Enter The War Lords

How Sierra Leone Collapsed after Independence—PART IV

Sareta Ashraph
Sareta Ashraph



This is part 4 in a series that looks at how Sierra Leone, once known as the “Athens of West Africa” and blessed with mineral resources, fell into a brutal civil war a mere 30 years after independence in 1961. The series began in the February edition of the T&T Review with a look at how thing began to fall apart.
The analysis continues with an attempt to eventually answer the question: are there lessons for Trinidad and Tobago from Sierra Leone?

Foday Sankoh died five months before I first walked into the Special Court’s detention facility. He had been transferred into the Court’s custody in March 2003 from the main local prison on nearby Pademba road and was in extremely poor health. In prison since his arrest in May 2000, he appeared to have suffered several strokes which had gone untreated; it was also possible that he had been beaten while in prison. Though it was not being said publicly, it was unlikely he would ever be in a fit state to stand trial.
Though I never met him, he was present in almost every interview I conducted. The ex-fighters deified him; many were still loyal to him and what they saw as his revolution, stating that the atrocities were committed by fighters who turned away from Sankoh’s vision. His fighters called him ‘Pa’ and in return, he had referred to him to them as ‘his boys’.
A Temne with roots in Tonkolili district, Sankoh was not well-educated and made his living as a soldier and photographer in the Sierra Leone Army. Sankoh was relatively unknown in 1991; in fact, for the first few months of the war, Freetown’s newspapers speculated that Sankoh was simply a pseudonym under which Charles Taylor operated. Sankoh, however, would become synonymous with the conflict in Sierra Leone.
In 1971, Sankoh played a smaller role in Sierra Leone’s history when he, along with several other members of the armed forces, was arrested on suspicion of aiding and abetting a plot by the military to overthrow Siaka Stevens’ government. Sankoh was imprisoned for 4 years in Pademba Road prison. On his release in 1975, he attempted to return to the army but was rejected on account of his conviction. Little is known of what Sankoh did between the time of his release and the late 1980s. He is said to have eked out a living as a photographer in Bo and Kenema districts. What is more certain however is that in the decade which followed his release he became interested in the left-leaning discussion groups that were furtively sprouting up all over the country. It was there that Sankoh was to receive his own ideological training.
The philosophy of Pan-Africanism, which called for a politically united Africa and which railed against neo-colonialism, found fertile ground in these discussion groups. In 1975, Colonel Ghaddafi, a fervent Pan-Africanist, published the first of his three volumes of political philosophy, also known as the ‘Green Book’. Ghaddafi’s brand of Islamic socialism was not accepted in its entirety: Sierra Leone’s Muslim, Christian animist communities got along too well for that. Still, the idea of a socialist government, capable of redirecting the flow of wealth away from foreign companies and self-enriching politicians and chiefs and providing a functioning welfare state, found favour in the increasingly radicalised underground discussion groups.

It was members of the Fourah Bay College (FBC) Student Union who first made contact with representatives of the Libyan government. Initially, student politicians were funded to attend conferences in Libya which discussed Green Book-inspired socialist philosophies.  In March 1985, following a student strike, the APC government expelled more than 40 members of the students’ union as well as a few teachers from the university. Shortly after their expulsion, a delegation led by the student union president Alie Kabbah, went to Tripoli. It was on this trip that Kabba made a request for commando training from the Libyan government. 
Groups from Sierra Leone started to travel to the Benghazi training base in Libya. According to the Truth and Reconciliation report, published in 2004, the first group of four Sierra Leoneans travelled to Libya in August 1987. Of the four people, one was Rashid Mansaray who was destined to become the RUF first Battlefield Commander.
Another one of the four, Victor Reider, today the SLPP spokesman, is credited with recruiting Sankoh into the Libyan training programme. Sankoh is said to have travelled to Libya for training with 3 others in April 1998. In Libya, the Sierra Leonean recruits met nascent revolutionaries from other parts of the world, including Liberia and the Ivory Coast. Although Charles Taylor, in his ongoing trial in the Hague, has denied any pre-war connection with Sankoh, it is widely believed that it was in Benghazi training base in 1988 that the friendship between the two was born.
Taylor’s route to Libya was more circuitous. While Sankoh was in prison in Sierra Leone in the 1970s, Charles Taylor was an economics student in Waltham, Massacchusetts. Taylor returned to Liberia in 1979 and supported the April 1980 coup which saw the murder of then President Tolbert, who was disemboweled in his bed by the coup leader Samuel Doe. Doe then took the reins as President of Liberia. Taylor was appointed as an officer in the General Services of Liberia but was fired in May 1983 for allegedly embezzling approximately one million dollars which was wired to a US bank account. He fled Liberia soon after and was arrested in Massachusetts in May 1984. His lawyer was Ramsey Clark, who was later to become US Attorney General.
In September 1985, while imprisoned in Massachusetts, Taylor and 4 other inmates staged a prison break. All the other inmates were recaptured and Taylor’s wife and sister-in-law were arrested for driving the get-away car. Taylor, however, was not apprehended and managed to travel out of the United States to an unknown destination, which may have been Libya or a West African state such as Ghana or Côte d’Ivoire.
In October 1987, the President of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, was murdered by one of his chief aides, Blaise Compaoré who then took up the Presidency. Taylor was rumoured to have assisted Compaoré and it was said that it was through Compaoré that a connection was made with Libya. In any event, when Charles Taylor met Foday Sankoh in Libya in 1988, Taylor was by far the more respected ‘revolutionary’: he was already well-known by several African heads of state and was likely to have been able to count on now President Compaoré’s support of his own revolution in Liberia. 

By this time, Sankoh had become a leader of the Sierra Leonean contingent in Libya following a split between Sankoh and Alie Kabba. Unlike Kabba or Rashid Mansaray, Sankoh was not an academic and, in confidential interviews with the TRC, some of Kabba’s circle described Sankoh’s grasp on ideology as being weak. Nevertheless it is clear that Sankoh was both a gifted orator and a strategist capable of gaining the support of backers for the future Sierra Leonean revolution. Some commentators believe that it was in Libya that Taylor and Sankoh reached an agreement: Sankoh and the men loyal to him would assist Taylor’s launching of the revolution in Liberia and once Taylor was in a position to do so, he would support Sankoh’s own revolution in Sierra Leone. In truth, there may never have been such an agreement: Taylor had both sufficient funds and the support to launch his own revolution while Sankoh did not. Attaching himself to Taylor may have the only viable option to Sankoh and would have provided him training bases for his men and a country bordering Sierra Leone from which to launch his war.
Sareta Ashraph was Defence Counsel at the Special Court for Sierra Leone from 2003-2009. She can be reached at saretaa@gclaw.co.uk. She thanks Daniel Eyre for his comments.

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