Volume Three A, Chapter Three
Chapter Three, The Military and Political History of the Conflict
1. This chapter of the report is intended primarily to fulfil the obligation on the Commission to produce an ‘impartial historical record’ of the violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the conflict in Sierra Leone. It takes the form of a narrative that spans across more than two decades of political and military activities in the country, but places its main focus on the years from 1991 until 2002, when the country was embroiled in armed civil conflict and war-related violations and abuses were visited upon the population.
2. This military and political history is couched in the terms of the Commission’s mandate, attempting to present accurately the social and historical “context in which the violations and abuses occurred” and to address “the question of whether those violations and abuses were the result of deliberate planning, policy or authorisation by any government, group or individual”.
3. In the first place, the Commission has sought to lend an appropriate context to the outbreak of hostilities in Sierra Leone by analysing its most proximate antecedents in this chapter. These factors are included under the rubric of ‘The Predecessors, Origins and Mobilisation of the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (RUF)’. Thereafter, in understanding and analysing the military and political history, the Commission has deemed it necessary to devise a periodisation of the conflict that adequately reflects its main phases and captures its main events.
4. To the extent that the greatest preponderance of key events in the military and political history of the conflict, not to mention the overwhelmingly majority of violations and abuses stemming from them, were driven by the combatants of the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (the “RUF”), it has been considered appropriate that the periodisation should reflect the evolving character of that faction, as well as the manner in which the conflict evolved as a result.
5. The chapter begins with an analysis of the broader context in which the RUF originated, which is closely tied to the means by which conflict came to Sierra Leone. By the same token, the chapter ends by focussing on the events that led to the demise of the RUF, which are ultimately inseparable from the circumstances that brought the war to its conclusion. Based upon this logic, the framework overleaf has been adopted to divide the chapter into ‘phases’:
Pre-Conflict Phase: The Predecessors, Origins and Mobilisation of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)
- the period that gave rise to the immediate causes of the outbreak of the conflict
Phase I Conventional ‘Target’ Warfare
- the period from the outbreak of the conflict until 13 November 1993
Phase II ‘Guerrilla’ Warfare
- the period from 13 November 1993 until 2 March 1997
Phase III Power Struggles and Peace Efforts
- the period from 2 March 1997 until the present day
6. During the first three years of armed conflict in Sierra Leone, the defining events in military history were predominantly driven by the agenda of the RUF, or by the respective plans and actions of its predecessors and / or accomplices. On the political front, whilst ostensibly unrelated to the RUF itself, the elevation into Government of a group of junior officers of the Sierra Leone Army, calling themselves the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), can be traced in origin and motivation to the perception on the part of the coup-makers that the Government had failed to prosecute the war efficiently. In other words, it stemmed from a perception that the Government had failed properly to defend the state against RUF incursions into its territories.
7. Thus, the period from 23 March 1991 until 13 November 1993 can aptly be called Phase I of the RUF’s conflict. As the ensuing analysis will demonstrate, while it was focused primarily on the assignment and assault of ‘targets’, it is as close as Sierra Leone’s armed struggle would ever come to ‘conventional warfare.’
8. The selected cut-off point for Phase I is 13 November 1993. It was on this date that the RUF lost the border town of Baidu in Kailahun District to the advancing ‘Allied Forces’ of the NPRC Government and appeared to be on the verge of total defeat. However, on or around the same day, Foday Sankoh announced the reversion to ‘jungle warfare’ as a survival tactic and a strategy of attack, thereby signalling the start of a new phase – Phase II of the conflict.
9. The transition between Phases I and II encapsulated both setback and forward momentum for the RUF. It also heralded a far less predictable series of events that would expand the coverage and impact of the conflict as a whole into every provincial District of the country, onto the radar of the world’s media and to the top of the agenda for the sub-region’s peace negotiators.
10. The challenge faced by the Commission in its periodisation was to identify a date that would be similarly pertinent to the transition between Phases II and III. In this regard, the watershed date of 25 May 1997 was not proven to be entirely satisfactory, since the events of that day were neither driven by the RUF nor directed towards the RUF. That day witnessed a protest action in the military, instigated by junior soldiers against their senior officers and culminating in an overthrow of the elected Government of President Kabbah. These events are of immense significance in the conflict as a whole, but they are unsuitable to form a cut-off point in the present frame of analysis. It is trite that in using a frame of analysis focused on the RUF, it is essential that any cut-off point should encompass either an event driven by the RUF or an action directed at the RUF.
11. Thus the separation between Phases II and III instead falls on the date of 2 March 1997. It was on this date that Foday Sankoh was taken into the custody of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, from which his subsequent firearms charges effectively put an end to any hopes of sustainability in the negotiated peace that had emerged from the Abidjan Talks of 1996.
12. By 2 March 1997, effective guerrilla warfare had been ended by the overthrow of all but a few of the RUF’s original jungle bases, including its Headquarter Camp ‘Zogoda’. Sankoh’s second-in-command and perceived natural deputy, Mohamed Tarawallie, was missing, presumed dead in the siege of Zogoda. Accordingly, like the cut-off point for Phase I, the date constituted a seemingly fatal blow to the RUF. The morale-sapping effect of Sankoh’s arrest was inestimable and left many of the ‘men on the ground’ questioning whether the struggle had in fact been decisively lost.
13. Moreover, the date heralded a period of bitter contention among the aspirant alternative ‘leaders’ of the RUF. These included a challenge for recognition from a group spearheaded by Captain Philip S. Palmer and the consequent re-assertion of control by Sam “Mosquito” Bockarie. The ignominious conclusion to Palmer’s challenge can be seen to typify the subsequent wider ‘struggles for power’ in Sierra Leone: it was ill-conceived, implemented in a haphazard fashion and ultimately foiled by the actions of an opponent who pretended or purported to play fair and acquiesce, but in reality used deceit and brute force to come out on top.
14. Similar dynamics can be observed in many of the events that followed in Phase III: the AFRC seizure of power; the planning for self-restoration by the Government-in-Exile and the ECOMOG intervention; the 1998 Detentions, Trials and Executions; the internal divisions between the AFRC and RUF, as well as between Johnny Paul Koroma and ‘Mosquito’; the violent backlash of 1998 and early 1999 that culminated in the January 1999 assault on Freetown; the Lomé Peace Accord and its problematic implementation; the UN Hostage-taking crisis; and the events of May 2000. Indeed, most of the material gathered by the Commission can be fitted comfortably into such a frame of analysis.
