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

Episode 3. –
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

Among the majority of sub-Saharan Africans, Gaddafi was a true and genuine friend and a philanthropist who provided generous economic assistance to impovearished African countries while at the same time propagating Islam. However, his burning ambition for a dominant Libyan political sphere of influence in sub-Saharan Africa under his leadership resulted in widespread devastation and the untimely deaths of millions of Africans who simply lived a day-to-day existence.

From the standpoint of international law, Gaddafi’s undue interference and military endeavours in the West African sub-region clearly amounted to serious violations of humanitarian law as well as breaches of several provisions of the United Nations Charter regarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of nation states. In this regard, there is abundant evidence to have had Gaddafi investigated by the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) so that history could have judged him correctly. But gruesomely killed by his countrymen, Africa will remember Gaddafi as a controversial political leader who ended up on the wrong side of history.

Although Nigeria, the sub-region’s dominant military power became concerned over the growing influence of Libya in West Africa, it had become a weak state, both economically and politically and was increasingly losing its reputation as a regional power. In other words, Nigeria was simply unable to perform the role of a regional hegemon. However, by bringing the political weight of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) into play, Nigeria was eventually able to restore some semblance of regional military leadership when the regional peace-keeping force ECOMOG, spearheaded by Nigerian troops succeeded in counter-balancing Gaddafi’s grand geo-political design in the West African sub-region.

This resulted in the eventual removal of President Taylor from power, followed by the demise of Foday Sankoh and the end of the rebel wars in both Liberia and Sierra Leone. Undoubtedly, the dramatic change of US military policy towards Africa, which has seen the United States take a leading role in the region’s security needs, played a major part in dampening Colonel Gaddafi’s geo-political ambition.

Apart from Gaddafi’s political and military pursuits, President Felix Houppert Boigny of the Ivory Coast also played a vital role in both rebel wars by readily offering sanctuary and support to the RUF and NPFL leaderships. Boigny had a very strong reason to topple President Samuel Doe of Liberia. He never forgave Doe for illegally seizing power in the impoverished West African state by violently overthrowing President Tolbert, his close friend and political ally in a bloody military coup in 1980. The military leader also subsequently summarily executed Tolbert together with his son Tolbert Jnr, who was the husband of Boigny’s daughter.

Although Nigeria later championed ECOMOG’s military campaign to remove Charles Taylor from power in Liberia as earlier explained, it is interesting to point out that the Nigerian leader, Sani Abacha was also involved in the original plot to topple President Doe. The reason for Abacha’s involvement was that Doe on seizing power in Liberia confiscated his huge investment in the Liberian rubber industry, which he had established during the Presidency of Tolbert. Abacha was therefore more than willing to see the back of Doe.

Thus, the stage was set for an unprecedented rebel enterprise involving four African Heads of State, namely, President Gaddafi of Liberia, President Compaore of Burkina Faso, President Boigny of the Ivory Coast and President Abacha of Nigeria to violently overthrow President Doe of Liberia for various diverse and unconnected reasons, and thereafter President Momoh of Sierra Leone. The point should, however, be made that in the case of Sierra Leone, Presidents Gaddafi and Compaore were the principal foreign sponsors behind the overthrow of President Momoh. It could be recalled that it was ECOMOG peace-keeping forces spearheaded by Nigerian troops which contrived the capture of Doe by Taylor’s NPFL rebels right inside the main ECOMOG base in Monrovia. Doe was subsequently brutally killed by his captors.

It was quite clear that Charles Taylor was the senior warlord in the rebel alliance, so the NPFL plot took precedence over the RUF plot. The first phase of the rebel plot was therefore the violent overthrow of President Doe by Charles Taylor’s NPFL rebels, supported by Foday Sankoh and RUF rebels. The second phase was the violent overthrow of President Momoh by the SLPP and RUF rebels with Foday Sankoh as the military commander and No. 8 on the RUF hierarchy, supported by Taylor’s NPFL rebels.

