Sierra Leone was founded in the 18th century
as a safe haven for freed slaves. At the close of the 20th century,
its people are enduring horrors at the hands of their countrymen
and bearing scars from a civil war of atrocities perpetrated by
an army of thugs and desperadoes.
Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader Foday
Sankoh, mastermind of the terrorist campaign, says he took up
arms to free his country from the string of corrupt governments
that has ruled Sierra Leone since 1961, when it gained its independence
from Britain. Beyond this explanation, he has no ideology to offer,
making his revolution appear to be little more than a power grab,
influenced and supported by Charles Taylor, president of Liberia.
Indeed, the RUF has incorporated some of Taylor's tactics in its
campaign of terror, such as forcing children into service and
drugging them to make them commit atrocities.
Convicted of treason and sentenced to
death last October, Sankoh was freed to attend peace talks
in Togo. This came after RUF's brutal attacks in January
on Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, forced President
Ahmad Tejan Kabbah's government to relent. In a desperate
peace accord signed in Lome, Togo, on July 7, Sankoh's
rebel fighters were granted amnesty from war crimes, including
mutilations that have crippled thousands of civilians
haunting the nation's streets and amputee camps. Rebel
leader Sankoh is to assume the role of vice president
as well as supervisor of sales of the country's vast diamond
reservesthe very reserves he drew upon to help finance
his campaign of fear. Yet many accept the peace accord,
which places their oppressors in joint power with President
Kabbah's legitimate government, in order to rebuild their
lives and diffuse the fear and violence that have overshadowed
them for eight years.
Legitimate but fragile, Kabbah's power
has been challenged repeatedly. In 1997, one year after
Kabbah's election to office, the Sierra Leone army staged
a military coup and joined forces with the RUF. Kabbah's
exiled government was restored the next year by the Nigerian-led
Economic Community Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). The ECOMOG
force drove the RUF rebels out of Freetown after their
January attack on the city. But beyond the ECOMOG force,
Kabbah has no army of his own and even the ECOMOG force
is pulling out.
The West encouraged the Kabbah government to
accept peace at the current asking price of rebel amnesty. By most accounts, Sierra
Leone is of little strategic interest to the West.
After luxuriating for months in a five-star
hotel in nearby Togo, Sankoh has just returned to his homeland.
Now it remains to be seen whether the legitimate government and
the warring rebels will come together in a lasting peace.