Freetown, Sierra Leone – Bashiru Conteh was one of thousands of child soldiers unwillingly drafted into a civil war that saw more than 50,000 people killed. It was 15 years ago and he was just a boy when he was forced to fight, but Conteh said that he remembers everything.
Ahead of elections on November 17, the young man recalled encounters “in the bush” with Eldred Collins, one of ten candidates running for president of Sierra Leone. During the war, Collins was the spokesperson for the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the most notorious of several rebel groups that terrorized much of the country from 1991 to 2002.
The thought of Collins takes his mind back to the war, Conteh said.
"I see him with the red beret on his head, I see him in an open jeep, I see him with a couple of RUF fighters behind him, with their RPGs and their guns,” he recounted. “I still see him punishing fighters who refused to take commands. I see him giving orders to fighters to carry out attacks, and even commit atrocities like amputations, the burning of houses, and killings.”
Conteh, who lost his mother and father in the conflict, argued that the political manifestation of the RUF – the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP) – has no place in the country’s fragile democracy. “It rekindles the bitterness, the pain, the agony that people went through during the 11 years of civil war,” he said.
From fighters to politicians
The political transformation of the RUF began in 1999, with the signing of the Lomé Peace Accord. That agreement between the government of Sierra Leone and the RUF granted the latter a role in the country’s transitional government. At the same time, it created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The TRC’s final report catalogs crimes committed by every side in the conflict, but singles out the RUF as “responsible for the largest number of human rights violations.” Detailed are the RUF’s roles in “indiscriminate amputations, abductions of women and children, recruitment of children as combatants, rape, sexual slavery, cannibalism, gratuitous killings and wanton destruction of villages and towns.”
The RUF was also heavily involved in the illicit trade of so-called “blood diamonds,” largely through the support of former Liberian president Charles Taylor. On April 26, 2012, Taylor was found guilty at The Hague of aiding and abetting war crimes in Sierra Leone. The court’s verdict states that Taylor sold diamonds and purchased weapons on behalf of the RUF, and that his support for the rebel group contributed to the longevity and brutality of the war in Sierra Leone.
|Eldred Collins, presidential candidate for the Revolutionary United Front Party and a former spokesperson for the RUF during the war which left some 50,000 dead [Travis Lupick/Al Jazeera]
At an upscale hotel in Freetown, Eldred Collins maintained that the RUF fought the war with the specific objective of bringing democracy to Sierra Leone. That that goal was achieved, he said.
“When the truth comes out, you will know that most of the things that have been said about the RUF are wrong,” he said. “It is because of the RUF that we have democratic parties in Sierra Leone.”
Collins argued that the two leading parties – the incumbent All People’s Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), which led the country from 2002 to 2007 – have been slow to bring development and have failed the country’s youth. If the RUFP were elected, Collins continued, it would bring free education for children and training for youth in sciences and technology.
“2012, we are going full-swing into the election,” he emphasised. “We want power. We want to give the people what they need.”
'Most parties have blood on their hands'
The RUFP remains on the fringe of Sierra Leone politics. It failed to see a single representative elected in both the 2002 and 2007 elections, and this year, is expected to garner no more than three percent of the vote. However, 2012 has seen the RUFP expand party infrastructure across the country. According to statistics supplied by the organizations headquarters in Freetown, the RUFP now boasts an estimated 8,000 members – the most since its inception. It’s also opened party offices in 10 of 14 districts, and is running 56 candidates for seats in the country’s 124-member parliament, plus 81 aspirants for local councillorships.
Where the RUFP could see its voice amplified is in the situation of a runoff election, which many expect will be required after the vote on November 17. If neither the APC or SLPP secures an absolute majority, the RUFP’s percentage of the vote could go far in helping one of the larger parties secure the 55 percent of the electorate needed for a victory.
Despite the RUF’s atrocities committed during the war, most Sierra Leoneans are content to see them take part in elections.
Kabba Williams was captured by the RUF in 1991, when he was just six years old. He said he has little doubt that Collins committed war crimes. Yet in the next breath, Williams mounted a strong defense for Collins right to participate in elections.
“Most of these parties have blood on their hands,” he explained. “But the reason why we are encouraging them to participate is because we have talked about the need to forgive and forget. To make the peace more sustainable, let’s involve them.”
At a community outside Freetown called Amputee Village, three men with “long sleeve” cuts below their elbows told the sorts of stories for which the war in Sierra Leone is so well known. They recounted being organised into lines and, one by one, subjected to crude amputations. Two said that they walked through forest with severed limbs that went without medical attention for several days.
The mention of the RUFP led Mohamed Tarawallie to shift his gaze to the ground. “We’re not ready for them to exist again in this country,” he said. Tawarwallie has never met Collins, but recalled hearing his voice on the radio during the conflict. “Of course we all remember him,” he said.
|An RUFP is unlikely to win a significant number of votes in Saturday's election [Travis Lupnick/Al Jazeera]
Yet Tarawallie and other victims of the RUF’s amputations defended the political party’s right to take part in elections. The men said that they didn’t want to see the RUFP have a say in government, but argued that the former rebel group’s inclusion is crucial to maintaining peace in Sierra Leone.
Memunatu Pratt is head of peace and conflict studies at Sierra Leone’s Fourah Bay College. She emphasized the significance of the “backdrop of social malaise” from which the RUF emerged.
“The history of the RUF is a history that came about as the result of economic, social, and political decadence of the state of Sierra Leone, right from 1967 up to 1991,” she explained. “There was a need for change to the extent that Sierra Leoneans were saying that if they did not fight for their country, there would never be change.”
Pratt recalled that one of the key factors that gave rise to the RUF was the exclusion of groups from politics. She argued that the same mistake should not be made twice.
“It is very difficult for people to associate with the RUFP because of the trauma of the war and the legacy of the violence,” Pratt said. “But Most Sierra Leoneans you talk to are happy that the RUF is participating.” She added that support for the RUFP is so low that it’s unlikely they’ll ever play a significant role in the politics of the country.
However, Pratt called attention to the possible role of a “third force” in the election. If a second round of voting is required for the APC or SLPP to win the presidency, the support of minority parties will be very important, she noted. And with the RUFP strongest in the eastern districts of Kono and Kailahun, Collins’ support would be especially useful to the APC, which is based in the west of the country.
“The RUFP could be valuable to the APC,” she said. “But I don’t think they have the numbers.”
Collins was more optimistic. “We know, come one day, we will take power through the ballot box,” he said.
Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick