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Thursday, 9 May, 2002, 13:41 GMT 14:41 UK
Voting for Sierra Leone's ex-rebels
Former RUF soldiers
The election will mark the end of the war in Sierra Leone
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By Mark Doyle
BBC West Africa correspondent
line
Ahead of presidential elections on 14 May, Mark Doyle keeps a diary from the campaign trail.

Day 2 - Makeni with the RUF

"The Lion will rise again!"

As soon as you walk into one of the offices of the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP), activists surround you and complain about the detention of their leader, Foday Sankoh.

"The Lion", as the historic leader of the RUF is known to his followers, is in detention on charges of murder and faces prosecution by a special United Nations court for Sierra Leone.

But RUF supporters, many of whom see Mr Sankoh in almost mythical terms, do not believe this situation will last, and shout "the Lion will rise again" or "Free the Pappy (father)".

I came to Makeni to get a flavour of the support the RUF has in what was its former military stronghold before the days when it added a "P" for "Party" to the RUF initials.

The headquarters of the RUFP in Makeni overlooks the main roundabout and a buzzing marketplace.

Within about five minutes of my arrival there, some 200 RUF supporters had gathered to sing and dance - not a bad turnout for an impromptu gathering to meet the BBC.

Activists milled around in yellow party colours while a group of women sang praise songs for Mr Sankoh.

Amputations

Pallo Bangura, the former Secretary General of the RUF, was mentioned in the praise songs as well.


If all we did was commit atrocities, well then, the people won't vote for us

Braima Martin Bangura, RUFP

A thoughtful former diplomat, Mr Bangura is the official presidential candidate of the party - although many RUF supporters will tell you he is their interim choice, pending the re-awakening of "the Lion" himself.

This is most unlikely to happen.

Foday Sankoh is in doubtful physical condition and those who hold him in jail - currently the Sierra Leone Government, but later, maybe, the UN - are in no mood to let this mercurial, sometimes dangerous man out.

He is charged with the murder of more than 20 civilians who were demonstrating outside his house in Freetown because his men in the provinces were breaking a ceasefire agreement.

During the dark days of the war the RUF gained a fearsome reputation for committing atrocities.

Its signature action was to chop off the hands of mostly innocent peasants to terrorise people against supporting the elected government.

Foday Sankoh
The RUF leader is unlikely to stand for president

But RUFP supporters seem to suffer from collective amnesia about this period - and assert that all of the other militia groups fighting against them performed "amputations" as well.

Most independent observers disagree, saying that while other groups certainly committed atrocities, the RUF were the worst.

"There is cause and there is effect", says RUF parliamentary seat candidate Braima Martin Bangura, who sits with a yellow scarf around his neck in the Makeni office of the RUFP.

"There's all this talk of the war, and of the atrocities we committed", he expands, "but what caused the war? It was the corrupt old politicians who refused to listen to the peoples' cries for free education, clean water and decent leadership. We had no choice but to take up arms."

This is a common RUF refrain.

'Fat cats'

If the atrocities had not been committed, their political line against corruption might have been more respected.

On the other hand, says the RUF, its radical, almost socialist line, was ignored and repressed by the "fat cats" in the capital Freetown, so it had no choice but to turn to war.

Election office in Freetown
Sierra Leone voters prepare to go to the polls

Braima Martin Bangura stresses that the result of the election will show he is right: "If all we did was commit atrocities, well then, the people won't vote for us on 14 May. But we know that they will vote for us, because they want an end to corruption and they want decent government. We will win!"

Nine political parties are contesting the presidential and parliamentary elections.

The incumbent President, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, is standing for the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) and is one of the favourites.

Another major candidate is Ernest Koroma of the All People's Congress (APC), the party which ruled Sierra Leone as a one-party state in the 1970s and 1980s.

The front runners could get an unpleasant surprise from groups like the RUFP in northern Sierra Leone and one of a handful of other parties in the politically volatile capital region.

See also:

28 Mar 02 | Africa
Sankoh barred from poll
13 Mar 02 | Africa
In pictures: Foday Sankoh emerges
12 May 00 | Africa
Foday Sankoh: Rebel leader
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