|DURING most of August and early September there were strong
rumours of tension not just between the RUF leader and his fighters but
between them and their allies in the ousted AFRC junta. The stories went
so far as to suggest that 'Mosquito' (a.k.a Sam Bockarie) was at
odds with his leader Corporal Foday Sankoh. This was quite a surprise
because as far as loyalty goes, Mosquito has always adored Sankoh and sworn
total allegiance to him. Some weeks after the rebel invasion of Freetown
in January, he pointedly told this editor on the telephone that he would
never lay down his arms "until I see my leader in the flesh".
Foday Sankoh has denied that there is a rift between him and his movement or between the AFRC leader Johnny Paul Koroma and himself. Koroma has also insisted that there was no serious rift between him and the others. Nonetheless the rumours persisted, and have continued to the present day.
Whatever the situation might be, there is surely some truth in most of this because as the saying goes, there is no smoke without fire. There have almost certainly been fireworks in the rebel ranks! The rest is pure speculation, although the surrounding circumstances on the ground are compelling enough for us to avoid going widely off the mark.
A fall out between allies
In the midst of these speculations, our sources have also disclosed that Omrie Golley, a rebel spokesman and legal representative of the RUF, does not see eye to eye with Sankoh on many of the rebel leader's strategies since Lomé and that he has fallen out of Sankoh's favour. Both men despise each other intensely, according to this source. Golley has not been heard for a considerable time since the signing of the Lomé pact. However, he is reputed to be closely allied to several of the key RUF fighters on the ground.
A false alarm of rebel inavsion
But this time the rebels came in without their weapons, which everyone knew they had left behind hidden in the bush from whence they had come. In fact, some days later most of them returned to their bases. This led to further speculation that they had entered the city on a scouting mission and that true to their threats, they would lay a siege around the capital if and whenever they wanted to, unless their case for recognition under Lomé was given proper consideration. A particularly specious story was circulating at the same time that the Nigerians no longer had a stomach for a fight and were pulling out because of that. Thus, the rumourmongers concluded, the rebels would have free access and unimpeded entry into the city.
In reality, the Nigerian pullout was most probably a token gesture at the time carried out in order to deflect local Nigerian (political) criticism of the expense of keeping their forces in Sierra Leone and their civilian population's disquiet over the continuing danger faced by their troops. The fact is that President Obasanjo had by that time already stated categorically that there would be no mass withdrawal of his countrymen until the peace process was firmly established and the danger from the rebels was removed. Nonetheless the rumours persisted.
Obasanjo stops troops pullout
It was most certainly the strength of these rumours and the daring abduction of the RUF men that led President Kabbah to visit Nigeria on Friday, 3 September in order to persuade President Obasanjo to halt the repatriation of Nigerian Ecomog troops. His mission was successful. In return, the Nigerian government, in the absence of necessary funding from the international community for disarmament, agreed to commit more of its own national funds towards kick starting the process, at least for those combatants who had shown a willingness and preparedness to disarm and demobilise. It was also agreed that the best people to implement or police the process and who would be around to provide enough manpower were the Nigerians themselves since they already had troops on the ground. So repatriation of the troops was put on hold.
But the tension and impatience in the rebel camps, especially at the Okra Hills (40 miles from Freetown), grew and grew by the day and there were real dangers of flare up that would throw everything up in disarray. Aware of this impending catastrophe, President Obasanjo, as has been reported elsewhere on this site, offered a transhipment of food and medicines for the rebels. This helped to diffuse the tension and it assuaged many rebels who have always been suspicious of Nigerian motives in Sierra Leone.
Rebels have reportedly been giving their co-operation especially for the delivery of humanitarian help by UN agencies in some, though not all, of the areas they control. (One report has alleged that they have not allowed food and medicine to be delivered to Kono where they are said to be mining almost twenty-four hours a day. Houses and roads have allegedly been burrowed under in the quest for diamonds.) There have however been instances of interface between rebels, civilians and local NGO's. But there are still many thousands of rebel hearts to be won over.
Koroma raises the stakes
While putting his weight, for whatever it counts, at least in words, behind the Lomé Agreement, Koroma is standing his ground in asserting that the deal that emerged from Lomé did not take into account the interest of his own supporters, namely members of the SLA who joined or were allies with his ousted AFRC junta government which overthrew Kabbah in May 1997. Koroma has been at pains to restrain his men from restarting the fighting or adding any more to the state of uncertainty and insecurity in the country. He strongly condemned both the taking of UN hostages and the latest abduction of RUF officers by his own soldiers. He has personally pledged observance of the Lomé agreement as long a serious attempt is made to address his supporters' grievances.
Our guess is that the delay to start full implementation of the peace process is partly because of this lack of enthusiasm for the agreement by supporters of the AFRC/ SLA who say they have an axe to grind with Kabbah's government for disbanding them and for making them into a hate object for the nation. Their critics would however say in defence of Kabbah that the soldiers were themselves the architects of their own misfortune!