15. The title ‘Power Struggles and Peace Efforts’ for Phase III is intended to reflect the fact that ‘warfare’ in the sense of the first two phases did not really exist in the latter stages of the war. Confrontation was just as likely to take place away from the battlefront as on it. It was not always the same type of power that people were struggling for. In fact, sometimes negotiated settlements were floated as alternatives to power struggles; yet it might ultimately be concluded that these peace efforts were themselves little more than thinly-veiled power struggles.
THE PREDECESSORS, ORIGINS AND MOBILISATION OF THE REVOLUTIONARY UNITED FRONT (RUF)
The Rise of Revolutionary Thinking and Sierra Leonean Participation in Training Programmes in Libya
16. The system of government adopted by President Siaka Stevens during his tenure at the helm of the All People’s Congress (1969 – 1985) was one that marginalised and suppressed any semblance of opposition.1 The creation of a one-party state monopolised decision-making influence and created a precedent for ‘token’ party membership that subsists to the present day. More than simply overcoming voices of dissent within the political sphere, however, Stevens contrived further to squeeze out the other institutions that would normally (either individually or collectively) impose checks and balances on the exercise of executive power.
17. In particular by suppressing freedom of expression in the local media and in the schools and colleges, respectively, the Government did nothing to encourage constructive independent thought and open debate as to the best way forward for the country. There was only minimal democratic space in which ideas that went against the political programme of the APC Government could be shared openly. Accordingly, most of those who wished to propound or be exposed to such ideas were forced to do so in the political shadows.
18. As a direct result of their suppression, journalists, students and school leavers sought an alternative outlet in the company of like-minded individuals from Sierra Leone or, occasionally, abroad. They engaged one another socially and ideologically in the informal, unthreatening settings where they gathered in the evenings – outdoor yards set back off the street, upstairs rooms in inconspicuous apartments, newspaper offices and other selected safe havens. In the tendencies of such persons lay the roots of the first organisations that seriously contemplated a challenge to the state by means of ‘revolution’.
19. In the realms of the media, The Tablet newspaper2 acted as one of the few genuinely independent advocates for political change and for human rights. It provided a platform for the Labour Unions and student bodies to state their opinions freely and without prejudice, often exposing elements of the management of the state that made uncomfortable reading for the ruling party. After being subjected to continual harassment by Government supporters, the editor and journalists of The Tablet were ultimately deterred only by an attempted bombing of their offices and the unbearable threats to their lives. The newspaper petered out without a truly worthy replacement and the opinion-makers were driven underground or into exile.
20. To a large extent, the struggle for a civil opposition to the APC was thereafter left in the hands of students. The University of Sierra Leone, divided into two constituent campuses, was the obvious breeding ground for revolutionary thinkers. As early as 1977, Fourah Bay College on Freetown’s Mount Aureol had been a focal point for proactive demonstration of student dissent, invoking a clampdown from the state security forces. In spite of this event, FBC became associated with the development of ‘organic intellectuals’3 who formed clubs and ‘social niches’ in which to share ideas. Groups like The Gardeners’ Club convened seminars and public events at which radical speakers would address crowds of young, impressionable minds.
21. The ideology of ‘Pan Africanism’, which attempted to promote a tailored approach to development and governance paradigms on the African continent, found a fertile soil among these radical groups, who in turn tried to inculcate that brand of thinking into the broader society. The visionaries of the Pan African Union (PANAFU) believed that youth, even in their schools and urban hang-outs, could be mobilised in their masses if only the informational material was sufficiently inspiring. The perceived educational standard or the background of the youth in question does not seem to have been of the utmost importance; any suggestion that the propagation of revolutionary ideals was limited to students is inaccurate. An ability to think laterally, a shared anti-APC sentiment, a commitment to the advancement of oneself and one’s fellow man, and an individual ‘focus’ on the way forward have been proffered by some PANAFU members as the essential attributes a candidate had to possess. Beyond those characteristics, admission to a discussion group was on a fairly indiscriminate basis; a school leaver might sit with a journalist and a civil servant, while a student would lecture them on dialectics.
22. Out of the loose collection of students, therefore, blossomed a broader group of people from various walks of life who would gather together to smoke marijuana, discuss issues like resource distribution and the ills of materialism4 and convince themselves that they were revolutionaries. In Freetown and other selected locations, the category was further sub-divided into so-called ‘cells’, the purpose of which was to engender comfortable and secure environments (away from the scrutiny of the Government) in which no more than six people at a time would ‘cross-fertilise’.
23. In this climate, the first connections on an institutional level between ‘revolutionaries’ in Sierra Leone and representatives of the Government of Libya were established. The earliest channels to be carved out were for FBC students, including two successive student Presidents, to attend conferences in Tripoli at which Pan-African ideals and the socialist philosophies of the Green Book were discussed. Upon the expulsion of 41 students – including the incumbent student President Alie Kabba – and three of their lecturers from Fourah Bay College in March 1985,5 however, the stakes were raised to the point where the youthful revolutionaries felt that they had nothing left to lose.
24. It appears that upon one visit to Tripoli in the wake of these expulsions, a delegation led by Alie Kabba petitioned successfully for what had previously been regarded as a last resort6 – provisions for commando training to be made for Sierra Leonean revolutionaries. The acceptance of such a proposal by Libya is probably best understood in the first instance as an indication of that state’s broader and longer-term, albeit complementary, objective of establishing an African-wide ‘Green Army’ to take on the perceived global hegemony of the United States and in support of revolutionary movements globally. There is no concrete evidence in the Commission’s findings that Libyan President Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi harboured any inherent will to thrust war upon Sierra Leone in particular, although the regime of Joseph Saidu Momoh was perceived as pro-Western and its overthrow would certainly have been welcomed by Libya as a desirable corollary benefit.7
25. The first group of Sierra Leoneans to take up the offer of commando training, numbering four in total, were effectively those who expressed the highest degree of readiness or eagerness. Thus, among them was a man named Victor Idowu Ebiyemi Reider,8 from Freetown, and another named Rashid Mansaray, a teenage revolutionary with a much-respected commitment to the cause and intellectual energy. Their group, which travelled to Libya in August 1987 and underwent training at the Benghazi base, was intended to become the core of a larger-scale programme, whereby those who had been trained would return to Sierra Leone and recruit others to follow in their footsteps.
