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III. Context

The Regional Warrior

All I’ve gotten in life, I’ve gotten through war.
–  Lansana, 24 years-old, Sierra Leone

The vast majority of regional warriors interviewed by Human Rights Watch had first fought with one of four armed groups; the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) from 1989-1996, the United Liberation Movement for Democracy in Liberia (ULIMO) from 1992-1996, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of Sierra Leone from 1991-2001, or the Civil Defense Force (CDF) militias of Sierra Leone from 1994-2001.

Most had originally joined or been abducted and pressed into service as children. Those who had originally fought with the Liberian NPFL and ULIMO factions had been forcibly recruited or had joined voluntarily to more easily obtain food for themselves and their families.  Some believed that by joining, they would be able protect themselves and their families from being harassed or targeted by armed factions, including the group they joined. A few others said that they joined to avenge the ethnic or tribally motivated violence that had claimed the life of a loved one. Nearly all of those who originally fought with the RUF had been abducted and pressed into military service. Almost all those in the Sierra Leonean CDF militia, the largest and most powerful of which is the Kamajors,3 said that they joined to protect their villages and communities from rebel attack.

A military intelligence source who has extensive experience in West Africa described the regional warriors as follows: “These guys form part of a regional militia I call the insurgent diaspora. They float in and out of wars and operate as they wish. They have no one to tell them where, when and how to behave. They’re been incorporated into militias and armies all over the place – Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire – and are really the most dangerous tool that any government or rebel army can have.”4

Rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council [AFRC] patrol through the streets of Freetown, Sierra Leone shortly after a coup in May 1997 which overthrew democratically elected president Tejan Kabbah. Many Liberian fighters joined up with the joint RUF/AFRC forces during their nine months in power.  © 1997 Corinne Dufka

In Sweet Battlefields: Youth and the Liberian Civil War, Swedish anthropologist Mats Utas explores the desperation felt by the youth drawn into the Liberian war. He writes: “For these young people, the daily prospect of poverty, joblessness and marginalization effectively blocked the paths to a normal adulthood; drawing them instead into a subculture characterized by abjection, resentment and rootlessness. As opportunity came, their voluntary enlistment into one of the several rebel armies of the civil war therefore became an attractive option for many.”5

While most joined their first armed group under duress, the vast majority of ex-combatants interviewed by Human Rights Watch willingly crossed borders to fight in any and all subsequent armed conflicts or ‘missions.’  Junior Toe, the Executive Director of Liberian Ex-combatants Anxious for Development (LEAD), a local non-governmental organization which advocates on behalf of ex-combatants, explains:

There was war in Liberia and the majority of Liberian parents were unable to support their children. So male or female, the easiest way for them to have money was through war. During the first war [1989-1996], most were forced into it, but they then got used to it and got attracted to taking things. Also, another problem was that after the first disarmament, people left them just like that. The process wasn’t complete – there was no job training or assistance with reintegration. After 1997 the situation started going bad and because of economic hardship, violence came again and the same children went back into the game, but this time they did it voluntarily. While some were forced – the majority went in voluntarily.6

As regional warriors, those interviewed by Human Rights Watch most frequently reported participation in the 1991-2002 Sierra Leonean armed conflict, the 2000-2001 cross-border attacks on Guinea from Liberia and Sierra Leone, the 1999-2003 Liberian armed conflict, and the 2002-2003 armed conflict in Côte d’Ivoire. 

Since 1989, thousands of these fighters are estimated to have participated as armed protagonists in the regions conflicts’. The vast majority is believed to be Liberian or Sierra Leonean nationals, but fighters from Burkina Faso, Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Guinea have also been involved.  Anecdotal accounts from ex-combatants interviewed by Human Rights Watch corroborate reports from academic and official sources on the numbers involved: these estimates suggest that at least five hundred NPFL and a similar number of ULIMO fighters took part in Sierra Leone’s armed conflict, while a combined force of at least one thousand RUF and Liberian government troops participated in the 2000-2001 cross-border attacks on Guinea. During the 2002-2003 armed conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, the number of Liberians fighting for the Ivorian government was estimated to be between 1,500 and 2,500, while close to one thousand were thought to have fought alongside Ivorian rebels.7 The 1999-2003 Liberian war seems to have drawn in well over one thousand regional warriors, the vast majority of whom fought alongside the LURD.

