Fear and Loathing in Sierra Leone

By 1991, Sierra Leone was a failed nation, mired in poverty, with an economy almost continuously shrinking for almost three decades. And then failure turned into total collapse…

On March 23 a group of armed men under the leadership of Foday Sankoh crossed the border from Liberia into Sierra Leone and attacked the southern frontier town of Kailahun. Sankoh, formerly a corporal in the Sierra Leonean army, had been imprisoned after taking part in an abortive coup against Siaka Stevens’s government in 1971 and had ended up in a training camp for African revolutionaries ran by the Libyan dictator Colonel Qaddafi. There he met Charles Taylor, who was plotting to overthrow the government in Liberia. When Taylor invaded Liberia on Christmas Eve 1989, Sankoh was with him, and it was with a group of Taylor’s men that Sankoh invaded Sierra Leone. They called themselves the RUF, the Revolutionary United Front, and they announced that they were there to overthrow the corrupt and tyrannical government of the APC.

The RUF even had a manifesto called “Footpaths to Democracy” (see here) which started with a quote from the black intellectual Franz Fanon: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.” The section “What Are We Fighting For?” begins:

“We continue to fight because we are tired of being perpetual victims of state sponsored poverty and human degradation visited on us by years of autocratic rule and militarism. But, we shall exercise restraint and continue to wait patiently at the rendezvous of peace—where we shall all be winners. We are committed to peace, by any means necessary, but what we are not committed to is becoming victims of peace. We know our cause to be just and God/Allah will never abandon us in our struggle to reconstruct a new Sierra Leone.”

Though Sankoh and other RUF leaders may have started with political grievances, and the grievances of the people suffering under the APC’s extractive institutions may have encouraged them to join the movement early on, the situation quickly changed and spun out of control. The “mission” of the RUF plunged the country into a rampage that left 80,000 people dead and many more maimed and traumatized.  Soon, few voluntarily joined the RUF. Instead they turned to forcible recruitment, particularly of children. Indeed, all sides did this including the army. A harrowing but moving testimony of his days as a child soldier in the army was written by Ishmael Beah ( ; on the controversy surrounding this book, follow this link ).

                         A boy who lived through Sierra Leone’s civil war

                                                     Casualties of war

In 1997 the RUF enjoyed a brief spell as part of the national government after a faction of the military, led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma overthrew the government. Needless to say, their behavior was similar to what had been seen during the rule of APC.

None of this should have been surprising. When a country has the type of extractive institutions that Sierra Leone inherited from the British and then intensified by its post-colonial leaders, fights over power, over who gets to benefit from the extraction, are common. By their nature extractive institutions breed conflict, which often turns into civil war and, as in Sierra Leone, leads not only to carnage but also to the collapse of the state.


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