Australian peacekeepers in Sierra Leone with IMATT 2001 to 2003
In March 1991, the West African country of Sierra Leone erupted into a civil war. Over the next decade, the country faced violence and unrest, including several coups. By the time the warring factions signed a peace agreement in 1999, the war had claimed 700,000 lives and displaced 2.6 million people.
In late 1999 the United Nations (UN) set up the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) to oversee the peace agreement. Between 1997 and 2000, Australia refused 10 separate UN requests to get involved in Sierra Leone.
But in 2000, Australia agreed to a 'modest contribution' to the United Kingdom's (UK) International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT). Over the next 2 years, Australia sent 8 Australian Defence Force (ADF) military advisers to IMATT. A further 9 Australians served on attachment to the UK armed forces.
Civil war in Sierra Leone
Tensions had been building in Sierra Leone, in West Africa, since independence from the UK in 1961.
The following 3 decades were characterised by political corruption, economic instability and the collapse of the education system.
Civil war broke out in late March 1991. It began with a series of raids in the country's far east by the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (RUF). The RUF had the backing of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia and mercenaries from Burkina Faso. It aimed to overthrow President Joseph Momoh's government.
Over the next decade, the war cost 70,000 lives and displaced 2.6 million people.
The country also saw frequent changes of government, coups and shifting alliances.
On 30 November 1996, the RUF signed a peace agreement with President Ahmed Kabbah. However, peace did not last long. In May 1997, elements of the Sierra Leone Army ousted Kabbah and installed the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council's (AFRC) Johnny Paul Koromo as head of state. Soon after, the AFRC invited the RUF to share power.
This led to an increase in violence and international intervention. The UN Security Council and the Organisation of African Unity condemned the latest coup. But diplomatic pressure failed to budge the AFRC from power.
In February 1998, the UN set up the United Nations Observer Missions in Sierra Leone (UNOMSIL). But by late 1998, UNOMSIL had withdrawn due to escalating violence.
On 6 January 1999, the AFRC attacked the capital, Freetown. By the time the Sierra Leone Police, the paramilitary Civil Defense Forces, and Nigerian troops subdued the violence, 7,500 people were dead.
This was a turning point in the civil war. On 7 July, under diplomatic and financial pressure, Kabbah signed a peace agreement with the RUF, but not with the AFRC. Known as the Lomé Accord, the agreement imposed a ceasefire between the government and the RUF.
International peacekeeping efforts
In late 1999, the UN set up UNAMSIL to oversee the Lomé Accord.
The mission got off to a shaky start. Rebel chief Foday Sankoh opposed the UN intervention, attacking and abducting peacekeepers. In response, the UN increased its troop numbers.
Meanwhile, in 2001, the British Army Short Term Training Team began training the local military. This finished about 6 months later, after training about 8,500 local troops. The UK also set up the International Military Advisory and Training Team (IMATT). While IMATT trained local forces, its role expanded to include direct military advice to both the government and the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF). IMATT peaked in September 2001 at more than 600 international personnel.
Where the UN aimed for a negotiated settlement, the British planned to defeat the RUF.
The RUF had to understand that it was only going to end one way... the easy way was to enter the UN's DDR [Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration] process. The hard way was to fight me.
[Brigadier Jonathon Riley, Commander of British forces in Sierra Leone, quoted in The Limits of Peacekeeping: Volume 4, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations: Australian Missions in Africa and the Americas, 1992–2005]
The UK's involvement in its former colony helped UNAMSIL become an eventual success.
Between 1997 and 2000, Australia refused 10 separate requests to get involved in Sierra Leone. The Australian Defence Force was committed in East Timor, Bougainville and the Middle East, as well as security for the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. Australia also had minimal strategic interest in West Africa. However, Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer became concerned that Australia's reluctance might lead to other countries choosing not to help in East Timor.
In November 2000, Downer and Minister for Defence John Moore wrote to Prime Minister John Howard requesting a 'modest contribution' to IMATT. On 8 January 2001, Acting Prime Minister John Anderson approved the request. But there were conditions:
- Australia limited its commitment to four 6-month deployments.
- Australian troops were only allowed to operate within a 'horseshoe' secured area around Freetown. The Chief of the Defence Force lifted this restriction in May 2001.
- Although armed, they were not to use force except in self-defence or to protect civilians.
- Australian troops could not take part in any direct combat.
- The commitment would be reviewed in 12 months and could be cancelled at any time.
Australia sent 8 ADF military advisers to IMATT in Sierra Leone from 2001 until 2003. A further 9 Australians served on attachment to the UK armed forces.
They joined an international team that included personnel from the UK, Canada, Bermuda, Ghana, Jamaica, Nigeria, Senegal and the United States.
The Australian commitment was codenamed Operation Husky. Each contingent had 2 members – a captain and a major – who acted as battalion and brigade adviser, respectively. Each deployment overlapped to allow for a handover.
Major Robert 'Fred' Allan and Captain Timothy Curtis arrived in Sierra Leone on 24 February 2001. The Australians' role was to help train the local forces and then oversee field operations. The pair operated separately within IMATT, working with different RSLAF brigades. They took very hands-on approaches to both defensive and offensive operations.
