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Sekou Damate Conneh Jr. - Became A Rebel Leader

lurd liberia february reconciliation

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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