Understanding insurgency in Sierra Leone

The RUF (Revolutionary United Front – Sierra Leone) and NPFL (National People’s Front of Liberia – Liberia) both drew initial impetus from a small international West African group of revolutionaries, inspired by the notion a Third Way (between Soviet style One Party Rule and Western party based democracy) as advocated in Gaddafi’s Green Book. Some of the group trained in guerilla warfare in Benghazi. This guerilla group includes ex-Liberian army officer. Prince Johnson, and former NCO in the Sierra Leone Army, Forday Sankoh. Johnson was to assume charge of NPFL guerilla but later broke with NPFL leader, Charles Taylor to form his own independent militia. Sankoh, one time Army photographer, led and acted as spokesman for the RUF force entering Kailahun District in March 1991. Revolutionary concerns within the NPFL were masked (if not extinguished by ethnic politics. Two ethnic factions within the Liberian army, in alliance, had displaced the Americo-Liberian regime of Tolbert in the 1980 coup. One of these factions comprising mainly of Gio and Mano from Nimba county, was the losing party in post-coup rivalry between coup leaders Doe and Quiwonkpa. Quiwonkpa was killed by Doe in 1985 and in the aftermath, and again in 1989, Doe supporters in the Liberian army attacked and killed Gio and Mano civilians. Taylor, an Americo-Liberian, once a member of the Doe regime, then a member of the broad opposition coalition to doe, and married to a woman from Nimba county, cultivated the Nimba-based opposition to Doe as an opportunity to advance his own political ambitions. He seems to have understood the potential of the Libyan-supported West African revolutionary movement only late in the day. Introduced to Gaddafi by Burkinabe contacts in 1987 Taylor teamed up with Johnson and recruited a sm all group of ex-soldiers and farmers from Nimba for training in Benghazi. Gaddafi at first supported the NPFL under Taylor’s leadership, but later decided Taylor’s revolutionary credentials were fake.

RUF personnel gained guerilla experience fighting alongside Taylor’s people in Liberia. It was in Taylor’s strategic interest to assist the RUF launch its revolutionary campaign in eastern Sierra Leone in March 1991. The Sierra Leonean insurgents were too few in number to fight unaided. Taylor helped supplement the guerilla force with mercenary fighters from Liberia, and others recruited in Burkina Faso. Straight from a civil war dominated by ethnic violence, the Liberians and Burkinabes had little revolutionary motivation, and were principally interested in loot. Perhaps against the original intentions of the RUF leadership, the mercenary dominated fighters continued to rely on the terror tactics that had proven effective in Liberia. A main emphasis was to control communities through undermining local solidarity. Mandingo and Fula traders were murdered for alleged economic crimes, and young people were forced to take part in the execution of community leaders. Disgruntled local groups may also have adapted the insurgent agenda to their own purposes. A number of these groups “joined” the rebels violently to pursue local land and chieftaincy disputes.

In Liberia in 1989 Doe had rushed army units to Nimba county at the onset of the invasion. The military excesses of these units served as a potent recruiting tool for the NPFL. The easy going Sierra Leone president, Joseph Momoh, responded differently. An army kept largely for purposes of patronage and ceremony was in no position to contest the RUF. The government mainly depended on a special security force – the SSD – and units of this force fled or were withdrawn in the face of the RUF advance. The planner on the RUF insurgency seems to have been counting on violent army reprisals against local communities to build support for their own movement, as in Liberia. In the event, the impoverished Mende villagers supposed to rally to the RUF cause faced only one source harassment – the mercenary fighter of th RUF. Sankoh, and the RUF revolutionary war council, apparently had little control over these mercenaries, who applied the craft of terror in a mechanistic way with little thought for the political consequen ces. Confused as much as they were terrified by the politically incomprehensible alien violence, villagers fled the RUF and, in giving voice to their political confusion, helped consolidate the public perception throughout Sierra Leone that the RUF was little more than a diversion organised by Taylor to punish Sierra Leone for its involvement in the ECOMOG peace-keeping forces in Liberia.

