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Friday, 12 May, 2000, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
Foday Sankoh: Rebel leader
Foday Sankoh
Sankoh: Held responsible for deaths and abductions
By David Bamford

Those who have met the tubby leader of the Revolutionary United Front, Foday Sankoh, remark on his charismatic, ebullient character.

They pinpoint this as a key factor behind his ability to rally thousands of impoverished youths behind his rebellion against the wealthy Freetown political class.


Throughout the mayhem, Mr Sankoh has either remained silent or denied atrocities were happening

Mr Sankoh emerged out of the student movement in the 1970s, serving as an army corporal and later a TV cameraman before being sacked and briefly imprisoned for his anti-establishment politics.

When he re-emerged, he was embittered, and in 1987 joined a group of Sierra Leonean firebrand student politicians in Libya, where Colonel Gadaffi was sponsoring military training programmes for fledgling revolutionary movements throughout West Africa.

Early ideals

A decade or more older than many of his comrades, they knew him as Papa Morlai, or Papei (Papa). This is where he rubbed shoulders with leading figures of the rebel movement in neighbouring Liberia.

After training, Sankoh returned with them to Liberia where he met Charles Taylor and took part in the early stages of the rebellion in 1990 that was to bring Mr Taylor to power eight years later.


What started as a high-minded idealistic movement to rid Sierra Leone of its corrupt politics quickly degenerated

Mr Sankoh - now sponsored by Taylor's National Patriotic Front (NPFL) - went home to Sierra Leone. Together with two other Libyan-trained comrades, Abu Kanu and Rashid Mansaray, they recruited local youths to his Revolutionary United Front. They launched an insurrection in 1991 that developed into a civil war.

But what started as a high-minded idealistic movement to rid Sierra Leone of its military-backed corrupt politics quickly degenerated into a movement dominated by young and impoverished men seeking opportunities to loot the countryside and enrich themselves.

They adopted methods of political banditry of stunning cruelty, specialising in terrorising communities by hacking off limbs of civilians, and abducting, raping and killing much of the rural younger generation.

Throughout the mayhem, Mr Sankoh either remained silent or denied such atrocities were happening. Abu Kanu and Mansaray, who voiced their distaste of such tactics and threatened Mr Sankoh's leadership, were detained on trumped-up charges and executed.

The RUF soon controlled the eastern diamond mines that served as a magnet for unemployed urban youth. The beleaguered older generation political class in the capital Freetown, found itself militarily overwhelmed, despite military support from other West African countries after its own poorly paid army disintegrated.

Diamonds

A political deal signed with Sankoh last year in the Togolese capital Lome, was assumed to be the key to peace. But the RUF youths have found no incentive in the deal to give up their control of the eastern diamond-mining zone to UN forces who have tried to deploy there under the terms of the agreement.


The truth may lie across the border in neighbouring Liberia

The UN, the Sierra Leone Government and Foday Sankoh himself all have an interest in assuming that Mr Sankoh still dominates the RUF rank-and-file.

The truth may be more complex, and lie across the border in neighbouring Liberia. President Taylor's government has persistently denied any interest or involvement in prolonging the conflict in Sierra Leone.

But over the last two years, the value of official annual diamond exports by Sierra Leone has halved to $30m. In the same period, diamond exports by Liberia - a country that possesses relatively few diamond fields - has risen dramatically to $300m.

David Bamford was formerly West Africa correspondent for the BBC.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Mark Doyle in Sierra Leone
"Peacekeepers have been made helpless pawns"
Sierra Leone in crisis

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05 May 00 | Africa
04 May 00 | Africa
01 May 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
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