26. While both Reider and Mansaray did come back to the country after their training and participated in the motivation of further PANAFU cells, their respective influences on the origins and resultant character of the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone (RUF) were not entirely congruous. Mansaray would become the RUF’s First Battalion Commander and continue to inspire those around him with the sincerity and passion of his revolutionary beliefs until he himself fell victim to the dangers of a rebel war. Reider had only one further claim, albeit with hindsight a significant one, to have shaped the course of the RUF conflict: he was responsible for the effective ‘recruitment’ of Foday Saybana Sankoh,9 who subsequently elevated himself to the leadership of what became known as the Revolutionary United Front of Sierra Leone, or RUF.
27. Three other persons in a cell under Reider’s auspices travelled out of Freetown along with Sankoh in April 1988; the distinguishing factor in their case was that Reider did not tell them in advance about the nature of what awaited them at the end of their journey. Each of Sankoh’s travelling companions thought he was heading to undergo ‘Advanced Capacity Building in Revolutionary Ideology’ and told, variously, that he would be taken to an institution such as the University of Nigeria or the Al-Fattah University in Tripoli to be further lectured and inspired.10 This invitation came aptly to represent the kind of deceit and mismanagement of human resources that ultimately invoked a vacuum in revolutionary leadership11 and a reversion towards militarism. The narrative of those who accepted their invitations in good faith, but instead underwent guerrilla training in Libya, resonates far more widely when examined under the lens of the subsequent military and political history of the conflict in Sierra Leone.
28. While in Libya, the budding revolutionaries were said to have fallen out among themselves. Among the issues were opposition by those in the Alie Kabba group to the idea of launching a revolutionary war without a composite political education. Alie Kabba was also accused of corruption in his management of funds belonging to the group and challenged for his refusal to personally undergo training. This was to cause the first split in the movement as Alie Kabba and those loyal to him left the training camps and returned to Sierra Leone. He subsequently emigrated to the United States where he presently lives. Meanwhile PANAFU in Freetown had also disassociated itself from the revolutionary programme, believing that a sustained period of political education was necessary before embarking on an armed struggle. In consequence, those of its members who had participated in the first training simply dispersed. PANAFU would not engage in the subsequent recruitment of people to undergo training in Libya. It is believed that all subsequent arrangements for training were by Foday Sankoh. These later trainees were not PANAFU members but may have been recruited by Sankoh through his contacts in PANAFU.
29. In Libya, a leadership vacuum developed among the remaining revolutionaries. Foday Sankoh became the spokesman of the group because of his age and prior military experience. Others therefore deferred to him. The training camps in Libya contained revolutionaries from all over the world. Interaction with foreign revolutionaries, particularly Charles Taylor, exposed Sankoh to revolutionary thinking and potential sources of support.
30. Although Sankoh’s grasp of revolutionary ideology was broadly lambasted as weak by other members of PANAFU who travelled to Libya with him or met him on the training camp there, he clearly stood out to all of them as a strategist and manipulator. While the accounts of his self-elevation to the Leadership of a Sierra Leonean ‘Front’ organisation in Libya are not entirely consistent, Sankoh’s time observing and discussing among peers in PANAFU and, especially, among the cosmopolitan collection of revolutionary thinkers in Libya was mostly time spent with people who displayed greater intensity and comprehension than he could muster himself. Nevertheless, with his prowess as an orator and an astuteness that stood him in good stead in most inter-personal contexts, Sankoh was able to elicit meaning from the ideology of others and propagate it elsewhere as his own. Allied to a good degree of perceptiveness and human instinct, Sankoh’s innate charisma appears to have been a potent tool for convincing others of the merits of his agenda, despite his somewhat idealistic tone and his tendency for grave exaggeration.
31. All of these characteristics strengthened Foday Sankoh’s subsequent claims to leadership of the RUF. Among the persons with whom Sankoh associated at the Libyan training camps were a number of Liberians, whose avowed intention was to overthrow the regime of Samuel Doe. An agreement of mutual support developed between the Sierra Leoneans and the Liberians to assist each other in executing their respective revolutions. The Liberians encompassed potentially several different sub-groups intent on overthrowing Samuel Doe. One of these sub-groups was to launch a rebellion in Liberia much earlier than anticipated by others. It therefore set the stage for subsequent developments in Liberia and parts of the sub-region including Sierra Leone. This sub-group was the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL).
Sub-Regional Dynamics, the Conflict in Liberia and the Formation of an Agenda for an Incursion into Sierra Leone
32. The Commission heard from several sources that the earliest immediate antecedent to armed conflict involving Liberia on the territory of Sierra Leone should be identified as the abortive ‘rebel incursion’ into Liberia from the Ivory Coast in 1985 led by the late Liberian General Thomas Quiwonkpa. It was widely alleged by Liberian nationals that the Sierra Leone Government had supported Quiwonkpa in his uprising against the then President of the Republic of Liberia, Samuel K. Doe.
33. The faction that Quiwonkpa spearheaded in 1985 had called itself the National Patriotic Front of Liberia, or NPFL. Its leaders were drawn predominantly from the Liberian Gio and Mano ethnic groups, whose origins are mostly traced to the Nimba County on Liberia’s eastern border with the Ivory Coast. When President Doe had unleashed the full weight of his security apparatus, led by his Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), to crush the NPFL, his treatment of the rebellion was widely condemned as heavy-handed, with strong allegations of regionalist malice against the citizens of Nimba County. By some accounts over 3,000 civilians of Gio and Mano origin lost their lives in the counter-insurgency, causing massive ill-feeling: “The people could never forgive Doe for massacring the children of Nimba County.”12 Quiwonkpa too was killed and his defeated NPFL troops fled into exile, apparently hankering for a chance to launch a second, vengeful assault on Doe’s regime.
