Revolutionary United Front (RUF)

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Revolutionary United Front (RUF)

LEADER: Foday Sankoh


ESTIMATED SIZE: Probably less than a few hundred

USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea


The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was organized in 1991 by Foday Sankoh and two partners, Abu Kanu and Rashid Mansaray, along with financial assistance from future Liberian leader Charles Taylor. Its goal was to overthrow the dictatorial government of Sierra Leone, headed by President Joseph Saidu Momoh.

Although initially promising to solve the country's problems and bring a just leadership to Sierra Leone, Sankoh, instead, was extremely cruel to his enemies and to the innocent citizens of the country. Sankoh also took control of the lucrative diamond-producing regions of Sierra Leone for his own personal use and to fund RUF activities. After a ten-year fight that killed thousands of people, Sankoh's band of rebel fighters was defeted in 2001. The RUF was disbanded but not totally dissolved, and Sankoh imprisoned. In 2005, with Sankoh deceased, the RUF remains in existence but in a diminished state.


The origins of the RUF began in Libya between the years 1987 and 1988 when a group of Sierra Leoneans received guerilla training under the regime of Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan revolutionary leader. At one of Gadhafi's rebel training camps, Sankoh met Charles Taylor, then leader of the National Patriotic Front for Liberia, and future president of Liberia and future ally of Sankoh. Returning to Sierra Leone in March 1991, Sankoh, with the help of two allies, Abu Kanu and Rashid Mansaray, established the RUF.

When first organized, RUF was popular with Sierra Leone citizens because Sankoh promised many improvements such as free health care and public education and a share of the diamond revenues if he overthrew the government. The Momoh-led government was widely perceived by its citizens as being corrupt and having caused widespread unemployment, crime and violence, drug profiteering and abuse, and other societal ills.

The first attacks by RUF guerrillas were inflicted in 1991 upon the villages that bordered the countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. At this time, according to a report from the United Nations (UN) that was noted in the article, "Revolutionary United Front (RUF)," in the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the RUF was provided support and guidance from Liberian President Charles Taylor, along with weapons and other needed military materials from Burkina Faso, Gambia, and Libya. Specific examples of such assistance were contained in documents in numerous British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) investigations that reported, for instance, large supplies of small arms and ammunition being delivered to the RUF from Liberia in June 2000.

In 1992, Sankoh gained control of many of Sierre Leone's diamond fields. However, counter to what he promised, Sankoh used the funds, not for the citizens, but to buy military supplies for Taylor and himself. Sankoh eventually used all of the country's financial resources to maintain control over the diamond fields and other RUF activities. These actions over the next four years destroyed the country's economy and lead to starvation for many of its people.

In March 1996, Sierra Leone held its first multi-party election in over twenty years. Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the leader of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party, was elected president. His first political goal was to end the devastating rebel war with RUF. A private South African security company, Executive Outcomes (EO), was hired by Kabbah to counter the rebels. The experienced EO troops succeeded in removing the RUF out of the capital of Freetown. The retreat forced Sankoh with a weakened RUF to sign a peace treaty with President Kabbah later that year. However, the peace negotiations unexpectedly gave Sankoh more legitimacy with his cause. Thus, seeing his military strength increase, Sankoh resumed his attacks and broke off the peace talks.

In 1997, according to the May 2000 BBC article, "Brutal Child Army Grows Up," the RUF and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), a group of junior army soldiers, joined forces in a bolder attempt to overthrow the government of President Kabbah. By May 1997, the excessive amount of fighting by this coalition forced Kabbah into exile in Guinea. During this time, the war in Sierra Leone—as explained in the biography of President Kabbah contained within the Sierra Leone Web site—was commonly considered as one the world's most devastating civil conflicts.

By this time, Sankoh and his rebel troops were well known for their brutality and cruelty—using children as soldiers and prostitutes; raping women; amputating limbs to assure farmers could not grow crops for government troops; killing thousands of innocent civilians, including children; (supposedly) practicing cannibalism; and other such atrocities.

In February 1998, just nine months after Kabbah was forced out, the RUF again attacked Freetown, but this time was overtaken by troops of the ECOMOG (Monitoring Group for Economic Community of West African States). The ECOMOG leaders reinstated the presidency of Kabbah, who signed another peace agreement with Sankoh in July 1999.

However, Sankoh broke the Lome Peace Agreement, as it was called, as RUF forces pushed their Operation No Living Thing campaign into all of Sierra Leone where they killed thousands. As a result of the brutal campaign, the government controlled only the capital city and small areas scattered about the country. Various RUF factions held most of the rural areas, along with the country's diamond mines. The siege forced the United Nations to bring in a peacekeeping force, which according to the May 2000 BBC article, "Can the UN Force Restore Peace?," was eventually composed of 11,000 soldiers from the Middle East, South Asia, and the sub-Saharan Africa. Sankoh repeatedly broke the agreement and continued his violence during the next two years. For example, later in 2000, the RUF captured hundreds of members of the UN peacekeeping force stationed in Sierra Leone. President Kabbah eventually negotiated the release of the captives with the help of RUF-allied, Liberian president Charles Taylor.