Figures from the disarmament exercise in Liberia that officially ended in October 2004 provide an official profile of foreign combatants who took part in that conflict. According to statistics released in December 2004 by the Liberian National Commission for Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (NCDDRR), 612 disarmed combatants out of a total of more than 103,019 identified themselves as foreign nationals including 50 from Côte d’Ivoire, 308 from Guinea, 242 from Sierra Leone, and a few others from Mali, Nigeria and Ghana.8

However, interviews with the ex-combatants suggest that the numbers of the Sierra Leonean fighters involved in Liberia were much higher. Human Rights Watch interviewed ten Sierra Leonean regional warriors who took part in the Liberian armed conflict and all of them said they had registered in the DDRR program as a Liberian, usually for fear of being denied access to the benefits of the program.9  Liberians and Sierra Leoneans who fought with the LURD consistently referred to the numbers of Sierra Leoneans in their battalions as being in the hundreds. The LURD officer in charge of recruitment in Sierra Leone told Human Rights Watch that he and his team had recruited at least 2000 Sierra Leoneans and he claimed to have records of all who had joined and died while fighting in Liberia from 2000-2003.10 

In some cases, foreign combatants occupied the majority of command positions and a significant percentage of a neighbor’s fighting force, as was the case with Liberian NPFL troops in the –Sierra Leonean RUF from 1991-1993, Liberian nationals in the Ivorian rebel Patriotic Movement of the Far West (MPIGO) and the Movement for Justice and Peace (MJP) from 2002-2003. The initial minority of local fighters within the RUF, MJP and MPIGO was in both cases, later supplemented through the often forced abduction of large numbers of civilians who were later pressed into military service.   

When fighting abroad, the regional warriors universally referred to themselves as being a member of the “Special Forces”. In the words of one regional warrior, “Special Forces were the vanguard, the arrowhead, the strongest, those who had been trained outside, those who could play a pivotal role. We were called Special Forces from the first time when NPFL soldiers went to fight in Sierra Leone until we came from Sierra Leone to pull Taylor from power.”11  Many who had originally fought with the NPFL also referred to themselves as “missionaries for Charles Taylor.”

This population of fighters is often referred to by the international community as “mercenaries”, understood to be an individual hired to fight for a foreign army or more generally. Human Rights Watch takes no position per se on whether foreign adult combatants should take part in or be recruited for any armed conflict. However, Human Rights Watch calls on governments to prohibit their nationals and residents from hiring themselves out as mercenaries to any armed force that is responsible for a systematic pattern of gross abuses and to hold accountable any combatant fighting in an armed group that is responsible for a widespread or systematic pattern of human rights abuses. Government and non-state actors involved in using these combatants are also obliged to hold such individuals accountable according to the standards of international humanitarian law.   This report focuses not on the illegality of becoming or working as a mercenary, but on the driving forces behind the phenomenon of mercenary activity in West Africa, the cycles of violence, impoverishment and recruitment and the flaws in disarmament programs that contribute to the problem.

The Sub-Regional Dynamic of West African Conflicts

You see, Liberia and Guinea are like brother and sister. And Sierra Leone and Liberia too are like brother and sister. We want peace in the four countries but it’s the leaders who’re making people lose their life and hurting people. They’re the ones sending us to war. God doesn’t want this, but in Africa one person can make everyone suffer.
–  Abubakar, 40 years-old, Liberia

The populations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire have long suffered from a vicious cycle of bad governance, economic decline, political upheaval, conflict related violence, and impunity. Decades of corruption, tribal favoritism, and exploitation by their leaders, and the inevitable economic decline which followed created a fertile ground for the formation of rebel insurgencies made up largely of unemployed and frustrated youth.

