Conneh, Sekou Damate, Jr.

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Sekou Damate Conneh, Jr.

1960

Liberian rebel leader

As leader of the rebel group Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), Sekou Damate Conneh Jr. takes credit for bringing about the removal of dictator Charles Taylor from his position as president of Liberia. Taylor's resignation on August 11, 2003, came after 13 years of civil war. Taylor left office for exile in Nigeria only when LURD forces laid siege to the Liberian capital of Monrovia; he was later placed on Interpol's "Most Wanted" list. In his attempts to wrest political control from Taylor, Conneh is also thought to have overseen some of the most bloody and destructive battles ever enacted on African soil. Thousands of "child soldiers" served on both sides in the civil war, and LURD forces were responsible for rape, torture, and other atrocities as they fought in the name of democracy and freedom.

Conneh's determination to remove Taylor from power, and his willingness to risk his own life in doing so, made him a popular rebel leader, but his links to massacres and extreme violence weighed heavily against him in the run-up to Liberia's long-hoped-for elections in 2005. In January 2004 his continuing attacks on the capital led his wife Asha Keita-Conneh to declare herself leader of LURD in the first of a series of challenges to Conneh's authority that suggested deep divisions in the organization and eventually led to its collapse as a unifying opposition force. Despite his stated aims to bring peace and democracy to Liberia, observers feared that if Conneh was to take power his hold over the country would be both authoritarian and divisive. Nevertheless without his determination and strength of will, Charles Taylor's tenure as one of Africa's most brutal leaders would not have come to an end.

Sekou Damate Conneh Jr. was born in 1960 in Gbarnga, Liberia. His father, Sekou Damate Conneh Sr., and his mother, Margaret (Makay) Conneh, owned a rubber plantation and farmstead in Bong County. His wealthy father was a chieftain of the Mandingo ethnic group. Though the family was Muslim, Conneh started his education at the St. Martin's Cathedral School in 1966, going on to the William V.S. Tubman Methodist High School, where he graduated with a high school diploma in 1979. Conneh's political allegiances forced him to flee Liberia in the early 1980s, but he returned in 1985 and began studying for a Bachelor of Arts in Business Administration (BBA) at the University of Liberia in 1986. His studies ended the same year when he became a revenue agent working for the Liberian Ministry of Finance. He held this position, working in Rivercess and later Montserrado Counties, until the assassination of President Samuel K. Doe in 1990 and the outbreak of civil war.

Joined the Armed Struggle

Conneh began his active political life at the age of 19 when he joined the Progressive People's Party (PPP), founded in 1978, which campaigned for the democratic government and was at the time the only legal opposition party in the country. Much of the violence and destruction that ravaged Liberia between 1990 and 2004 stems from the uneasy relationship between the indigenous African Liberians and the minority "Americo-Liberians," descended from freed American slaves for whom the country was founded in 1847. But for most of its history Liberia enjoyed peace, prosperity, and stability. President William V.S. Tubmanan Americo-Liberiantook office in 1944 and remained in place until his death in 1971, presiding over improving trade relations, low unemployment, and relative wealth; his successor, William R. Tolbert Jr., was less successful. A sharp rise in food prices in the 1970s led to unrest among African Liberians, who saw the Americo-Liberians as holding power unjustly. Tolbert's government cracked down on the emerging rebel PPP in 1979 and it was banned in 1980. By then Conneh was serving as the party's senior coordinator in the Kokoyah District of Bong County and fled to Uganda. Tolbert was murdered by a rebel military group in 1980 and Samuel K. Doe, an army sergeant, was installed as president of the Interim National Assembly.

Conneh returned to Liberia in 1985 to stand in the forthcoming election. But the PPP remained an illegal party and he was forced to give up his political ambitions for a while. Doe later won the 1985 presidential election, though he was actually ineligible because of his age; he changed his birth date from 1951 to 1950 to qualify. After losing his job at the Ministry of Finance when Doe was assassinated, Conneh founded the Damate Corporation, a company that specialized in importing used cars from Europe.

The killing of Doe by the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), led by Charles Taylor, triggered civil war that lasted until 1996. Divisions existed not only between African and Americo-Liberians, but between ethnic groups within the country. Deepening poverty caused by destruction of crops, a major refugee crisis, and escalating violence, made those divisions wider. In 1997 Taylor was elected president of Liberia and at first it seemed his election might bring stability to the country. Conneh resumed his work for the Ministry of Finance but quit soon after and moved to Conakry, the capital of neighboring Guinea, where he resumed his used-car trading, this time exporting cars from Guinea into Liberia. In 1998 he was arrested on the Liberian border by intelligence officers who accused him of smuggling and was moved to a jail in Monrovia, the Liberian capital. He was released when his wife, Aisha Keita-Conneh, petitioned the Guinean President Lansana Conteh to put pressure on Taylor. Conneh returned to Conakry on his release because Taylor's forces had begun to target various ethnic groups, including Conneh's own Mandingo people.

