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25 years on, telling the RUF story

By Mohamed Jaward Nyallay 

Whenever many Sierra Leoneans hear the three letter word acronym –RUF (Revolutionary United Front), it often provokes different types of emotions - from fear, to grief to shock.

The eleven year [1991-2002] civil war brought carnage and left despair amongst millions of people. Almost all those that survived the war have a horrible tale to tell and most of them believe that RUF was responsible.

Every year, since 1991, March 23 has been remembered as the start of those long and difficult years of the war in Sierra Leone. The place where it all started was Bomaru, Kailahun District, east of the country and most people believe that it was the RUF forces that struck that township.

But Eldred Collins, a founding member of the RUF, said they were never part of that attack on Bomaru in Kailahun District. He said it was an arms deal gone wrong.

“RUF was not involved in the incident in Bomaru. It was an arms deal gone wrong between SLA (the Sierra Leone Army) and the NPFL (the National Patriotic Front of Liberia),” Collins told Politico.

The Sierra Leone army used to be called SLA; the name was changed after the war to the current one, RSLAF – Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces. NPFL was the rebel group that fought to bring Charles Taylor to power in Liberia. Taylor was later forced out of power and has since been jailed for his involvement in the war in Sierra Leone.

Collins was head of the political wing of the RUF and until recently he was also the leader of the RUFP (the Revolutionary United Front Party).

In spite of how the war ended, characterised by killings and maiming, many people believe that the revolution was born out of a genuine intention of changing the status quo. Such people feel that the situation in the country had gone so bad that the only option was through an arms struggle.

“We rose against the system then because there was no justice system; health was a privilege and the economic situation was bad,” Collins said.

But despite their original genuine concerns, the RUF got greedy along the way, analysts say. Their actions were also extreme as they went overboard.

Chernor Maju Jalloh, a student, said the RUF were just bad. “They perpetrated violence and many human right violations.”

Jalloh is 20. He was clearly very young during the war. But he said he remembered vividly images of the carnage that forces like RUF orchestrated.

However, RUF members have always stressed that these were not their ways. Andrew Kaymbay was a fighter with the RUF. He fought alongside the most feared commanders during the civil war, including Rambo, Superman and war crimes convict, Issa Sesay. Kambay said other people had their motives of joining the fight but that in general the ideology of the RUF was to liberate the people.

For this reason, he explained, they had a command structure which was determined to punish fighters who committed crimes against civilians. “We had a disciplinary code and fighters were investigated if they did things wrong. The punishment for the guilty could range from public flogging to hard labor on civilian farms,” Kaymbay told Politico.

If only those structures were as efficient as Kaymbay claimed, the effect of the war on civilians could have been far less than what it is today. According to the National Commission for Social Action (NaCSA), set up after the war to lead the reparation process through social interventions, over 1, 300 people had their hands or feet chopped off by RUF and other forces outside the command of the regular army.

NaCSA is the government agency tasked with fixing the social lives of victims of the war.

Even though the pain of loss and the psychological trauma remain with victims the country as a whole has gone a long way in recovering from those dark years.

The all-important Lome Peace Accord

In 1999 the Ahmed Tejan Kabba-led government negotiated the Lome Peace Accord with the RUF. That event was not just a signing ceremony but a ceremony that started the end of the decade long civil war.

The war was fought between and among several forces; the Civil Defense Force (CDF), RUF, SLA and ECOMOG (the ECOWAS intervention forces). All of these forces shifted their alliances to each other at different times during the war.

There were a number of factors that motivated the RUF to seat on the table and key among them was the opportunity to participate in the governance system in the country as they had always wanted.

Collins described the war as ‘classic guerrilla warfare’ and he explained that in such wars there are no winners or losers.

“We were fighting a classic guerilla warfare. The SLA was weak, there was no way they could have won the war,” he said.

The Lome Accord established several provisions that contributed greatly to the sustainable peace Sierra Leone has enjoyed so far. Some of these provisions helped establish the RUF from a revolutionary fighting group to a civil political party group – the RUFP.

It also obliges the government and international community to provide the necessary support to bankroll the party. Among other things, it provides for the setting up of a trust fund, providing training for RUF/SL membership in party organisation and functions, and providing any other assistance necessary for achieving the goal of this section.

The establishment of a trust fund has been a controversial issue. Understandably, it looks ironical for any government to fund RUFP who are now a political party. That may be a reason why such a fulfillment has not been met for the last 17 years since the accord was made.

According to Kaymbay, successive governments have failed to meet the provision of establishing a trust fund for them. “SLPP did not treat us fairly, they brought vengeance in the process…the APC said they were not the one that signed such an agreement with us,” the RUFP spokesman said.

RUFP in Sierra Leone’s Democracy 

RUFP has been part of the democratic process in Sierra Leone since 2002. Currently they are part of the all-important constitutional review process which Collins said was part of the original demands of the RUF.

Having them on the democratic stage in Sierra Leone speaks volumes of the country’s democracy. Keeping them alive as the Lome Peace Accord states will also boost the reputation of the country.

But as a party they are set to lose all three of their offices nationwide because they cannot afford to pay the rent. Like some other parties in the country, the RUFP is also marred by turmoil as a result of embezzlement by the party’s top hierarchy.

If their situation continues like this they will starve to death as a political party. Sierra Leone needs parties like the RUFP to point at as the example of how far the country has come in forgiving and healing its wounds from the war.

Reflecting back on time, Collins said: “Sierra Leoneans should never dream about war.”

But if there is one thing that RUF members never had any regret for, it was the motive that they fought for. Collins gave the credit for achieving the current democratic set up in the country to their rise against the system.

Kambay said he had no regrets about fighting against the system at the time.

“I have no regret. I stood for a purpose and the people of Sierra Leone can justify that reason,” he said.

People like Jalloh also shared the same opinion about the war. “Had they not fought, a lot of things would have been different in this country,” the Social Work student of Fourah Bay College told Politico.

25 years since the civil war, Sierra Leone may be a different country now all together. Whether this change was as a result of the war or not that is open for debate. The thing that is clear is that the RUF or no other group might contemplate on changing the system using arms again.

(C) Politico 23/03/16