Dating back as far as the mid 1980’s, state and non-state actors in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Côte d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso had shown a ready potential to support rebel insurgencies aimed at destabilizing their neighbors. At one time or another, the governments of every one of these five countries has provided financial backing, arms and ammunition, training, logistical support to and even served as a staging base for armed insurgencies which they used as proxies for the purpose of destabilization, resource exploitation or in retribution for political or military policies of their neighboring countries.12

Nigerian peacekeepers patrol by the bodies of several NPFL fighters who were killed during clashes with ULIMO-J during two months of clashes between the two groups in April – May 1996. Hundreds of civilians were killed and thousands more wounded during the fighting.  © 1996 Corinne Dufka

This region is particularly susceptible to repeated waves of insurgencies because of the complex diplomatic relations that exist between neighbors. The alliances and acrimony between these states and the armed opposition groups they support are based on a convoluted web of military, political, economic, ethnic and sometimes personal factors, which have often shifted over time.  Regional and international peacekeepers, notably those sent to Liberia in the mid 1980’s from the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), have also been involved in supporting some of these groups.13

Several governments derived considerable economic benefit from their support of insurgent groups in neighboring countries. From at least 1989, the Ivorian government, which provided logistical support to the NPFL, exported large quantities of Liberian timber through Côte d’Ivoire.14 Throughout Sierra Leone’s war the NPFL and following the 1997 elections, the Liberian government, benefited enormously from the export and sale of Sierra Leonean diamonds.15

Some of the key state and non-state actors known to have supported insurgencies  in West Africa include the Ivorian and Burkina Faso governments which, from at least 1989, provided backing for the NPFL; the NPFL which, from 1991, backed and provided combatants and logistical support for the RUF’s insurgency against Sierra Leone, the Sierra Leonean government, which from 1991, used combatants from ULIMO  to fight the RUF and in turn provided them logistical backing to attack the NPFL; the Guinean government which, from at least 2000, backed the LURD; the Liberian government which during 2002-2003 provided troops to support an insurgency against the  Ivorian government; and the Ivorian government which armed and trained Liberians to assist in their military campaign against Ivorian rebels, who were also backed by Burkina Faso.16 [See Annex 2 for more complete of list state, non-state, and international actors known to have used foreigners and supported insurgencies in neighboring countries.]

Economic and Social Factors

We thought things would be ok, but they went bad again. There was no food. It was the African way – I had to feed my parents. The commanders said there wasn’t money to pay us, but that we could pay ourselves, which meant looting.
–  Mani, 27 years-old, Liberia

Most regional warriors described being deeply affected by poverty and obsessed with the struggle of daily survival, a reality not lost on the recruiters.  None of the ex-combatants Human Rights Watch spoke to had been gainfully employed at the time of their re-recruitment and only a few were gainfully employed when interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Most described earning just enough money each day to buy food for themselves and their families. The interviewees most often cited frustration over being unemployed or under-employed – in addition to their desire to provide for their families through looting or money received from recruiters – as their principal reason for deciding to go fight “another man’s war”. While some described being ashamed to admit to their families the source of their wealth, others said they were under pressure from their families to return from war with money and material possessions. These regional warriors told Human Rights Watch that their economic desperation had often been exacerbated by factors related to the Liberian and Sierra Leonean wars, including the violent death of the primary breadwinner, the loss of income generating family property and land, or the destruction of family business.

These regional warriors were born in and fight in some of the world’s poorest countries. The wars they fight in are both precipitated by poverty and exacerbating factors of continuing poverty. The poverty statistics and development indexes for Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Côte d’Ivoire demonstrate the extreme poverty of this region. For instance, Sierra Leone occupies the lowest possible rank (177) of the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Index (HDI). Its neighbors are also among the 20 least developed countries in the world: Burkina Faso occupies the 175th spot on the HDI, while Côte d’Ivoire’s rank is 163, and Guinea’s is 160. Although Liberia’s prolonged civil war means that it has not been included in recent Human Development Indexes,17 other statistics demonstrate that the living conditions there may be worse than in Sierra Leone. Liberia’s GDP per capita was just US $169 in 2002,18 whereas Sierra Leone’s was US $520.19 And while 57% of the Sierra Leonean population lives on less than a dollar per day,20 the Liberian figure – at 76%21 – is even higher.