The mercenary contingent returned to Liberia at the end of 1991. Civilians in the war zone and zealots of the RUF cause have since lived in distinct and irreconcilable social worlds. The lack of common reference must be considered in large measure a political consequence, for the RUF, of its dependence on mercenary fighters who had little understanding of the revolutionary role they were expected to fulfil.

At its heart the RUF is. And remains, a Libyan inspired revolutionary movement (controlling perhaps several thousand young people mainly recruited by force, and based in a handful of forest camps in the east and, more recently, in the centre of the country). It predates the NPFL (having been formed around 1981), and probably regards itself as superior to Charles Taylor’s group in commitment to political principle. More recent action suggest that the movement is aware of the negative consequences of, and is seeking to live down, the Liberian episode of 1991, though with little success since violence is now endemic in rural Sierra Leone. One of its problems is that disloyal groups within the army, and roving cross-border bandit gangs looking for diamonds and other forms of loot, imitate the earlier mercenary based terror tactics of the RUF as a way of masking criminal activities. Villagers from the immediate vicinity of RUF war camps report living in peaceful symbiosis with the insurgents, but Sierra Leoneans complain (rightly) that the RUF has never clearly articulated its broader political aims for Sierra Leone, nor has it succeeded in providing any justification for its early policy of violent attacks on defenceless civilian populations.

Currently, the RUF leadership rejects the option of joining the electoral process initiated by the NPRC(National Provisional Ruling Council) government in April 1995. Following Green Book precepts, spokespersons for the movement, interviewed on the BBC African service, argue the only acceptable test for the democratic acceptability of RUF principles and leadership is a national consultative convention of the kind advocated in the Gaddafian theory. The movement rejects peace negotiations because it believes a willingness to bargain undermined Taylor’s position in Liberia.

Locked in the bush for nearly five years, holding no towns, short of good communications equipment, and inspired by a populist political philosophy tinged with millenarianism, the RUF has lapsed, unsurprisingly, into an intransigent and sectarian isolation. Terrified captives are unlikely to provide the War Council with much honest feedback about the movements standing in the eyes of a majority of ordinary Sierra Leoneans. The RUF contingent attacking Bo on the morning of 27th December 1994 held its fire in order to preach the merits of the movement to the crowd, and seemed quite unprepared for the civilians to seize the initiative. Hitting out with any stick and knife that came to hand, the angry crowd succeeded in scattering a lightly armed group of 100 or so insurgents, catching and killing seven, all the while shouting that they wanted no rebels in Sierra Leone and were tired of a 4 year war the point of which they could not comprehend.

Although the RUF leadership seems to have misjudged the political mood in the country provoked by the misdeeds of the Liberian and Burkinabe mercenaries it can be argued, nevertheless, that the movement has in its favour a sociologically viable analysis of, if not a plausible political programme for, some of the major ills of Rural Sierra Leone; especially for the deeply damaged diamond districts in which it mainly operates. It seeks to appeal directly to deracinated youths with blighted educational prospects, many of whom have drifted to the diamond districts as a means of “dredging” a living (to use the local term). A younger generation of rural primary and secondary school teachers, long disgruntled by poor and uncertain pay, already had a fair knowledge of the teachings of the Green Book, since these were widely debated in university, training colleges and schools during the 1970s and 80s. A mass of less educated youth in the diamond districts has a more intuitive revolutionary consciousness shaped, nota ble by reggae style Rasta talk and exposure to the Rambo genre of post- Vietnam movies. To build on this ready-made revolutionary sympathy is high on the list of RUF aims – and is achieved either through voluntary recruitment or by capture. The movement has some confidence that its world view will resonate in the minds of young Sierra Leoneans already exposed to these simple revolutionary ideas, and that even captives will “see sense” once the movement has been fully explained.

Among the proto-revolutionary “texts” special significance attaches to the Rambo fil, First Blood, as interpreted by young viwers in rural Sierra Leone and Liberia. The movie explores the fate of a young American, prospects blighted by Vietnam and rejected by the larger society, who flees into the forest to escape the harrassment of the forces of law and order. There, through brilliant improvisation (eg. capturing his pursuers’ high tech weapons in carefully executed ambushes) and the mayhem that ensues, he establishes that society must take his unrecognised talents, and the problem of his military miseducation, seriously. Many young Sierra Leoneans, explaining why this is their favourite movie, report that they consider First Blood to have been “educative”. The NPFL, RUF and other Liberian militias all use Rambo movies for training and inspirational purposes. As a hero figure Rambo is very close to Musa Wo, the youthful trickster figure of Mende tradition. Musa Wo stories are a medium through which the “pro blem” of how to harness youthful energy and invention to socially constructive ends is debated in Mende society.

RUF camps and campaign tactics are evidently an attempt to put into practice some of the radical youth-oriented participatory populism of the Green Book. Camps on forest ridges are planned settlements. Eyewitnesses report model administration of justice, while captured villagers attend adult literacy classes and receive whatever free medical care the movement can muster. From the outset (eg. The attack on Pujehun hospital in April 1991) the RUF has targeted pharmacy stores to secure medication for its health care programme. Short of mercenary assistance and access routes across Taylor’s territory the “real” RUF replaces the military resources once available from Liberia with a cunning that serves, Rambo like, to showcase the inventiveness and courage of the movement’s otherwise disregarded youthful adherents. Armed with only hand painted wooden copies of guns and rocket launchers young RUF fighters create tableaux of military strength sufficiently believable to cause government forces to retreat. (Sankoh is a military photographer with a well developed sense of how to pose such scenes.) Carefully contrived ambush points manned for many days on end are sprung only after military convoys have passed freely back and forth. Selective burning of houses in attacks on villages creates the impression of heavy bombardment by a much better equipped fighting force. Disguised as refugees, or as government troops (in latest pattern stolen camouflage fatigues), young insurgents pass freely through more remote villages, navigating the back paths Sankoh knows so well from his days running a photographic business among the diamond of the east, without attracting the attention of the military authorities. Clearly differentiated in the public mind from earlier mercenary led invaders, and later groups of army bandits (known as “sobels”), the latter day clever but poorly equipped insurgent movement – the real RUF – is now known, movie sequence style as “RUF Two”.

Local reaction to mercenary terror was an important factor in bringing the NPRC military regime to power. Leading civilians in the NPRC regime are Mendes from the war zone who lost close relatives in the terror campaign in 1991. The NPRC coup was popular because it rid the country of the hated APC regime. The RUF seemingly bitterly resents the NPRC for having tapped a source of political sentiment which it had thought to make its own, thus landing it with the apparently insoluble problem of accounting to the wider Sierra Leonean public for the mercenary terror campaign. Had the RUF swiftly brought the APC government to its knees much of the political cost of the initial violence would have been discounted in the general relief at the overthrow of the APC.

But RUF resolve not to yield without attaining some of its original goals stems from more than frustration. The NPRC, in addition to some real achievements, has also made a number of serious political mistakes which the RUF seeks to exploit. These include an apparent failure to stamp out the corruption associated with the APC rule, especially in regard to diamond mining, and a lamentable episode at the end of 1992 when 27 political detainees associated with the former regime were executed without trial, in response to an alleged counter-coup plot. Perhaps groundlessly, it was suspected that a number of APC- appointed officers, served further fragment an already weak and divided army, bloated with a large number of ill-trained rank-and-file soldiers rapidly recruited to bring the war to a swift conclusion. Subsequently, groups of disgruntled soldiers absconded from barracks and headed for the war zone ( perhaps to secure their share of the loot, fearing the war might be coming to an end), and a number of fiel d commanders seem to have connived with the rebels to resupply the RUF with weapons and latest pattern army uniforms, perhaps in return for rough diamonds. As far as the RUF are concerned this has not only kept the movement alive in military terms, but also serves to confirm it profound political belief that Sierra Leone is still plagued by the corrupt tendencies that brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy in the APC days, and requires revolutionary cleansing.

