The Resistible Rise of Foday Sankoh

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Writing off Sierra Leone's malaise as some sort of inevitable "Heart of Darkness" scenario that simply confirms the futility of intervening in Africa's conflicts may be a temptation, but it's also more than a little misleading. The tragedy unfolding now as an unfathomably brutal rebel army scoffs at peacekeeping efforts and fights its way toward the capital is not a product of some collective psychosis of the Sierra Leoneans. It is, instead, a sordid tale of ruthless pursuit of a buried treasure — diamonds — in the world's poorest country, and of political calculations, miscalculations and plain wishful thinking among powers as diverse as Libya and the U.S.

The man at the center of the orgy of killing, maiming and torture that has gripped Sierra Leone for the past decade is a portly, ebullient former army corporal and wedding photographer. But Foday Sankoh doesn't personally hack the hands off children or slaughter their parents in his drive for political power and control over Sierra Leone's diamond fields; for that he relies on an army of abducted teenagers, forced at gunpoint to rape or kill loved ones — a brutal measure designed to cut off the road home — before being dragged into the bush, where Sankoh's drug-addled legions become their only family. Now, his band of battle-hardened killers is on the march again, rounding up U.N. peacekeepers like so many hapless tourists and holding them hostage as it fights its way to the capital. Meanwhile, Sankoh himself appears to have slipped away from the house arrest under which he'd been detained last week. U.N. sources say he eluded his U.N. captors, and has probably rejoined his comrades.

It was yet another unlikely escape, and like his previous one — in which he'd gone in less than a year from death row to the vice presidency — it symbolized the ineptitude of international efforts to stop the war in Sierra Leone. Sankoh may well have been tempted to pinch himself last summer when he received a phone call from President Clinton urging him to accept a peace deal that Reverend Jesse Jackson had spent days cajoling him to sign. And it was a pretty sweet deal for a man who'd been bound for the firing squad a few short months earlier: Clinton and Jackson were urging a war criminal to agree to order his men to lay down their arms, in exchange for his country's vice presidency and ministerial control over the diamond fields that had financed his rebellion. And in a failed and lawless state such as Sierra Leone, ministerial control meant a lot more than majority shareholding.

By any measure, the Lome peace deal was a remarkable achievement for a corporal cashiered by Sierra Leone's British colonial army in the early '60s and sent to Scotland to be trained as a TV cameraman. Insurgents are prone to self-mythologizing, and the snippets of biography Mr. Sankoh has released are often contradictory. He is reported variously to have worked as a wedding and portrait photographer and as a cameraman for the state TV service, spending time in jail for anti-government activities before finding himself, in 1991, a guest of regional mischief-maker Colonel Muammar Ghaddafi. The Libyan leader persuaded Sankoh and former hairdresser and nightclub dancer Sam "General Mosquito" Bockarie to form the Revolutionary United Front and fight Sierra Leone's government. They trained alongside Liberia's Charles Taylor, who went on to litter his own road to his country's presidency with many a crushed skull and dismembered body. Rural poverty and resentment of Sierra Leone's corrupt one-party government attracted large numbers of young men, but despite its high-minded rhetoric, the RUF was almost from the outset a haven for desperate men looking to snag whatever riches an assault rifle could in a sea of poverty.

In 1992, a group of army officers, tired of fighting the RUF on behalf of a corrupt elite, seized power. But rather than fight on, the new regime of Captain Valentine Strasser hired a South African mercenary firm, Executive Outcomes, which was composed primarily of apartheid-era special forces officers who'd had plenty of experience in southern Africa's brutal wars of the '80s, to deal with the rebels. The mercenaries' price included a substantial share of the country's diamond mines. Although their 21-month sojourn in Sierra Leone cost the country $35 million, they got the job done. The rebels were smashed and confined to small pockets of the country, the diamond fields secured and Foday Sankoh forced to the negotiating table to discuss allowing free elections. (By contrast, the projected six-month cost of the shambolic U.N. mission before it went badly wrong was $260 million.)