Fighters with the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) stand within a destroyed building during a lull in the fighting in April 1996. Many fighters from Sierra Leone fought in Liberia both with the NPFL and, after 1997 when NPFL leader Charles Taylor became president, as Liberian government militias. © 1997 Corinne Dufka

Ironically, those fighters who fought with armed groups, primarily the RUF and NPFL, often described contributing to the very destruction of their villages, communities and the national infrastructure that had greatly exacerbated the post-war economic depression that in turn motivated them to join other wars. This included the systematic looting of international aid organizations’ offices that had, in effect supplanted the work of government ministries such as health and education. Scores of interviews with Sierra Leonean and Liberian civilian victims interviewed by Human Rights Watch for past reports described the profoundly long-lasting and devastating effect of losing their lives savings – often several hundred dollars –  during a looting frenzy by one or the other armed groups.22 23 Any form of hard currency, often well-hidden within mattresses, cooking pots, and shoe boxes, was described by many regional warriors as the “nicest thing, the best find to have when you enter into somebody’s house.”24

Many described their broken dreams and how, given the dire economic conditions within the region, going to war was their best option for economic survival. A thirty-five-year-old Sierra Leonean widower, who had fought with the CDF, Liberian militias, and in Côte d’Ivoire, explained why, if approached, he would willingly fight in another war:

My dream was to become an engineer – to have a profession and be a respected somebody.  But it didn’t work out that way. I’m hearing about recruitment now for an operation to overthrow Lansana Conté. And if I am asked to go to war again, I will go. I will. I have three children who don’t have a mom. I have a twelve-year-old boy who wants to go to school, but I don’t have enough money to buy him a uniform. I want more than anything for my children to be educated. By going to war I have sacrificed myself in this life and I will sacrifice again.25

Many ex-combatants interviewed by Human Rights expressed frustration with their respective governments for what they perceived to be their failure to address corruption and bad governance, which, they said, had given rise to the Liberian and Sierra Leonean wars. Those from Sierra Leone accused their government of being indifferent to the plight of ordinary people and warned of future unrest if key social and economic rights were ignored. A thirty-five-year old regional warrior, who had fought with the CDF in Sierra Leone, and went on to fight in Liberia and Côte d’Ivoire, warned:

I know why we fought the war in Sierra Leone but we were betrayed. If this government doesn’t try harder to take care of us, if by the next election we are no better off than we are now, war will once again come to this country – and it will be worse than this past war. We suffered to defend this country, but what were we really fighting for?  My children eat once a day and at times go to bed hungry.  I see the chiefs, the big men, the ministers – they send their children to study abroad, whilst we live to suffer. They even use their money to buy justice in the courts. Let them heed this warning. We are talking about this now – we want another revolution. 26

A twenty-four-year-old Sierra Leonean who served as an intelligence officer with both the RUF and CDF, and who went on to fight with the LURD explained what makes ex-combatants vulnerable for re-recruitment and how important it is for governments to provide for their education:

I know lots who would easily slip back into it. It’s even a problem to have a plate of food - these conditions make them easy to influence.  If there is commotion in another land, they’re too easily prepared to go back to war. They need to be educated. The future of our country is now left with our leaders.  The more illiterates, the higher chance there will be another war. Another war, the higher the chance that will be atrocities committed. It’s a rare educated man who would be so vulnerable as to succumb to the influence of people like the RUF. But if things don’t improve, the more vulnerable we’ll all be to there being another war. Even some are talking about that now.  The mentality of those in government is that they don’t listen to people down there. And this makes the youth feel that the best way to be listened to is when they have a rifle in the hand. They feel rejected and unheard and believe the only way to restore their past glory is to once again take up arms.27

[3] The Kamajors are traditional hunters from the Mende ethnic group in the southern and eastern regions of Sierra Leone who believe in supernatural and ancestral powers. The Mende is Sierra Leone’s largest tribe comprising some thirty percent of the population.

