by Lansana Gberie
July 31, 2003
George Orwell once wrote that the important thing is not that “political gangsters should be made to suffer, but that they should discredit themselves.” Fortunately, he continued, “they do so in many cases, for to a surprising extent the war-lords in shining armour, the apostles of martial virtues, tend not to die fighting when the time comes.”
In dying peacefully in a Freetown hospital Tuesday night (July 29, 2003), Sierra Leone’s once-dreaded warlord, Foday Saybanah Sankoh, has robbed his long-suffering countrymen and women the satisfaction of seeing him discredit himself in a UN-mandated war crimes court which had recently charged him with crimes against humanity and for bearing the “greatest responsibility” for the decade of extremely brutal and demented warfare he waged in his country. While no one in his right senses would mourn the passing away of this most murderous and duplicitous of all warlords, Sankoh's trial and conviction for crimes against humanity in a transparent Court would have had the added benefit of exposing the criminal and mercenary nature of his brand of "revolution" which destroyed so many lives, including many young ones.
I first met Sankoh close-up in 1996, in a hotel suite in Yamoussoukro, the political capital of Côte d’Ivoire. He had been lured from the wet forests of eastern Sierra Leone, which provided a base for his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) for years, for peace talks with the Sierra Leone government. He immediately struck me as a cold-blooded sociopath and someone totally unconcerned about the dreadful effects of his warfare. The man who claimed to be fighting to liberate the derelict rural peasantry from the corruptions and neglect of the capital city-based elite was the one who would, at the same time, waive aside questions about atrocities against peasant farmers committed by his RUF, while admitting that they were happening. "When two elephants are fighting, who suffers?,” he once told a western reporter. “The grass, of course." He admitted to me then that his men were involved in vast diamond mining, and showed me a bag which he said contained diamonds---but, he added, "the revolution is not about this."
A Peace Accord was signed later that year (November 1996), declaring an end to the war. But shortly after, Sankoh was writing to his Libyan sponsors asking for more arms and declaring that he had signed the Accord "just so as to relieve our movement of the enormous pressure from the international community while I will use this opportunity to transact my business in getting our fighting materials freely and easily." A bloody coup, led by rogue elements in the Sierra Leone army, happened shortly afterwards. He was in a relaxed form of detention in Nigeria on weapons charges at the time, and he was able to broadcast a statement ordering his men to join the coup-makers. Mr. Sankoh was invited to be Vice-Chairman of the Armed Forces Ruling Council, AFRC. The war escalated after that, and many thousands would be killed or mutilated or raped.
When the coup was reversed by a Nigerian-led intervention force in 1998, Mr. Sankoh was brought back to Freetown where he was tried and convicted of treason. The RUF, however, continued its campaigns and RUF rebels attacked and sacked Freetown in January 1999. Following this attack, the Sierra Leone government was railroaded by the US into freeing Mr. Sankoh, and another peace agreement, signed this time in Lomé, Togo, granted Mr. Sankoh Vice-Presidential status and made him Chairman of a Commission for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction and Development. This gave him official control over the diamond resources he had been looting for years on behalf of himself and his mentor, Liberia’s Charles Taylor. The Lomé agreement quickly fell apart after Mr. Sankoh, ever duplicitous and manipulative, gratuitously attacked UN peacekeepers in a sordid scheme to stage a coup and force the blue berets to withdraw from the country. Civil society activists foiled the coup plot after a massive demonstration before Mr. Sankoh’s house in May, 2000, during which gunmen---some say Mr. Sankoh’s bodyguards --- opened fire on the demonstrators, killing over 20 of them. Mr. Sankoh, who fled the scene, was later shot in the leg, captured and charged by the Sierra Leonean authorities for murder. In March 2003, a UN-Mandated Special Court, which is superior to the Sierra Leone judicial system, charged him with war crimes, and his trial for murder was suspended. He died while awaiting trial.
Mr. Sankoh was born in a small village in Tonkolili district in northern Sierra Leone in 1938. The son of impoverished peasant farmers, Sankoh dropped out of school at the primary level, and went on to join the army in 1956. The army, a brutal arm of colonial rule, had just massacred 18 unarmed rioters in Freetown and wounded 121. In 1963, shortly after Sierra Leone gained independence, Mr. Sankoh was sent to Nigeria by the army to train in radio communications, and in 1966 to Hythe, Kent, England, for a six-months training, also in communications. In 1971, Mr. Sankoh was arrested, along with others in the army, for plotting a coup against the new, already corrupt All Peoples Congress (APC) government. He was sentenced to seven years imprisonment for his role in the plot. On his release, he became an itinerant photographer. In the 1980s took “ideological” and military training in camps in the Libyan desert town of Benghazi. Exactly 20 years after his arrest for treason, in March 1991, Mr. Sankoh launched his rebel war from Liberia mainly using Taylor’s fighters and mercenaries from Burkina Faso. The war, completely mercenary in its conception, was brutal from the start, with attacks directed mainly against defenceless civilians. Hundreds of thousands fled the ravages of the RUF.
“It’s a peoples’ struggle,” Sankoh told this writer in 1996, smiling grimly, his face a curious impression of vapidity and viciousness. “The people rose up against the rotten APC system. Before it all started, everyone was crying for war. Now that there’s a peoples’ struggle against that system, why should I be blamed for it?” He had a raw charm, and was hugely charismatic among his depraved young fighters, who adoringly called him “papay”. This petty army, of mainly drug-addled children and illicit diamond miners, was called the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Sankoh’s war triggered the overthrow of the inept APC regime of President Momoh by junior army officers in 1992, but he continued his bloody campaign, eventually taking over the rich diamond districts of eastern and southern Sierra Leone. The war escalated after that, mutating into a bloody sub-warlord system with control exerted mainly from Liberia. UN investigators and De Beers estimate that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of diamonds were mined and smuggled by Mr. Sankoh’s guerrillas. Upwards of 50,000 people were killed, thousands mutilated---the RUF’s signature tactic was to crudely chop-off the hands of civilians with machetes---and almost all of Sierra Leone’s limited infrastructure destroyed.
Once squat and rotund, Mr. Sankoh’s last appearance in court was steeped in pathos: confined to a wheelchair, his graying, dreadlocked hair falling on his shoulders, his head slumped down, Mr. Sankoh murmured that he was “God”, “leader of the world”, and was unable to understand simple questions, let alone respond to them. His doctors said he was “catatonic” and had suffered a mild stroke.
Mr. Sankoh’s death came as little surprise to observers, but it was a huge disappointment. The world has lost a chance to interrogate one of the most notorious mass murderers in history.
Mr. Sankoh is survived by his wife, Fatou, and several children