34. By a sequence of events in the second half of the 1980s, the NPFL would find a new leader in the shape of Charles Ghankay Taylor. Taylor had once been a member of Doe’s Government, but fled Liberia after accusations of embezzlement and harboured a grudge of his own against Doe, whom he declared had framed him on account of his connection with Quiwonkpa. Although his biography includes a period of incarceration in the United States on account of his alleged fraudulent activity in Government and an eventual haven in Ghana, Taylor’s most far-reaching contribution to the descent of the sub-region into conflict was his reactivation of the NPFL as a fighting force, this time with vastly expanded capacity, from 1988 onwards.
35. In the process of mobilising resources, both human and financial, Taylor established relationships with supportive foreign Governments and their ‘revolutionary-minded’ leaders: first Burkina Faso and its President Blaise Campoare; then Libya and its President (Colonel) Muammar Ghaddafi. The latter link, as intimated in the foregoing analysis, was to prove especially formative for Taylor as he developed an “ideological” and strategic basis on which to prosecute his aggressive agenda.
36. The National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) eventually launched its insurgency against the Government of Liberia in December 1989, striking once again from the Ivory Coast into Nimba County. In the Commission’s view this event was an integral immediate antecedent to the conflict in Sierra Leone. The ensuing analysis demonstrates that the single greatest threat to Sierra Leone’s security in the years from 1989 to 1991 came from the Liberian conflict and the various ways it could spill over into the territory of its neighbour.
Sub Regional Dynamics of the War in Sierra Leone
37. According to a popular version of events relayed to the Commission by several key stakeholders, Charles Taylor had at one point entertained the notion of launching an insurgency into Liberia on two fronts, the second of them from Sierra Leone. It appears that Taylor went so far as to seek official approval for his plan by approaching the incumbent President of Sierra Leone, Joseph Saidu Momoh, in order to secure the use of territories in the East and South of the country as a ‘springboard’ and potentially a training base for his fighting forces. The following testimony was received from one witness:
“Charles Taylor came here with some of his senior officers – this I know for sure, because Sankoh told me and some of the very officers in the NPFL told me. They came here and found Momoh and late Bambay Kamara, who was the Commissioner of Police, to get some sort of clearance to launch their revolution.
So he had certain conversations, he went through these people… and Momoh’s people agreed. But later on they changed their minds and he [Taylor] was arrested together with some of his men. They were detained in Pademba Road Prisons.”13
38. The current President of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, told the Commission that Charles Taylor was “first received and even encouraged… as a result of some financial consideration paid by him (Taylor) to the higher echelons of the APC regime.”14 President Kabbah then implied that the APC Government subsequently retracted its support without returning Taylor’s bribe, apprehended Taylor for making such a request and detained him in state custody for a time. According to President Kabbah, “this conduct by the APC regime is a factor that might have provoked the hostility of Charles Taylor and his active participation in the rebel war in Sierra Leone… This country and its people have paid most dearly and are still paying for such improper conduct of the APC Government.”15
39. The Commission has confirmed that Taylor was indeed detained at Freetown Central Prison for a limited period in 1989, but must caution against the story being afforded any undue credence or significance as a motivation for his later involvement in the Sierra Leone conflict. Taylor had developed multiple other reasons for attacking Sierra Leone by March 1991 and his period of imprisonment ranked very low among them. Acknowledging that the detention itself was not the main cause of Taylor’s rancour, some commentators have made claims that Foday Sankoh was incarcerated in the Prison alongside Taylor and that their friendship grew out of this common plight. Testimonies before the Commission do not support this version of events. Several first-hand testimonies place Sankoh in Libya and the Ivory Coast during the period in question. Taylor and Sankoh had met in Libya in 1988 and had become part of the deal between Sierra Leonean and Liberian revolutionaries to mutually support each other in their respective plans. Thus when Taylor was released from custody in Sierra Leone and returned to the Ivory Coast to pursue his incursion on a single front, he would meet Sankoh on Ivorian territory and the two of them would continue their joint plans from there.
40. In any case, what actually transpired with regard to Sierra Leonean state involvement in the Liberian conflict was diametrically opposed to the plan that Taylor had presented to Momoh. Rather than ceding territory to Taylor, Momoh instead permitted the use of Sierra Leone’s central Lungi International Airport, situated across the peninsula from Freetown, to be used as a launch pad for air raids that were essentially levelled ‘against’ Taylor. Momoh’s decision involved playing host to ECOMOG, the ‘Ceasefire Monitoring Group’ of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) that had intervened in Liberia’s conflict and was perceived as a hostile force by the NPFL. The Sierra Leone Government further sanctioned at least two direct deployments of troops in what become known as the ‘LEOBATT’ (Sierra Leone Battalion) contingent of ECOMOG, numbering 377 personnel.16
41. Although its ‘Special Battalion’ was smaller in terms of military bulk than that of other countries in the ‘Group of Five’ troop-contributors,17 the very fact that Sierra Leone had deigned to participate at all in operations ‘against’ its neighbour drew an embittered and vengeful response from within Liberia. Certainly Sierra Leone was among those nations whose role in opposing him Taylor himself particularly resented. Hence he famously declared in a BBC radio interview on 1 November 1990 his conviction that Sierra Leone would “taste the bitterness of war” as a result of its interventionary vigour; his point was that these unfaithful acts by his neighbours would not be allowed to pass without a violent response.18
42. Commensurately, anti-Sierra Leonean sentiments were running high among certain segments of the Liberian population. The Commission heard testimony from Sierra Leoneans who lived in Liberia at the time, averring that they were routinely subjected to verbal abuse and molestation in public and occasionally even sustained beatings and attacks on their properties. The Commission did not find any evidence that such attacks were punished by the Liberian law enforcement agencies. In fact, the trend identified by the Commission based on the limited evidence available to it was for such acts to be endorsed and even more likely carried out directly by the new, self-proclaimed rulers of the territories in question – the commandos of the NPFL.
