Sunday, December 8, 2013
- Sierra Leone’s emergence from civil war is being jeopardised by a conflict between rebels and a militia made up of traditional hunters that has degenerated into inter- ethnic feuding.
The ethnic nature of the conflict came to the surface this week when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, who are mainly from the Temne ethnic group, vowed to continue fighting against what they described as the hegemony of the Mende.
“We (RUF) know for sure that the local hunters’ militia are made up of Mende thugs who are fighting to eliminate their Temne ethnic counterparts,” claimed RUF spokesman Gibril Massaquoi, “and we can’t take this.”
The militia, known as the Kamajors, fought alongside the government army during Sierra Leone’s civil war, which started in 1991. An accord signed in November last by the government and the RUF — and which included a cease-fire — has brought some peace to most parts of the country, but there have been clashes between rebels and Kamajors in others.
“Cease-fire or no cease-fire, we think these Kamajors have to be halted,” said Massaquoi. “they think that they would reintroduce tribalism in our country and send us several years backward.”
The Mende and Temne, traditional rivals, are the largest of the country’s 16 ethnic groups. The former make up 35 percent of the estimated 4.5 million Sierra Leoneans, while 40 percent are Temne.
The fighting between rebels and Kamajors has been concentrated in the southeast, which is mainly Mende, and the north, where the Temne are in the majority. According to some reports, the hunters have killed more than 100 rebels since the cease-fire, while RUF soldiers have been killing civilians, soldiers and Kamajors.
“If we can’t get them (Kamajors), we will attack their shields — the civilians who harbour them,” one rebel was quoted as saying by a local paper.
The rebels have reportedly been searching passenger vehicles for their foes. Some commuters said their buses were stopped told the media that RUF men had killed the Kamajors among them on the spot, but had left civilian passengers unharmed.
Over the past three days, state radio and TV have been countering the RUF’s claims that the hunters are being used in an anti-Temne witchhunt.
President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah said the allegation that the Kamajors were “Mende thugs” was “unfounded, baseless and an attempt (by the RUF) to divert world attention from its non- compliance with the terms of the peace accord.” He also appealed for national unity.
A senior official in his administration admitted Friday to IPS that, given the latent tension between the two ethnic groups, the RUF allegation was cause for concern. “This claim by the rebels could only plunge the country into chaos and we don’t want a Liberia-style carnage here,” he said.
Some people here feel the answer is to disband the militia. “The Kamajors boast all around the provinces that this is their government and that no one can take power from Mendes,” says 35- year-old truck driver Fayia Ansumana. “They must be disarmed and completely demobilised.”
Tejan Kabbah’s Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) is viewed as largely Mende. He himself is half-Mende, while his vice president and about half of his ministers are Mende.
On the other hand, RUF leader Foday Sankoh is Temne and most of his lieutenants are said to come from that group, to which the leader and many top officials of the main opposition United National People’s Party (UNPP) also belong.
The rebels’ allegations have come amid complaints that the SLPP has been marginalising non-Mendes, with critics of the ruling party accusing it of basing political appointments on ethnic origin.
Political analyst Ansumana Fornah of the University of Sierra Leone feels they could have a point. “More than 50 percent of all heads of parastatals, boards of directors, top civil servants are Mendes and I find this a strange coincidence,” he said.
“I think the government should be seen to practice democracy properly,” he added. “What happens to the 15 (other) ethnic groups? Isn’t this a recipe for fresh war?”