The latest news coming out of Sierra Leone's rebel heartland is heart rending. (See here for Peter Andersen's Sierra Leone News Web for accounts on 15-17 December)

It would appear as if RUF commander Sam Bockarie, alias Mosquito, has stretched his luck too far.  In doing so, he might have lent some credence to the view held in many quarters that the RUF is nothing but a rag tag army of self opinionated individuals masquerading as military leaders. But that is too simplistic a conclusion to be drawn from what is obviously a slow but sure unfolding of the tapestry of mystery and intrigue that has always shrouded the RUF.

What cannot be disputed is that in recent days the RUF's discomfiture has been played publicly for all to see. Whereas the leadership of the AFRC led by Lt. Col Johnny Paul Koroma has, in the eyes of most people, been openly demonstrative of their commitment to the peace process, the RUF in contrast has appeared discordant, irresolute and sometimes fractious. The single most discordant note has often been that sounded by the bellicose and seemingly implacable commandant Sam Bockarie.

Some people interpreted this as meaning that maybe the RUF was learning lessons from organisations like the IRA which for years had a dominant military wing that conducted a very aggressive war in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, and a conventional civilian political wing that gave it a human face. They point to the fact that the RUF just recently registered its own political party in Freetown but that military strong man, Mosquito, was allowed to continue berating the entire peace process. Not an unreasonable parallel to make, by any means!

Chairman Foday Sankoh, the RUF leader, has been at pains to reassure Sierra Leoneans and the international community, as well as his own minders in Liberia, that he was still in charge and that the entire RUF leadership was committed to the peace process. Mosquito, he said,  was still taking orders from him. 

But the truth of the matter was, or rather is, that the reality on the ground showed otherwise. Matters came to a dramatic head when Mosquito recently used his satellite phone to contact the BBC to protest at an alleged plot by the RUF leadership that was opposed to him, to assassinate him. The RUF leadership, almost unanimously (since no other came out openly in support of Bockarie's defiant claim), emphatically denied that there was any attempt to assassinate Bockarie but also confirmed that he had refused to take orders from the leadership. However, they said that efforts were being made to settle the issue amicably.

The latter comment may have been a reference to the reported intervention of President Charles Taylor to reconcile the two sides. Taylor has been just as keen to ensure the implementation of the Lomé Agreement, having realised the consequences of its failure for Liberia and for his own personal standing within the international community, which has suffered considerably for allegedly giving succour to the RUF.

It was not clear, up to the time of the latest incident involving Mosquito's alleged aberrant behaviour, whether Taylor had even made contact with Mosquito at all. Whatever is the true position, these proposed overtures have most probably been now overtaken by these reported events. For, if the Ecomog report of Mosquito's defiance and lurch into his latest orgy of executions and destruction is correct, then there was never a prospect that he would travel to Liberia, as some reports had already (wrongly) claimed he had, for conciliatory talks with his leader Sankoh.

While Sankoh has been making wild but rhetorical noises about the deployment of UN troops, it had been left to Mosquito to publicly object to their deployment, threatening on at least two occasions to engage them if they were sent to disarm his troops. Then when last week he made his defiant call to the BBC and followed it with the abduction of two MSF officials (now happily released) it became clear that this was a desperate man who seemed determined to have things in his own way, or else everyone around would have it!

Initial reactions to the news about Mosquito have ranged from outright glee to introspect anxiety. But the fact is that unless the rank and file, notably those who have always taken their queue from Bockarie, are totally loyal to the conciliatory and compromisory stance adopted by Sankoh and the others towards the Lomé Agreement and the peace process in general, disarming them will become infinitely more difficult. If indeed, as reported, he has deserted his men and fled to some unknown country (Come on! Surely if they know so much, they must know where he has fled to!), then his troops must be seen for the moment, at least, to be leaderless. That points to real dangers ahead and it would be foolhardy for anyone to gloat over it with glee.

It is probably the appreciation of these dangers that explains why the RUF has reportedly appointed a certain Momoh Rogers to take over command in the region 'formerly' commanded by Bockarie. The existence of a vacuum in the chain of command would lead to dire consequences, including a free for all, that will spell doom or chaos for the peace process. That is the last thing Sierra Leone wants.

It is not far-fetched to suggest that Bockarie has probably felt a sense of frustration, emptiness and redundancy. It was the war that made him what he is. It was the dastardly deeds, bravery to him, that he allegedly directed that gave him the prominence he has earned over so many years. The peace process which now requires him and his men to hand over the guns that gave him the means to that prominence, and the deployment of UN troops to ensure that they do so,  may have signalled to him the end of an era and a status he has grown accustomed to, i.e. the leader of an undefeated fighting machine, captivating the attention of all around him. To such a person, the prospect of peace can pose a serious threat to their self esteem. Mosquito's alleged reaction may be the expression of the frustration that he now feels as he is gradually being elbowed out of the limelight. But this is merely our own speculation!

Insiders do however say that he was one of the puritanical adherents to the RUF's cause and has felt lately that his leader and Lomé have betrayed that cause; that his reaction is the result of his anger and frustration against Foday Sankoh and the entire leadership of the RUF for caving in and compromising with Kabbah's government.

Whatever may be the reason for this alleged aberration by Bockarie - and we have only Ecomog's word for it because as far as we know there has been no official confirmation or statement yet from either the RUF or the Government of Sierra Leone - this whole episode poses real dangers for Sierra Leone in another respect: It is the fact that a long time key operational leader like Mosquito has presumably built an obvious following of  loyalists and clients over the years. To what extent he might have incited or convinced them to follow his line of action and defiance, and to what extent they are beholden unto him rather than say Sankoh and the rest, is a question that only the RUF themselves can unravel. For the moment Sierra Leoneans must simply sit and watch for the drama to unfold. 

If as has been reported it is really true that he has deserted his men, then maybe it is a hopeful kind of providential intervention which we can capitalise on, provided the authorities in Sierra Leone are quick-witted and minded enough to push ahead, speedily, with further bold concessions that will attract these men away from continuing with Mosquito's legacy. If on the other hand he has not deserted, and the news of his tergiversation is merely speculative and wishful thinking on the part of the authorities, then things will most certainly remain precarious for the present fragile peace process.