which had seized power in Sierra Leone but not to the still-recognised rgime whose restoration to power was the main purpose of UN and UK policy. In fact, both the resolution and the UK Order in Council applied to all the parties in Sierra Leone, including the Kabbah government and its forces and officials, as well as – probably – to ECOMOG[16]. The reasons for this (as it turned out) disastrous misapprehension are very revealing. Africa Department (Equatorial) initially assumed that the UN embargo – and hence the UK legislation to implement it – would apply only to the illegal junta. It was the United Nations Department that “explained” that the more normal blanket ban would be more straightforward and enforceable, and this was accepted and understood at the time by AD(E), UND, the FCO legal advisers, Tony Lloyd and Robin Cook – not just because a blanket ban would be more normal and easier to enforce but also because UK policy was to secure President Kabbah’s return to power by peaceful means if possible. But it was not AD(E)’s initial intention: UND took the lead over the framing of the UN resolution: but AD(E) was subsequently responsible for almost all the political action, briefing, etc. From the start, the fact that the embargo applied to the Kabbah government as well as to the junta “was not published abroad.[17]” The Legg report cites clear evidence that although everyone concerned had apparently agreed to, and understood, the blanket ban, “officials’ grasp of its implications seems from the first to have been uncertain[18]“. According to Legg, the British framers of the UN resolution “did not doubt that the arms embargo imposed by the resolution was comprehensive in its coverage. However, British officials and Ministers continued to play this aspect down, partly because of the sensitivities [over the role of ECOMOG and the Nigerians] and partly because they genuinely saw the embargo as primarily aimed at the junta. For these reasons, and for simplicity, a number of British or British-influenced announcements about the Resolution described it as imposing an arms embargo on the junta.[19]” Various official statements and other texts referred to the embargo, or sanctions, as having been Imposed “on the junta” – which they were: but as Legg points out, it was highly misleading to omit to explain that they applied to everyone else too. And when the UN resolution was embodied in a UK Order in Council, in even more sweepingly comprehensive terms than the UN resolution, it was left to the legal advisers and UN Department to decide its terms and submit them for ministerial approval: AD(E) was not consulted (“following usual practice”).

So it was that officials devised a press and public line which was technically correct but actually misleading, because they wanted to avoid “embarrassment”: ministers approved it, but without anyone spelling out to them the implications of its misleading incompleteness: no-one sent out guidance to overseas FCO posts, even to the High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, to give them what Legg calls “the full story”: nor apparently was such guidance circulated within the FCO. By deliberately withholding the “full story” from the press, Parliament and the public, officials also managed in the end to mislead each other. The eventual cost to them of this disingenuous manipulation of the facts was heavy. There was no deliberate deceit – the texts of the UN resolution and of the Order in Council were freely, or expensively, available to anyone who cared to read them. But few actually thought it necessary to do so; most relied on the official texts and handouts; and many were not even aware of the existence of the Order in Council, about which no guidance of any kind seems ever to have been issued. One of the most unfortunate and specific results of all this was that the luckless High Commissioner in Sierra Leone believed that the embargo did not apply to President Kabbah’s government and this belief was naturally reflected in his numerous contacts with, and advice to, the President. The same was apparently true of Sandline, and many others.

The moral hardly needs to be rubbed in. Nor does the parallel with the findings of the Scott report on arms for Iraq. To avoid trouble, embarrassment, treading on sensitive toes, arousing public controversy, prompting awkward questions, or whatever, officials were economical with the truth, and came to grief as a result. In the case of Sierra Leone, though, ministers seem to have been genuinely unaware of the inadequacy of the public line and its implications. And that in turn has important implications for –

Officials’ relations with ministers

Many of the mistakes, omissions, humiliations and failures could have been avoided if officials at all levels had had the kind of relaxed relationship with their ministers that would have allowed vital, even if still incomplete, information to be conveyed to them at an early stage: information which would have provided them with the essential background to and amplification of the official line; and which might have started alarm bells ringing in more sensitive ears at a much earlier stage. There seems to have been a similar failure of informal communications between junior and senior officials. Part of the reason for this failure to pass on early informal warnings was no doubt that most of the officials who came across the vital information in the early stages failed to spot its political importance and potential for damaging controversy – and part of the reason for that failure was in turn that so many officials failed to identify a consignment of arms designed to help restore Kabbah to power as entailing a breach of the embargo, for the reasons discussed earlier. And we must give weight, as the Legg report repeatedly does, to the fact that most of the officials concerned were seriously over-worked, functioning in a seriously under-staffed department, preoccupied with a continuing crisis whose immediate demands on their time and attention seemed far more pressing than obscure allegations of a possible breach of the arms embargo which had anyway been referred to Customs for investigation. As both Sir John Kerr and his officials pointed out to the Select Committee, allegations of breaches of UN embargoes were common, they were automatically referred to Customs for investigation, they rarely needed to be reported to ministers or even to senior officials at that stage: it was only the (quite late) surfacing of the allegation that this particular breach had been approved by the British Government that made it such a hot potato. But this won’t entirely wash. Officials knew at an earlier stage of the links between the High Commissioner in Sierra Leone and Sandline, and at least one had been deeply perturbed by – had indeed reported to higher authority – the High Commissioner’s apparent enthusiasm for the use of force to restore Kabbah to power. It seems, to this writer anyway, a little sad that none of these concerns and reports was ever apparently aired with a minister or the PUS over a cup of coffee, in a ministerial car on the way to an official lunch, on an aircraft journey, over breakfast in a hotel on tour, or even by means of an off-the-record oral message passed through a Private Secretary.

