The Journal of Modern African Studies

Bush path to destruction: the origin and character of the Revolutionary United Front/Sierra Leone

Ibrahim Abdullah a1 1
a1 University of the Western Cape, South Africa


We recruited fifty-four boys, mostly from Bugisu, and started training them at Nachingwea. Unfortunately, once again, these boys had not been well selected. They had been working mostly in towns like Nairobi and had a kiyaye (lumpen proletariat) culture. They began misbehaving in the Frelimo camp and soon after their training, the Tanzanian government dispersed them.

I took personal charge of the Montepuez group and stayed with the boys during the training months in Mozambique because I feared that some of the recruits might be undisciplined bayaye, like those of 1973, and they might have caused us problems. With my presence in the camp, however, we were able to suppress most of their negative tendencies and attitudes.

When the Revolutionary United Front/Sierra Leone (RUF/SL) entered Kailahun District on 23 March 1991, few people took them seriously or realised that a protracted and senseless war was in the making. The corrupt and inept government in Freetown was quick to label the movement as the handy work of Charles Taylor; the incursion a spillover from the Liberian civil war. This erroneous representation of the movement and the war was echoed by the media, both local and foreign; it later appeared in one scholarly investigation as ‘the border war’, and in another as an attempt by Charles Taylor to ‘do a RENAMO’ on Sierra Leone. Twelve months after the initial attack in Kailahun, a group of army officers from the warfront trooped to Freetown, the seat of government, and seized power from the corrupt politicians amidst popular support. Calling itself the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), the new regime declared its intention to end the war, revamp the economy, and put the nation on the path to multiparty democracy. Following an eventual return to civilian rule in March 1996, with the election of President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, a further coup in May 1997 led to the bloody takeover of Freetown by elements drawn from both the RUF and the army against which it had been fighting, under the title of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC).

What is the relationship between these events? What is the link between the ‘revolution’ (coup d'état) in Freetown and the ‘revolutionary’ movement in the hinterland? What did the coup plotters, most of whom were in their twenties, share with those who had started the insurrection that gave them the opportunity to launch their ‘revolution’ in the city? Why did both movements borrow the same ‘revolutionary’ script? I provide answers to some of these questions by examining lumpen culture and youth resistance in Sierra Leone, for it is this oppositional culture which connects the ‘revolution’ in the hinterland (RUF) and the one in the city (NPRC and later AFRC). Both were products of a rebellious youth culture in search of a radical alternative (though without a concrete emancipatory programme) to the bankrupt All Peoples Congress (APC) regime. To understand the historical and sociological processes which gave birth to RUF, with which this article is concerned, it is necessary to situate the investigation within the context of Sierra Leone's political culture, especially the glaring absence of a radical post-colonial alternative. It is this absence, I argue, which paved the way for the bush path to destruction.


1 I would like to thank the following for their comments, suggestions and support: Aisha Ibrahim, Yusuf Bangura, Ishmail Rashid, Patrick Muana, Lans Gberie, Ben Weller, Mike West, Paul Richards, Alie Kabba, Mohamed Jabbie and Odulami Williams.