Pitfalls of Sankoh's Isolation
By Tom Kamara
With the United Nations' backs against the wall in ending the Sierra Leone horrors, it has announced contacts with alternative leaders of the butchering Revolutionary United Front (RUF) since, according to the UN, the rebels' main chief, Foday Sankoh is now "discredited".
Meanwhile, Liberia's Charles Taylor, after denouncing any planned Sankoh trial, scored a vital victory at a recent West African summit in Nigeria by averting a globally demanded trial for the detained rebel leader, instead succeeding in granting Sankoh protection. Following Taylor's lobbying, African leaders announced that Sankoh will be removed from Sierra Leone until "peace is restored." This will be the second reprieve for Sankoh. The first was when he was arrested in Nigeria and later convicted for treason in Sierra Leone in 1977. Far from peace, the terror intensified. "What West Africa has again shown is the lack of commitment and capacity to solve our problem. Charles Taylor keeps setting the agenda and for some strange reasons, Nigeria's Obasanjo is simply dancing to Taylor's music of doom.
Despite worldwide demand for Sankoh to be tried, Taylor has succeeded in granting him a way out until he unleashes another round of terror", said a Sierra Leone diplomat in Brussels. The hapless Sierra Leoneans will suffer the consequences of this egregious decision reached by the "West African club" (ECOWAS leaders). Charles Taylor did not only lobby for protection for Sankoh, he also demanded that territory captured by government forces be returned to the RUF. His agenda will allow the RUF to regroup to administer another round of horrors.
But as the fighting continues, The London's Sunday Telegraph reported on 28 May that: "Liberian militia units secretly crossed into Sierra Leone last week to help retreating rebels and defend the diamond fields from which the Liberian President Charles Taylor funds his autocratic regime." There are fears that the conflict may spill over into neighboring Guinea. According to unconfirmed report, there are plans afoot to invade Guinea from Liberia, and that thousands of rebels trained in Liberia have already begun infiltrating into Guinea.
The strategy of talking to Sankoh's foes was applied before, that is in 1997 when the rebel chief was arrested and deported by the Nigerians to stand trial in Sierra Leone. A much hailed and welcomed split emerged within the RUF, with the Kabbah government zealously opting to deal with the splinter group, headed by one Captain Philip Palmer, while isolating the detained rebel leader. Eager to negotiate with the new leadership, a delegation was dispatched behind rebel lines. The negotiation ended in a massacre, with all members of the splinter group, Commission for the Consolidation of Peace, executed for betrayal.
The unashamedly pro-RUF/NPFL London-based New African reported: "So Sankoh had snatched a goal back. He was two goals down when he was taken into captivity (detained in Nigeria) and when the new leadership was recognized by the Sierra Leone government, but he had fought back. His men still recognized him as leader and now they had seized his opponents. His men had scored an equalizer. It is definitely two goals all, and this time, nobody thinks it is all over. The match continues."
But it soon became clear who was really in charge of the RUF, the rebels' mastermind and controller well placed in Liberia and now christened as a "democratically elected president." Supplied and protected by Liberia, the RUF, with improved fighting skills, stepped up its "military offensives" (which mainly constituted amputations, gang rape, and execution of civilians) between 1997 and 1998, now that Taylor was a legitimate head of state with wider possibilities of beefing up the RUF and providing diplomatic backing. The result was the 1997 Armed Forces Revolutionary Committee (AFRC) coup led by Johnny Paul Koromah., which ousted the newly elected President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. The coup sent an unequivocal message that in Sierra Leone, as in Liberia, bullets were more powerful than the ballots, whatever the rest of the world thought. While in Nigerian detention, Sankoh, on the BBC, instructed his rebels to join "our brothers" since the war was "now over". In compliance, the rebels emerged from their forests hideouts and stormed Freetown, transforming the city into a living hell as they and renegade soldiers instituted a reign of terror along the model of Taylor's own Monrovia Reign of Terror in April 1996, which left 3000 killed, completing the destruction of derelict city. But unlike many Liberians who saw a redeemer in a man that has reduced them to beggars and pariahs, Sierra Leone civil society took to the streets to denounce the coup. A campaign of non-cooperation with the junta was launched and it led to empty and paralyzed government offices. In the end, it was military force, that of the West African force ECOMOG, which interrupted the terror, but not for long, since the Liberian corridor remained open.