Some of the blame for this communications disaster must in any case surely rest with the Private Secretaries. It is, or anyway used to be, an important part of their jobs to keep their ears close to the ground with relevant officials, even junior ones: to tune their political antennae so as to catch the first faint signals of impending trouble: to act as an informal conduit between departments and their political chiefs for preliminary tip-offs, slight worries, even rumours. Why didn’t this happen over Sierra Leone? Did officials not trust their ministers to react calmly and sensibly to unwelcome news, especially if that news might subsequently turn out to be without any basis? That seems unlikely. Or did ministers not take the trouble to listen to their officials because they didn’t entirely trust them – even their own Private Secretaries? That too seems unlikely. All that those of us outside the goldfish bowl can safely say is that the informal system doesn’t seem to have worked in the way it should – nor in the way it did once upon a time, under both Conservative and Labour governments.

Other questions worth asking

There are other questions which (we must assume) went beyond the scope of the Legg enquiry. What exactly was Sandline’s role in all this? There are some shadowy figures, apparently outside the public service, whose names constantly recur in the Legg report, some seemingly linked to diamond interests, some with evident links to key players. What if anything was their relationship with or influence on the British government and its officials in two continents? How much did the intelligence agencies know about what was happening and how much of it did they pass on to FCO ministers or officials? Why was the British High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, Peter Penfold, instructed or authorised by London to accompany President Kabbah into exile in Conakry, continuing to act as the accredited representative of HMG to the Kabbah government, in clear contravention of the established principle that the British government recognises states and not governments (we have not recognised any other government in exile since the end of the second world war)?

It is generally safer to rely on the cock-up than the conspiracy theories of history, and there are limits to how much further investigation of an essentially minor episode can be justified – especially if it threatens to turn into a witch hunt. Still, there’s a lot we don’t know. So we should applaud the tenacity of the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs in continuing to rummage in this murky cupboard, notwithstanding the anguished cries from within.

Matching resources to tasking

Why were the key people involved so over-worked that they came to drop so many catches? Legg notes that the head of AD(E) was – no doubt still is – responsible for 31 countries, her immediate deputy for this area for 21 and the head of the West Africa section for 13. There was a time in the not-that-distant past when the work now falling to AD(E) was shared out among four – once even five – separate departments. Some of this concentration of a heavy workload into ever fewer hands reflects Africa’s low rating in the FCO’s priorities, even though Africa throws up far more than its share of crises and tragedies demanding official British responses and action. (We shall come to rue our current neglect of Africa, where some of the world’s most intractable problems are brewing.) But it is not just over Africa that fewer and fewer FCO officials are wrestling with more and more work. The passion of the previous government for reducing public spending and governmental activity in every possible sphere was translated into a long succession of quite arbitrary cuts in departments’ and overseas posts’ staff limits and other resources, often without any regard being paid to the implications of those cuts for the workload. When it comes to cuts in Whitehall, the FCO is not always brilliant at the necessary in-fighting: its officials spend too much time abroad to become familiar with the rules and personalities of the Whitehall power game; and its ministers have sometimes been just as enthusiastic as the Treasury and the Chancellor for cuts. FCO officials have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid having to form up to their ministers – essentially to the Foreign Secretary – with the message that if staff and other resources are cut any further without a corresponding cut in the FCO’s workload, it will be impossible to provide an adequate service to ministers themselves, to Parliament or to the public. Ministers in turn – ministers of both parties of government – have always been unwilling to say to Parliament or to the press and the public that cuts and economies now make it impossible to maintain the flow of information and action which we all hitherto took for granted. All this is economically encapsulated in Legg’s warning that: “If additional resources are not available, attention needs to be given to simplifying and streamlining the work, or reducing the span that is attempted.” In practice, the scope for simplifying and streamlining the work has been pretty much exhausted over the long, arid years of cuts. It is a choice now between extra resources, on a scale that matches the enormous demands made on a department which has almost no control over what it is called upon to do: or reducing the span that is attempted – which may mean Ministers, asked what is happening in Sierra Leone in the future, having to reply: “I don’t know, and can’t find out;” and in reply to the question, “What is Britain doing about the famine in Ethiopia (or the massacre in Kosovo, or the earthquake in the Cook Islands)?”: “Nothing, Madam Speaker.”

And pigs might fly.


16 August, 1998 with some additions up to 9 February 1999


[1] Sir Thomas Legg and Sir Robin Ibbs, Report of the Sierra Leone Arms Investigation, 1998, The Stationery Office, para 6.68

[2] Ibid., 9.29

[3] Ibid., 9.46

[4] Ibid., 9.55

[5] See footnote 1.

[6] Legg, para 10.56

[7] Ibid., 10.57

[8] Ibid., 11.2

[9] Ibid., 11.6

[10] Ibid., 11.11

[11] Ibid., 11.12

[12] Ibid., 11.14

[13] Ibid., 11.17

[14] Ibid., 11.18

[15] Ibid., 11.19

[16] The West African states’ military force attempting to end the civil war in Liberia and also seeking to restore President Kabbah to power in Sierra Leone, as it eventually did. ECOMOG is largely Nigerian in inspiration, leadership and composition.

[17] Legg para 3.9

[18] Ibid., para 3.11

[19] Ibid., 3.18-19

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