43. The question of personal choice in this matter is difficult and sensitive. From its extensive analysis of similar dynamics in the Sierra Leone conflict, the Commission holds the view that civilians are deprived of the right to choose freely once they are under threat to their lives and that certain of their actions might thus be considered as being the product of compulsion. What is certain, though, is that once they had become subject to the will of the NPFL aggressors, many Liberian civilians appear to have adopted certain attitudes held by the NPFL, including hostility towards its enemies, among whom were Sierra Leonean nationals. In testimonies to the Commission, descriptions of this hostility were usually accompanied by bewildered grievance on the part of its victims:
“I don’t think it was justified [on the part of the civilians]; it wasn’t their place to take it out on those of us who had innocently come to their country to make our livings.”19
44. Residents of the ‘occupied territories’, including some Sierra Leoneans themselves, surmised that in the interests of securing their lives, families and properties, their only option was to join the NPFL, or at least to perform auxiliary tasks such as driving or secretarial duties on its behalf. One witness testified that such a course of action was also “not one of free choice, in the truest sense”20 but that it was eminently preferable to be on the side of the NPFL than to be perceived as being against them. This supposition takes on added prescience when it is assessed in the light of what happened in the latter months of 1990.
45. Having interpreted ECOMOG’s role in the Liberian conflict as being hostile to the NPFL, Charles Taylor had set out to oppose the intervening forces in any way he could. ECOMOG was deemed to constitute the greatest scourge to the Taylor’s overall objective of seizing control of power. At the point when NPFL forces started to incur casualties as a result of ECOMOG bombing raids, which started around August 1990, Taylor was prepared to retaliate. He issued an arbitrary order to his NPFL troops to arrest and imprison all those persons on the territories under his control who were nationals of ECOWAS states, with a particular focus on the so-called ‘Group of Five’ countries, who had contributed troops to form part of the ECOMOG military operation. Taylor announced his policy over the radio and named the countries, including Sierra Leone, whose nationals he deemed due for detention.21
46. Potentially hundreds of Sierra Leoneans are thought to have been rounded up by the NPFL in this operation, although the Commission was unable to attain an exact or even estimated figure from an official source. What is certain is that whatever courtesies and immunities from harm might previously have been extended to those who performed important roles in their communities, like teaching and engineering, were immediately rescinded. One Sierra Leonean who was working as a senior instructor at a Technical Institute in Nimba County testified about his experiences of 15 September 1990 in the following terms:
“At ten o’clock in the morning I heard hard knocks at my door with gun butts, threatening me to immediately open up or I would be killed. I opened the door and I was immediately placed under arrest, along with my whole family. In the afternoon of that day there was a press release heard on LAMCO FM radio station that all foreign nationals resident in Liberia, whose countries of origin formed ECOMOG based in Sierra Leone, were to be arrested. It stated that for every Liberian NPFL commando killed by jet bombings of ECOMOG, we were going to bear similar consequences.
That night my whole family and I were taken by four armed men to a nearby jail; there we met over 85 other foreign nationals, including women, children and the elderly. The old, the women and the children were released two weeks later and allowed to return to their homes, while a number of us were still held in detention. Executions were carried out for every time the ECOMOG jet bombed their areas, even without killing anyone. I came to understand that multiple executions were carried out in all control areas throughout the country as retaliation.”22
47. The Commission heard similar testimonies from several other Sierra Leoneans who were taken into detention in different parts of Liberia during the same operation by the NPFL. One long-term resident, who was arrested along with a fellow Sierra Leonean teacher at his local college, described how he was locked up with up to a hundred others in “a large container that had been used to transport frozen fish or meat.”23 He testified that NPFL gunmen would periodically open the hatch at the top of the container and fire rounds of bullets indiscriminately into the crowd below, among whom were many women and children.
48. The Commission deplores the lack of basic respect for human life that the NPFL demonstrated through these detentions and the killings that accompanied them. Charles Taylor’s instruction that civilians represented legitimate targets in the promotion of a his ‘revolutionary’ agenda carried immense destructive potential. Throughout its enquiries summarised in the present report, the Commission has maintained the position, well established under international humanitarian law, that there can be no worse violation than the deliberate targeting of civilians.
49. The interpretations and impact of Sierra Leonean involvement in the Liberian conflict can be distilled into two main points that are relevant to the causes of the conflict and the human rights violations that were to follow in Sierra Leone. The first point is that Sierra Leone’s hosting of ECOMOG was interpreted by Charles Taylor as a legitimate ground for retaliation against the state. The second, partly connected point is that Taylor’s war impacted profoundly on Sierra Leoneans living in Liberia, as they were deliberately targeted and maltreated by NPFL fighters.
The Role of Foday Sankoh in the Conflict in Liberia
50. Foday Sankoh, the RUF leader-in-waiting, eventually left Libya in 1989 and travelled via Burkina Faso to join the NPFL cadre that had assembled in the Ivory Coast. Effectively, Sankoh was to become one of Taylor’s key NPFL commandos in the conflict in Liberia, organising and carrying out military operations alongside other senior NPFL combatants on the ground. He would later talk passionately about the experiences he had acquired on the battlefield in Liberia, participating in the capture of strategic ‘enemy’ positions including County Capital towns and military barracks formerly used by the Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL).
51. Among the captured County Capitals was Gbarnga, capital of Bong County in the central North of Liberia. Having chased out INPFL24 forces from there in June 1990, it was in this town that Charles Taylor established his operational Headquarters for the NPFL in a secure urban residence he called the ‘Mansion’. The town is well-connected to the road network of the country and relatively easily accessible from all sides, including from the direction of the Sierra Leonean border.
52. One of the captured AFL military barracks was a sizeable but inconspicuous base called ‘Camp Namma’, situated approximately 20 miles north of Gbarnga just outside the small town of Namma itself. It was on this base that Sankoh would seek to put into practice his programmes of commando training, drawing upon the techniques of ideological and military instruction he had picked up in Libya. Taylor initially retained sole dominion over the Camp Namma base for the training of his new recruits into the NPFL; accordingly the base provided the training ground for a unique and vicious breed of fighters, many of them child combatants, who passed out under the rigorous supervision of mostly Libyan-trained commanders. Sankoh is thought to have visited Camp Namma regularly in the first few weeks of its use by the NPFL and trained some recruits there himself. It does not appear that he had any firm conception at that stage as to how he would assemble his fighters.
