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

Episode 1:

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) – Former Head of Military Intelligence Intelligence on the eleven-year (1991-2002)

Revolutionary United Front (RUF) tribal rebel war in Sierra Leone first surfaced in early 1989, over two years before the war actually started. As Head of Sierra Leone’s Military Intelligence during this period, including the first twelve months of the RUF tribal rebel war, I was privy to reliable and credible intelligence reports relating to the rebel war. My exposition in this article therefore stems from my unique position as Intelligence Chief up to April 1992 and the wealth of invaluable and highly sensitive intelligence that crossed my desk.

It also covers the entire duration of the RUF war which became a continuous narrative of escalating regional violence and horrific brutality wrecked primarily on the civilian population that also engulfed part of the capital, Freetown. Between 1991 and 1999, the war claimed over 75,000 lives, caused half-a-million Sierra Leoneans to become refugees, and displaced half of the country’s 4.5 million inhabitants (Smillie et al, Jan 2000). However, ten years after the end of the rebel conflict Sierra Leoneans have still not been able to understand the underlying motives which prompted a group of Sierra Leonean politicians, together with an ex-army corporal to wage a devastating tribal rebel war on the people of Sierra Leone, which plunged the country into total anarchy and economic collapse.

In their analyses of the RUF war a plethora of writers, including historians and political analysts have reinforced the perception that economic motivations, especially the control of the diamond trade have played a major role in the rebel conflict. Indeed, since the early years of the 20th century, diamonds have often been associated with violence and misery, and the economic power of diamonds has been a major source of conflict, especially in Africa. In many ways, the rebel war in Sierra Leone offers a prime example of an internal armed conflict where economic aspirations for the control of diamonds have been seen to be largely responsible for its inception and protracted duration.