Sankoh was arrested in 2000 by British and Guinean forces outside his Freetown home. He was turned over to British forces, which arranged a UN war crime tribunal to try him on numerous war crimes, including crimes against humanity, extermination, rape, and sexual slavery. After its leader was jailed, the RUF was weakened. Its last known attack, according to the National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism (MIPT), was on September 5, 2000. The RUF was further weakened when a program of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration was begun in mid 2001 by the Sierra Leone government.

On January 18, 2002, the rebel forces were officially disarmed and demobilized under the authority of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), which resulted in the official end of the civil war. At this time, the war was estimated to have killed between roughly 50,000 and 200,000 people.

In May 2002, the RUF—under the name Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP)—entered the May 2002 presidential elections, but performed poorly in the results. At that same time, the Sierra Leone Special Court, which was sponsored by the UN, continued its investigation of the RUF and Sankoh for war crimes. Both of these events further weakened the position of the group. In July 2003, Sankoh died from complications of a stroke while waiting for his war crimes trial to begin.

The group's membership ranks were reduced to several hundred members by the end of 2003. In 2005, with the RUF essentially disbanded, it is unknown exactly how many former members still exist.


The RUF was formed by Sankoh primarily out of anger and frustration with the dictatorial government of Sierra Leone, which had caused years of widespread problems among its citizens due to corrupt leadership. The RUF philosophy, according to the manifesto written by Sankoh as noted in the MIPT article, "Revolutionary United Front (RUF)," was "committed to peace," but not committed to becoming "victims of peace."

According to the ideals spoken by Sankoh (initially in 1995) within "Footpaths of Democracy," as found on Peter C. Andersen's Web site, the RUF's goal was to solve problems such as poverty that had troubled the Sierra Leone citizens due to the degraded condition of the government. Because Sankoh personally felt that poverty does not honor the Supreme Being, he was strongly convinced that the people of Sierra Leone had the right to organize themselves against a tyrannical government in order to regain their dignity and human rights.

On the other hand, many media articles reported that the RUF possessed no idealized principles—only a goal to overthrow the current government of Sierra Leone in order to control the profitable diamond-producing regions of the country.



Foday Sankoh was the leader of the rebel forces that attempted to overthrow the Sierra Leone government in the decade-long civil war that began in 1991. Formerly a corporal in the Sierra Leonean army, wedding photographer, and television cameraman, Sankoh began his rebellious ways in the 1970s while a student activist demonstrating against the government's suppression of its citizens. After a prison term for participating in student demonstrations, Sankoh joined a Libyan guerilla camp sponsored by Muammar el-Qaddafi. Returning to Sierra Leone, Sankoh formed the RUF and began his rebellion that ultimately failed. However, for ten years, Sankoh and his troops brutally killed and tortured his enemies, both civilian and military. He died in 2003 of complications from a stroke while waiting for a UN-based war crimes trial for his alleged human rights abuses.

The RUF appeared to be a loosely organized group of soldiers but, in reality, possessed strict discipline and a tight loyalty to its leaders. The RUF maintained that loyalty, according to the BBC, with drugs such as cocaine, which were rampant inside the rebel force as ways to attract new recruits and to control existing members.

The tactics of the RUF were largely very effective against enemy forces due to the flexibility of its structure, along with the brutality it constantly used with civilian and military opponents as a way to maintain control of its strongholds. The RUF used criminal, guerrilla, and terrorist tactics such as intimidation, murder, mutilation, rape, and torture to fight the Sierra Leonean army, control the country's civilians, and keep UN peacekeeping units from gaining control.

The organization funded its operations through three major means, including the mining and sale of diamonds obtained within the areas it controlled in Sierra Leone, the financial assistance of President Charles Taylor of Liberia, and the military weapons and materials received from the countries of Libya, Gambia, and Burkina Faso. At the height of its power, the government of Sierra Leone estimated the RUF to possibly possess three to four thousand soldiers (but only five or six hundred hardened rebel fighters), along with a similar number of supporters and sympathizers.


