As 1995 came to a close, the pursuit of a negotiated settlement and a return to democratic rule were inextricably entwined. While government forces, now backed by mercenaries of the South African private security group Executive Outcomes (EO), had scored some battlefield successes, the RUF was still capable of operating throughout the country. Militarily and politically, a stalemate had developed. The rebel movement lacked widespread popular support and the military regime had lost credibility for not being able to ensure security or to show any marked economic recovery from the devastation of the war. Although civilians had clearly demonstrated their wish to vote out the military, Sankoh said he wanted a peace settlement before any elections.
As the long-promised general election date of February 1996 drew nearer, Strasser had begun to show increasing signs that he would join the race. To do so he would have to change the constitution, as he was too young to run for president. On 16 January 1996, Strasser's deputy carried out a palace coup that sent Strasser into exile and made Bio the new head of state. Bio's coup resulted from anxieties about Strasser and other NPRC members' commitment to democratisation. Bio was equally unhappy with Strasser's clumsy handling of the peace process, yet he also had a personal stake in talking with the RUF as his elder sister and her husband had been abducted by the RUF in 1991. Both were rumoured to have become leading RUF officials.
On the day that he was sworn in as the new head of state, Bio made a terse appeal, broadcast live on national TV and radio: 'To you, Corporal Foday Sankoh, the message from my government is that we are prepared to meet with you anywhere, any time and without precondition'. The RUF had been waiting for such a gesture, but there were other factors that made the offer particularly palatable. Since the launching of the Kamajor militia and the arrival of EO, the RUF had suffered serious setbacks. The two forces had collaborated closely to seek out RUF bush camps and in less than two months they killed an estimated 1,000 of the RUF's best fighters and destroyed several of their bases. More importantly, they had also pushed the RUF away from the main diamond districts.
Sankoh quickly sent word through the International Committee of the Red Cross that he was willing to talk to Bio, who responded publicly on 3 February that he too was ready to talk. He announced that both Ivorian president Henri Konan Bedié and Burkina Faso's Blaise Compaoré were actively attempting 'to get the NPRC and the RUF to the table'. A few days later, over an ICRC radio hook-up witnessed by journalists, Sankoh told Bio he had to postpone the scheduled elections before any progress towards negotiations could be made. Bio's response was that such a decision was ultimately up to Sierra Leoneans and suggested that the two meet in Côte d'Ivoire or Burkina Faso. These venues were rejected by Sankoh at first in favour of talks within Sierra Leone, but his resistance quickly evaporated and a meeting was set in Abidjan for the end of February 1996.
Behind the scenes an independent London-based conflict resolution organisation, International Alert (IA), had helped to bring about a meeting between the assistant secretary general for political affairs of the OAU, Dr. Daniel Antonio, and RUF officials in Abidjan in December 1995. Previously, in April 1994, IA had been one of the organisations that had helped to secure the release of a number of European and Sierra Leonean hostages held by the RUF. IA was also instrumental in helping Ivorian Foreign Minister Amara Essy to travel to Sierra Leone in February 1996 to meet with Sankoh in order to persuade him to enter negotiations. Essy later said: 'I told him that as long as he stayed isolated in the bush, he would be considered a butcher by the world. 'No one even knows why you are fighting. Once you have explained yourself, you can put the war behind you''.
Meanwhile, Bio reconvened a National Consultative Conference, where civil society leaders demanded overwhelmingly that elections go ahead on schedule. Despite resistance from within the NPRC and advice from both Nigeria's Sani Abacha and Ghana's Jerry Rawlings to put off the elections in order not to provoke greater violence, Bio acquiesced – a move warily welcomed by many Sierra Leoneans and lauded by the UN Security Council. The UN also launched an international donor appeal for humanitarian assistance.
Paul – aged 12
interviewed by Ambrose James in March 2000
I used to live near Serabu with my parents when the town was attacked in 1997 and captured by the RUF. I was taken to Makeni, where I was trained by my commander and given a two pistol grip gun. I was injected with cocaine twice. We used to loot, rape girls and burn houses. I liked to loot tape recorders but they were taken from me by my commander. An Action Contre la Faim vehicle was passing through the Occra Hills. Our commander asked the driver to take us to the Adventist Development and Relief office so that we could be registered as child combatants. This time round, I think everybody is tired of fighting, disarmament has started, UNAMSIL is deploying, and there is hope that the Accord will hold. The older generation has to give way to the young people so that they will have a chance to be exposed to facilities and jobs, especially in the political sphere. That is [how] they will be able to prepare the ground for youth development in the country. If youths do not control the politics of this nation, there is no way for them.