We didn’t fight a ‘civil war’ – in the classical sense of the word. My sixth form school mate in the Albert Academy in the mid-1970s, Dr. Dennis Bright, often would tell me during the war years between 1991 and 2002 that our war which befuddled the citizenry by its senselessness and apparent motiveless malignity was aptly labelled as… A ‘rebel war’! It was a war that the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels who were mainly youth and child soldiers – led by the charismatic and grotesquely mercurial Foday Sankoh – waged largely against unarmed civilians. The RUF strategically, and tactically, would avoid confrontation with enemy armed men – be it our national army, the several mercenary outfits contracted to help with the war, or, the multi-national Nigerian-led ECOMOG forces. The RUF were cowardly, scampering like frightening chickens in the face of ECOMOG assault. The RUF would show ‘bravery’ only when they would raid villages, wantonly murder unarmed villagers, disembowel pregnant women, chop off the hands of children and grandmothers, capture for use as sex slaves young boys, and coercing boys into their ranks…. It is one of the military scandals of human history that our national army could not vanquish them easily, though their leader had just been a ‘corporal’ in the army, and the Sierra Leone military was heavily-laden with brigadiers, colonels, majors, captains, lieutenants…..Though the military government of the NPRC having shot their way into power in 1992 was prosecuting the war. Instead of making headway against the ragtag largely child and youth combatants of the RUF, the Sierra Leone military mutated into what the local press dubbed as ‘sobels’.
For especially first time voters who were either babies or not even born in those years (or, those prone to amnesia) let me educate or refresh your memories on the ‘sobel’ phenomenon. When the NPRC grabbed power in 1992, they succeeded in pushing the RUF to a small corner of Kailahun and Pujehun districts. Then, for reasons which they have yet to explain to the world, the NPRC ordered a ‘unilateral declaration of ceasefire’ in 1993. That ‘ceasefire’ gave the RUF time enough to slink back into ‘Charles Taylor’s area’ in Liberia; to re-arm, to re-mobilize….. In that perplexing ceasefire by the NRPC, the only logical reason that military historians can read is this. The NPRC wanted to war to continue. The NPRC needed the RUF to rationalize their stay in power – as the popularity they earned in 1992 was clearly plummeting by the ostentatious lifestyle of the military hierarchy in Freetown. Fast cars. Great hedonistic parties. Bleached girls rolling over them. The implicit nurturing of the RUF became a collaboration by many of the military rank and file on the front line – with the senior commanders in Freetown either turning a blind eye to what was going on, or, aiding and abetting the fusion of rebels and soldiers. By 1994 the military brass in Freetown had lost their moral authority to control the military – especially a military during war time. The ‘boys’ at the war front saw no reason to fight and die for country when the officers in Freetown – like Brigadier Maada Bio – were drinking fine wine, riding brand new expensive cars, having fun with three schools on the same bed…. So, the ‘sobel’ was engendered.
The ‘Sobels’ of Sierra Leone
It went on like this. The RUF rebels would attack a village or town. They would murder. Maim. Rape. Abduct. And, loot. Then, by almost some ‘miracle’, the Sierra Leone military would move into the same village to ‘drive’ the rebels out – a few minutes after the rebels would have struck. There would be almost no confrontation. No deaths. The rebels would flee. In villages largely emptied of civilians, the ‘military to the rescue’ would then loot and carry in their trucks everything that was moveable and even unmoveable – pots, pans, refrigerators, bicycles, and even corrugated iron roofs….
After a while, the people became suspicious. The military almost never would be on time to deter the rebels; or, to fight them. Some of the villagers who would hide in bushes would clearly see the military trucks laden with their stolen goods. That is how the people labelled them ‘sobels’ – for, after a while, many people alleged that the soldiers would actually dress up like RUF rebels at night, and raid villages.
‘The Father of the Sobels’ (?)
Guess who was Head of the Supreme Military Council at those years – 1994 to 1996? Brigadier Maada Bio!! In many ways, he can take ‘credit’ for being the ‘Father of Sobels’.
In January of 1997, newly elected President Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP made a speech at the Government Wharf in Freetown as he was formally being given two war boats donated by the Chinese government. He lampooned the NPRC for this ‘sobel’ trait. He was especially caustic about Brigadier Maada Bio. Bio and his NPRC were accused by Tejan Kabbah of refusing the free offer from the Chinese. Free offer!! They preferred to spend $5million of government money to buy a gun boat – than to get it free from the Chinese. President Kabbah lashed out Maada Bio for spending millions of dollars to buy arms and ammunition for the war which never was physically seen. President Kabbah spoke of Maada Bio giving an open cheque to his brother, Steve Bio, to purchase millions of dollars worth of war materiel – which were never seen. President Kabbah even spoke of a bank account in which the illegal money raked in by Brigadier Maada Bio was stashed. This history is relevant today because a new form of ‘sobels’ are being resurrected – masquerading for now as ‘armed robbers’.
They are ‘sobels’, not Armed Robbers
Look, just as elections are round the corner, armed robbers are going on wild spree. And, shooting!! It is the rebel tactic. London Mining, African Minerals, Addax, Socfin, Hilton Hotel, etc. have invested billions of dollars in the country. Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister is praising President Koroma’s government to the skies. Petroleum is being explored for. The Leone against the US dollar has stabilized for months. So, what does a rebel do? What all rebels are inclined to do? Create panic. Stimulate fear. Give the impression that the government cannot maintain law and order in its territory. Then, the rebel would march in – as the ‘Messiah’. There entire country has been made into one ‘big construction yard’ – with roads being constructed in every region; with roads inside towns from Port Loko and Magburaka to Kailahun and Bo Town being (or, have been) constructed, and paved. This is bad news for a rebel mind. This will not give the rebel mind the reason he needs to grab power. Who is the politician most experienced in ‘giving birth to sobels’? Are there solutions to this rebel tactic? Yes. Stay tuned.