53. Yet by then there was already developing something of a two-way overlap between the conflict in Liberia and the conflict-to-come in Sierra Leone. For example, the Commission heard testimony that other Sierra Leonean commandos who subsequently attained prominence in the RUF fighting force had also first participated in the armed conflict in Liberia on the side of the NPFL; the names mentioned in this regard include Abu Kanu, Rashid Mansaray, Mohamed Tarawallie, Mike Lamin, Sam Bockarie (alias “Mosquito”), Patrick Lamin and Morris Kallon. In terms of high-level engagement, though, the Commission has been unable to adduce any evidence that suggests any of these men was especially influential or responsible for human rights violations in the NPFL. In any case none of them was a commander of requisite seniority to be directing operations by then.
54. In contrast, the connections that Sankoh himself had made at the training camp in Libya appear to have afforded him a certain elevated respect in the eyes of his NPFL compatriots, not least because of his direct relationship with Taylor. It has been suggested to the Commission that Sankoh was held in high regard by Taylor as a military strategist; indeed, one testimony inferred that Taylor sought input from Sankoh in his “planning of battlefront manoeuvres” for the NPFL.25 There were also many commanders in the NPFL more influential than Sankoh. One of these commanders was Prince Johnson, who is thought to have led NPFL battlefront tactics up until his breakaway in 1990 to form the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL). There were also many other Libyan-trained commandos, most of them having passed out at a higher level of military attainment than any Sierra Leonean reached.
Foday Sankoh’s Training Programme and the Assembly of RUF ‘Vanguards’26
55. Sankoh began assembling his fighting group in or around the second week of October 1990, when an NPFL troop of which he was a member began to sweep through various detention facilities in which Sierra Leoneans were being held. The available evidence suggests that Sankoh had already developed a clear strategy in his mind as to how he would convert the captives into his trainees. He had been briefed on the potential availability of ‘recruits’ by one of his earliest ‘trusted lieutenants’ in the RUF, Mike Lamin. Lamin, who had supposedly been recruited by the NPFL during his studies at the University of Liberia, first appeared to at least one of the detainees who subsequently became part of the assembly strategy as a “small boy with dreadlocks and an AK-47”.27 It was Lamin who had opened Sankoh’s eyes to the prospect of speedily assembling Sierra Leonean manpower to put towards his revolutionary ‘vanguard’ force and furthermore establishing an instant moral imperative in their minds by casting himself as their ‘liberator’.
The ‘Detainee-turned-Vanguard’ Category
56. Sankoh personally accompanied members of NPFL ‘hit squads’ who visited some of the detention facilities, apparently for the sole purpose of enlisting the men and women he wanted to make into his first revolutionary commandos. Among the locations in which Sierra Leoneans were held were detention facilities of differing character in Monrovia, Habell, Yekepa, Totota, Buchanan and Cape Mount.
57. In a number of the accounts given to the Commission, Sankoh appeared as part of a unit of NPFL fighters dressed in all-black uniforms, striking at the crack of dawn on an October or November morning. Several groups of soon-to-be ‘vanguards’ were exposed first to a show of mercilessness, whereby innocent fellow detainees among their number were severely beaten, molested or executed in front of them. Conspicuously, though, the Sierra Leoneans were always spared such a fate when Sankoh was present; they would be separated from the other nationalities and ushered into the hands of Sankoh by other commanders. Through a combination of conviction and compulsion, Sankoh would then proceed to conscript those he deemed he wanted into his RUF movement.
58. In other testimonies to the Commission, the detainees were alternatively delivered to Sankoh from the places they were being held. A member of what appears to have been the first group of ‘vanguards’ to meet Sankoh in this manner gave the following testimony to the Commission:
“On the 14th of October 1990 we were made to understand that we would be released the next day upon the orders of Charles Taylor, but instead of being released that day, we were picked up in the early morning hours and driven to Gbarnga [the capital of Bong County in Liberia], on the pretext of giving us clearance documents by Charles Taylor to spare us from further embarrassment. Upon our arrival in Gbarnga we were met by Foday Sankoh… [Later he] advised us that in the interests of our own lives we should stay there and dare not make any attempt to escape… There was in fact no need to escape as that attempt meant committing suicide.”28
59. Sankoh’s favoured means of recruitment depended on convincing people that their lives lay squarely in his hands and that if they refused to join him, they would be responsible for their own fate – effectively, he blackmailed them into becoming members of the RUF. Many of those enlisted by this means were acutely aware of what Sankoh was doing, but were equally powerless to prevent it in view of the all-pervading dangers at that time of being a Sierra Leonean in Liberia:
“Had it not been for Foday Sankoh’s mission, plenty of us might have been killed. So we regarded it as a rescue mission… Had he left it to volunteerism, perhaps he might not have successfully got that number that he managed to get in a very short time. So I believe that he used the warfare in Liberia as an opportunity for him to strengthen.”
60. Some of the vanguards were faced with the choice in plain life-or-death terms:
“Sankoh spoke to me as a fellow Sierra Leonean. He told me that had he left me there I was going to be killed.”
61. It follows that one did not have to have even the slightest streak of militarism or ‘revolutionary’ pedigree to be enlisted in this manner. Indeed, on the contrary, the inclination of most of those people picked up from detention had been towards not taking sides in the conflict in Liberia; they had neither joined the NPFL nor fled in allegiance with members of the ousted Doe regime. Many of them told the Commission that they had wanted nothing more than a peaceful existence and to continue with the jobs they were pursuing in Liberia before the war had engulfed their homes. It was purely based on their grave misfortune of having been Sierra Leoneans in the wrong place at the wrong time that they had even come to be detained in the first place.
62. All of the recruits from this ‘detainee-turned-vanguard’ category appear to have been picked up in semi-darkness, loaded into NPFL trucks and driven to assembly points in the North of Liberia. The very first group, comprising six detainees picked up from Nimba County, was taken initially to the campus of Cuttington University College (CUC) in Lofa County, where they were accommodated in the rather incongruous surroundings of former student dormitories. CUC had been used as an NPFL training base in its own right between 2 July 1990 and 4 October 1990. According to the recollections of the then acting President of the institution, the NPFL had housed over 40 trainers and their dependents on the campus, incurred about USD $4 million worth of damage and trained as many as 6,000 recruits in the space of just three months.29
63. For the Sierra Leonean RUF contingent, CUC was to be nothing more than a stopover point; not all of the ‘vanguards’ passed through there at all, particularly those who were enlisted after November. The common destination of all the vanguards was the former military barracks that Sankoh had earmarked a few weeks earlier as a suitable training ground. Thus the ‘vanguards’ would make their base and take their instruction at ‘Camp Namma’, which some of them also referred to as ‘Sokoto’.