Became a Rebel Leader

In the years leading up to Taylor's election it is estimated that 150,000 people were killed and at least 850,000 became refugees. After a brief respite, when it became clear that Taylor's regime was tightening its grip on power, civil war broke out again. By then Conneh was a member of Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), a rebel group that entered Liberia in 1999 with support from neighboring Guinea to the north. Much of the support for LURD from President Conte of Guinea depended on his friendship with Conneh's wife, Asha Keita-Conneh, a self-proclaimed prophet and sorceress, whom he adopted as his daughter when she correctly predicted and foiled an assassination plot. Conneh became president and chairman of the national executive committee of LURD in 2003 largely because of his contacts at the highest levels of the Guinean government, but in fact it was his wife who wielded the most influence with President Conteh. Conneh's promotion to chairman significantly enhanced her power over Liberia's largest rebel group.

Between 1999 and 2003 Conneh established himself as a powerful army commander, expanding from territory in the north to share almost two thirds of the country with another rebel group, Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL) which moved in from the south. Significantly, LURD forces laid siege to the capital, Monrovia, and with outside pressure from the United States, Taylor was forced to resign the presidency on August 11, 2003. This was achieved despite LURD's aims remaining unclear; the organization's uncertain identity is summed up by BBC journalist James Brabazon, who described the LURD rebels in 2003 as "a bizarre mixture of partly uniformed irregular soldiers and LA gangster chic."

At a Glance...

Born Sekou Damate Conneh Jr. in 1960; married Asha Keita-Conneh (separated). Education: William V.S. Tubman Methodist High School, graduated 1979.

Career: Revenue agent for Ministry of Finance, 1985-90; founder and managing director of Damate Corporation, 1990; revenue agent, 1997-99; leader of LURD forces in northern Liberia, 1999-2003; president of the LURD national executive committee, 2003-04; LURD factional leader, 2004.

Memberships: Progressive people's Party, 1979; Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD), 1999.

With a peace deal brokered and 15,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops arriving in the country the following October, Conneh was in line to be a candidate for president in elections planned for 2005. But in October 2003 as he and his followers entered the capital they were shot at by government militia, an action that spurred Conneh's troops to continue their attacks on the capital and against areas of the country where Taylor's supporters were thought to be hiding. In many cases LURD militia were reported to have destroyed villages and towns, murdering and raping men, women, and children as they went. By the end of 2003 the fragile peace deal signed in August was under threat, but Conneh showed no sign of ending the violence, despite spending a great deal of time touring African and European capitals discussing the situation with heads of government and aid agencies.

Then on January 20, 2004, Conneh's wife declared to the world's media that she was the new leader of LURD, and that she had seized control because she believed her husband was putting the peace process at risk. Long thought to be the power behind her husband, Aisha Keita-Conneh, who gave birth to a daughter only a month earlier, told the press that she was the "boss lady," and in particular her husband's "double boss." Setting aside worries that her move might trigger factional fighting she declared: "I am here as a peacemaker and mother for all." Keita-Conneh's strategy paid off and her husband was persuaded to stop his forces attacking the capital, Monrovia, at least for a while. In the longer term the dispute caused a split in LURD that threatened the chances of holding elections. Despite a reconciliation that seemed to have settled the dispute by February, Conneh's authority was once again challenged in July when he was suspended as leader of the rebel group. LURD disbanded as a fighting force soon after.

Conneh's achievement as leader of Liberia's biggest rebel movement is indisputable. His determination, drive, and military skill led to the removal from power of one of Africa's most brutal and dangerous dictators. His dedication to the causes of democracy and freedom has often been stated and his record suggests a willingness to take huge personal risks for the sake of the rebel cause. But from the late 1990s onwards Conneh's reputation was marred by accusations, including using excessive military force against civilians, and by the behavior of many of the military units under his control. Despite the power-sharing agreement and elections planned for October 11, 2005, Liberia remained in a state of unrest and political uncertainty. In February 2005 Conneh called for an amnesty for all those involved in the civil war in the interests of reconciliation, including his enemy Charles Taylor, who is wanted for war crimes. Conneh, whose own organization has been accused of serious human rights abuses, has said he would favor this approach rather than a commission to investigate war crimes in Liberia along the lines of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Sources

Periodicals

Jet, February 9, 2004.

The Guardian (London and Manchester), January 21, 2004.

The Independent (London, England), Oct 2, 2003, p. 17.

The Scotsman, Jan 21, 2004.

The Seattle Times, Jan 21, 2004, p. A7.

The Washington Times, August 13, 2003, p. A01.

On-line

"Crisis Profile: West Africa Teeters Between War and Peace," Reuters Alertnet, www.alertnet.org/thefacts/reliefresources/110987057530.htm (March 4, 2005).

"Liberia: Profile of LURD Leader, Sekou Conneh," UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=36075 (March 4, 2005).

"Profile: Liberia's Rebels," BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/2979586.stm (February 28, 2005).

"Rebel leaders' marital spat raises fears of violence in Liberia," CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/africa/01/21/liberia.lurd.split.ap/ (February 28, 2005).

"The Search for Eddie Peabody," Houston Chronicle Online, www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/special/04/peabody/2402773 (February 28, 2005).

Sekou Damate Conneh Liberation Center, www.damate.org/start.html (February 28, 2005).

Chris Routledge

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