Thus, the NPFL/RUF alliance revealed a carefully orchestrated rebel plot involving four African Heads of State; a Liberian warlord; a Sierra Leonean warlord; and top SLPP politicians. It also revealed a bigger picture with regard to the involvement of Colonel Gaddafi of Libya in the geo-politics of West Africa as part of his ultimate dream to achieve a sphere of political influence in sub-Saharan Africa under Libyan control.

The SLPP plotters encouraged many Sierra Leoneans to join the RUF, especially those from the Mende ethnic group who predominantly comprised the RUF rank and file, together with Liberian nationals. Kissis and konos were also recruited from within Sierra Leone, although members of these ethnic groups were in the minority. As far as the Mende ethnic group was concerned, this was their war of “emancipation” against the predominantly northern APC one-party rule.

Potential rebels of all backgrounds, including university graduates and students from Fourah Bay College, the University of Sierra Leone were recruited locally and flown to Libya, in most cases via Ghana. Of course, Sierra Leoneans in employment and self-employment in other West African countries, and the United Kingdom and the United States also joined the steady flow of potential rebels bound for Libya and Burkina Faso. Apart from these two countries, the Ivory Coast also became a key sanctuary for the RUF hierarchy.

With regard to the recruitment of Other Ranks, the notorious ‘card system’ became the order of the day. This brought the wrong men into the army as there was a mad rush to swell the rank and file of the army once the President finally believed the country was gripped in a rebel war and that more men were needed in the front line. However, to the shock and bewilderment of experienced senior officers, Major General Tarawalli (Koranko) appointed Major Kelly Conteh (Koranko) to be in charge of recruitment. Kelly Conteh was a relatively junior officer in terms of seniority, who had little or no field experience and had not even been an infantry training officer or a staff officer. He simply did not have the experience or the eye for a potential good soldier.

This unforgivable development would never have come about if the Force Commander General Tarawalli had accepted intelligence reports two years earlier that because of the rebel threat the strength of the army should be increased to at least three thousand officers and men as a matter of urgency. He also refused to undertake a general upgrade of weapons and equipment and the relevant training of officers and men with a view to complementing an efficient infantry fighting brigade, and turned down suggestions for the establishment of a motorised battalion.

By then, the army was poorly equipped, ill-trained and unprepared for war. In terms of infantry soldiers available for combat, the military was less than five hundred strong. This meant that the army could only operate on one front, and with a considerable amount of constraints at that. As for President Momoh, he simply was in another world.

General Tarawalli also rejected suggestions that a reasonable number of troops be deployed in the eastern and southern regions of Sierra Leone in order to counter the rebel threat. Incredibly, he succeeded in convincing Momoh that there was no rebel threat. He used this as an excuse to allow soldiers to continue proceeding on retirement, a situation which continued unabated right up to the outbreak of the rebel war. Thus, when the war started in March 1991, there was a serious shortage of “old” and experienced soldiers, and training instructors were hard to come by. In essence, the army was totally unprepared for war in spite of the abundant intelligence relating to the rebel threat.

As a result of the machinations of General Tarawalli, there was a serious rupture in the army as the senior military officer corps was divided into two camps. There was the pro-Momoh camp, on the one hand, which was loyal to the APC government and wanted progress in the army and peace and stability in the country; while on the other hand, the pro-Tarawalli camp was seriously undermining such progress and plotting a military coup to violently overthrow the APC government. This split was also apparent among the wives of the senior military officers who knew about the coup plot and gave their husbands their full support.

As for Brigadier Ahmed Toronka (Koranko), he was the army’s second-in-command and so wielded considerable power and influence. Besides, he was a Momoh ‘strong man’. But that was all on paper as Toronka’s ability to properly assess military situations was highly questionable. Like Momoh, he became impotent to stem the tide of the RUF plot or the NPRC military coup. In essence, Toronka’s blind loyalty to Tarawalli had overwhelmed his sense of judgment and reduced him into a ‘yes man’, even though he knew that the RUF and the NPRC plots were real and not a figment of anyone’s imagination. This meant that Tarawalli was able to easily manipulate both Momoh and Toronka. Dishearteningly, Momoh had also left all decision-making relating to the rebel threat in the hands of General Tarawalli. Frustratingly as well, Sierra Leone’s security architecture had been deliberately rendered dysfunctional by those who sought to overthrow the government.

