March 23, 2021
By Osman Benk Sankoh
I do not quite remember where I was. What I vividly recall is that I was just a boy at the time. On March 23, some three decades ago, a ricochet of gunshots, probably from the Russian-made AK47 Kalashnikovs and explosions from Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPGs) jolted the tranquility of a small border town of Bomaru in Kailahun, eastern Sierra Leone. The insanity that started in Bomaru would later engulf the whole country as lives were wasted as horror enveloped the land.
For slightly more than a decade, that cacophony, as the nation was plunged into civil war, was to become the new undesirable way of describing Sierra Leone amid over two decades of one-party rule (the vogue then in the many African States and even beyond).
On that day of the first gunshot, we were made to believe that a deal had gone wrong between rebels fighting from within Liberia and soldiers on our side over the sale of some looted goods, including cars. They had been hoodwinked, it was alleged, and after the dust had settled, the rebels had crossed over to settle scores.
True or not, a few days later, it was headline news on the BBC Focus on Africa. Rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by a former photographer and an angry ex-corporal in the Sierra Leone army, Foday Saybana Sankoh, was heard on the programme claiming that he had somewhat started the “father of all battles” to remove the government of the then All People’s Congress (APC) led by a retired Major General -President Joseph Saidu Momoh from power.
The authorities at State House were quick to respond to Sankoh’s interview claiming that these were minor skirmishes and that the “gallant soldiers” of the country had beaten the rebels back. That was deception.
Obviously, someone was economical with the truth, and poor innocent citizens were caught up in the claims and counterclaims. The truth? Truth was the first casualty of the war.
Outside of official confirmation and in the absence of social media platforms and cellphones then, bush radio (hearsay) was the order of the day. The primary source of credible news was the BBC Focus on Africa or Network Africa programmes. These became the breakfast, lunch, and dinner for us as one could not rely on state media who were very measured with the facts. My good old friend, Sulaiman Momodu, then reporting for the BBC, had his brush with the authorities when the government declared him wanted for reporting on BBC Network Africa that government was minimizing the truth about the war and that rebels were in fact advancing to Freetown.
Before Sankoh’s interview on the BBC, then Liberian warlord later turned president and now prisoner, Charles Gbankay Taylor had boasted on the BBC that Sierra Leone was going to taste the bitterness of war for allowing the ECOWAS forces to use the country as a base from which jetfighters were released to bomb National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) territory and kill their chances of overrunning and taking power in Monrovia from a stubborn Samuel K. Doe.
Thirty years after the war, questions still beg for answers. Was it Taylor’s threats that led to the war in Sierra Leone? Was it about diamonds? Was it to address issues of corruption, bad governance, nepotism, equal rights, and justice? Or did Sankoh begin the war to revenge his jailing at Pademba Road prisons over alleged claims of his involvement in a coup plot?
What is uncontested was that at that point, the stage was being set for constitutional reforms and for the country to return to multi-party democracy. Prominent politicians like the current Speaker of Parliament, Dr. Abass Bundu, had parted ways with the APC in a government that he served as Foreign and Agriculture Minister respectively to form the Progressive People’s Party (PPP). The SLPP was also on the mend and so then was Thaimu Bangura, who left the APC to form his People’s Democratic Party (PDP).
While the RUF claimed that their goal was to remove the APC from power, their bidding was done for them by elements of the Sierra Leone Army, who left the warfront on April 29th, 1992, came to Freetown, and toppled the APC. The National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) was born.
Yet, the fighting did not stop. Sankoh’s RUF gained territory. They captured key diamond-mining towns, including Tongo and Kono. Claims were, they were funnelled to De Pappay (the Big man) in Liberia. Limbs of innocent citizens who had nothing to do with the government in Freetown or probably had never seen the capital city were severed. Women were raped, villages looted clean, and young boys and girls were conscripted into the rebel army.
Estimates indicate that over 50, 000 lives were lost. UNAMSIL (the United Nations Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone) estimated that over 10,000 children were conscripted into the various fighting forces, including the Kamajor civil defence force who fought alongside government forces. A UNICEF report, it is believed, shows that 8,466 children were officially documented as missing between 1991 and 2002. Accounts quoting literature written in 2005 by Sierra Leone’s current Ambassador to Switzerland, Dr Lansana Gberie, claims that over two-thirds of the country’s population was displaced. Others went to neighbouring Guinea, Liberia and beyond as refugees.
As a young man, I saw the war firsthand. I know what it meant to be woken up in the early hours of January 6th, 1999, with the sounds of guns and bombs. My entire family was displaced. We had nothing to eat but to depend on others for our daily bread. We returned to Wellington and had to start afresh after our house was set ablaze. We lost relatives in the village, including one of my favourites, Uncle I.B, a pipe-smoking Kenny Rogers fan and a former insurance broker.
Like other compatriots, I had to live with the traumatic experience of the war. Little girls who were abducted, raped, impregnated, and turned to Bush wives by their captors will never forget the war. Amputees will never forget the horror of their limbs chopped off with crude cutlasses and axes. Spare some thoughts for innocent kids turned into child soldiers and given AK47 instead of pens and pencils.
Officially, the war ended in January 2002. But the question is- have we as a country made any serious effort to really address the root causes of the war?
May the souls of all those we lost in the war rest in peace!
N B: The author is a Communications Specialist and the sentiments expressed are entirely his.