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Revolutionary United Front (RUF)

The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone defied traditional patterns of guerilla movements, and in many ways defines the emerging pattern of armed struggle in Africa. Ibrahim Abdullah and Patrick Muana have observed:

"The RUF has defied all available typologies on guerilla movements. It neither a separatist uprising rooted in a specfic demand, as in the case of Eritrea, nor a reformist movement with a radical agenda superior to the regime it sought to overthrow. Nor does it possess the kind of leadership that would be necessary to designate it as warlord insurgency. The RUF has made history; it is a peculiar guerilla movement without any significant national following or ethnic support. Perhaps because of its lumpen social base and its lack of an emancipatory programme to garner support from other social groups, it has remained a bandit organization solely driven by the survialist needs of its predominantly uneducated and alienated battle front and battle group commanders. Neither the peasantry, the natual ally of most revolutionary movements, nor the students, amongst whose ranks the RUF-to-be originated, lent any support to the organization during its six years of fighting."

During the second half of the 1980s, many university students in Sierra Leone had become radicalized by the government's suppression of their demonstrations by exposure to new ideas, including the thoughts of Col. Qaddafi. This was matched by the continued and dramatic growth in unemployed and disaffected youth who had became socialized in a climate of violence, drugs and criminality. Between 1987 and 1988, between twenty-five and fifty Sierra Leoneans were taken to Libya for training in the "art of revolution". Among the students was a functional illiterate who had become part of a "revolutionary cell" in Kono. Foday Sankoh was a former army corporal and photographer who had been jailed for seven years for alleged implication in the 1971 coup plot against Siaka Stevens. Only three of those trained in Libya showed up later in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), and the only survivor after a year or so was Foday Sankoh.

At the end of 1989, Charles Taylor launched an attack on Samuel Doe's government with a small band of men, several of them, including Taylor himself, with Libyan training or connections. Taylor also received support from the Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso. Burkinabè support for Taylor was later extended to Foday Sankoh and the RUF.

By 1991 the Momoh regime governing Sierra Leone was in serious difficulty. Beset by a crumbling economy, growing popular agitation and factional turmoil within the government, Momoh announced a return to multi-party politics, and general elections were planned for 1992. Before the elections could be held, however, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) attacked. With the assistance of Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), Foday Sankoh and a small band of men crossed from Liberia into Sierra Leone's Eastern Province in March 1991, with the express aim of ending the APC's 24 year grip on power. Raids on several border towns over the next few days demonstrated the weakness of the Sierra Leone military, and within a month, most of Kailahun District was under rebel control.

A humanitarian crisis quickly resulted from the RUF's tactics, which involved brutal attacks on unarmed civilians and children. Attempting to copy the ethnic incitement that had served Charles Taylor well in Liberia, the RUF at first targeted Fula and Madingo traders, murdering more than 100 in its first two months of operations. It also targeted Lebanese traders, beheading five in Bo District. The atrocities never sparked an ethnic divide, but they created alarm among the civilian population and caused rapid and widespread displacement. Panicked, President Momoh quickly doubled the size of the army from 3,000 men to almost 6,000, drawing most of his new recruits from vagrants in Freetown - the "rural...unemployed, a fair number of hooligans, drug addicts and thieves" - as his foreign minister at the time later put it. Further confusion was added to the mix by the formation in Sierra Leone of the United Liberation Movement of Liberia (ULIMO), a coalition of anti-Taylor Liberians who, with Government of Sierra Leone (GOSL) support, initially fought both the RUF and Taylor's NPFL.

Because of corruption and mismanagement, Sierra Leone's front line troops were badly underpaid and demoralized. In April 1992, a group from the Eastern front travelled to Freetown to protest their situation. Within a day, the mutiny became a coup and Joseph Momoh fled to Guinea. A military junta, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) was formed, with 29- year-old army paymaster, Capt. Valentine Strasser as Chairman. Soon the NPRC came to resemble the regime it had ousted.

During 1992 and 1993 the fortunes of the RUF fluctuated. On occasion, they overran the diamond areas were pushed back and retook the area again. Civilians accused by the government of collaboration were arrested and some were executed. But the penalty for not collaborating with the RUF was as severe, or worse. The RUF had two major calling cards: dead civilians, and hundreds, possibly thousands, of living civilians with their hands, feet, ears or genitals crudely amputated.

Any force with access to the diamond areas also had access to diamonds. It gradually became unclear who was responsible for a particular ambush. In some cases attacks were carried out by soldiers and blamed on the RUF. Soldiers by day and rebels by night, they became known as "sobels". The RUF added to the sobel story by carrying out raids in stolen army uniforms.