In the case of Brigadier Jusu Gottor a Mende of eastern origin, as the War Front commander, he held a powerful and influential position. But for a long time, Brigadier Gottor had been under suspicion of being sympathetic to the rebel cause. In spite of several intelligence reports and other reports from Guinean troops fighting alongside our forces, confirming Brigadier Gottor was indeed involved in both the RUF rebel plot and NPRC coup plot and was, in fact, sabotaging the rebel war effort, the Force Commander General Tarawalli ensured that Brigadier Gottor remained in his command. General Tarawalli was determined to see to it that Gottor executed his coup plot, which he did although not to his benefit as Gottor had a completely different coup agenda.

With regard to the Inspector General of Police Bambay Kamara, his views on the rebel threat or the NPRC coup plot were either ignored or, he simply failed to make an impression. In any event, the chance of anyone in his position playing any meaningful role in the country’s security apparatus during those years preceding the war was made impossible because the entire security set-up, if one ever existed in reality, was being deliberately sabotaged.

No sooner had Charles Taylor installed himself in power in Liberia than he masterminded the targeted mass tribal killings of ethnic Khrans, Madingoes, and other ethnic groups sympathetic to Doe. This was the policy of ethnic cleansing carried out by Taylor’s NPFL rebels comprising mainly ethnic Manos, Gios and members of Taylor’s minority Kongors (Americo-Liberians). A similar scenario was to later repeat itself in Sierra Leone’s RUF rebel war where ethnic Mendes, Kissis and Konos carried out the slaughter of northern ethnic groups. However, Taylor’s brutal ethnocentric solution to the tribal problem in Liberia soon caught the attention of the outside world and greatly disturbed other West Afican leaders. But Taylor was unperturbed and went on to turn Liberia into a pariah state.

Once fully in control of Liberia, Taylor then turned his attention to Sierra Leone in fulfilment of the NPFL/RUF rebel pact. His NPFL rebels, together with Burkinabi fighters, some of whom were regular soldiers in the Burkinabi army, and RUF rebels launched a devastating tribal rebel war on neighbouring Sierra Leone, the first cross-border attack of which took place in March 1991.

Upcountry, as the rebel war found its way into the history books of unheard of cruelty and barbarity, hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were mercilessly slaughtered. Bets were placed on pregnant women as their stomachs were slit open to find out the sex of unborn babies. Boiling oil was poured into the sexual parts of women as mindless RUF and NPFL rebels stood by and took pleasure in seeing them scream to death.

Given the direct nexus or connection between the RUF tribal rebel war and the 1992 National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) military coup, there is compelling and reliable evidence that it was the SLPP that formed and masterminded the RUF, which subsequently deposited the devastating and barbaric tribal rebel war on the people of this country; and a faction of the RUF which became the NPRC following the military coup. Thus the second option or Plan B of the RUF rebel plot to illegally overthrow the previous APC government was the NPRC military coup, and in order to facilitate this option, it became necessary for the RUF to infiltrate the army.

So during the second-half of 1991 when it became apparent that the RUF war was going to be a long and bitter struggle, the NPRC military coup, that is, Plan B gained preference over the RUF war effort. Dr AK Turay, Momoh’s Personal Assistant willingly obliged the SLPP when Momoh appointed him to put together a team of lecturers from Fourah Bay College (FBC), University of Sierra Leone to conduct the examination for the purpose of recruiting Officer Cadets into the army. Dr AK Turay cleverly recruited Mende lecturers sympathetic to the SLPP, and ethnic Mendes, Kissis and Konos were encouraged to join the army as Officer Cadets. The then Army Commander, Major General Tarawalli fully supported the scheme and turned down intelligence reports that Dr Turay was covertly facilitating a coup plot. Momoh also stubbornly refused to heed to intelligence reports that Dr Turay was covertly SLPP and was facilitating a military coup.

