Many years of corrupt rule under the dictatorship of Siaka Stevens produced widespread desperation in Sierra Leone. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) formed out of this desperation, yet its murderous tactics have long since overshadowed its founding ideologies. The group’s formation began between 1987 and 1988, when a group of 25-50 Sierra Leoneans traveled to Libya and received training under the Qadaffi regime. One of these men, Foday Sankoh, formed the RUF in 1991, “committed to peace, by any means necessary, but … not committed to … becoming victims of peace,” according to the group’s manifesto. The RUF’s first hostile acts occurred in 1991 with attacks on villages near the Liberia-Sierra Leone border, aimed at toppling the regime headed by Joseph Momoh. The RUF was receiving support from Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, and originally based its raids from Liberian territory.
Brutal, inhumane tactics became the group’s trademark. Civilians were often a target, either slaughtered by the hundreds or left with their hands or limbs cut off. The RUF also became notorious for its use of child soldiers, many of whom it kidnapped and conscripted, often forcing the children to inject cocaine before sending them off to fight. The RUF continued to fight the multiple successive governments of Sierra Leone through the 1990s and, with support from Charles Taylor, intermittently occupied the diamond-producing areas of Sierra Leone, contributing to the “blood diamond” trade of West Africa.
The RUF began to suffer major setbacks when Executive Outcomes (EO), a private security firm hired by the Sierra Leonean government, pushed the rebel group back from the capital, Freetown. After this, RUF announced a cease-fire and accepted peace talks with President Kabbah. The RUF continued its attacks during the peace negotiations, and eventually came out in a much stronger position after their implementation, with a more legitimate face in the government.
Disregarding the peace agreement, and encouraged by the subsequent absence of EO from the capital, the RUF again attacked Freetown in February 1998 and was beaten back by a contingent of West-African ECOMOG [Monitoring Group for Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS)] peacekeepers. They then began a renewed campaign of terror throughout the interior of Sierra Leone, which they named “Operation No Living Thing.” Civilian casualties numbered in the thousands, and brought about a UN peacekeeping force. A British intervention in 2000, securing the country for UN supervision, finally set the stage for peace. Disarmament of RUF rebels began in May 2001, and the war was officially declared over in January 2002, essentially the end of the RUF. Foday Sankoh died in prison in July 2003 while awaiting trial on charges of war crimes.