Yenga Dispute between Guinean and Sierra Leone Coming to an End?

Yenga, Eastern Sierra Leone: It’s a tiny village on the banks of the Makona River, which serves as the border between Sierra Leone and neighboring Guinea. Yet this tiny, 2-acre village of less than 50 permanent residents and only 5 bamboo huts has been the topic of continued dispute between the two West African nations for more than a decade.

In the mid-1990s during Sierra Leone’s civil war, Guinea sent military troops into Yenga (which is located in a part of Sierra Leone known for alluvial diamonds and thus very active in the war) to assist the Sierra Leonean military in suppressing the rebel forces and to aid in securing the weakened border.

It has now been a decade since the end of the civil war, yet Guinean troops remain in Yenga, albeit quite passively. There have been three reasons cited for the continued occupation of Yenga: (1) From 2001 to 2003, Yenga was considered a no-man’s-land (2) The pourousness of the Guinean/Sierra Leonean border prompted Guinean troops to remain in Yenga to improve border security and (3) There was reportedly “some discrepancies between the Guinean soldiers and the Sierra Leone soldiers on business transactions they have been engaged in the past years”.

A Non-Violent Conflict

Given the size of Yenga and comparing the size of both Guinea (rather large) to Sierra Leone (quite small), it would be outrageous for the Yenga dispute to result in physical hostilities, which is precisely why the issue has dragged on for so long.

Earlier this year, the Sierra Leonean a newspaper published an article which argued that the former ruling party run by President Kabbah of SLPP sold Yenga to Guinea during the civil war. Councillor Fanta Alpha of the Kailahun District Council who was interviewed in this article took the entire issue a bit too seriously when she argued that “Yenga was deliberately sold to foreigners by [the] SLPP led government of former President Kabbah and now [Guinea is] making unnecessary noise over the issue because they want to bring another war to Sierra Leone”. Again, this is extreme and in fact not at all how the dispute panned out.

Continued 'Occupation'
In 2005, Guinea and Sierra Leone signed an agreement which stated that Yenga belonged to Sierra Leone; however, the Guinean soldiers remained in the village.

Although Yenga is extremely small, that doesn’t mean Sierra Leoneans are quick to forget about it. Many in the region recognize the similarities between Guinea and Sierra Leone: “The people of Guinea and Sierra Leone are the same, because we share the same dialects, have inter-related traditions and religious belief’’, says one local resident of Yenga. Yet many Sierra Leoneans were infuriated at the fact that Yenga remains ‘occupied’ by Guinea.

In fact, the dispute prompted one Sierra Leonean band to create a song titled “Save Yenga”, which includes lyrics like “they dae suffer” and remark that it is unfair for Sierra Leoneans to be refugees in their own land. Clearly, this is an emotional issue for some.

Finally, on July 27, 2012 Sierra Leone and Guinea signed a joint declaration to demilitarize Yenga. This will include demilitarizing the area from both armies, creating a buffer zone, and clarifying the border between the two nations.

The Yenga dispute has (or should I say ‘will soon be’) settled diplomatically instead of militarily.

For the future, it will prove important for the government of Sierra Leone to help Yenga develop, since as of right now there are no social services in the vicinity. Furthermore, it was reported that there was no voter registration in Yenga for the upcoming November Sierra Leonean elections. Clearly, there are still some kinks to work out in this whole situation. 


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