To cut a long story short, this was how many ethnic Mende, Kissi and Kono officers of low intellect were able to successfully join the army. Once recruited, the Officer Cadets were hurriedly trained over a period of three months, instead of the usual period of fifteen to twenty one months. The stage was thus set for the SLPP to overthrow Momoh’s APC government by means of a military coup.

It is an indisputable fact that it was during NPRC rule (1992–1996) that the RUF tribal rebel war escalated to the northern region of Sierra Leone. Members of the NPRC hierarchy, particularly (self-promoted) senior military officers and other senior military officers of southern and eastern origin colluded with RUF and NPFL rebels, and SLPP politicians and embarked on a ruthless campaign of terror and intimidation against the civilian population. This campaign was directed against APC supporters and sympathisers and peoples from northern ethnic groups, particularly Limbas, Temnes, Yalunkas and Korankos; and Creoles who bore the brunt of NPRC rule.

In general, the NPRC fermented a feeling of hate and distrust for the APC party and persons of northern origin throughout the country, the vast majority of whom took no active part in the hostilities. While in power for four years, the regime exclusively governed by the threat and the use of force to seek compliance from the people of this country, during which period it committed blatant human rights abuses and other violations of the laws of Sierra Leone such as, summary executions, murder, torture, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and the protection from deprivation of property.

The campaign therefore assumed political and ethnic dimensions and upcountry, the killings of APC supporters and sympathisers, and persons from northern ethnic groups were widespread and systematic. There is compelling evidence of certain (self-promoted) senior military officers of the NPRC hierarchy and other senior military officers of southern and eastern origin who supplied weapons, ammunition and equipment to the RUF, the same RUF the junta had vowed to defeat. In addition, for the first time in the rebel conflict, northern military officers and soldiers in combat were being shot in the back and killed. This signalled the beginning of a new chapter of murderous tribal killings in the army initiated by the NPRC.

It is significant for history to recall that immediately following the illegal overthrow of the previous APC government on 29th April 1992 by the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), there was a brief lull in the rebel fighting. But the token truce came to nothing once the NPRC realised that the SLPP and Foday Sankoh with whom they had all struggled for power during APC rule no longer mattered. This resulted in a major rift in the RUF as Foday Sankoh broke away from the original RUF to head his own rebel group and tenaciously hold on to the RUF identity.

Foday Sankoh took with him the small band of RUF rebels whose rank and file had no political agenda. In the main, this group joined Foday Sankoh as a show of loyalty. The majority of them were ignorant about the RUF agenda, although they later realised there was financial reward to be gained as the rebel war dragged on. However, Foday Sankoh’s new hierarchy which comprised his Battle Group Commander Sam ‘Maskita’ Bockarie, a former diamond digger and others knew exactly what the rebel war was all about.

The bulk of the NPFL rebels also decided to throw their lot behind Foday Sankoh. They had been fighting in Sierra Leone under his direct command since the incursion in 1991 and had over the period developed a close personal relationship with him, even though Charles Taylor was the senior partner in the rebel alliance.

Foday Sankoh’s decision to break away from the original RUF was a big blow to the SLPP. For the first time, the RUF Mendes felt betrayed by someone they had trusted and regarded as one of their own. As the RUF rebel front commander, Foday Sankoh had a personal score to settle with the APC so he was highly motivated and pursued the rebel war with tenacious cruelty. But the dynamics of the rebel war had changed once the NPRC decided to have it their own way. Foday Sankoh too felt let down and as a result lost confidence in the Mende clique. Moreover, the seasoned NPFL rebels provided him with the numbers he needed, and counting on the support of his own small group of loyal maternal tribesmen decided to seize the opportunity to fight his way to the highest seat of power.

The second faction of RUF emerged from Mende ethnic rebels, who were in the majority in the original RUF front. This faction decided to identify with the SLPP, and by so doing, swelled the ranks of the Kamajors during SLPP rule. In the main, these rebels were from Kenema and Bo districts, although ethnic Mende and Kissis rebels from Kailahun and Pujehun districts also decided to join this faction. The rift also saw the emergence of a third faction of RUF. This again mainly comprised rebels from the Mende ethnic group, but who were predominantly from Kailahun and Pujehun districts, together with a mix of Kissi rebels from Kailahun district, and Kono rebels from Kono district. This faction owed its loyalty to the NPRC and its formation was orchestrated by John Benjamin and Dr John Karimu, who had become prominent NPRC members. Major Lymon though not a member of the NPRC was instrumental in its formation.