The rebel leadership, along with the coup leader Johnny Paul Koromah and dozens of his key lieutenants, retreated into the safety and protection of Taylor's Liberia to prepare for another offensive. Some were arrested by ECOMOG troops then stationed in Liberia. Taylor protested, and this open roar between ECOMOG and Taylor helped to accelerate ECOMOG's departure from Liberia without fulfilling their responsibilities of training the Liberian Army, as spelt out in the Abuja Agreement that brought Taylor to power. "There is only one president in this republic", he warned the Nigerians who headed ECOMOG. 'There is no small president and big president", he added in reference to Nigeria's on the continent.
The next offensive was launched one year after the rebels lost Freetown, in December 1998. Now well armed, trained and directed from Liberia, the rebels nearly succeeded in taking the capital. Over 5000 civilians in Freetown alone were butchered as ECOMOG forces found themselves on the defensive. Several neigbourhoods were set on fire and laid to waste. Poverty descended.
Although the RUF failed to seize power by 1999, (which was really not their intention, the real plan being continued instability to siphon the diamonds) the rebels and their Liberian sponsors succeeded in forcing a peace agreement that rewarded them for unimagined atrocities, with diamonds now as their fiefdom. The diamonds are pivotal in the military campaign because they needed finance for Taylor and the purchase of arms, and payment of trainers.
Immediately after the Lome Agreement, another split emerged in the RUF, this time between Sankoh and his Field Commander Sam Masqita Bokarie, commander of the 1999 offensive. In Monrovia for consultations before his return to Freetown as Vice President in charge of diamonds, Taylor tried to mediate between Sankoh and Bokarie. The split however widened months later, with Bokarie threatening to take his case of betrayal against Sankoh to "Chairman Taylor" and (then) OAU Chair Blaise Campaori, a key Taylor ally who played a major role in supplying the RUF with massive arms during the 1999 offensive, according to The Washington Post. Sankoh seemed to have gotten the upper hand in the power struggle. Bokarie finally fled in Taylor's arms, from where he is now running RUF bands around Kailahun, Buedu, Koindu, with the Liberian town of Foya as a base of operations. At the same time, there was another split, with the RUF and the AFRC now bitter enemies, mainly over allocations of jobs and rewards contained in the Lome Agreement. The AFRC felt they have been back-stabbed and left in the cold. The RUF, with their diamond creeks now legitimized by the Agreement, were the prime beneficiaries. Taylor beat his chest for ensuring peace in a sisterly country from where, he announced, his grandfather came.
With such factors, one of the most likely candidates for UN in the search for alternatives to Sankoh is Bokarie. But as far as Taylor is concerned, politics in Sierra Leone without the RUF is non-starter, and there are good reasons for this.
In Taylor's political calculations, Sierra Leone as a buffer remains non-negotiable for his own political survival. His use of Ivorian territory to gain power and destroy Liberia has become a lesson too important to ignore. Without a like-minded government in Sierra Leone, his sense of danger and inevitable fall increases. Until Sankoh's fall, Taylor felt comfortable with bottlenecks for disarmament as agreed in the Lome Agreement which he prided himself for carving. He received periodic reports on RUF plans, decisions and strategies through various means, including reports given to Liberian emissaries in Freetown. He had also sufficiently infiltrated Kabbah's weak, divided and quarreling government. Meanwhile, Bokarie, firmly within his grip in Monrovia, became his trump card in case his wishes were circumvented.
Outside Sierra Leone, Taylor's colossal fear of Guinea is nightmarish. His rebels launched successive cross border attacks on Guinean villages in 1999, killing dozens of peasants. He then vowed that in the event of any war, "Guinea would loose." Attempts by his friend, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, to appease Guinean President Lansana Conteh into trusting Taylor have not been successful primarily due to continued flow information about destabilizations hatched in Monrovia. But with Sierra Leone conquered, Guinea would be an island easy to destabilize and finally conquer, since Guinean dissidents, including late President Sekou Toure's son, have found a safe haven and operational base in Liberia, a charge Taylor has denied as having links with the RUF.
Another all-important dimension is money. With a disintegrating economy, Charles Taylor needs the Sierra Leone diamonds. In recent years, Liberia has sold over $268 million worth of diamonds originating from Sierra Leone, according to various reports, including that from the Canadian group Partnership Africa Canada (PAC).