By the end of August 2001, military actions had inflicted heavy casualties on rebel forces. Allan reported that the RUF was 'spent'.
When the second Australian contingent, Major Malvyn Clarke and Captain Reuben Priestley, arrived on 24 August, the RSLAF had retaken the country. The local forces were split into 3 areas of operation – in the north, centre and south of the country. Clark was based with brigades in the north, while Priestly was in the south.
On New Year's Day 2002, 10 Battalion RSLAF marched into the eastern region capital of Keilahun. This would be the last military action of the war. On 11 January, the UN declared the DDR program complete. This meant the third and fourth ADF deployments focused on building a peacetime army, rather than on combat operations.
Major Patrick Powell and Captain Malcolm Wells arrived in Sierra Leone on 16 February 2002. The basics of their roles did not change from the first and second contingents, but IMATT revised its operations, upgrading the senior adviser position to lieutenant colonel to reflect the 'steadying hand' needed.
They also began a long-term plan to progress from teaching individual skills to company-level training by 2004.
The final ADF pair of Major Paul Kenny and Captain Grant Chisnall arrived on 16 August. Chisnall set up a 'battle camp' in the northern town of Bumbuna. He based his training on that of the Australian Army's Land Warfare Centre at Canungra, in Queensland. Kenny became principal adviser of the fourth Brigade Advisory Support Team.
During 2002, Defence recommended extending Operation Husky to 2004. But the Australian Government confirmed its original commitment of 4 rotations. On 27 February 2003, Kenny and Chisnall left Sierra Leone, ending Australia's commitment to IMATT.
Living and working in Sierra Leone
The Australians faced many challenges in their daily lives. The country had a high crime rate, and foreigners were easy targets. Accommodation in Freetown was in buildings with running water and electricity. But up north, where the Australians spent most of their time, conditions were basic.
Members of IMATT needed to be self-sufficient. They had little support, such as cooks, administration or a quartermaster's store.
Despite the initial security risks, the greatest threats were accidental injury and endemic diseases, some life-threatening. The most common health risk was the various strains of malaria. Wells suffered from cerebral malaria on his return home, and was lucky to recover. A sting from a caterpillar was still bothering Curtis 14 years after his deployment.
Legacy of Australian involvement in IMATT
As Allan reported in 2001, 'two guys can, and do, make a big difference'.
IMATT gave relatively young Australian officers a level of autonomy they would not get in their day-to-day military life. Those involved revelled in the environment, which in some cases changed the course of their careers.
Allan left the ADF to become a contractor in the humanitarian sector:
I saw there was a whole lot that could be done without a whole lot of forms and a whole lot of people second guessing stuff.
Major Robert 'Fred' Allan, quoted in Bou, Jean; Breen, Bob; Horner, David; Pratten, Garth; de Vogel, Miesje (2019). The Limits of Peacekeeping: Volume 4, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations: Australian Missions in Africa and the Americas, 1992–2005. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Priestley also left the army after experiencing a role that only came around 'once in a lifetime'. He pursued a mentoring and coaching career.
Kenny, Wells and Curtis went on to serve in the Middle East.
Lessons from Sierra Leone
On his return from Sierra Leone, Chisnall wrote an article for the Australian Army Journal. He discussed the characteristics of the Sierra Leone operations, outlining challenges such as:
- managing locals' expectations
- adapting to local conditions
- political expectations
- knowledge of indigenous beliefs
- selecting and training advisers.
Chisnall's article covered the unique advisory aspect of IMATT:
While the task of providing military training usually precludes an operational advisory role, the reverse does not apply. Military advisers who are embedded in supported units can become involved in helping to facilitate and organise collective training activities.
['The Value Of Military Advisory Teams: Lessons From The Australian Experience In Sierra Leone' in Australian Army Journal, Volume 1, Number 2, 2003]
National Peacekeepers' Day
On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947. It’s a day to recognise the important work of those who have served, and continue to serve, in the name of global peace.
Learn more about Australia's peacekeeping missions since 1947.
Australian War Memorial (undated). Specimen clasp 'SIERRA LEONE' for Australia Service Medal 1975-, accessed 23 August 2022, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1020668
Bou, Jean; Breen, Bob; Horner, David; Pratten, Garth; de Vogel, Miesje (2019). The Limits of Peacekeeping: Volume 4, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations: Australian Missions in Africa and the Americas, 1992–2005. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Chisnall, G.A. (2003). 'The Value Of Military Advisory Teams Lessons From The Australian Experience In Sierra Leone', Australian Army Journal 1(2). https://search.informit.org/toc/10.3316/auarjo.2003_v001n02
Government of Canada (2018). International Military Assistance and Training Team (IMATT), last updated 2018-12-11, accessed 23 August 2022, https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/services/military-history/history-heritage/past-operations/africa/sculpture.html
World Peace Foundation (2017). United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) Brief. https://sites.tufts.edu/wpf/files/2017/07/Sierra-Leone-brief.pdf