So once fighting resumed after the brief truce, the rebel war reached a new height of unimaginable ferocity and cruelty. All factions of the RUF, of which Foday Sankoh’s faction was the most embittered, transformed themselves into barbaric killing machines and unleashed a tribal rebel war of renewed ferocity and unprecedented human cruelty. Foday Sankoh’s field commander, Sam Bockarie, alias “Maskita” became one of the most evil men on earth.

The break up of the original RUF introduced a new and unexpected political tribal struggle within the SLPP camp as it signalled the beginning of a serious fracture within the once cohesive SLPP Mende front, which also included the Sherbro, Kissi and Kono ethnic groups. By and large, the Sherbros had not been involved in the RUF tribal rebel war, although their sympathy lay with the SLPP. But the sudden struggle for political power within the SLPP camp, which would have seen the emergence of another powerful Mende and Kissi faction from Pujehun and Kailahun districts must have alarmed the Sherbros who were seeing themselves being sidelined.

The sherbros had always played second fiddle in the leadership of the SLPP since the demise of the Margais. But this relatively unknown but ambitious breed of new politicians from Kailahun and Pujehun districts who had gained a strong foothold in the NPRC must have troubled them a lot. Needless to say, core SLPP Mende politicians from Kenema and Bo were also deeply troubled. John Benjamin and Dr John Karimu, the two strongest emerging politicians could not be underestimated as they were capable of manipulating the young and inexperienced NPRC military leadership to gravitate the new focus of the SLPP political leadership to Pujehun and Kailahun. And once the NPRC was gone, these two men would automatically assume the leadership of the SLPP.

No doubt, the future leadership of the SLPP must have played on the minds of top SLPP politicians like Tejan Kabbah and others when they decided to make themselves available for office under NPRC rule. Besides, they were not prepared to take any chances as they wanted to ensure that in the grand scheme of things, the NPRC would pave the way for the SLPP to assume office come the next general multi party elections. They did everything in their power to convince the international community that the NPRC should remain in power, at least for the time being. They needed time to consolidate their political strategy so were quite willing to bear with the unbearable. By all account, the APC which was their main threat had to be completely politically ostracised; who best to do the dirty job than the repressive NPRC junta.

Although the NPRC nearly gave SLPP politicians the scare of their lives by wanting to stay in power indefinitely, after four years of illegal and unconstitutional rule, which was accompanied by tribal repression, summary executions and cold-blooded murders, the junta was finally forced to vacate power.

It is essential to note that Julius Maada Bio’s lust for an out and out Mende NPRC leadership drove him to see Valentine Strasser (Creole) as an impediment to SLPP rule, the same way Colonel Charles Blake the National Reformation Council (NRC) military junta’s No. 2 man had regarded Andrew Juxon-Smith (Creole) as an impediment to APC rule. So Colonel Blake, a staunch APC supporter masterminded the overthrow of the NRC through Imadu Rogers, a senior non-commissioned officer, whose short-lived military junta subsequently restored the APC government of Siaka Stevens to power in 1968. Thus, Maada Bio and his clique of southern and eastern officers on belatedly realising the appointment of Strasser as Head of State was a costly mistake organised a palace coup and simply removed him from power. Of course, the Creoles are a minority ethnic group and have no power base in the army, so Strasser’s fall from power was easily accomplished.

It is also significant to point out that it was under NPRC and SLPP rule that the country witnessed the emergence of a sinister phenomenon as NPFL and RUF rebels, together with Kamajor militias disguised as RUF rebels started to amputate the limbs of countless civilians upcountry, and that it was particularly Temnes and Limbas who accounted for nearly all the amputations during the 11-year tribal rebel war. Of course, no survey has to date been conducted to determine the identity of the thousands more who died from their wounds, especially babies and children with little chance of survival.

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