In Search of the Kamajors, Sierra Leone’s Civilian Counter-insurgents

Much has changed in Sierra Leone. New arrivals no longer need ride one of the rickety Russian helicopters that once shuttled between the airport on one side of the bay and Freetown, the capital, on the other. Their successor, a hovercraft, lies sadly deflated on the Atlantic Ocean’s edge. “It has a small problem”, says a passer-by. In their place, two high-speed launches buzz travellers across the water. One has Wi-Fi.

I soon arrive at the New Brookfields Hotel, an ultra-shiny establishment that makes good on its promise of “quality and comfort in the city”. Seeing it makes me realise how much of its violent past this West African state of six million people has left behind. But change doesn’t mean that everything has been forgotten. I’m here to learn about the legacy of vigilantes, or civilian auxiliaries, who played a major part in Sierra Leone’s war. The same kind of bold civilian groups are now in the thick of fighting against the resilient insurgency of Boko Haram further east in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

Much has changed in Sierra Leone. New arrivals no longer need ride one of the rickety Russian helicopters that once shuttled between the airport on one side of the bay and Freetown, the capital, on the other. Their successor, a hovercraft, lies sadly deflated on the Atlantic Ocean’s edge. “It has a small problem”, says a passer-by. In their place, two high-speed launches buzz travellers across the water. One has Wi-Fi.

I soon arrive at the New Brookfields Hotel, an ultra-shiny establishment that makes good on its promise of “quality and comfort in the city”. Seeing it makes me realise how much of its violent past this West African state of six million people has left behind. But change doesn’t mean that everything has been forgotten. I’m here to learn about the legacy of vigilantes, or civilian auxiliaries, who played a major part in Sierra Leone’s war. The same kind of bold civilian groups are now in the thick of fighting against the resilient insurgency of Boko Haram further east in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad.

Residents of Brookfields, also the name of the neighbourhood around the hotel, fall in the latter group. They felt the brunt of the CDF’s lack of discipline and professional training. But why are Sierra Leoneans so polarised on this? How significant was the CDF’s contribution to the war effort? And why did the Kamajors believe bullets wouldn’t hurt them? Over ten days and conversations with politicians, military officers, youth workers, journalists, academics, businessmen and former CDF fighters of high and low rank, I pieced together their story.

From Community Protectors to Paramilitaries

Kamajor means hunter in the language of the Mende tribe, predominant in the south and east of the country. Traditionally, it was a title given to a man after his initiation into a local society of hunters, recognising his skill in killing wild animals and his responsibility for protecting the community, whether from beast or man.

When the RUF launched its rebellion in 1991 in the far east of the country, coming in from Liberia, prominent civilians decided to help the army fend it off by mobilising the Kamajors. A healer from Bonthe, Allieu Kondewa, was one of the first to form a Kamajor unit. Sam Hinga Norman, a chief and former army captain in Bo district, heard of Kondewa’s group and others formed in Kenema by a doctor, Joe Demby, and replicated them in Bo, Sierra Leone’s second city. By virtue of his military experience and inspiring leadership, “Pa” Norman quickly became the Kamajors’ figurehead and national face. Tribes in other parts of the country followed the Mende, charging the hunters, the local braves, with protecting communities from the RUF’s nightmarish brutality and with guiding soldiers through the bush.

In 1996, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), the party of southerners and the Mende in particular, won elections. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah took up the presidency, Demby became his vice president, and “Pa” Norman was appointed deputy defence minister. The government started supporting the Kamajors. This did not sit well with many who feared they would pursue narrow ethnic interests.

To allay these concerns, the government created the CDF as an umbrella organisation for hunter groups from all tribes – an attempt to give a disparate collection of tribal militias a national character. But the Kamajors remained the strongest of the groups, largely because the RUF had been most active in Mendeland, spurring young men to join up there more than elsewhere.

The army was particularly put out. Some soldiers believed the government was diverting their resources to the Kamajors. Frustration boiled over in May 1997, when junior soldiers launched a coup, forced President Kabbah into exile in next door Guinea, set up the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and invited the RUF rebels to join them in power.

Kabbah was in dire straits. As well as appealing to neighbouring countries to step in militarily, he ramped up support to the CDF, supplying them with arms and ammunition, rice and medicine. Under Norman’s leadership and with the army in disarray, the CDF became a semi-formal paramilitary force. Its motto was: “We fight for democracy”.

The Kamajors’ Wartime Bastion

In Freetown I’m told that to learn the full story I need to go to Bo, the Kamajors’ wartime bastion and control centre. My driver and I leave town early to beat the traffic and the worst of the heat, and a little over four hours and as many police checkpoints later we’re in bustling Bo.

I’m welcomed by one of “Pa” Norman’s former advisers. A kind old man, he pulls up a chair for me on the concrete veranda outside his home and tells me that Norman himself used to sit in it. He perches on a wooden bench and proudly shows me a photo of himself amid the great leader’s entourage and another of Kondewa’s first Kamajor unit. The grainy photos and the contrast between the lean youth in the picture and the wrinkles of the old man in front of me give the impression that the Kamajors belong to a different time.

