Sekou Damate Conneh was propelled to the leadership of LURD, Liberia's main rebel movement, not by his military prowess, but by his close family connections to LURD's main political backer, President Lansana Conteh of Guinea.
His Liberian wife, Aisha, is the daughter of Conteh's personal soothsayer and is reputed to be no mean clairvoyant in her own right.
According to relatives of Conneh and political insiders in Conakry, Aisha warned the Guinean leader in advance about a coup attempt in 1996, during which the presidential palace was shelled by artillery and reduced to a burnt-out wreck.
Conneh, 42 worked as a tax collector for four years until he fled into exile in Guinea in 1990 as a result of escalating civil war in Liberia.
Relatives say he was not active in Liberian politics at the time. However, Conneh belongs to the Mandingo ethnic group which was distrusted and persecuted by Charles Taylor's National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL). And in 1990 it was gaining the upper hand in the conflict.
Moving to the Guinean capital Conakry, Conneh became a trader in second hand cars for several years and a fluent speaker of French.
He returned to Liberia after Taylor's election as president in 1997 to resume his former job as a revenue collector for the ministry of finance. But he soon quit to go back to car trading in Conakry.
This time, Conneh began exporting second-hand cars purchased in Guinea to Liberia. But the activity landed him in trouble a year later when he was arrested by Liberian intelligence officers at the Ganta border crossing and accused of smuggling.
Conneh was moved to a prison cell in Monrovia, but his clairvoyant wife interceded with the Guinean head of state to get him released.
One of Conneh's cousins told IRIN: “Sekou, got released upon the intervention of Lasana Conteh who phoned Taylor to use his influence to have him released. Taylor summoned all of his security top brass to find out where Sekou was in jail and on what charges. Taylor instructed (Intelligence) Director Freddie Taylor to have him released.”
Conneh was duly freed and delivered into the care of one of the Liberian president's several wives, Tupee Boakai-Taylor, who ensured his safe passage back to Guinea.
When several veteran opponents of Charles Taylor who had previously fought in the Mandingo dominated rebel movement ULIMO-K reorganised themselves as Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) in April 1999, they
invited Conneh to become their chairman because of his high-level contacts with the Guinean government.
Diplomats say that since its inception LURD has enjoyed strong backing from the Guinean government. This was stepped up after Taylor sponsored an abortive rebellion in eastern Guinea in 2000.
In his new role as rebel leader, Conneh has continued to live openly in Conakry and has developed a reputation for wearing smart suits. This polished image is at odds with the ragged nature of his guerrilla army,
which contains large numbers of child soldiers.
Conneh was born in 1960 into a wealthy Muslim family in Gbarnga, a large town in central Liberia, which was a Taylor stronghold during the 1990s.
He graduated from Gbarnga Methodist School in 1985 and joined the finance ministry as a tax collector a year later.
His father, Damate Conneh, was a traditional Mandingo chief who owned several hundred acres of farmland nearby. However, he ran foul of the late president Samuel Doe in the mid-1980s and was deprived of his chieftancy.
Doe accused Damate - the name means "he who talks too much" - of fomenting conflict between the Mandingo and Kpelle tribes in Bong county, of which Gbarnga is the capitol.
Conneh, the son, only hit the international limelight earlier this year when he began touring African and European capitals for high-profile meetings with government ministers and heads of state, eager to exert a restraining influence on LURD's advance into Monrovia.
Diplomats said that in negotiations for a comprehensive peace settlement he made more concessions than his followers at home were happy with, agreeing in particular to waive LURD's claim to the vice-presidency in the interim government that is due to take office in October.
Conneh's - and LURD's - political ideals remain something of a mystery.
In its public statements, the rebel movement has said repeatedly that its main aim is to get rid of Charles Taylor. With Taylor's resignation and depature into exile on 11 August, this has now been achieved.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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