But Taylor's overwhelming influence in the Sierra Leone saga is one which his well-paid public relations men (including former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, paid to the tune of about $350,000) have tried to bury but with little success. Cohen is now campaigning for international aid to Taylor because, he told the BBC, of Taylor's "influence" in West Africa as indicated by the freeing of UN hostages. The Liberian's influence in West Africa is clearly indisputable, since, indeed, the lifeline of the RUF lies firmly in Liberia. In 1999, it was Taylor who personally intervened for the release of Midicins Sans Frontiers (MSF) workers held by the RUF. The same year, the RUF crossed into Liberia to fight against Liberian dissidents around the Liberia-Guinean and Sierra Leonean borders. RUF clashes with dissidents, widely reported in the local press followed Taylor's announcement that he would seek the help of "allies" to flush out the dissidents. Moreover, Sankoh's own failure to convince fighters to disarm despite several tours and appeals indicates his weakness within the RUF. Bokarie's defiance of his orders, and his (Bokarie's) threat to seek redress from "Chairman Taylor" long indicated the real power behind the RUF.
With such outstanding understanding of the issues, something dramatically at odds with Jesse Jackson's opportunistic approach, US Sen. Judd Gregg has refused to endorse the wasting of US money on peace deals bound to create more horrors. Some of his critics contend that by Sen. Gregg withholding funds, he is obstructing peace efforts in Sierra Leone and democratization in Liberia. In the first instance, one must see the wisdom in the Senator's refusal to fund peace proposals that protect and reward criminals, and with no possibility of achieving the desired objective. In the second instance, to believe that funding alone for Liberia's intimidated and paralyzed civil institutions, can lead to democratization is not to understand the level of terror currently waged in the country and exported.
The Senator's linkage of peace in Sierra Leone to exit of Liberia's "criminal gang", obviously based on well-informed reports, is backed by many others. Late last year, the Canadian group Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) concluded that: "What was different and more sinister after 1991 was the active involvement of official Liberian interests in Sierra Leone's war - for the purpose of pillage rather than politics. By the end of the 1990s, Liberia had become a major center for massive diamond-related criminal activity, with connections to guns, drugs and money laundering throughout Africa and considerably further afield. In return for weapons, it provided the RUF with an outlet for diamonds, and has done the same for other diamond producing countries, fueling war and providing safe haven for organized crime of all sorts."
Thus Sierra Leone's curse continues to be its diamonds, now eyed by Taylor, one of the most corrupt officials in the Samuel Doe junta which received more aid from America (half a billion dollars) than all previous Liberian governments, an American prison escapee that faced deportation for the alleged theft of $900,000 from the junta. Approximately $350 million to $450 million worth of diamonds was leaving Sierra Leone annually, reports indicate. "From 1930 (when the British were in charge as colonial masters) to 1998 (one year after Taylor's presidency) about 55 carats were mined officially in Sierra Leone. At an average price of 1996 dollars of $270 per carat, the value is close to $15 billion", PAC concludes.
To understand this scenario, one must understand the now heightened demands of the Liberians for Sankoh's importance in any peace deal. They are the only ones in West Africa and elsewhere insisting on the rehabilitation of the RUF despite worldwide anger at the rebels' ruthless. Taylor equates Sankoh to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, predicting that although Sankoh is now viewed as a "terrorist", he could soon be dinning with world leaders as Arafat is. "He who is without sin must first cast the first stone", he added, emphasizing that, "Sankoh is not just a piece of paper that can be blown away..." This campaign in RUF rehabilitation was first launched by President Clinton's Special Africa envoy, Rev. Jesse Jackson, who compared Sankoh to Nelson Mandela, only to change gear over worldwide protests. But the Baptist preacher had already indicated where his heart was when he declared that "there is blood on everyone's hands" in the ongoing terror, not only the RUF. Thus the Liberians are now bent to takeoff from where Rev. Jackson left. With this, the UN could be playing into their hands because all candidates after Sankoh are firmly in the Taylor's orbit. Hence, to deal with the Sierra Leone sorrows, the UN and others serious about a lasting peace must listen to Sen. Gregg:
"There can be no peace in Sierra Leone until the strongman of neighboring Liberia, Charles Taylor, is brought to heel. Taylor never forgave Sierra Leone for serving as staging area when ECOMOG intervened in the civil war in his country. (Taylor also never forgave Sierra Leone for arresting him after denying him a base to launch his operations against his former ally Doe.) It was he who has provided financing, equipment and sanctuary for it. As long as Taylor rules Liberia, Sierra Leone anguish will continue. To see justice done, the US must lead a multinational effort to bring true peace to Sierra Leone. First, Liberian leader Taylor and his criminal gang must go; every effort ought to be made to undermine his rule."
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