But Western powers found the mercenaries' role distasteful, and put pressure first on Strasser and then on the newly elected government of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah to terminate their contract, which they did early in 1997. And that gave the rebels an opening. The RUF had never accepted the election process or its result, and with the mercenaries' withdrawal they went on a brutal rampage across the countryside, systematically chopping off the hands of civilians in gruesome mockery of Kabbah's election slogan, "The future is in your hands."

Without the mercenaries organizing the government's defenses, the RUF wrought havoc in the countryside, and then a coup by former Strasser loyalists led by Colonel Johnny Paul Koroma overthrew Kabbah and invited the RUF into the capital for an orgy of bloodletting and looting. The West urged Nigeria to take charge, and in February 1998 the ECOMOG intervention force seized Freetown, restored Kabbah to power and arrested Foday Sankoh, who was later sentenced to death. But a year later, the RUF overwhelmed ECOMOG and recaptured the capital, freeing Sankoh and savaging the civilian population. Government control was only restored after weeks of fierce fighting, in which Nigerian troops at times matched the brutality of the rebel fighters.

But by mid-1999, the Nigerians had run out of reasons to stay. They'd held elections at home, ending a military dictatorship that had sought to stay in the West's good books by playing sheriff in West Africa. And the West was offering nothing by way of finance, weapons or logistical support to maintain the mission. Britain and the U.S., embroiled in Kosovo, simply wanted the Sierra Leone problem to go away. But the rebels' control over the diamond fields gave them a long-term source of funding that made them both a more formidable force and a more intractable foe. And the long-suffering people of Sierra Leone simply wanted peace, even if the price was sacrificing justice for the criminals of the RUF. Thus was born the Lome peace agreement, which set the scene for the current debacle.

Although many observers believed he belonged in an international war crimes tribunal, Sankoh found himself suddenly elevated into government, even receiving a personal visit in Freetown from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last October to encourage him to keep the peace. But the international community failed to read the glaring signs that the RUF had no intention of laying down the weapons that were the source of their political and economic power. "General Mosquito" Bokarie, the rebels' chief field commander, chastised Sankoh for making peace, ordered his men to hold onto their weapons, and warned the U.N. troops who'd come to disarm them to keep their distance. Sankoh fired Bockarie late last year, but the commander fled to Liberia, where he began to organize a new insurgency that would ensure continued access by the RUF — and its Liberian backers — to the diamond fields. But Sankoh's own commitment to peace was equally dubious. Despite having signed the agreement authorizing their peacekeeping role, Sankoh warned in January that the U.N. "has no business in Sierra Leone." Yet despite these warning signs and continuing rebel attacks, the U.N. continued to assemble a poorly equipped, poorly trained and poorly organized international force to keep a peace that the RUF treated as fictitious. That they became hostages by the hundreds should have been little surprise.

So once again Sankoh appears to have confounded his foes. The U.N. forces are scrambling to defend Freetown and find a way of freeing the 500-odd peacekeeping troops still in the hands of the RUF. The peace agreement they were meant to police is no more than a bit of litter on the floor of Sankoh's trashed house (where a New York Times reporter found an original, signed copy after the rebel leader had fled) and the international forces are scrambling to organize defenses to stave off a rebel assault on the capital. Britain, the country's former colonizer, has some 700 paratroopers in there to evacuate Europeans and to stiffen the spine of Freetown's defenders. And the U.S. has promised to fly in anybody willing to fight as long as they're not American, and also to send Jesse Jackson back to the region to talk to anyone who'll listen. But it's patently clear that the peace that Western leaders had hoped would solve the problem cannot be saved. Once Freetown is secured, the international community will face some brutal choices: Either the West will have to risk some of its own resources in a war to destroy Sankoh's forces and bring him to justice, or it will have to arm and pay the Nigerians — or some other group of guns for hire — to do the job. Because as long as Sankoh remains at large, no ragtag band of teenage killers anywhere need ever again fear the wavering wrath of the international community.