Kamajors (Sierra Leone)

Country: Sierra Leone
Details of Formation: The Kamajor militia is the largest and most effective group of the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), which gained importance after the coup staged by Captain Valentine Strasser against President Joseph Saidu Momoh in April 1992. The idea of having CDFs fight on the battlefront came from the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), which was a regime put into place by army officers after the coup of 1992. Due to the difficulties of the Sierra Leone Army (SLA) to respond to RUF tactics and seemingly having little experience in jungle warfare, the NPRC leadership sought services of traditional hunters due to their superior knowledge of the terrain. The CDFs were created “bottom-up” by local leaders in southern and eastern provinces as a response to the rebel menace. An example of such a local leader is Dr Alpha Lavalie, a History Lecturer who left his position at the Fourah Bay College to train young men in Kenema District and could protect their settlements (Alie 2005: 54,55). The Kamajors transformed themselves into an anti-SLA, anti-RUF and pro-government resistance movement.
Details of Termination: The civil conflict officially came to an end in January 2002, and all parties – RUF, CDF, SLA and others - pledged to uphold the peace process. The Kamajors participated in the disarmament process and many returned to their settlements to continue their prewar activities. Although there is little evidence for this view, many Kamajors were suspected of not disarming, but secretly hiding their weapons. In the early stages of the disarmament process, many Kamajors did not meet the eligibility criteria for entry into the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme. One such requirement was that a combatant had to have a conventional weapon, not home-made guns that many Kamajors used. It is also rumoured that some Kamajors may have crossed over to Liberia with their weapons to act as mercenaries and thereby threatening the security situation in the region. In an attempt to overhaul the security apparatus, some institutions were revised or established by the Sierra Leone Government. There have been disagreements over the decision on whether to include the CDF, and therefore also the Kamajors, within the new security framework. Eventually, the government decided to exclude the CDF. However, they acknowledged the active support the CDF gave the SLA during the conflict as well as the potential need in the future for some form of part-time reserve force that is fully integrated into the command structure of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF). Although many Kamajors were angry and frustrated, because they did not feel adequately rewarded and appreciated in their role during the civil conflict, they remained largely peaceful and law-abiding. They refrained from seriously challenging state authority in the post-conflict period (Alie 2005: 63, 64).
Purpose: The main purpose of the Kamajors is the provision of security for citizens and self-defence from RUF rebels and defecting SLA soldiers. The group largely refused official incorporation into the armed forces of the state. Their goal was to protect the state against its enemies, whoever they were. The movement emerged at a critical period, when the state apparatus was very weak. The Kamajor force revived the state and provided some sense of security and civil authority where they were lacking (Alie 2005: 63). The Kamajors took on tasks that the SLA could not perform as they were ineffective and suffered from defections and disloyalty . Also, oftentimes the local CDF, among them the Kamajors, knew the terrain much better and could therefore protect civilians more effectively. The Kamajor militia scored major successes against the RUF. For example they overran the main RUF base – Camp Zogoda – in Kenema District in mid-1996. During that same year, they liberated all chiefdoms in Pujehun District. These major accomplishments may have forced the RUF to the negotiating table in 1996 (Alie 2005: 55-58).
Organisation: The militia groups owed allegiance to various local leaders but not to a national body. Many Kamajor leaders openly boasted that they had rescued the state and were therefore beyond its control. Some even disregarded state authority with impunity. The Kamajor National Coordinator, Chief Sam Hinga Norman, was appointed Deputy Defence Minister in 1996. He was arrested in March 2003 when he was Minister of Internal Affairs and along with him the Kamajor’s high priest Aliu Kundorwai and their former Director of War Moinina Fofana. The Special Court incarcerated all of them for crimes against humanity which contributed to the sentiment of many Kamajors of inadequate reward for their efforts during the civil conflict (Alie 2005: 58/65).
Weapons and Training: The Kamajors mainly used single-barrelled shotguns or home-made guns (Alie 2005: 56/63). Some Kamajors were trained by local leaders. After being initiated into the Kamajor society, the militiamen were schooled in modern weapons handling. However, the civil militia forces, to which the Kamajors belonged, did not receive rigorous conventional military training. Their military training was rudimentary and their members had little or no knowledge of the rules governing modern warfare (Alie 2005: 52). Another part of rendering initiates fit to serve at the war front was granting them special powers, such as being ‘bullet-proof’ or being able to smell enemies (Alie 2005: 55-57).
Size: Between 1995 and 1998 the number of initiates into the Kamajor society increased dramatically. The proliferation also brought new challenges: e.g. many young men of doubtful character became members, there was a loss of discipline and some members brought the name of the movement into disrepute (Alie 2005: 58).
Reason for Membership: In order to join the Kamajor movement, youths were nominated by their chiefdom authorities for initiation carried out by high priests. Different reasons drove members to joining the Kamajors: patriotism and the desire to protect homelands and property, a necessity as joining the movement provided security, the desire to avenge the death of loved ones or adventure (Alie 2005: 57).
Treatment of Civilians: In some towns in the south and east of the country, local authorities had become targets of the RUF and had run away for safety reasons. Soon after liberating these towns, local Kamajor leaders constituted themselves into a government. Their functions were collecting taxes, imposing fines and extorting money and other items from the people. Reports of atrocities such as rape, looting and even ritual murder became routine. The Kamajors simultaneously preyed on and protected civilians. Occasionally, the Kamajor leadership made attempts to punish violators. Most misdeeds of the Kamajor militia were committed during periods of military rule (NPRC from 1992 – March 1996 and AFRC from May 1997 – February 1998). These different administrations were powerless in curbing the Kamajors excesses. Civilians accused of collaborating with the AFRC regime were captured and often killed by Kamajors. Without condoning their violence, the Kamajors were operating within a hostile environment, in which it was not always easy to distinguish between friend and foe. Despite their serious shortcomings, many people appreciated their invaluable role in defending their communities (Alie 2005: 62).
Other Information: From 1997 on large factions of the Kamajor militia were mobilised to join a newly formed Civil Defense Force, comprised of various militias. Various Kamajor groups in various regions however, continued fighting outside this combined force.
References: Alie, Joe. 2005. The Kamajor Militia in Sierra Leone: Liberators or Nihilists? In David J. Francis (ed.) Civil Militia: Africa’s intractable security menace? Aldershot: Ashgate, 51-70.