The tribal dimension of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002)

…Episode Two

By Sim Turay

Former Head of Military Intelligence As explained in my previous article on the tribal dimension of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) tribal rebel war in Sierra Leone, intelligence on the 11-year tribal rebel war plot first surfaced in early 1989 to the effect that a rebel war pact had been contrived in Liberia in the late 1980s when Foday Sankoh, an ex-army corporal in the then Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces and Charles Taylor, a Liberian national, together with a number of top Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) politicians decided to form a rebel alliance for the purpose of violently overthrowing the Governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The rebel front comprising the RUF and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) was to firstly, topple the Liberian Government of Samuel Doe and thereafter topple the All Peoples Congress (APC) Government of Joseph Saidu Momoh by violent means. But the tribal dimension of the RUF rebel war would never be completed without a brief history of the Creoles, the small but once influential ethnic group which played such a pivotal role in the early history of Sierra Leone’s political, economic and social development.

In order to better understand the intrigues of tribal politics in Sierra Leone, it is also essential to give a brief commentary on the history of the Fulas, another small ethnic group, from the early stages of their political and social marginalisation until their eventual acceptance into mainstream Sierra Leonean society. In 1787, following over three centuries of slavery in the cotton, sugar and tobacco plantations of the Americas, the British finally settled 400 freed slaves from the United States, Nova Scotia and Great Britain in Sierra Leone.

They named their new found home the “Province of Freedom”. The settlement later became known as Freetown and in 1792 was one of Britain’s first colonies in West Africa. In 1800, the Maroons arrived in the colony as black returnees from Jamaica. The settlement of freed slaves in the colony by the British continued throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. The returned freed slaves were originally from different parts of Africa, and comprised a multitude of ethnic groups, including those from Upper Gambia who were Temnes, Mendes and Kissis.

By the end of the 19th century, their descendants became known as Creoles. The Creoles are predominantly Christians and have a mixed heritage of liberated African, West Indian, African American, and Black Nova Scotian descent. Creole culture is therefore highly westernised, and during colonial rule they held prominent leadership positions in government, the judiciary, the civil service and practically every sphere of life in Sierra Leone. Historically, the Creoles traded and helped spread Christianity and education throughout West Africa.

As early as the beginning of colonial rule, the British allowed the Creoles to participate in the administration of the colony. However, as colonial rule expanded up the protectorate of Sierra Leone, the British colonialists instituted the system of “indirect rule” which favoured traditional rulers, thereby depriving the majority of upcountry people from participating in the governance of the country. Thus, Sierra Leone inherited a colonial history in which the British did very little to encourage the integration of the Creoles and the two main indigenous ethnic groups, namely, the Temnes and Mendes. The system of “indirect rule” also accentuated the differences between the various ethnic groups in a heterogeneous society and made it very difficult for the citizens to regard themselves as Sierra Leoneans first and foremost.

Another small section of Creoles is the Okus who are predominantly Muslims. They originally settled in the east end of Freetown in what is now Fourah Bay and Foulah Town, and in Aberdeen. However, the Okus have always regarded themselves as a distinct ethnic group, and over time lost their identity as Creoles. Primarily because the Okus are Muslims like the majority of upcountry people, they were not marginalised by the major indigenous ethnic groups. In fact, upcountry people readily accepted the Okus.

Today, the iconic Cotton tree at Siaka Stevens Street symbolises the freedom of the colony of Freetown. How ironic it is because the area surrounding the Cotton tree was the heart of Sierra Leone’s slave market during those tormenting centuries of empire and the yoke of the Atlantic slave trade. Several centuries later, history has again repeated itself but in a different way.

Less than 40 metres away from the symbol of freedom, and right in front of this country’s seat of law, order and justice, Sierra Leoneans witnessed their fellow countrymen being burnt alive by Kamajor militias during the so-called ‘Nigerian intervention’ in the mid-1990s. Anyhow, as the Creoles are today struggling to come to terms with the new realities of contemporary politics in Sierra Leone, their glorious past and unfortunate political demise make captivating and intuitive reading.

