In Sierra Leone, the acronym RUF conjures horrific images of violence and a decade- long civil war. The rebel group led by the notorious Foday Sankoh decimated villages, captured and brainwashed children into killing machines, raped and amputated indiscriminately. Now, they’re regrouping to contest the 2012 presidential elections as a political entity, the RUFP (Revolutionary United Front Party). Can they win the hearts of people who celebrated on the streets when Sankoh was finally arrested?
The formation of the RUFP was a tradeoff. The Lomé Peace Accord that ended the war allowed for their makeover into a political entity in exchange for peace. Their goals remained unchanged: to redistribute Sierra Leone’s mineral resources among the people and give fair representation to all sections of society in the democratic process. The last time though, these idealistic plans degenerated into a group of drugged and drunken young men looting the country to line their own pockets.
Sankoh is dead and other prominent leaders have been convicted by The Special Court for Sierra Leone. At the helm now is Eldred Collins, a man who did not fight the war but believes in the RUF’s original vision of regime change. He’s convinced where the RUF failed, the RUFP will succeed. Recently, they formally registered as a political party and are now trying to rally supporters. ‘We waged a twelve-year civil war, we definitely have the patience for politics,’ said Collins as I chatted with him on a rainy Tuesday afternoon.
Even though Collins argues that the RUFP is a political movement with no connection to homicidal armed rebels, something doesn’t quite add up. He pledges the party’s respect for international humanitarian law and human rights, while in the same breath condoning the RUF-led civil war. He calls the RUFP a truly grassroots movement when currently it comprises mainly of former combatants. Until recently the interim party leader was Issa Sesay, one of the three RUF rebel chiefs indicted by the Special Court.
Sierra Leoneans are still spooked by war talk and many shudder at the thought of former rebels in power. To Mohamed Kai – a Freetown-based journalist whose family was killed by the RUF – it is downright insulting. ‘I am still afraid of them, who knows what will happen if these former soldiers are given political power,’ says Kai.
Coincidentally one of the RUF fighters’ staunch supporters, Charles Taylor of Liberia, was a rebel warlord before being elected to power. The difference is Taylor won the sympathies of his people; the RUFP suffered a humiliating defeat in the first and only elections they contested in 2002.
With Taylor on trial in The Hague, the RUF name is being dragged through the mud again, not the ideal time to resurface. But Collins thinks they can cash in on the international attention and prove to the world that they believe in ‘nonviolence’. However he’s also convinced that the Special Court verdicts against the RUF were unfair.
As it stands now the RUFP seems confused, with no clear political identity and too much baggage from the war. If they are to have any kind of a political future they need to rebrand: a new name and a new ideology. Few people will vote for them while they continue to evoke hatred and fear.