NPRC intransigence in wanting to beat the RUF in battle stems from two key factors. Some of the regime were directly affected by the terror killings in 1991. Others desire to secure foundations for a Rawlings-like transition to democracy, and to use this as a platform for their longer term political ambitions. The response of some Western human rights agencies to the military coup in 1992 may have complicated the problem of the terror killings. Lord Avebury, chair of the UK parliamentary human rights group, has attacked ECOMOG as a manifestation of military dictatorship in West Africa but remains silent on the “revolutionary” use of military force by Taylor and his allies. In 1991-2 Amnesty International condemned the excesses of the Sierra Leone military in killing suspect rebels without trial, but again without condemning the RUF terror. Challenged on this apparent double standard Amnesty argues it could only protest abuses of human rights to legally recognised governments. It has since changed its stance on this issue, but from the point of view of the NPRC the damage was done. In NPRC eyes, the RUF is the aggressor, and outsiders protesting human rights abuses by the Sierra Leone army have confused cause and effect.

Following publication of an influential article in the US periodical Atlantic Monthly by Robert Kaplan (Feb 1994) several international agencies working in Sierra Leone have concluded that the violence lacks a political rationale, and is largely or solely “economic warfare”, or – to put it bluntly – crime. The centrepiece of Kaplan’s argument is that there is no political problem worthy of note in Sierra Leone. The issue is the brakdown of the social order, and the social order is being destroyed by population pressure, family breakdown and environmental degradation. Demonstrably, Kaplan’s piece is poorly researched as far as Sierra Leone is concerned, since this well resourced country is one of Africa’s less likely candidates for neo-Malthusian disaster. His analysis is a (somewhat desperate) attempt to make sense of the post Cold War intellectual void in the field of international relations and a number of domestic social concerns in the US (notably, the alleged link between crime and family breakdown) thr ough the old trick of displacing the focus of moral concern to a far-off country no one has heard of or cares about. Unfortunately, the influence of Kaplan’s piece on diplomatic missions and aid agencies working in Sierra Leone (all was banditry) it was strongly doubted at the end of 1994 that any such person as Foday Sankoh, as leader of the RUF, existed or that the movement was anything more that an opportunist illusion organised by malcontents within the Sierra Leone army. Events such as the release, in April 1995, of 17 international hostages held by RUF from November 1994 onwards have since served to confirm the existence of a well organised, strongly motivated insurgency movement at the heart of the Sierra Leonean “anarchy”, even if there is little understanding, as yet, of its aims and motives.

Currently, there is an unbridgeable gap between the 1991 coloured views of the RUF within the NPRC (especially among those members of the regime whose families were directly affected by the RUF terror) and the RUF’s self image as a principled revolutionary movement seeking Gaddafi-style solutions to the problems of Sierra Leoneans deracinated youth. Objectively, the situation is not dissimilar to that in Peru, where Shining Path recruited among part educated “de-indianised” Andean youth despairing that metropolitan society in Lima would ever take its educational and modernist aspirations seriously. The NPRC has tried to pursue a Fujimori style solution (democratisation, a tough line on security, and attention to economic efficiency) but lacking in his resources, international support and ballot box mandate, has had only very limited success. The option now is to try and understand better what the RUF stands for, as a basis for negotiation.

It is true that the RUF shows some of the intransigent millenarian tendencies of movements like the Shining Path. But the history of Sierra Leone tends to suggest that even when sectarian trends begin to manifest themselves in the national political culture they are often swiftly counter-balanced by wider syncretic tendencies. An RUF hell bent on imposing Year Zero solutions on the rest of the country would have a hard time, even if it succeeded in gaining a military advantage. But in fact there is no reason to suppose that the logic of “creolization” is any less forceful within the RUF than within the wider society, since it analyses tribalism and factionalism as one of the causes of the national disaster. This suggests that negotiation and compromise around a shared understanding that all Sierra Leoneans coexist within a shared multi-cultural national space, will begin to emerge as the solution to the crisis. With the Kaplan episode consigned by recent events to the historical dustbin, and a new dynamic in Liberia serving to differentiate Taylor from his erstwhile revolutionary collaborators, Sierra Leoneans are in a much better position to figur out how to address the injustices that provoked the rise of revolutionary consciousness in the first place, and how now to deal with the bitter legacy of over four years of unrelieved violence.