The reason is that the Creoles were the first ethnic group to experience the impact of tribal politics in Sierra Leone as the major indigenous ethnic groups began to grapple with each other for political control and tribal domination following decolonisation in 1961. Once upon a time, Creoledom was the progenitor of West African academia as the old guard of Creoles succeeded in transforming Sierra Leone or rather Fourah Bay College into the ‘Athens of West Africa’.

Strong African voices were impressively articulated by the old guard of highly respectable Creole intellectuals. Their influence later translated itself into the struggles of Pan-Africanism and the eventual decolonisation of Africa. But these were men of stature and courage who made a mark in history. So why did the Creoles become the victims of history?

The answers to this question could be traced back in time to the beginnings of Sierra Leone’s political history when following the final demise of the United Peoples Party (UPP) soon after the country’s independence in April 1961, there was hysteria among intellectuals of upcountry origin to bring Creole dominance in Sierra Leone’s educational and political landscape to an end.

This heralded the start of a sinister tribal or protectorate conspiracy under SLPP rule to loosen Creole grip in all areas of the country’s establishment, including the judiciary, the civil service and educational institutions although it was never publicly acknowledged as government policy. During the life of the first Parliament, the Creoles became emasculated to such an extent that the majority of them were forced to seek sanctuary under the opposition APC party.

Siaka Stevens the then charismatic and pragmatic APC leader recognised the political potential of the Creoles and wasted no time in embracing them with open arms. The Creoles grabbed their chance and quickly rose to the upper echelons of the party mainly through the personal support and encouragement of Siaka Stevens.

Although in general, many Creole intellectuals still preferred to practise their traditional trade, for example, law outside of politics during SLPP rule in the 1960s, once the APC came to power in 1967, they quickly regained their once lost political influence. The Creoles felt comfortable under APC rule and became key players in the party as well as in government.

They were among the most trusted members of Steven’s inner circle. Indeed, Stevens was by no means infallible but he was an astute politician who mastered the art of political intrigue. How capable he proved to keep a diverse APC together while at the same time solidifying the APC’s traditional strongholds of the north and the Western Area.

However, uncompromising as Stevens was to the idea of any form of opposition to his policies, his longevity in office was to a large extent due to his iron grip on power and the practical realities of the one-party system of government. Even though Momoh also benefited from the powerful clutches of one-party rule, he was Stevens’ direct opposite.

Once in office amid great expectations, his governance credentials were soon exposed and the once popular APC party slowly started to fall apart. The dynamics of APC governance went through a complete metamorphosis and the Creoles sadly became the victims of Momoh’s rule. It was evident Momoh had taken a conscious decision to deliberately ostracise the Creoles from the epicentre of main stream APC politics.

