Death of a killer
The former leader of one of Sierra Leone's most feared militias died in custody, Tamam Ahmed Jama reports
Foday Sankoh, the founder and former leader of the infamous militia known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), did not die on the battlefield or at the hands of his many enemies but of natural causes in a hospital in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone.
"He was granted a peaceful end that he denied to so many others," read a statement recently issued by the office of the chief prosecutor at the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone. The court had indicted Sankoh for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international humanitarian law, committed over the course of the Sierra Leonean civil war.
Reacting to the news of Sankoh's death at the end of last month, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said: "This was a man who terrorised his people and almost destroyed Sierra Leone. In the end, he died an indicted war criminal, a lonely and broken man."
Sankoh, a former army corporal and TV cameraman, founded the RUF in 1991 and fought successive governments in Sierra Leone. Lacking a coherent political ideology, the initial aim of the RUF was simply to rid Sierra Leone of the then-ruling corrupt political elite that was plundering the country's mineral wealth.
But what started out as an idealistic movement, with quite laudable objectives, quickly degenerated and developed into one of Africa's most savage rebel organisations. Sankoh promised to fight corruption and to ensure equitable distribution of Sierra Leone's vast diamond wealth. But it soon became clear that RUF fighters were more interested in looting and enriching themselves than rescuing their compatriots from tyranny.
"The rebellion increasingly degenerated and Sankoh became very much like what he said he was crusading against," said Alex Vines, head of the Africa Programme at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs.
Vines said the RUF primarily recruited from the politically marginalised rural poor, while also attracting unemployed urban youth. When volunteers did not come in sufficient numbers, the RUF conscripted young boys to fill the ranks of the fledgling rebel army. According to testimonies of former child soldiers, youngsters were forcibly injected with cocaine before being sent to the frontlines. For years, the drugged youths -- with little concern for their personal safety and even less pity for their victims -- went on the rampage to murder, mutilate and maim tens of thousands of civilians. Even in this war-torn nation which rapidly grew accustomed to horrific atrocities, the infamous child army that Sankoh put together stood out for its stunning cruelty and the extremely brutal method of warfare it adopted.
It imposed its reign of terror by ritualistically chopping off the hands and feet of its victims, including infants. The gun-toting, trigger-happy child soldiers proved too much for the country's better- equipped regular army to handle and they spread terror among the civilian population.
It is estimated that at least 50,000 people lost their lives in the 10-year long civil war that brought the West African nation to its knees. Thousands of others were maimed or deformed. The conflict also displaced almost half of Sierra Leone's 4.5 million people. Throughout the mayhem, Sankoh either remained silent in the face of atrocious crimes -- apparently being committed under his command -- or denied such atrocities were actually taking place. When two of his senior commanders, Abu Kanu and Rashid Mansaray, denounced the excesses of the RUF and called for restraint, they were detained on trumped-up charges and later summarily executed.
Illicit trade in diamonds was the economic factor behind Sierra Leone's barbaric civil war. Backed by Charles Taylor -- the former Liberian president who went into exile in Nigeria last week -- the RUF fought for and finally gained control of the diamond mines in the east of Sierra Leone. Though he repeatedly denied any involvement in the Sierra Leonean civil war, Taylor enriched himself from the illicit trade in diamonds, which the RUF was willing to offer in exchange for arms. The proceeds from the clandestine trade fuelled and prolonged the civil wars both in Sierra Leone and in neighbouring Liberia.
"The illicit diamond trade fed both Taylor's and Sankoh's war machines and brought benefits to both," said Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, member of the Liberian Unity Party. "Taylor denied it, but now, with Taylor's indictment by the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the evidence is there for everyone to see." The Special Court indicted Taylor for war crimes for his alleged role in the war in Sierra Leone.
With Taylor's encouragement and material sponsorship, units of the RUF terrorised entire communities with murder and mutilation. Although its attacks on civilians seemed arbitrary, they usually targeted towns in diamond-producing areas, the attack paving the way for the forcible seizure of lucrative mines. A substantial amount of the diamonds allegedly made its way to Taylor, who was an intermediary for selling the "blood diamonds" on the international market.
Sankoh was captured in May 2000 and handed over to the Special Court for Sierra Leone. He suffered a mild stroke after his arrest and both his physical and mental health declined steadily from then on. The 65-year-old former rebel leader became disoriented while in custody. In one of the hearing sessions at the Special Court, he burst out laughing and said he was surprised that he was being tried for being "the leader of the world". At his last appearances at the court, Sankoh was in a wheelchair -- unable to respond to questions and unaware of his immediate surroundings. He was subsequently declared unfit to stand trial and the case against him was dropped upon the announcement of his death.
During the time that Sankoh was in custody, a fragile peace has made a steady progress in Sierra Leone. His death is considered to be an occasion for consolidating efforts to bring a lasting peace to the scarred nation.
Sankoh and Taylor -- who, before ascending to the presidency led a rebellion that plunged his native Liberia into 14 years of political violence -- were arguably the most notorious rebel leaders in Africa. The rebel groups of the two indicted war criminals brought much gratuitous bloodshed, massive population displacement and economic destruction to their respective countries -- and threatened the instability of the entire West African region. The death of one and the departure from power of the other, less than two weeks apart, is hoped to herald the beginning of a more stable and peaceful era for the region.
"I hope it serves as a deterrence," said Johnson- Sirleaf. "I hope it will send a clear message to any aspiring rebel leader or rebel group that those who take up arms to terrorise and destabilise a country will not be rewarded with power."