Author Lans Gberie
I met Mohamed El-Tayibb Bah for the first time in Yammoussoukru, Ivory Coast, in 1996 but I had known about him before that. He had been sacked by the NPRC as a senior police officer and member of the National Security Council (NSC) on suspicion, I understand, of his having links with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). I spoke to him briefly in Ivory Coast. He volunteered the information about his plans to set up the RUF’s HQ in Freetown.
I reported those comments back then without prejudice. He has not denied them, but he has added that he didn’t tell me he was heading the RUF’s offices in Liberia and was at the time actually still based in Sierra Leone. I might have misunderstood him on that point, since he told me that he was coming from Liberia. But he is also quoted in the Awareness Times as saying that I told him about Omrie Golley, who I also met for the first time in Ivory Coast, funding my trip there. I had no such conversation with him, and couldn’t have.
I also met the late Ambrose Ganda there – he had gone there to observe the talks and would later write incisive articles on them for his Focus of Sierra Leone newsletter. I became friends with Ganda and Golley; Golley much later, in 1999, announced himself as RUF Spokesman (though Foday Sankoh denounced him as an impostor). At the talks in 1996, however, he was an observer – he went there as chair of a UK-based charity.
I reported the talks for the news agency IPS. Here’s below my report at the time:
Sierra Leone politics: Sankoh on his soap box
By IPS Correspondent Lansana Gberie
YAMOUSSOUKRO, COTE D’IVOIRE, March 28, 1996 (IPS) – Nobody was expecting serious headway to be made in the first round of peace talks between Sierra Leone’s outgoing military government and the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) after five years of civil war.
What they hadn’t bargained for, though, was that the three days of talks this week in the Ivoirian political capital of Yamoussoukro would turn into a pantomime performance by RUF leader Foday Sankoh, full of bluster and threats, with the military and representatives of Sierra Leone’s President-elect, Alhaji Tejan-Kabbah, looking glumly on.
The meeting started well enough Monday when Brig. Julius Maada Bio, 32, and Sankoh embraced, with the 62-year-old Sankoh calling the military leader “my son” and declaring in the next instant: “This war must end now. It’s a fight between brothers and it must end now.”
But before Bio and the other representatives from Freetown could digest that this was actually happening after the years of bitterness, the grey haired Sankoh launched into a diatribe, denouncing the country’s politicians and accusing them — not the war he began in 1991 — of bleeding the country dry.
“I shall wipe all of you out,” the rebel leader threatened, departing from his prepared speech during the opening ceremony to directly address Sama Banya, a former finance minister and the representative of the newly elected president.
“You have been with two previous governments, now you are with the Sierra Leone People’s Party, what next will you be? You politicians are responsible for the plight of our country,” Sankoh charged.
Banya did not respond, but a disappointed foreign secretary, Melvin Chaluba, remarked: “We have had all the embracing. What we want now are specific proposals aimed at ending the war.”
Sierra Leone’s civil war began when Sankoh, a former army corporal detained in the 1970s for involvement in an attempted coup, crossed into the country from neighbouring Liberia at the head of a small force of Sierra Leoneans who had been fighting with Liberian warlord Charles Taylor. He was also backed by Burkinabe mercenaries and Liberians provided by Taylor.
Sankoh’s professed aim was to overthrow the corrupt government of Joseph Momoh, but a group of young army officers beat him to it and staged a coup in 1992. Sankoh said the soldiers were rebels as well, and the war ground on, with the RUF employing a campaign of terror against villages in the interior and fighting for control of the alluvial diamond producing areas of the south and east.
The badly trained and poorly led government army has been unable to contain the RUF and, indeed, are popularly accused of complicity with the rebels, launching pillaging raids of their own and meting out equally brutal treatment to civilians.
Towns have switched hands with dizzying regularity in a conflict which has displaced more than one-third of Sierra Leone’s 4.5 million population, and late last year, the RUF were just 32 km from Freetown.
When the military last month finally made good on its promise to hold multi-party elections, Sankoh tried to disrupt the two rounds of voting on Feb. 26 and Mar. 15 and then said he would agree to a cease-fire only if the military stayed in power.
Sankoh told IPS that while he is now prepared for a peace agreement, “what we do not want is to become victims of peace,” — an almost direct quote from a booklet, ‘Footpaths to democracy’, produced last year.“We can no longer leave the destiny of our country in the hands of a generation of crooked politicians and military adventurists (sic),” says the little black book, which for the first time laid out what the RUF is fighting for.
“It is our right and duty to change the present political system in the name of national salvation and liberation…We call for a national democratic revolution — involving the total mobilisation of all progressive forces.”Sankoh, trained in Libya and originally bankrolled by Tripoli, acknowledges the debt he owes Libyan leader Muammar Ghadafi, whose political philosophy seems to have influenced the rebel leader. “Ghadafi is a brother, and my struggle is pan-African in nature. Everyone can join and make his contribution,” he told IPS.
But despite his manifesto consigning Sierra Leone’s political system to the “dustbin of history”, Sankoh does not rule out joining the new government. He did, however, say he needed to study first the complexion of Kabba’s administration and then consult his “council” before a decision. “Anything beyond that has to be mandated by my followers. I am a democrat.”
However, a statement at the end of the talks Wednesday said that Sankoh would meet Kabba, due to be sworn in on Mar. 29, sometime next week at an unspecified location to continue negotiations.
“It has been a very long fight and both sides need to build trust. It is possible we are going to come up with ideas. We said before, ‘no talks’, now we are talking,” Sankoh’s spokesman, Mohammed Barre, told journalists.
But for Omrie Michael Golley, the Chairman of the London- based National Convention for Reconstruction and Development in Sierra Leone, the Yamoussoukro meeting was a waste of time. “The whole thing was a charade,” he said.
“There have been cease-fires, but our people continue to be killed. Peace should not just mean the absence of fighting, but there must be genuine attempts at reconciliation, not between the government and rebels, but frustrated politicians and other antagonized groups,” stressed Golley, one of the few people to meet the elusive RUF leader in the bush last year.The UN envoy to Sierra Leone, Berkhann Dinka, was more upbeat over the meeting and next week’s round. “It was just like everyone was expecting,” he said. “These talks are aimed at laying the foundation for future peace talks. We do not expect it to be conclusive.”