Africa’s Future Foday Sankohs

Foday Sankoh
Foday Sankoh, shown here at a May 5, 2000, press conference in Freetown, Sierra Leone, died on July 29, 2003 (Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP-Getty Images).

Few in Africa—or, indeed, the rest of the world—will mourn the death of Foday Sankoh, the ruthless Sierra Leonean rebel leader who died on July 29 in a Freetown hospital at age 65. In the early 1990s, Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel group terrorized the people of Sierra Leone. The RUF mutilated thousands of men, women, and children, hacking off their limbs, ears, and noses. Tens of thousands of women and girls were raped. Tens of thousands of boys were kidnapped and forced into the army. More than half of Sierra Leone’s population was displaced or exiled. Sankoh would then sit back and watch as his fellow countrymen died a slow and painful death.

Of the individual Africans who have condemned thousands of their own people to death in pursuit of raw personal power, only Jonas Savimbi of Angola approaches Foday Sankoh in the single-mindedness he brought to his struggle.

Many others have turned their countries into slaughterhouses: Equatorial Guinea’s Macias Nguema, the Central African Republic’s Jean-Bédel Bokassa, Mobutu Sese Seko of the Democratic Republic of Congo (then Zaire), Ethiopia’s Mengistu Haile Mariam, Malawi’s Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Gen. Sani Abacha of Nigeria, and Uganda’s Idi Amin—to mention only the most spectacular cases.

Sankoh and Savimbi, bankrolled by fortune-seeking foreign governments, conducted protracted wars against their own governments, waving the banners of “freedom,” “national liberation,” and “democracy.” For that reason, they killed many thousands of innocent Africans and consigned thousands more to starvation. And although Savimbi waged war for much longer—almost four decades—he does not appear to have enjoyed watching them writhe in pain as Sankoh did.

Savimbi could not match Sankoh for absolute sadism. “Neat” killing is not as cruel as subjecting human beings to slow death or chopping off their limbs to disable them for life.

For a whole decade, Sankoh and the RUF denied food and water to captives until they died. He was unadulterated, radical evil incarnate, and left a legacy of horror in the minds of those who survived him.

Upon his death, one observer remarked, “he has been granted the peaceful end that he denied to so many others.”

Well put. But what are African governments doing to forestall the circumstances which create the Sankohs of our continent?

The author, a Kenyan journalist, is also World Press Review’s correspondent in Kenya.