The Sierra Leone Web


A devout Christian and Western-educated intellectual, a one-time diplomat and above all a latecomer to the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel movement, Alimamy Pallo Bangura seemed an unlikely last-minute choice to replace the charismatic and volatile jungle fighter Foday Sankoh as the RUF Party's presidential candidate.

But with hours to go before the nomination deadline, the party apparently had few options. Foday Sankoh was arrested in May 2000 after his rebel group abandoned a ten-month old peace accord with the government and units from the RUF's northern faction struck out from Makeni to threaten a new attack on Sierra Leone's war-scarred capital. Even as the last troops from the Nigerian-led ECOMOG intervention force flew out the country, Sankoh's fighters fell upon the inexperienced and thinly-deployed U.N. peacekeepers who replaced them, killing several African soldiers and abducting hundreds. On May 8, Sankoh's bodyguards opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators in front of his Freetown residence, leaving more than twenty people dead and many others wounded. The rebel leader disappeared from public view for 22 months, detained without charge at a secret location just outside of Freetown under Sierra Leone's then two-year old State of Public Emergency law. He resurfaced in March to face murder charges stemming from the May 8 incident after President Kabbah the lifted the State of Emergency to allow political campaigning to begin.

RUF supporters then struggling to transform their fragmented rebel movement into a political party had assumed that, whether he was in prison or not, Sankoh would head their presidential ticket. In March, however, the National Electoral Commission disqualified the RUF leader on a technicality: Sankoh had failed to register as a voter; therefore, Sierra Leone's electoral laws barred him from standing as a candidate.

The fiery Sankoh had been the glue which held the RUF's disparate factions together. In his two year absence, the movement had begun to unravel. The party's eleventh-hour selection of Bangura and former cabinet minister Peter Vandy as its presidential and vice presidential nominees, hammered out behind closed doors at the home of former military commander Issa Sesay, now forced those differences into the public view. Gibril Massaquoi, the RUF's sidelined spokesman, telephoned news agencies to condemn the nominations while RUF Party interim chairman Mike Lamin flew to Dakar to seek ECOWAS backing of Sankoh as the party's nominee.

The RUF Party that Bangura inherited was by 2002 a cash-strapped collection of uneasy factions already being pulled apart by the same north-south schism which divides much of Sierra Leonean society. With the end of the war, too, the party's base had begun to erode. Unpaid former combatants turned in their arms, collected their reinsertion benefits, and drifted away from their units. Some crossed the border to Liberia, where renewed conflict between the government and armed dissidents promised to provide new opportunities for youths schooled only in the waging of war. When the RUF Party submitted its parliamentary slates in late April, only a handful of prominent RUF members made the list. Lamin declined to return from his trip to Senegal, and Massaquoi sat on his hands during the election campaign. Political and Peace Council member Patrick Beinda, who had accompanied Sankoh in March 1991 when he crossed the Liberian border to launch his rebellion, was among those who defected to the Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP). Still, the election took even many experienced Sierra Leone watchers by surprise: The RUFP failed to win a single seat in parliament. Just a year before, RUF leaders confidently predicted they would oust the SLPP and form the next government. Instead, the once-feared rebels garnered less than two percent of the national vote from Sierra Leone's war-weary population.

When I arrived at Bangura’s Campbell Street residence some ten minutes before our scheduled interview, I found him across the street at the BP station, filling his car with petrol. "I’m sorry," he said. "I was on my way to find you!" Seated on a sofa in his second-story apartment, Bangura spoke quietly through the din of car horns about the furor which initially met his candidacy. "I do not believe that it’s everybody in all of the parties that accepted the candidates," he said. "So the RUFP is not unique in that, and I would have been surprised if everybody were satisfied with my candidacy. But the point is, I’m happy that the vast majority accepted, and whatever the outcome, I did my best."

On paper, Bangura would seem to have little in common with the RUF rank-and-file whose party he sought to lead, and who never fully accepted him. Many of these RUF ex-combatants-turned political activists were in fact poorly-educated rural youths who fought for years in the bush, acquiring along the way a grim reputation for abducting boys as combatants and girls as sex slaves, and for hacking the limbs off their victims with machetes. Bangura's curriculum vitae includes a Master's degree from London University's School of Oriental and African Studies, ambassadorial appointments to Ethiopia and the United Nations, and ministerial portfolios in two cabinets. He converses confidently on topics ranging from Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (which he supports), to the Angolan civil war, to what he decries as the abysmal lack of grammar in Sierra Leone's tabloid press. But when he reaches to describe the beliefs which brought him from Mount Aureol academia to RUF rebellion, Bangura points to his Christian faith, and to his roots in Tonkolili District’s Kafe Simiria Chiefdom, where he grew up the son of a paramount chief.

"I grew up in an environment in which everybody had an opportunity to interact, to discuss openly, to reach consensus," he said. "So that is the basis of what makes me me. And that is the basis for my commitment to democracy."

Bangura insists he is uncomfortable with political labels, but he describes himself as a democrat "because really I know I am." And the label he is most uncomfortable with is one which has dogged him ever more insistently in recent years as he moved from the NPRC to the AFRC to the RUF: that of an opportunist. It is a label he rejects. "It’s not part of my nature," he said. "How that would play out, how that would evolve — quite frankly, like most other things in my life, I have allowed things to evolve rather than impose a kind of definite will on them. I allow the good Lord by His mercy and grace to direct me."

It is his faith, he says, which makes the educational gulf between himself and the RUF youths seem to him unimportant. "I’m not one who looks down on anybody," he said. "I do not reject anybody. I do not condemn anybody. The kind of Christian that I am is to accept everybody as God’s child, and God having a purpose for each one. That is how I see it." What is essential, he says, is that after ten years of fighting these youths now have a chance to help restore peace in their country. "Somebody needed to do the job of galvanizing them, getting them to accept that there is an alternative," he said.

The task of finding alternatives for these youthful ex-combatants, Bangura believes — of reintegrating hardened fighters from Sierra Leone's warring factions back into society, and of finding ways to involve them in the economy — will be the greatest challenge the country faces as it struggles to recover from a decade of civil war. "For the RUF there is this added problem of the stigma and suspicion," he said. "We’ve got to remove this question of rejection. They’ve been allowed to feel that they could contest (in the elections). Now we should encourage them that although the RUFP hasn’t won, that is another rejection. That is not another rejection." Restoring stability to Sierra Leone, he said, will mean pulling these former combatants back into society's mainstream. "We must not just throw these people because we have condemned them," he said. "This is the challenge, not just for the youths of the RUFP but for youths generally in this country."

In describing his vision of Sierra Leone's future, Bangura looks back to tradition. "My background is the palava," he said. "My interpretation of the traditional African and Sierra Leonean system of justice (is that) the emphasis is not on justice. It’s on reconciling. You bring people together, they find a way of settling, whether it’s a crisis, conflict or dispute or whatever. Frankly, that is what I’m disposed towards."

"Nobody should assume a monopoly over wisdom or a solution — no, not any more," he said. "This is my hope now for the new Sierra Leone. If we go that direction I’m sure that we’ll get there."