'Vulnerable' rebel leaders unwilling to return home
In the case of Koroma we can only guess that he is not confident that he can fully secure the participation of his supporters without extracting further guarantees and concessions for them. If he went now they might treat him as a traitor to their cause. There is also the guilt and personal responsibility he feels, according to some reports, for the death (including execution) of so many colleagues, including his elder brother, who supported him. Those close to him say it has been a chastening experience and that his withdrawal into a semi-religious life may be explained by this fact. If that is the case, then it also explains the restraint in his language and demeanour of late.
The danger of course is that unless a "moderate" like Koroma is given some attention, a hotter head may emerge to drive the AFRC coach headlong into even more treacherous waters. That will not be good for the rest of the country, and certainly not for the peace process. That's why although appearing conciliatory all the time he has been firm in asserting the need for due consideration to be paid to his soldiers' grievances.
Claims that he is considered as a legitimate target by sections of the Kamajoh militia, pose a constant threat to his own personal safety and must evidently dissuade him from going back into the country now. But then the question is, if he cannot go to Freetown why can't he at least go to areas under the control of his supporters to try and sell the deal?
As for Foday Sankoh we have more than once said that he has no reason not to be back inside the country; that he ought to have been in Kailahun – his own stronghold - immediately after the agreement was signed, to brief and win over his core members to support it. Clearly, it is his absence that has led to most of the speculation to date.
But if one takes account of Sankoh's entrapment and long detention in Nigeria in 1997 by General Sani Abacha (allegedly at the instance of Kabbah's government) and the circumstances of his forced repatriation, trial and sentencing to death by execution, it is not far fetched to say that he has probably also lost touch with some of his rank and file on the ground. It is hard to make any further deduction from this except to say that the logic that operates in organisations like the RUF is that they will not allow a leadership vacuum for too long. Sooner or later someone who fancies their chances will step into the void.
To some people, Sankoh appears to have lost control even though he keeps saying everything will be alright once he returns home. He needs to get his act together very quickly. Other commentators have not been so generous; they say that his mind has been messed up by his long period of isolation in Nigeria, his treason trial and near execution only then to be saved at the very last minute. Having gone through such an ordeal, they argue, he owes too much to others outside the RUF and that his position has thus been compromised. Sankoh's present cosy relationship with the Kabbah government has reportedly been quite disconcerting for the Okro Hills rebel contingent and some in the RUF, who have accused him of "watering down the RUF's ideological purity" (what?).
Allies know each other's strengths ...and weaknesses
The RUF has every reason to feel jittery about the AFRC/SLA soldiers. They can no longer thrive on the myth of RUF invincibility and invisibility, which was always there as long as the parties were in opposition to one another. After joining forces together to fight against Ecomog they know themselves well enough and the strengths and weaknesses of each other. The SLA, which fought and never defeated the RUF, now knows most of the RUF's secrets, their hideouts and even their tactics. This probably works similarly for the RUF.
Again, although the groups now appear to be distinct, there has been some degree of cross fertilisation, with RUF fighters reportedly becoming rebel AFRC and vice versa. One has recently heard that the reason that the famous RUF commando "Rambo" was (allegedly) executed by another RUF commando "Superman" - one of the men abducted recently by AFRC soldiers - was because Rambo had become extremely popular among the young AFRC soldiers who fought alongside the late Captain SAJ Musa.
Koroma the crusader
No reason for complacency
Our advice to President Kabbah, only if he wants it, is that he should
strive harder to secure this co-operation from them. The best way forward
would be for him to meet with the AFRC leader Johnny Paul Koroma immediately
to talk things over and address the grievances of his supporters. Thereafter
Kabbah should hold a tripartite meeting including Sankoh to harmonise their
approach. We understand that this is what Koroma himself has demanded.
He was recently quoted as saying : "I want President Tejan Kabbah, Corporal
Foday Sankoh and myself to meet in Nigeria to put the cards on the table
in a manner where there would be no problem to the ongoing peace." There
is no reason why such a meeting cannot take place right now as part of
the bridge-building process. It could be an example for all future community
actions to promote reconciliation.
In our discussion of rebel discords and dangers, we omitted to mention another major factor that lies hidden in the debris of the civil war in Sierra Leone. It is the story of Brigadier Bropley – a tough Liberian soldier who belonged to the very first wave of ULIMO soldiers who were hired by the Sierra Leone Government (under ex President Momoh) to fight against the RUF. Then when the NPRC took over in 1992, it was Bropley who commanded a 900-strong group of soldiers who were specially trained by Executive Outcomes to pursue the RUF down to its bases. These troops were reported to be easily the best trained and strongest of the soldiers fighting the RUF at the time. When the SLPP came to power under Kabbah they carried on as before, fighting for the government. But soon there was disgruntlement as they sensed that more attention was being paid to Kamjohs and not to them who "were the professionals". They felt sidelined by the new government and strongly resented that they were not trusted by Kabbah. Thus when the AFRC coup took place, Bropley and his entire force joined them. According to the source of this information, it was this group of soldiers who took State House from the Nigerian contingent guarding it, after nearly three days of fighting. Bropley and his men fled Freetown when Ecomog finally retook the city almost a year later. Heading North, he and his men linked up with the late SAJ Musa's fighters. They presently control most of the area up to and around Kambia and have on several occasions clashed with the Guinean Ecomog troops.