by Edit Kruk
Proxy warfare and warlord politics in the African region, symptomatic of longstanding colonial legacies, play out in states that are on the brink of collapse and where the state leader, desperate to preserve a grasp on power, will privatise security in exchange for natural resources whilst neglecting other essential functions of the state. This article will argue that under the conditions of proxy warfare and warlord patronage, the Civil War that raged in Sierra Leone between 1991 and 2002 can be linked to the figure of Charles Taylor, a Liberian warlord financed by the trade of illicit blood diamonds.
In March of 1991, a group of rebels known as the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) crossed the Liberian border and entered the Kailahun District in neighbouring Sierra Leone. This action initiated a civil war that lasted over a decade, displacing two million people. Its body count of 75,000 and another 20,000 mutilated renders it one of the most violent conflicts in history. As a force, the RUF specialised in the hacking of limbs and tongues, rape, and the wide use of child soldiers (with estimates of recruited children under the age of 14 being around 10,000). The faction was organised by Foday Sankoh, who met Taylor at an insurgency training camp in Libya. Both warlords shared a keen interest in Pan-Africanism—a movement that promoted a politically unified Africa and criticised the neo-colonial regime—which formed the backbone of the RUF’s ideology.
During the Sierra Leone Civil War, Sankoh received resources, arms and troops from Taylor in return for a physical extension to the Liberian Civil War (1989-96). Even though Charles Taylor was most commonly known for initiating the first Liberian Civil War in an attempt to liberate the state from the fraudulent and corrupt government of Samuel Doe, the connection between Taylor and the Sierra Leone Civil War was indisputable. The warlord’s interest in the region was as early as the 1980s as indicated by his request to Joseph Momoh (President of Sierra Leone during 1985-1992) to use Sierra Leone as a launchpad for his rebellion, but Momoh refused. Taylor’s warlordism solidified as a result of Momoh harbouring Nigerian forces (ECOMOG) that intervened in Liberia in 1990 and in so doing posed a direct challenge to Taylor’s control of the region. Therefore, through the provision of leadership and weapons to the RUF, Taylor crafted the neighbouring state’s instability to his advantage, effectively making it his proxy.
These signposts of Taylor’s influence with the RUF are due an analysis, paying special attention to the ways it shaped strategical decisions and terror tactics. Whilst Taylor was never in effective command of the RUF he was found guilty for the sponsorship of the faction and by default the abetting of the rebellion. However, between 1992-96, the RUF was forced to retreat into the bush and turn to guerrilla warfare, thereby increasing their use of terror to compensate for their lack of adequate equipment. The decline of the faction’s military sophistication came as a result of Taylor no longer sending sufficient resources, a result of a revolt in Liberia which blocked the RUF’s main feeding line. Whilst there was a sufficient link between Taylor and the RUF during the conflict, a deeper structural crisis was already harbouring further violence. This article will study this development through the analysis of the socio-political environment as a product of colonialism and an oppressive regime.
The violent behaviour of Sierra Leone’s rebels becomes less reprehensible when perceived as a means of rebellion against years of colonial rule, rather than a tool of proxy warfare. In 1787, Sierra Leone was established as a settlement for freed slaves and by 1896 it was proclaimed a British protectorate. Creole people, upon their arrival, dominated the civil service employment sector which forced the indigenous population to the periphery of the state, creating the blueprint for a two-class society. The colonial suzerainty of the state can be criticised for embedding a weak bureaucracy and neglecting the local dynamics which divided Sierra Leone into chiefdoms, thereby decentralising the state and fuelling inter-ethnic rivalry by elevating the status of freed slaves above the Temne and Mendi people which made up sixty per cent of the local population. Unsurprisingly, the resulting two-class society and a raging welfare gap were carried into the post-independence period and, thus, an environment predisposed to patrimonialism emerged. Marginalisation and subsequent frustration amongst the youth of Sierra Leone manifested as hypo-aggressive tactics and was symptomatic of colonial legacies.
The feeling of hopelessness that accompanied the youth living in the harsh environment of Sierra Leone was tactically encouraged to manifest as acts of aggression by the RUF leadership. Indeed, the youths’ ideological barrenness when coupled with RUF leaders taking advantage of their lack of knowledge, through the spread of disinformation, was able to fuel drug use, removing their ability to consent, and, ultimately, dehumanising them. Moreover, the extreme violence deployed by the RUF was, in fact, a reflection of a deeper structural crisis of youth and modernity which were facilitated by the removal of Cold War constraints. Subsequently, whilst Taylor’s link to RUF attributes for some of the violent behaviour, colonial grievances set the conditions for the successful appropriation of long-standing local frustrations by warlords, to fulfil their agenda, and thereby create proxies. The Sierra Leonean rebel faction was able to augment considerable support from areas that failed to be emancipated from domestic slavery, itself remnants from the project of decolonisation. However, whilst historical grievances enabled mobilisation, they also proved unsustainable as the violence grew more acute and made the faction an unpopular one.
Siaka Probyn Stevens, leading Sierre Leone from 1967 to 1985, oversaw a regime of aggressive policing that propelled frustration amongst the marginalised population and consequent outbursts of violence. By 1978, Stevens and his All People’s Congress (APC) were able to consolidate one-party rule, that resembled a dictatorship characterised by brutality and totalitarianism. In particular, Stevens closed railway networks that connected the North and the South East of the country in an attempt to prevent civilians from voting against the APC and passed the Killer Bill in 1980 which removed all media outlets other than those that were state-owned. These draconian measures granted Stevens control of the political discourse. Due to the historical context, patrimonialism thrived and Stevens’ rule was defined by a disparity in the dissemination of scarce resources, nepotism, and the subsequent rise of a shadow state.
Resentment towards the oppressive government quickly resulted in the formation of an insurgent people’s army, which exponentially garnered support through its critique of the neo-colonial regime, promising a coup, and the subsequent return to a multiparty democracy. Whilst this argument is convincing in its attribution of the violence committed by the RUF, as a response to the oppressive rule, the same rationale does not account for 9 to 10-year-old children being victims of revenge. For this reason, it is essential to view colonial history, the political context, and potential actors as inseparable and as enabling each other, when attempting to analyse the roots of violence in the Sierra Leonean conflict. Nonetheless, an oppressive regime was a trigger for civilians and radical students to initiate a rebellion in which violence was treated as a vehicle of change. Means of terror have been commonly known to be a response to the collapse of patrimonialism, and symptomatic of new barbarism, both key features of an insurgent movement.
To conclude, Charles Taylor successfully instrumentalised the neighbouring conflict into proxy warfare, thereby perpetuating the Sierra Leonean conflict, while physically extending the Liberian domain. Taylor did not intend to carry the RUF to victory, as the cessation of a stronger connection in 1992 proves. Meanwhile, the violence did not discontinue. Colonial grievances ensured widespread fragmentation and a sense of hopelessness while oppression fostered a desire for change and revenge which ultimately came to fruition in the form of terror, a means of achieving the rebel’s goals. Sierra Leone resembled a microcosm of the conflict that pervaded the rest of the continent, indicating a need to draw stronger parallels between African states for a better understanding of eruptions of violence in the region.
Edit Kruk is a final year (BA) War Studies student with a keen interest in modern slavery and the African region. Narratives through art and the history of early modern Imperial Spain, have been life-long areas of fascination.