64. After the initial period of training had got underway, it seems that Foday Sankoh still persisted with his tactic of ‘forced recruitment’ as a means of boosting the numbers in his force:
“Others used to come on a daily basis from all the areas where the NPFL was in control; they were scouring the country in search of Sierra Leoneans – the ones who survived were brought to Camp Namma.”30
65. Although some vanguards claimed differently, it appears that there was necessarily a discriminatory policy in favour of Sierra Leoneans during the trawl of the NPFL’s detention facilities. This preference can be connected directly to Foday Sankoh’s objectives of winning over the hearts and minds of the population in Sierra Leone to further the revolution: it would be eminently easier to gain support for a ‘revolution’ that was led by indigenes of the nation it was purporting to liberate, or at least those who could trace their familial heritage back there. The RUF Leader would later deviate from this approach and at tremendous cost to his public perception.
The Composition of the RUF ‘Vanguards’
66. Contrary to popular perceptions of an exclusively illiterate body comprised of marginalised lumpen youth, the RUF vanguards were actually a disparate collection of Sierra Leoneans and Liberians from across the demographic spectrum gelled together through coercion and training into a fighting force. The vanguards included among their number both men and women; Sierra Leoneans of most of the major ethnic groups in the country, including large numbers of Mendes and Temnes; boys as young as 11 years of age, ‘senior citizens’; illiterate labourers and secondary-school drop-outs through to a few highly educated professionals in diverse fields.
67. A core group of seven young men formed the bedrock upon which the vanguard force would be built. They had been brought to the base by Foday Sankoh from the Ivory Coast, where apparently Sankoh had identified them as Sierra Leoneans and told them individually to join him in Liberia because there was a “job for them to do.” Issa Sesay and Mustapha Thonkara (alias “Thomas Sankara”), both of whom would take commanding roles in the conflict, were among this group. Issa Sesay had been involved in petty trading in the Ivory Coast and was one of the first younger RUF members to be taken under Sankoh’s wing and habitually referred to as ‘my son’.
68. Added to the core group in a slow but constant flow were the ‘detainee-turned-vanguards’, among whom a select few had been educated well above the average: Jonathan Kposowa, Prince Taylor, Lawrence Wormandia and Peter Vandy were all teachers or instructors; some of the older men had held positions of considerable responsibility, including Dr. Fabai, a medical practitioner, and Mr. Nyandeh, a secondary school Vice-Principal; Philip Palmer, Augustine Koroma, Joseph Magona (alias “One Man One”) and Augustine Bao had also acquired respectable qualifications and had jobs in areas including engineering and administration.
69. There were also many other Sierra Leonean vanguards, whose presence on the base was brought to the Commission’s attention during its research. The list presented here is not exhaustive; nevertheless the historical record should include the following names as RUF vanguards: Joseph Kargbo, Ahmed Fullah, Yusu Sillah, Yusufu Sesay, Alicious Caulker, Saidu Kallon, John Kargbo, Edward Fembeh, Eldred Collins, Jatta Massaquoi, Richie Honeyrow, Memunatu Sesay, Fatu Gbemgbe, Mustapha Koroma (alias “Senkolleh”). Abdulrahman Bangura, ‘Kelfawai’ and ‘Kailondo’. The ‘pure’ identity denoted here was widely referred to in interviews with vanguards, but it does not have any ethnic connotations for particular Sierra Leonean tribes; rather, it was used on the basis that the named persons used it: to differentiate themselves from a further category, known as ‘Liberian-Sierra Leoneans’.
70. Among this ‘Liberian-Sierra Leonean’ group were some people who had been detained, others who had volunteered to join Sankoh, and others again who had been ‘lent’ to the RUF by Taylor from among his NPFL commandos. According to testimony received by the Commission:
“The Liberians used the training as a means of rescuing themselves from the heat of the warfare in Liberia… Most of them were under no compulsion… the NPFL was in control of over half the territory, so they could have gone anywhere in the country… I think it was an agreement between Sankoh and Taylor that there should be a small contingent of Taylor’s own men among the Liberians.”31
71. It was through this channel that a former NPFL fighter named Dennis Mingo (alias “Superman”) became part of the vanguards. Mingo was identified by most RUF members as a Liberian of the Gbandi ethnic group; yet one of his parents was Sierra Leonean and he thus spoke Mende and Krio with ease. He was transferred to the RUF under Foday Sankoh in 1990, mostly on account of his prowess as a front-line fighter and mastery of Sierra Leonean languages.
72. Ibrahim Dugbeh, who testified somewhat evasively to the Commission at its public hearings in Makeni, was originally a trained soldier in Doe’s Armed Forces of Liberia (AFL), but was captured by the NPFL in 1990. He was ‘turned over’ to Sankoh’s RUF and became a vanguard, apparently with something of a stake in Sierra Leone on account of his mother’s nationality. Dugbeh described his case as unique, stating that his participation in training was sparse:
“We were having only one training depot, and as you entered that camp, you would not be allowed to go out until after the training… For me I didn’t used to go into too much of the training because I was an old soldier – I was a soldier, so I don’t need a long training. But the training took about six months.”32
73. Among the ‘Liberian-Sierra Leonean’ group was perhaps the RUF’s most notorious female combatant, Monica Pearson (alias “CO Monica”) . In addition, there was a whole batch of commanders who later entered on the Southern flank going only by their nicknames, such as ‘Dirty De Jango’. Many of the vanguards in fact never revealed their true identities to their fellow trainees, hence the response of one witness that he could not tell the Commission much about the backgrounds of his fellow members:
“All I knew was that I had been saved from death – so I didn’t ask any questions. You are what you are: you don’t talk to me; I don’t talk to you; I don’t want to know about you.”33
74. The Commission recognises that the period spent in training by the vanguards of the RUF was to provide a benchmark for the formation of other militias and armed groups that participated in the Sierra Leone conflict: in character, this group of people stands to be considered as a highly unconventional fighting force; its members were taken on board in troubled circumstances, many of them under false pretences, duress, or threats to their lives; and they were only loosely bound together by superficial bonds, more out of a sense of common adversity than any true notion of unity. It is therefore hardly surprising that the relationships of these vanguards among themselves would fluctuate between friendly camaraderie and mutual suspicion.