But the connection between diamonds and conflicts goes far beyond rebel groups seizing control of diamond-rich areas and selling the precious gems for arms and war supplies. It is difficult to deny that the eleven-year rebel war between the RUF and three successive governments raged against the backdrop of three decades of a weak state plagued by corruption and mismanagement, and characterised by the profound gap between the few wealthy and powerful elite at the top and the impoverished, underprivileged and uneducated majority. This has been the result of manipulative and greedy politicians who benefited from Sierra Leone’s natural resources, particularly diamonds by exploiting the geographically based ethnic or political divide between the Mendes in the south and east and the Temnes and Limbas in the north. The diamond industry was therefore greatly influenced by local politics as diamond money and control of the eastern region of the country became interlaced with the broader political agendas of the day. It was no surprise that politicians who benefited from it became key players in the rivalry between the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) and the All Peoples Congress (APC), the two dominant political parties. Thus, one school of thought has viewed the rebel war as a crisis of modernity caused by rampant corruption, despotism and the failed patrimonial systems of successive SLPP and APC governments, a development which exposed the deeply embedded political sensitivities of a highly polarised and divided society. However, for the ordinary citizens of Sierra Leone the eleven-year brutal war still remains complex and shrouded in mystery. To a large extent, the difficulties in understanding the motives behind the RUF war could be attributed to media accounts of the war, which have almost always focused on the wanton destruction of lives and property and the consequences of the ensuing violence, rather than on the real causes of the war. This unfortunate media approach has come about from attempts to fit contemporary conflicts into a traditional model of warfare as a contest between two sides with civilians caught in the middle. However, in the Clausewitzian analysis of inter-state wars, the rebel war could be rightly seen as a continuation of politics by other means. But this ‘old-fashioned’ analysis of conflict simply conceals more than it reveals. Indeed, the renewed popular emphasis of war as chaos, anarchy, irrationality, mindless violence, collapse and breakdown, a discourse which has emerged as a result of the shortcomings of the Clausewitzian model, has led to the failure in understanding the diverse reasons why a variety of people orchestrate, fund and implement violent conflicts. Although there was disenchantment with the weak and underdeveloped state, similar situations elsewhere have not led to years of brutality by forces devoid of ideology and support from the indigenous population. According to Collier and Hoeffler (Collier and Hoeffler 1999; Collier 2000), two highly respected World Bank researchers, grievances stemming from poverty, poor education, and so on, are very widespread in Africa and much of the wider world, but do not necessarily spill over into civil war. Sierra Leone’s RUF war was therefore neither a rebellion, in the sense of it being an internal uprising, nor civil, in the sense of it being about clearly understandable and achievable political goals. What then were the causes of the RUF war? Why did the conflict lead to such extreme brutality and barbarity unprecedented in human history? Why has the country been plagued by a geographically based ethnic or political divide which has been ruthlessly exploited by greedy and unscrupulous politicians to the detriment of the state? Is it because of deep-seated tribal struggles rooted in history, which assumed a heinous and inhuman dimension during the rebel conflict, perpetrated by those who wanted to gain political control and ethnic domination? Were these politicians involved in the RUF plot that overthrew the previous APC government? If so, is this why they have remained totally indifferent over a tribal rebel war which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of our people for the sake of gaining political power? Is their present political attitude which could result in history repeating itself a reflection of their unforgivable support for those who committed atrocities against the people of this country? From the perspective of the geo-politics of the sub-region, why did Presidents Gaddafi of Libya, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso and Houppert Boigny of the Ivory Coast support the rebel alliance between the RUF and the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) to overthrow Presidents Joseph Momoh of Sierra Leone and Samuel Doe of Liberia? In order to answer these and other questions, the article lays out a framework for examining the various issues surrounding the rebel conflict and seeks to engage the minds of its readers on a healthy and constructive political and legal discourse. In my own contribution to unravel the complexity and mystery of the RUF tribal rebel war, I have deliberately decided to choose the vexed question of tribal politics as my leitmotiv as it lies at the very heart of the country’s polarisation on tribal or regional lines and is the root cause of Sierra Leone’s political instability. It is significant to point out at this very early stage of my exposition that in the African context, political control and ethnic domination guarantees unlimited access to scarce economic resources and the accumulation of wealth. As I endeavour to present my analysis of the historical and factual events surrounding the issues, I trust the knowledge and experience that I gained throughout my 27-year military career, which was rudely cut short by the illegal National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) military coup on 29 April 1992 would help to shed light on the darkest period of our country’s short but turbulent history. This I hope to do with objective fidelity. Perhaps, the most challenging issue facing post-colonial countries as they embrace democratic structures is the establishment of institutional arrangements that can effectively deal with ethnic diversity and allow population groups to coexist peacefully. One major historical problem has been the imposition by European imperialists of state structures on diverse ethno-political communities that lacked inter-communal coherence, resulting in a crisis of culture, social and political identity. This colonial heritage adversely affected newly independent African states as the process of decolonization and the delimitation of political boundaries in Africa took no account of the social and ethnic