I ask former fighters how the Kamajors, with little to no military training, were able to keep at bay the heavily armed RUF and turncoat soldiers of the AFRC. At times, I’m told, they fought alongside professional soldiers from Executive Outcomes – the South African military company hired by Kabbah to suppress the RUF in return for diamond mining concessions – and Nigerian troops in ECOMOG, the regional force that deployed in support of the government.

But many emphasise the power of the Kamajors’ secret initiation rites. Two initiators – one shows me his CDF identity card which confirms that his official job title was indeed “Initiator” – explain how they would burn special herbs and papers printed with verses from the Quran, press the ashes into cuts in the initiate’s flesh and wash his clothes in the same mix. The concoction, they say, made fighters immune to bullets as long as they followed certain rules before and during operations. These included: don’t drink alcohol, don’t have sex and, most importantly, don’t turn back. One former CDF battalion commander puffs out his chest saying, “to this day I believe it. Shoot me now: I will not be harmed”.

Weak Grip on a Heavy Tool

The CDF remains a source of pride to many former members, but some senior leaders frown with regret as they talk through how these auxiliaries’ discipline unravelled. “It was difficult to control them”, former Vice President Demby tells me in his dimly lit study in Bo. The vast majority were illiterate, and I noticed that the initiator had signed his CDF card with an inky fingerprint. As the war dragged on, many joined to take advantage of government handouts, take revenge on the RUF and AFRC or settle old scores.

In places, the CDF pushed out the local chiefs and administered their own often harsh justice in kangaroo courts. A radio journalist says that in Bo the CDF committed worse crimes against civilians than even the RUF had done. A Lebanese trader on the town’s main drag curls his lip and says dismissively, “they were all the same”. Outside their home areas, in Freetown especially, the CDF robbed and harassed civilians and did much worse if they suspected them of collaborating with the enemy.

At its height, the CDF numbered an estimated 36,000 men – as recruitment was unregulated and new members not always registered, nobody can be exactly sure. With so many fighters across the country, the CDF turned into an unwieldy counter-insurgency tool. Command and control lay not with central leadership, but with local field commanders, who assumed their positions through performance on the battlefield. Disciplinary action for misconduct was at best inconsistent, at worst non-existent.

Neglect and Betrayal

At the end of the war and thereafter, the government’s mishandling of the CDF had serious political repercussions. The UN launched disarmament programs for fighters of all stripes that began to take hold from 2001. The CDF handed in their weapons in return for cash and assurances that they would be supported to find work. But the three- or six-month vocational training courses in masonry, carpentry and the like were too short, difficult to turn into a business without start-up capital and ill-matched with post-war needs. Many who took the training sold the tools they were given and became motorbike taxi drivers (ocadas), instead.

The former CDF fighters I met were aggrieved that the government hadn’t helped them more – “They used us when they needed us, then dropped us”, said one – and feel sore that there was little public recognition of their efforts. A monument erected to the CDF I saw in central Freetown had lost whatever used to stand on top of the simple concrete base, and no one had taken the trouble to repair it.

Worse than neglect, former CDF, the Kamajors in particular, feel the government they fought for betrayed them when it allowed three of their leaders – Norman, Allieu Kondewa and Moinina Fofana – to be indicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The court, set up to hold to account those who “bore greatest responsibility” for atrocities during the conflict, indicted three leaders each of the AFRC, RUF and CDF. Norman died after a hip operation before the end of the trial; an Appeals Chamber increased Kondewa’s and Fofana’s original sentences to twenty and fifteen years respectively.

What makes this humiliation yet more painful is the widely-held belief that Norman’s arrest was less the outcome of justice taking its unavoidable course than a convenient way for President Kabbah to remove from the political playing field an erstwhile brother-in-arms, who, through his leadership, had become too powerful, too much of a threat.

Whatever the mix of motives, Kabbah and the SLPP paid dearly. The perceived betrayal of Norman and the Kamajors was a major contributing factor in the SLPP losing the 2007 elections to the country’s other major party, the northerner-dominated All People’s Congress (APC).

In elections coming up in early 2018, it looks like the APC is trying to play the Kamajor card again. Vice President Victor Foh recently invited Norman’s son, Sam Norman Jr., to come back from the UK and join the APC campaign. He accepted. Though Norman Jr. was not around during the war, in a place where name recognition carries political currency, many who would have followed the Kamajor chief to the grave may pass their allegiance from father to son.

Treasured Memory or Shameful Episode?

It’s true that much has changed in Sierra Leone, but the war and its aftermath still inform how people see themselves and each other and, for some, shape their political allegiances. Back in Freetown on my last day, I visit the national museum and find there a Kamajor war vest, carefully embroidered with charms and cowrie shells. Having just talked with men for whom Kamajor is still an important part of who they are, it’s odd to see it displayed behind glass like an historical exhibit.

I suspect many Sierra Leoneans would think that putting the vest in the museum’s collection a good thing, but for different reasons. Some would be glad that the Kamajors are thus commemorated; others would be pleased to see a distasteful story committed to the past. As with much relating to the Kamajors, it depends on whom you ask.

Ned Dalby rejoined Crisis Group in January 2016 as Senior Research Analyst. His role includes providing research support to senior staff and field-based analysts on conflict contexts and cross-cutting themes and producing the monthly CrisisWatch bulletin.

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