[4] Human Rights Watch phone interview, May 25, 2004

[5] Utas, Mats, Sweet Battlefields: Youth and the Liberian Civil War, Uppsala: Department of Cultural Anthropology and Ethnology, Cultural Anthropology. 2003.

[6] Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, Liberia, August 8, 2004.

[7] International Crisis Group, “The War is Not Yet Over, ” Africa Report, November 28, 2003, p.23

[8] United Nations Security Council, Fifth progress report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Mission in Liberia, December 17, 2004, S/2004/972, p.6.

[9] When asked by NCDDRR officials to give their ethnic group, many fighters interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicated that they were from a Liberian tribe that was related in language and origin to their actual Sierra Leonean tribe; for example, a Sierra Leonean Mende indicated that he was a Liberian Vai.

[10] Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, Liberia, August 14, 2004.

[11] Human Rights Watch interview, Monrovia, Liberia, August 14, 2004.

[12] Ellis, Stephen, The Mask of Anarchy, The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War, London, Hurst and Company, London, 1999, pp66-93.

Christopher Clapham (ed.), African Guerrillas, Oxford, James Currey, 1998, pp. 155-193.

See, “Liberian Refugees in Guinea: Refoulement, Militarization of Camps and Other Protection Concerns,” Human Rights Watch Report,” Vol. 14, No. 8 (A), November 2002.

Conflict Mapping in Sierra Leone: Violations of International Humanitarian Law from 1991-2002: Executive summary, No Peace Without Justice, pp37-41.

[13] Ellis,The Mask of Anarchy, pp 94-109, 110-132.

[14] Ibid, p 165. 

[15] Ian Smillie, Lansana Gberie, and Ralph Hazelton, The Heart of the Matter: Sierra Leone, Diamonds and Human Security, pages 47-49, Partnership Africa Canada, January 2000.

[16] Ellis, Stephen, The Mask of Anarchy, The Destruction of Liberia and the Religious Dimension of an African Civil War, London, Hurst and Company, London, 1999, pp66-93.

Christopher Clapham (ed.), African Guerrillas, Oxford, James Currey, 1998, pp. 155-193.

See, “Liberian Refugees in Guinea: Refoulement, Militarization of Camps and Other Protection Concerns,” Human Rights Watch Report,” Vol. 14, No. 8 (A), November 2002.

Conflict Mapping in Sierra Leone: Violations of International Humanitarian Law from 1991-2002: Executive summary, No Peace Without Justice, pp37-41.

International Crisis Group, “The War is Not Yet Over, ” Africa Report, November 28, 2003,

International Crisis Group, “No Peace in Sight,” Africa Report, July 12, 200

[17] The Human Development Index is a summary composite index compiled by the United Nations Development Programme that measures a country's average achievements in three aspects of human development: longevity (life expectancy), knowledge (literacy rate and school enrolment) and

standard of living (GDP per capita). The 2004 Human Development Index is available at

[18] Millennium Development Goals Report, page 7, prepared by the Government of Liberia in collaboration with development partners (including USAID), and academic and private sector institutions, for the United Nations Development Programme (September 2003), available at 

[19] UNDP Human Development Index Report, 2004 (reporting statistics from 2002).

[20] Ibid.

[21] MDG Report, Liberia

[22] Human Rights Watch interviews, Sierra Leone and Liberia 1999-2002.

[23] See, “Getting Away with Murder, Mutilation and Rape,” Human Rights Watch report.

[24] Human Rights Watch interview, Sierra Leone, July 31, 2005.

[25] Human Rights Watch interview, Kenema, Sierra Leone, July 31, 2004.

[26] Human Rights Watch interview, Kenema, Sierra Leone, July 31, 2004.

[27] Human Rights Watch interview, Freetown, Sierra Leone, July 27, 2004.

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