groupings of the local inhabitants. The key reason for the above approach was that the European colonial powers went about the partition of Africa in the late 19th century with a view to reducing armed conflicts among themselves. They also regarded extant boundary lines as the most feasible way of achieving speedy independence. Thus, when state boundaries were established, geometric lines predominated even though the colonialists had little knowledge of the local geography. This was in spite of strong opposition from the Pan-Africanist Movement which advocated for the wholesale restructuring of borders in order to rectify past injustices. In any event, the process prevented the independence and stability of new African states being endangered by the fratricidal struggles provoked by the challenging of frontiers following the withdrawal of the colonial powers. However, it meant that the principle of territorial integrity or the maintenance of the territorial status quo was given pre-eminence over the principle of the right of peoples to self-determination because of the need for stability. Thus, the resultant cohabitation within unchanged borders gave rise to potential ethnic conflicts, especially in states with heterogeneous populations, as significant populations were either left dissatisfied with their new status and uncertain over their political participation, or minority populations ended up on the ‘wrong side’ of the border and ripe for ethnic cleansing. It also gave rise to the temptation for ethnic separatists to further divide African states along ethnic or geographical lines. Some African countries with heterogeneous populations such as, Ghana, Tanzania, Gabon, Senegal, Zambia, and several others have somehow managed to contain the ethnic problems associated with decolonization. But in other countries like Rwanda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ivory Coast, Angola, Nigeria, Zaire, and the former Yugoslavia, and so on, such problems exploded into bloody civil wars that shocked the world. Much closer to home, Liberia is a classic example of a country plunged into a terrible rebel war in the name of tribalism. Needless to say, other African countries with diverse ethnic populations like Kenya, Zimbabwe, Burundi and neighbouring Guinea have been experiencing bloody ethnic clashes for political control and ethnic domination. We should therefore not fail to recognise the fact that the ethnic problem is generic in post-colonial Africa, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, and that it does exist in Sierra Leone. In the majority of post-colonial sub-Saharan African countries with ethnic diversities, including Sierra Leone, the legacy of decolonization was exacerbated by underdeveloped economies with totally mismanaged resource bases and insufficient employment and income opportunities for large segments of the population, resulting in widespread poverty, social degradation and low literacy levels. This problem was compounded in Sierra Leone by the desire of the United Kingdom, the former colonial power to transplant what were essentially highly developed western democratic structures and ideals without due regard for Sierra Leone’s political institutions, social and economic realities, and ethnic diversity. As a consequence, ethnic and or class politics involving competition among the politically favoured elite for limited state positions of political and economic power became prevalent. This competition further widened the ethnic or political divide between the majority Mendes in the south and east and the majority Temnes and Limbas in the north, as political leaders tended to provide jobs for members of their own ethnic group and other ethnic groups that form their political base. Not surprisingly, politics became a business of tribal alliances as the major ethnic groups wrestled for political power, resulting in a political environment in which the two major political parties, the SLPP and the APC, were perceived as being regionally based. General elections essentially became a feature of tribal head count as individuals started to identify strongly with a particular region or ethnic group rather than the state, and always largely tended to vote a government into power with which they felt secured and comfortable. The result was political polarisation and the emergence of a new system of patronage and nepotism, a reflection of how ethnic groups compete to control the political machinery and once in power adopt policies that favour their own ethnic groups at the expense of others. This divide has been ruthlessly exploited by heartless and unscrupulous politicians who revived and fermented deep-seated ethnic struggles rooted in history in order to gain political control and tribal domination. The struggle for political control and tribal domination should therefore be looked at from this perspective as it lies at the very heart of Sierra Leone’s political instability since it guarantees unlimited access to scarce economic resources and the accumulation of wealth. Undoubtedly, it is the root cause of the country’s RUF tribal rebel war with its attendant atrocities. Successive regimes have also violated economic, civil and political rights on the pretext of ‘national security’, often without tolerance for the independent judiciary. Thus, an environment emerged in which there has been little or no trust in the justice system because of the perception that both the judiciary and the police force are corrupt institutions. There has also been a profound failure to inculcate in the military, the police and the security community their proper role in society. Since independence in 1961 and the advent of indigenous politics, Sierra Leoneans have always traditionally refused to acknowledge that tribalism has been a very serious and contentious issue and is deeply embedded in Sierra Leonean society. There was clear and unmistakable evidence that the country was plagued by a deeply entrenched political or regional divide on ethnic lines, which was the undercurrent of the country’s political instability and the failure of its politicians to firmly establish democratic constitutional governance and the rule of law. But political analysts underplayed the seriousness of the divide and failed to see the ominous tribal shadow that was cast across the political landscape of Sierra Leone. Ordinary citizens who went about with the daily business of survival and the struggle to make ends meet hardly realised that the divide would nurture itself into a political time bomb with the potential to tear the country apart and plunge it into a devastating tribal rebel conflict. As earlier mentioned, 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 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 