“Maybe some people took it as a choice, but it came at a time when there was that insecurity in the lives of most of the trainees; where they had no alternative but to go for refuge. So the training camp was used as a refuge for most trainees; because once life is no longer safe in any other zone besides that training base, you have to consider it as something forceful.”34
75. In placing the assembly and composition of the initial RUF force into its proper context, the Commission does not intend in any way to exclude or mitigate the responsibility of certain individuals among them for their actions in the conflict. In the narrative of the conflict that follows in this chapter, a variety of responsibilities are attributed to the vanguards notwithstanding their backgrounds. Moreover, along with stories of forced enlistment, the Commission had heard many tales of vanguards who entered the RUF with the express intention of proliferating conflict. In this vein the Commission notes the presence on the base of some of those who would later attain senior command roles in the combatant cadre of the RUF, particularly Morris Kallon and Augustine Bao.
76. Another of these members is Sam Bockarie (alias “Mosquito”) , who had apparently made an ignominious exit from Sierra Leone after being accused of theft while labouring for a period as a ‘san-san boy’ in the diamond pits. In Liberia he was known to his compatriots as a hairdresser and a disco dancer with little education and a chip on his shoulder. He had wanted to become an electrician but had failed to attain the standards of entry to any of Liberia’s technical schools. By all accounts ‘Maskita’ joined Foday Sankoh voluntarily at a relatively late stage in the training.
77. Finally, in line with the terms of its mandate, the Commission wishes to draw special attention to the plight of a small sub-group among the vanguards, who apparently numbered a maximum of five: they were children recruited by Foday Sankoh and formed the RUF’s first contingent of ‘small boys’. According to one of the vanguards, these boys were not trained with the adult recruits, but did on occasion carry firearms on the premise that they were ‘bodyguards’ or ‘small soldiers’. They were said to be ‘taken care of’ by their ‘guardians’ or relatives on the base; for example, one of them, known as ‘Young Pearson’, was the younger brother of the aforementioned combatant Monica Pearson. Nevertheless, it was broadly accepted by the vanguards who testified that these boys, despite being estimated to have been between 10 and 14 years, went on to play roles as “fierce fighters” during the Sierra Leone conflict. At least three of them, nicknamed “Base Marine”, “Gas” and “Steward”, would become commanders and combatants in the RUF’s Small Boys’ Unit, or SBU.
The Preparation of the RUF Vanguards for Incursion into Sierra Leone
78. The Commission has established through its enquiries that Foday Sankoh introduced a system of numbering of the RUF vanguards during the training period at Camp Namma. Admittedly, there are certain anomalies associated with Sankoh’s numbering, primarily that it appeared to have no coherent order and that it began not at zero, but at 021. The latter glitch was explained in the following terms:
“Sankoh kept telling us that we were not given 001 because we were not the first; he just said: ‘I have some colleagues who will join us later on’.”35
79. Among these ‘colleagues’ whom it is believed were allocated numbers from 001 to 020 are Sankoh’s co-trainees from Libya like Rashid Mansaray, Abu Kanu and Mohamed Tarawallie, as well as further Libyan-trained Sierra Leoneans like Noah Kanneh and CO Daboh who would come into the RUF at a later date. Mike Lamin and Patrick Lamin were also in this more exclusive group. And although no evidence exists that either man was trained in Libya, it is clear that they did not train concurrently with the vanguards at Camp Namma. The Commission notes that the number of ‘colleagues’ who joined later on was never said to have reached 20, however.
80. Through testimony from senior members of the RUF administration, the Commission has gained evidence that the number of RUF vanguards reached 387 at its highest ebb. Two members of the training group were apparently killed in training, leaving the figure at 385.
81. With regard to the training undertaken by this group, there are several indicators to affirm that physical and ideological instruction was administered in a manner reminiscent to the programmes conducted for members of the Sierra Leonean contingent in Libya. There were, for example, imported exercises like the dreaded ‘halaka’ and others known by names such as ‘escaping for survival’ and ‘road march’. The basic objective of such techniques was euphemistically expressed as being: ‘giving you a light beating to get you used to any hardness in the warfare.’
82. The training instructors on the Namma base were predominantly commanders of the NPFL who mostly volunteered their services to Sankoh due to their prior experiences of war. The Head Trainer was a Liberian NPFL commander called CO ‘Gornkanue’, in whom Sankoh was said to have “total trust and confidence.” After several months of the training had passed, both Rashid Mansaray and Mohamed Tarawallie appeared to assist with instruction, but perhaps surprisingly it seems that their contributions were limited to functional military and public relations training, rather than anything that would stimulate ideological discussion among the trainees: “even if they had political ideology at the backs of their minds, there was no time for them to disseminate that to the other trainees.”
“The training we received was all-round political-military commando training. It was political in the sense that the warfare was going to be exposed to civilians as well as military affairs, so basic political knowledge had to be introduced… such as the welfare of captives; such as administering people who have been cut off from their original style of livelihood; such as dealing with the old-aged; and dealing with women. The military training covered exposure to light weapons such as AK-47s, Berettas, G3s, RPGs and the like. The training was not for a long duration; it was a hasty training carried out basically to expose people to the use of arms on an emergency basis… and to prepare us for the revolution.”36
83. In the Commission’s view, the historical resonance of this period of training goes well beyond the purported preparation of its participants to take their own part in the war. On the one hand, it has become clear to the Commission that the training left the vanguards unprepared to wage revolutionary warfare. On the other hand, the exposure of the vanguards to extreme violence during training seemed to have had an enduring effect on each of them personally, creating a propensity to subject others to acts of personal violation and compulsion. This assertion is borne out by the fact that some of the vanguards went on to exercise their own reigns of terror over conscripts in the Sierra Leone conflict, especially child recruits at the infamous Camp Charlie.