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Lack of Funds Ends Sierra Leone Rebels' Hope to Join Government - 2004-05-26


Power-sharing peace deals in Africa often bring former rebels into an interim government. But last week in Sierra Leone, the former rebels of the Revolutionary United Front were unable to field candidates for local elections because of a lack of money. U.N. officials and some human rights activists in Sierra Leone think that is a good thing, but former rebels and other activists warn it could be dangerous and that the grievances that led to the civil war remain.

The former rebels, now known by their acronym RUFP, with P for party, were hoping to field 35 candidates in last week's local elections. But failed fund raising efforts prevented Secretary General Jonathan Kposowa from supporting their campaigns.

"What I told them was that I do not have money," he said. "So to avoid all other things that might lead to maybe the downfall was for me to take my hands off the elections. I can not move. I do not even have a mobile. Mobile in the sense I do not have transport. I do not have the communication set. So we need to get all these things."

Mr. Kposowa's office is the lobby of a run-down building in central Freetown. Former combatants from the war, which ended in early 2002, mill around or sit, swatting at flies. Some of them did not join the U.N.-sponsored disarmament process, so they got no money and no training, and now they feel they have no future.

Many, who did join the process, quickly spent their compensation money, and despite U.N. training, also failed to find work.

The resources of the rebels completely disappeared after their leader, Foday Sankoh, died last year while in custody, awaiting the trial for war crimes by the Special U.N. Court for Sierra Leone. Mr. Sankoh had been ill.

Since his death, rebel leaders have been unable to locate his personal wealth, which had been funding their activities. During the war, the rebels also earned money from illegally trading diamonds from areas under their control.

Mr. Kposowa says the government should help to make sure the former fighters do not become completely disillusioned with the peace process.

"Presently, I am asking the government of Sierra Leone to make sure to let them know that we are not just from the sky," he said. "We are bound citizens of this country so they should try to do something about that.

"Presently, we are suffering," continued Mr. Kposowa. "People are not working. They are not jobbing. You see all these guys that are sitting out here. Every day, they have to eat, they have women, they have children, and I do not know how they are expecting us to live."

The rebels' failed presidential candidate in 2002, Pallo Bangura, who has now left the party, says this could be dangerous.

"If a body, a group of people that fought for so long, especially many young people and they are not given an opportunity to improve themselves, to be in the mainstream there is always the possibility of relapse and really we should try to forbid that," said Mr. Bangura. "That is why I believe they should be helped along. Of course, you cannot force people. It is also incumbent on the RUFP to render itself attractive to do everything necessary to survive."

Mr. Bangura finished fourth in the presidential election, after being Energy Minister in the brief power-sharing national unity government.

Human rights activist Zainab Bangura, who is not related to the former presidential candidate, says evidence that rebels raped, maimed, and killed thousands of people during the war, while looting villages and coercing children to join their ranks, should make them ineligible in any election.

"With the death of Foday Sankoh, there was no way the RUF could survive," she said. "Secondly with the record of brutality and atrocities that they committed against people, they created so much bitterness within the community that it would take years for Sierra Leone to be able to forgive them. So there is no way the RUF can survive as an institution."

Other human rights activists, such as Frances Fortune, say even with the rebels' record it is unfortunate they have completely disappeared from the political scene. Ms. Fortune works for a group called Talking Drum Studio, which works for reconciliation among the people in Sierra Leone, trying to ease the lingering tensions and disagreements left over from the civil war.

"We are disappointed," commented Ms. Fortune. "After all this time, after all this effort, that they could not even put up one candidate. We thought that the RUF should at least have one to legitimize their status as a political party."

One man overjoyed by the former rebels' political demise is the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Sierra Leone, Daudi Mwakawago.

"I am happy. Sometimes you bolster them by giving them life when they should not have any life at all," he said. "If they can disappear forever, it would be good for Africa, good for Sierra Leone, good for everybody. Do you want a rebel? I am asking, do you want a rebel? I want citizens who have civic duty, not rebels."

But the head of the RUFP, Mr. Kposowa, vows there will be a future for his organization, and that its goals remain the same. During the war, the rebels talked about establishing universal health care and free education, stopping corruption, and distributing the wealth from the country's diamond trade.

"We are going to fight, fight in the sense, to develop the state and to come up with our aims and objectives stated in the revolution," he said.

Mr. Kposowa finished the interview by asking for money to pay for his transport back to his home on the outskirts of Monrovia. The former rebel presidential candidate, Mr. Bangura, says he is still looking for a job, any job, after missing out on the top job in the country.

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