The Creoles thus lost their once favoured status under Stevens and in the politics of the day, Ekutay emerged as the novel political force that mattered. As APC politics and everything that had to do with governance revolved around Ekutay, the other ethnic groups that were the backbone of the APC electorate, especially the Temnes also felt marginalised. This was Momoh’s most grievous political mistake, which would cast an ominous shadow over his rule. The key problem, and one which Momoh reluctantly failed to appreciate, was that the generality of APC supporters refused to embrace Ekutay as the organisation was perceived as an unwelcome caucus within the party owing to its Limba bias both in its formation and outlook. Traditional APC supporters even among the Limba ethnic group who regarded Momoh’s new direction as a mistake found themselves unable to resonate with Ekutay. For all intents and purposes, Ekutay though politically powerful and influential was a small Limba clique which seriously suffered from a democratic deficit. Momoh was thus left in a political quandary unable to sell Ekutay to an unreceptive APC electorate or reduce its political influence and power. Momoh also unfortunately failed to appreciate the powerful influence of the media in shaping and directing political agendas, especially in an African setting. This resulted in whatever political, or economic, or social policies which he wanted to put in place to drift away into oblivion. In fact, his party propaganda machine was non-existent, giving the less fancied but vibrant SLPP opposition media a glorious opportunity to crucify him. As his hold on the APC party went into freefall, the most shocking revelation was that the APC’s impregnable northern political base eventually deserted him. But Momoh tenaciously hung on to Ekutay which had by then lost favour among traditional APC supporters. Perhaps, Momoh’s greatest weakness was that he trusted everyone around him, including close APC politicians and advisers who had over time become disillusioned with his style of leadership and went about the business of deliberating undermining his administration. In a political environment in which politics had become a tribal headcount, Momoh also had implicit trust in die-hard SLPP supporters who held key and sensitive positions in his government, the civil service and the judiciary. These people had a field day and wanted nothing short of Momoh’s removal from power. But Momoh could not be bothered despite the wealth of intelligence reports that the APC was slowly disintegrating under his leadership. Instead, he engaged himself in other unproductive endeavours rather than the serious business of governing the nation. He was simply too weak and politically naïve and, perhaps, did not have the ‘sixth sense’ which makes a good political leader. As Machiavelli explains in ‘The Prince’: when considering the relationship between luck and skill in the gaining and keeping of power, he suggests that it is better to rely on virtu, which literally means “manliness”, and which can also be defined as “skill”, “cunning”, “power”, “ability”, or “strength”, rather than on fortuna, which means “luck”, “chance”, “accident”, or “fortune.” He points out that one of the key advantages of virtu is that it enables a ruler (Prince) to exploit and master fortuna, and concludes that fortune is like a woman, “fortuna et una donna”, who is more willing to be conquered by forceful men of ability rather than by timid cowards. Momoh could have drawn inspiration from Machiavelli’s exposition in ‘The Prince’, which explains that a skilful ruler (Prince) must acknowledge the fact that he does not live in an ideal world so should learn not to be good when a political situation renders it more advantageous to be bad. But sadly he became far removed from the political realities of the day. In the end, the once cohesive APC party under Siaka Stevens finally fell apart as key APC politicians mostly of Temne origin broke ranks with Momoh and his inner circle, and went on to form several splinter political parties. In retrospect, little did these APC politicians realise that their actions had caused irreparable damage to the APC, heralding its demise as a political party favoured by the majority of the electorate. However, notable APC Creole politicians remained loyal and committed to the APC party. But as time went by, they were meticulously edged to the periphery of decision-making both within the party and in government. Several of them were forced to go into self-imposed recluse and steered clear of controversial political issues, thus giving Momoh a free hand to run the party his own way. The result was that the Creole political elite gradually lost the ability to engage in public political discourse and became the masters of peripheral party politics, the so called ‘politics on the margins’. But surprisingly, they seemed quite content with their new role. Perhaps, the Creoles underestimated Momoh’s real intention which was to make Ekutay the dominant force that formulated and directed future APC political doctrine and government policies. In their frustration, a number of Creole politicians and civil servants emigrated to make a living elsewhere. Nonetheless, the majority of Creoles in the civil service, and there were still many of them in senior positions despite the earlier purge over the decades, decided to stay. They were used to the culture of work for life and whatever pension that was due them at the end of their working lives. Many of those who stayed, perhaps, for economic or financial reasons decided to go into private business or steered clear of politics altogether. The Creoles are masters of the art of personal contentment. As Momoh’s rule began to falter, disillusionment set in among the ranks of the Creole elite who had decided to wait and see. But what was to befall Momoh was already written on the wall, and it was only a question of time. However, with all due respect to the Creoles, perhaps, what they did not fully appreciate was that Momoh’s eventual demise and that of the APC as a party in power would have a devastating impact on their fortunes as a small but distinct ethnic group that once walked the corridors of power