Towards the end of 1992, a new force entered the picture, the "kamajors". Kamajor is a Mende word meaning hunter. In traditional Mende society, the hunter was a guardian of society and part of a mystical, "invincible" warrior cult. Joined by a number of educated individuals and retired military personnel, the Kamajors soon became a force to contend with, fighting back not only against the RUF, but against the excesses of the NPRC government.

By 1995 the military situation had become desperate, with hit and run raids throughout the country giving the RUF an appearance of great strength. Early in the year, the RUF overran the country's last remaining economic assets, the SIEROMCO bauxite mine and the Sierra Rutile titanium mines, allegedly with the assistance of soldiers commanded by Major Johnny Paul Koroma.

Until about 1995, it was unclear what the RUF stood for, who Foday Sankoh was, and what he wanted. Although he had given the occasional BBC radio-telephone interview, it was not until the 1995 appearance of the RUF's Footpaths to Democracy: Toward a New Sierra Leone, that any consistent ideals or purpose were enunciated. Allegedly drafted by an employee of International Alert, Footpaths contains words and phrases lifted directly from Mao Zedong, Amilcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon (Abdullah).

While it is true that the RUF is made up of disaffected young men, a very high proportion of them were already alienated and dangerous before the RUF opportunity arose. Only a tiny fraction of Sierra Leonean youth has joined the RUF of their own volition. The main RUF recruits have been drawn from the same Freetown slums where Siaka Stevens recruited his brutal ISU and where Joseph Momoh found the material to double his army. Others were children who were kidnapped, drugged, and forced to commit atrocities. The "radical intellectual" roots of the RUF were extinguished in its first year of operation, and its brutal attacks on civilians stand in contradiction to its ostensible aim of creating a "revolutionary egalitarian system".

By early 1995, the RUF was only miles from Freetown, as much a result of the army's incompetence as of RUF prowess. In fact at the time, the RUF was estimated by some to have an overall strength of three to four thousand, with a hard core of only five to six hundred soldiers. Part of the NPRC problem was its calculation that at least 20% of its own troops were disloyal. In May 1995, the NPRC turned to Executive Outcomes (EO), a South African security firm that had successfully repelled UNITA rebels on behalf of the Angolan government. The first EO contingent arrived in Sierra Leone in May 1995. Within ten days of their operational startup, they had beaten the RUF back from Freetown, and within a month had cleared the diamond areas. By early 1996, the RUF had been seriously damaged, and had been pushed away from the diamond areas that had helped to pay for their efforts.

Hard-pressed by continuing EO attacks, the RUF announced a cease-fire and sought unconditional peace talks with Bio's government. These began in Abidjan only a few days before the elections were held. After two rounds of voting, the SLPP formed a government, with Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, a former UNDP official, sworn in as President.The peace talks in Abidjan went on for almost nine months, during which RUF attacks resumed, only to be fended off with devastating effect by EO and Kamajor forces. When Foday Sankoh and the GOSL signed a peace agreement at the end of November 1996, it looked as though the RUF was a spent force. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that President Kabbah agreed to the expulsion of Executive Outcomes within five weeks of signing the agreement (although LifeGuard, an EO offshoot remained behind to protect the diamond areas). It is also not surprising, in view of subsequent events, that Foday Sankoh refused to sanction a 720-member UN Peacekeeping Force.

The RUF gained most from the peace agreement. It was given an on-going political role and legitimacy, and was absolved of responsibility for its past activities. More importantly, it gained militarily in the sense that the government was left exposed with little reliable security beyond the Kamajors and a new contingent of Nigerian troops sent to bolster the ECOMOG force. RUF attacks continued, in part because of disagreement in the leadership over the peace agreement, while in Freetown, a number of army officers were arrested in a suspected coup plot.

In May 1997, a group of soldiers attacked the central jail, releasing the coup plotters and an estimated 600 criminals. President Kabbah fled and Major Johnny Paul Koroma, freed in the prison break, became head the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). The AFRC invited the RUF to join them, declaring the war to be over. The period of joint AFRC-RUF rule was characterized by a complete breakdown of law and order, and by a collapse of the formal economy. Schools, banks, commercial services and government offices ceased to function, while rape and looting became the order of the day.