Sankoh meets Charles Taylor who eventually becomes Sankoh's major ally.
Sankoh returns to Sierra Leone and, with the help of Abu Kanu and Rashid Mansaray, forms the RUF.
First attacks by RUF guerrillas are made on villages bordering Liberi, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.
Sankoh achieves a major victory by gaining control of parts of the diamond-producing areas.
Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah is elected president of Sierra Leone.
Executive Outcomes is hired to counter the rebels. Its troops expel RUF from the capital, which forces Sankoh, later that year, to sign a peace treaty.
RUF and the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council join together in an attempt to control all the country.
President Kabbah is forced into exile.
RUF attacks Freetown, but is overtaken by a coalition of western African troops.
The coalition reinstates President Kabbah, who signs another peace agreement with Sankoh.
Sankoh breaks the peace treaty and RUF forces bombard the country with its Operation No Living Thing campaign. The action forces UN peacekeepers to enter the country.
Sankoh is arrested outside his Freetown home.
The last known RUF attack is recorded.
A disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program further weakens the RUF.
Rebel forces are officially disarmed and demobilized, resulting in the end of the civil war.
Sankoh dies from a stroke while waiting for his war crimes trial.


On May 3, 2000, Peter Takirambudde, the executive director of the African division of Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Sankoh. Although he applauded Sankoh in his cooperation with UNICEF (United Nation's Children Fund) and ECOMOG in order to stop using children as soldiers in his civil war with Sierra Leone, Takirambudde was still very concerned that thousands of children remained under his control. Takirambudde suggested in his letter that Sankoh release the abducted children and stop using children in the future.

Members of the U.S. Senate, on May 25, 2000, under the leadership of Senators Jesse Helms, Joe Bidden, Bill Frist, and Russ Feingold, submitted a resolution concerning the crimes and abuses of the RUF upon the citizens of Sierra Leone. Along with a multitude of stated grievances, the resolution declared that the government of the United States would make every effort to assure that the RUF and its leaders be held legally responsible for the human rights abuses committed against the people of Sierra Leone.

According to the United Nations General Assembly, on December 1, 2000, the international group adopted—unanimously—a resolution to levy sanctions against the RUF due to its continued use of "conflict" diamonds in funding its revolution in Sierra Leone. The UN found that the use of conflict diamonds (that is, diamonds originally controlled by a recognized government but subsequently taken over by a military force in opposition to that government) helps to prolong wars and reduce the likelihood of peace in parts of Africa.

According to the May 17, 2000 article in The Guardian Unlimited called "Who is Foday Sankoh?" Sankoh regularly responded to criticisms against himself or the RUF by either denying the accusation or, when possible, by putting to death the critics. For example, even though Kanu and Mansaray helped Sankoh form the RUF, when they tried to minimize the atrocities happening within the RUF, Sankoh executed both men.


The initial reason for the founding of RUF was to overthrow a cruel dictatorial government. Along the way, Sankoh used tactics of murder and other brutal violence against innocent people in his unsuccessful coup for the government of Sierra Leone.

The RUF, now called the Revolutionary United Front Party (RUFP) is, as of 2005, a small political party that participates in electing members of its organization and influencing the Sierra Leone government. In the May 14, 2002, election in Sierra Leone, the RUFP won only 2.2% of the popular vote count, garnered no seats within the government body, and won only 1.7% of the popular vote by its presidential candidate.

Although the RUF is considered a weak organization by leaders of the Sierra Leone government, many of its former fighters are either in exile within other countries or have yet to be merged into Sierra Leone society. As a result, these still-capable fighters are seen as a viable threat to the government of Sierra Leone.

President Kabbah, reelected in 2002 for a five-year term as president of Sierra Leone, is attempting to turn around the country's future after its ten-year conflict with the RUF. He has been successful at bringing in foreign financial and technical assistance to the country. However, past problems with poverty, rebellions such as the one with the RUF, rivalry among tribes, and corrupt government leaders make this time of reconstruction slow and tedious.



Ibrahim Abdullah, editor. Between Democracy and Terror: The Sierra Leone Civil War. Dakar, Senegal: Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa, 2004.

Web sites

BBC News, British Broadcasting Corporation. "Can UN Force Restore Peace?" 〈〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).

Federation of American Scientists. "Revolutionary United Front (RUF)." 〈〉 (assessed October 3, 2005). "Revolutionary United Front (RUF)." 〈〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).

Government of Sierra Leone. "Bio Data of The President of Sierra Leone." 〈〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).

Guardian Unlimited. "Who is Foday Sankoh?" 〈,2763,221853,00.html〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).

Jonathan Marcus, BBC News, British Broadcasting Corporation. "Brutal Child Army Grows Up." 〈〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).

MIPT Terrorism Knowledge Base, National Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism. "Revolutionary United Front (RUF)." 〈〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).

Peter C. Andersen's "Footpaths to Democracy: Toward a New Sierra Leone." 〈〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).

United Nations. "Conflict Diamonds: Sanctions and War." 〈〉 (accessed October 3, 2005).

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