and influence. In retrospect, it could hardly be denied that the Creoles in their glory days were a powerful and potent political and social force in Sierra Leone during the rule of Siaka Stevens. So why did they allow themselves to succumb to Momoh’s style of governance without raising a finger, even though it became public knowledge that Momoh was being pushed into the abyss? Was their attitude of political abandonment a grievous blunder, and if so, would it remain to haunt them for a long time to come? Today, following the end of the RUF tribal rebel war and the return back to power of the APC government, the political, social and economic landscape of Sierra Leone have undergone an unimaginable change. In the same token, Creole elitism and the dynamics of the Sierra Leonean aristocracy have also gone through a fundamental shift. As a result of inter-marriages and other demographic factors, the Creole identity has also gone through a period of profound metamorphosis. Given that their numbers were originally small in comparative terms to other indigenous ethnic groups, the once proud identity of Creole elitism has all but disappeared. Moreover, as diamond money and ill-gotten wealth continue to widen the chasm between the rich and the poor, the Creoles still remain marginal beneficiaries of the resources of this country. In fact, their highly priced family properties on prime land in the Freetown municipality, their traditional place of domicile, have been reluctantly put up for sale and quickly consumed under the weight of the never ending queues of upcountry tycoons. The Fulas whose ancestral home is the Fouta Djallon region of Guinea have settled in Sierra Leone for nearly three hundred years. They are traditionally pastoralists but also engage in commercial activities. The Fulas are predominantly Muslims and are comfortably settled in small communities in various parts of the Western Area and upcountry, especially in the diamond fields of Kono district. In spite of the fact that citizenship was recognised by birth from parents of Negro African descent since British colonial rule, the Fulas have always been perceived as foreigners and are also victims of ethnic marginalisation. Like their Maraka counterparts from Mali, they were forced to live humble lives on the fringes of society. In Freetown, in particular, as late as the 1950s and 1960s, the Fulas were the “wohroks” (labourers) of upcountry people, and the “watchmen” and houseboys of the Creole elite and the Lebanese, who were mainly engaged in business and the diamond trade. Nonetheless, even though the Fulas suffered the most from social and political exclusion during those difficult years, their solidarity as an ethnic group has remained unshakable. In spite of the social barriers, the population of the Fulas increased exponentially throughout the latter half of the 20th century as their countrymen emigrated from Guinea to seek a better life in Sierra Leone. The then Guinean leader, Sheku Toure was the Fulas worst nightmare. He ruled Guinea with an iron hand and because of his implacable belief in Susu ethnic domination in a one-party republic, the Fulas suffered badly under Sheku Toure’s rule. The Guinean economy was also stagnating. It was therefore no surprise the Fulas decided to make Sierra Leone their home. As time went by, they cleverly invested in their human capital, which became the foundation for their future labour productivity in Sierra Leone’s political economy. Several decades later, following the end of the tribal rebel war in Sierra Leone in early 2002, the emergence of the Fulas as potential real estate owners in the capital hardly came as a surprise. The reason is that the Fulas capitalised on relatively cheap properties, including brown sites which were being put up for sale by the Creoles who feared the worse as the war moved ever closer to Freetown. As it turned out, the Fulas had invested wisely and once the war was over, they continued the process of acquiring properties on prime land. The new millennium thus saw the Fulas at the forefront of the city’s booming housing market and the unprecedented construction of new residential and office properties all over the Freetown municipality. They displayed their ingenuity in the property industry by consciously avoiding the process of gentrification as there was hardly any need to gentrify run down Creole properties. The Fulas were thus able to make a mark for themselves by introducing a much needed built-up environment in downtown Freetown and its environs. Indeed, they could be counted among the new masters of real estate in the city. However, there are those who attribute the spectacular success of the Fulas to the illegal cocaine trade and their involvement in black magic. Though these rumours persist in the public domain, they are personal conjectures which need to be substantiated by empirical evidence, so it is only fair to give the Fulas the benefit of the doubt. Whatever negative criticisms are levelled against them, there is no denying the fact that the Fulas are a success story and a dynamic force in the socio-economic development of this country. Ironically, the Fulas who once suffered from tribal discrimination and political marginalisation at the hands of other ethnic groups during the early stages of Sierra Leone’s political history are now benefiting from the demands and intrigues of tribal politics. Unlike the Marakas who never came into prominence in Sierra Leonean society, the Foulahs are a prosperous ethnic group and could be found everywhere, from the secluded enclaves of the gentry to the corridors of political power. The success of the Fulas is a testimony to the resilience and determination of minority ethnic groups in a heterogeneous society who happen to find themselves on the wrong side of the border. Today, the Fulas are a novel voice in Sierra Leonean politics, and there is every reason to believe that any political party in power would seek their patronage.

By Lt. Colonel (Rtd) Sim Turay,

HCBS (Business Studies), BA Combined Hons. (Politics and Geography), MA (Law, Development and Globalisation), LLM (International Law and the World Political Economy) –

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