NPFL was to firstly, topple the Liberian government of President Samuel Doe and thereafter topple the APC government of Joseph Saidu Momoh by violent means. I came to know Foday Sankoh extremely well during my various postings to Daru barracks in the eastern region of Sierra Leone as an infantry training officer in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He was then a signals corporal and was also engaged in vocational photography. With his Mende paternal background and Temne maternal background, Foday Sankoh spoke fluent Mende and Temne but had a strong attachment to Segbwema, his father’s hometown in the eastern district of Kailahun. In spite of his calm disposition, I soon came to realise that Foday Sankoh had nurtured a political ambition of his own and had shown an open dislike for the one-party APC government of Siaka Stevens. Later in life, he became an embittered man when the APC government of Siaka Stevens sent him to prison for seven years for his part in the abortive Colonel John Bangura military coup. Foday Sankoh never forgave the APC for locking him up in jail. This was, perhaps, the key reason that drove him to join forces with Charles Taylor and the defunct SLPP so that he could seek revenge against the political party that had incarcerated him. His dying ambition for political power also made him into a tormented man whose only recourse for inner peace was to wage a tribal rebel war against his most hated adversary, but unfortunately against his own people as well. But Foday Sankoh was not a man of sentiment and cared only about his own self-parochial interest. History will recall his years as Sierra Leone’s most notorious rebel warlord as a period which painted a terrifying portrait of one man’s descent into hell. However, in spite of his notoriety in the RUF conflict, it should be noted that Foday Sankoh was the No. 8 man in the RUF hierarchy. For his part, Charles Taylor who was a Kongor (Americo-Liberian) saw the rebel alliance as a continuation of the abortive Kwuwompa plot to overthrow the tribal Khran government of Samuel Doe several years back. It would be recalled that the failed Kwuwompa plot in which countless Special Security Division (SSD) personnel of the Sierra Leone Police Force lost their lives received the blessing and full support of President Momoh, who at the time displayed poor political judgment that would come back to haunt him in the future when he allowed ECOMOG forces to use Sierra Leone as their base to launch their military campaign against Charles Taylor. As far as Charles Taylor was concerned, this was a betrayal by someone he had regarded as a friend and an ally, for which the people of Sierra Leone would pay a heavy price. And Taylor made no bones about it. When the 1991 National Constitution formally reverted Sierra Leone to multiparty political status on 1st October 1991 after a period of thirteen years (1978–1991) of continuous APC one-party rule, the RUF rebel plot had been solidly set in concrete. So as far as the RUF plotters were concerned, the move to political pluralism was meaningless. However, the country was able to peacefully go through the transition process, which set the stage for political liberalization and a fairer participation of all the citizens of Sierra Leone in the change to multiparty political governance. Public opinion overwhelmingly endorsed the desirability of returning the country back to political pluralism. Nonetheless, as the country moved towards multiparty general elections which were scheduled for late 1992, the loyalty of SLPP politicians together with Foday Sankoh, and a small group of eastern and southern junior military officers to the idea of the south eastern ‘emancipation’ from a northern dominated APC government violently put a stop to the process. This became the central feature in the genesis of the eleven-year RUF tribal rebel conflict and the illegal seizure of power by the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) on 29 April 1992. For the purpose of this article, I have decided to term this idea ‘the Mende agenda’, which gathered momentum in the late 1980s when the SLPP decided that the only plausible way to end the much detested APC one-party rule was by the use of force. Even though the previous APC government of Joseph Saidu Momoh had set a timetable for multi party elections in December 1992, the SLPP rightly or wrongly had no faith in the electoral process and firmly believed the incumbent APC party would do everything to return back to power. So the SLPP which had not walked the corridors of power for over two decades still opted to wage a bloody rebel campaign of unprecedented barbarity and human suffering to topple the party they could no longer bear to live with. In order to ensure success, the SLPP also decided to infiltrate the military and establish an alternative option to illegally seize political power by implementing a military coup. This development was against the backdrop of a weak state structure and a military which had become intermeshed with domestic politics, thus blurring our understanding of how recent contemporary developments in Africa have influenced the historical patterns of civil-military relations and the need for effective democratic control of the military. In spite of the efforts and resources, with western assistance, to inculcate in the military its proper role in society as stipulated in the 1991 Constitution, there is still a dangerous political undercurrent in the army, especially among the officer corps regarding its proper political ethos and relationship with the institutions of political power. In this context, the idea of democratic control of the military is based on the core normative assumption that the army should not be involved in domestic politics and should therefore remain the apolitical servant of the legitimate government in power. Thus, achieving democratic control of the army is usually conceived of in terms of securing the disengagement of the army from politics. But in Sierra Leone, the picture is complicated because of the inherent political or ethnic divide, which has given rise to an environment where individual military officers owe their loyalty to and identify strongly with a particular region or ethnic group rather than the democratically elected government of the day. This situation is very prevalent in the army today despite strenuous efforts to eradicate it, to the extent that certain senior officers from the south and east are doing everything possible to ensure that members of their own ethnic group are strategically placed in sensitive positions with a view to achieving tribal and political control. This development should not be underestimated. To be continued

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