In February 1998 ECOMOG forced the AFRC/RUF out of Freetown in a fierce battle that took the lives of many civilians. Restored to office, President Kabbah took steps to begin demobilizing the entire army. A total of 47 individuals were convicted of treason and other charges associated with the AFRC/RUF administration, and sentenced to death. Foday Sankoh, who had been arrested in Nigeria and returned to Sierra Leone, was also tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. During this period, the AFRC/RUF forces conducted a violent rampage throughout the country, chased from one place to another without great success by ECOMOG forces. Several thousand civilians have been brutally killed or mutilated. Hundreds of others have been abducted from their villages and forced to join their attackers." The RUF referred to this period as "Operation No Living Thing" .

With Foday Sankoh and other AFRC/RUF defendants appealing their convictions, the RUF again appeared at the gates to Freetown in January 1999, catching both the government and ECOMOG off guard. Using women and children as a human shield, some RUF troops were able to bypass ECOMOG troops and join comrades who had already infiltrated the city. Among their number were Liberians and a small number of European mercenaries. In the fighting that ensued, an estimated five thousand people died, including cabinet ministers, journalists and lawyers who were specifically targeted. Before the rebels were beaten back, large parts of the city were burned and 3,000 children were abducted as they retreated. While many of the convicted AFRC/RUF collaborators were freed, Foday Sankoh remained in government custody.

The Revolutionary United Front had been engaged in armed struggle against the corrupt government of Sierra Leone for nine years. Only recently did peace come to Sierra Leone in the form of the Lomé Peace Agreement. The Lomé Peace Agreement was signed by the Leader of the Revolutionary United Front, Foday Saybana Sankoh and President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. This agreement brought peace, finally, to Sierra Leone.

During 2001, reports of serious abuses by the RUF declined significantly.

On 18 January 2002, the devastating 11-year civil conflict officially ended when all parties to the conflict issued a Declaration of the End of the War. The Government since asserted control over the whole country, backed by a large U.N. peacekeeping force. Revolutionary United Front (RUF) insurgents, who fought successive governments since 1991, completed disarmament and demobilization.

In March 2002 RUF leader Foday Sankoh and 49 RUF co-defendants were indicted with 16 counts of murder and 54 counts of shooting with intent to commit murder in connection with the 2000 incident outside Sankoh's residence in Freetown in which 20 persons were killed and 80 persons were injured. Thirty-one members of an ex-SLA splinter group called the West Side Boys were charged with 11 counts of murder and 11 counts of robbery with aggravation in connection with incidents that took place in Port Loko District in 1999 and 2000. Sankoh, the 49 former RUF rebels, and the indicted West Side Boys remained in detention awaiting trial at Pademba Road Prison at year's end.

No action was taken against the RUF for the following incidents in 2001: The July killing of 22 persons in an attack on the village of Henekuma; the August killing of 2 persons in an attack on the village of Seria, in Koinadugu district; and the death of four former RUF members, allegedly under orders from RUF chairman Issa Sesay.

No action was taken against the RUF rebels responsible for the following killings in 2000: The April and May killings of U.N. peacekeepers; the May killings of journalists Kurt Schork and Miguel Gil Moreno; the June killings in the attack on Port Loko; and the August killing of nine civilians in the village of Folloh. Although the Special Court for Sierra Leone was expected to examine these incidents, no further action was taken by year's end.

On 21 March 2003, after receiving an initial psychiatric report on the leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) Foday Saybana Sankoh, Special Court Judge Benjamin M. Itoe called for further psychiatric examinations. The hearing was held at a Sierra Leone district court in Bonthe where the Special Court is functioning while its permanent courthouse and detention centre are under construction. The judge ordered that copies of the report, written by Dutch psychiatrist Dr Peter Verkaeed, be provided to lawyers of the Prosecution and Defence. The Prosecution requested that the Judge enter a 'not guilty' plea on behalf of Sankoh. Sankoh has not responded verbally since his first Special Court hearing earlier this month. The Judge denied the Prosecution's request, deciding instead that all three judges of the trial chambers need to make a determination. The case was adjourned to a date to be fixed by the Registrar. Public hearings were also held during the day for three other indictees -- alleged RUF commanders Issa Hassan Sesay and Morris Kallon, and alleged junta commander Alex Tamba Brima, who each face seventeen count indictments. Their cases were also adjourned. A fifth indictee, Chief Samuel Hinga Norman, has had closed hearings at an undisclosed location. The Judge also held a hearing for the first suspect detained by the Special Court, Augustine Gbao. Suspects can be held up to ninety days without being charged, subject to the consent the Court.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 15:41:22 ZULU