clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Can Sierra Leone hold peace?
Government officials, rebels meet for talks

LOME, Togo -- His homeland lies in ruins, its cities destroyed, its villages burned, its people murdered and maimed.

But to the man whose rebel movement has ravaged Sierra Leone, the disarmingly gentle-spoken figure with the graying beard whose followers call him "Pa," that was the price of change."The Revolutionary United Front should be compensated by the Western powers -- because we destroyed the rotten systems in Sierra Leone," Foday Sankoh declared proudly in an interview, leaning back in a faded gold easy chair in his hotel suite overlooking Lome. "We are fighting for progress for our people."

Indeed, much has been destroyed in Sierra Leone since Sankoh and his followers took up arms, fighting a vaguely defined battle against the central government.

Progress, though, is hard to find.

Tens of thousands of people have died since Sierra Leone descended into civil war in 1991 and coups have wracked the country. Peace plans have collapsed after brief interludes of relative calm. Today, the elected government of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah is essentially a shell propped up by a Nigerian-led regional intervention force.

The rebels have waged a grisly campaign of terror, and Sierra Leone's hospitals are filled with innocent villagers whose hands, ears or lips have been hacked off.

But now, Sankoh insists, it's time for peace. And with a fragile cease-fire holding in Sierra Leone, rebels and government officials are meeting for talks in this West African coastal city. There is a chance -- albeit a slim one -- that peace could hold.

Earlier this week, Togolese Foreign Minister Joseph Koffigoh, the talks' chief mediator, said an agreement could be finalized by the middle of next week.

But diplomats say little has been agreed to and the difficult questions, particularly rebel demands to share power, have not been addressed.

Looming over the talks is Sankoh, the 63-year-old founder and spiritual leader of the RUF. His freedom -- Sankoh is on a prison furlough to attend the talks -- is a sticking point in discussions and his support would be necessary for any agreement.

But he remains, despite his semi-freedom and his readiness to talk to reporters, an enigmatic figure.

"I believe in democracy and I believe in justice," said Sankoh, who sometimes claims supernatural powers and whose followers worship him with cultlike intensity.