MEDIA & SOCIETY
Reflecting on the May 25, 1997, AFRC Coup in Sierra Leone
Posted by Zubairu Wai on May 26, 2007, 12:38
We were woken to the menacing sounds of heavy explosions and sustained machine-gun rattling in the morning air, just past 4 am on Sunday May 25, 1997, ten years to the day today. Though disturbing, no one initially seemed to be particularly frightened.
The sound of machine gun fire was not, at that time, very strange to the people of Sierra Leone anymore. The country had been at war for six years, since March 23, 1991, when insurgents calling themselves the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) crossed over from Liberia and initiated a war that they claimed was against the then All People’s Congress (APC) government led by Joseph Momoh. One year into the war, soldiers of the Sierra Leone Army, overthrew Momoh’s government, and formed the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC), headed by a Captain Valentine Strasser. Though they promised a speedy conclusion of the war, it continued to rage on and in some instances intensified. These two events, the war and the reign of the NPRC, helped to militarize the Sierra Leone society. The sound of gun fire was therefore normal. I still remember how the New Years were ushered in, not by fire works, but by the sound of heavy machine-gun fire.
|Foday Sankoh...RUF leader started it all...but died a pauper|
What was happening that morning, however, was not anything anyone had anticipated. The particularity and persistence of the explosions and machine gunfire, alerted us to the possibility of a political or security major crisis. I still remember how we were frantically calling friends and family in order to find out what was going on.
As day broke, and information filtered through, the picture became clearer. We learnt that about a score of heavily armed soldiers had commandeered three to four pickup trucks, stormed the central maximum security prison in Freetown at Pademba Road and freed 9 soldiers who were on trial for attempting to overthrow Tejan Kabbah’s government. Among the 9 soldiers, was a Major Johnny Paul Koroma, who later became the leader of the coup makers. Also freed were hundreds of prisoners among whom were some of the country’s most hardcore criminals. Kabbah had fled to Guinea, with his wife and a small retinue of officials.
|Sam Mosquito Bockarie..ruthless, live by the gun die by the gun|
Ttruckloads of soldiers in ceremonial military uniforms were seen driving menacingly through the streets of Freetown, firing aimlessly in the air. Heading first towards Pademba Road Prison, and then to the city centre, they took strategic positions around State House (the seat of executive power) and the National Parliament both situated at Tower Hill, though State House continued to be under the control of Nigerian soldiers. Then that dreadful voice of a certain Corporal Tamba Gborie cut through the morning air on the national broadcaster, SLBS radio, announcing, in a combination of Krio and broken English, that the military had take over the reigns of government. “The Tejan Kabbah government,” he announced, “has been removed from power following the successful coup today.” They had opted for democracy, he claimed, “but not this democracy” which, according to him, had become “tribalism.” Corporal Gborie accused President Kabbah of seeking to “disband the army by service” [sic], in order to replace it with the Civil Defence Forces (CDF), especially the Kamajoh militia, insisting that “We are the national army,” and then announced the banning of the Jamajor. He also asked “the international community to stay input” [sic] because this was their internal affairs.
|Amputee victim they left behind|
Though Corporal Gborie’s was mocked by many people for his apparent inability to speak proper English, there was, for some inexplicable reason, an initial ambivalence of, especially the people in Freetown, towards the coup makers. Then something happened. First, shortly after day break, huge plumes of smoke were seen rising from the Ministry of Finance building and the central bank (the Bank of Sierra Leone) headquarters, spiraling in the morning sky. Both buildings had been deliberately set on fire by the soldiers and their criminal allies whom they had freed from prison and given army uniforms, in an apparent looting attempt. The Ministry of Finance was completely destroyed in the event, while the central bank sustained serious, but partial damages. Second, reports of massive and indiscriminate acts of looting started emerging. The soldiers and criminals had gone on a looting and thieving spree, commandeering vehicles, breaking into stores, warehouses and people’s homes at will, and emptying them of their contents. It was a sad, shameful and pathetic sight as soldiers in stolen vehicles looted almost every store (especially those selling electronic goods) in the business districts of Freetown. Even the UN and foreign diplomatic missions were not spared. Throughout that day and the following day, looting continued amidst gunfire. As these stories emerged, the people grasped the grim reality of what the coup meant.
When the young officers overthrew the APC government on April 29 1992, and set by the NPRC junta, jubilant crowds of Sierra Leoneans had welcomed them, as most people were tired of APC rule. People were particularly excited by the pledges the NPRC had made to speedily conclude the war, revive the economy and democratise the country. There was a huge expectation that the junta would live up to its promises and clean up the mess the APC had created in its 23 year rule, end the war and act as credible referees in the democratisation process. However, a year into their reign, the NPRC “revolution” started to unravel as the “giants” who had overthrown the much despised APC regime revealed themselves as nothing other than nasty ogres in the eyes of the people. Amidst increasing indiscipline in the army, widespread reports of collaboration between soldiers and the rebels they were fighting, the intensification of RUF attacks across the country and the spiralling of the war out of control, increasing level of violence against civilians, and mounting accusation of corruption against junta officials, public perception of the NPRC regime changed. The people had begun to see the limitation of relying on the military as a conduit for social change in Sierra Leone. It was under these circumstances that widespread demand for the NPRC junta to return the country to civil rule intensified.
Two national consultative conferences and a palace coup, in which Captain Strasser’s deputy, General Maada Bio replaced him as head of state, on accusation that he, Strasser, was trying to derail the democratisation process, and amidst widespread intimidation and rebel and soldier amputations of the limbs of innocent civilians to prevent them from voting, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and his Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) were elected and took over the reigns of government on March 29, 1996. It was this government, and in fact the democracy that the people had fought for, that was now being put aside by these marauding soldiers. As this realisation dawned on people, an almost unanimous opposition to the coup developed.
Somewhere in the late afternoon, Captain Paul Thomas, who had replaced Corporal Gborie’s as the spokesperson of the coup makers, announced the immediate closure of the country’s land, sea and air borders. Promising that a designated Head of State would soon address the nation, Captain Thomas instructed military and police officers to report to military headquarters at Cockerill, and advised all foreign troops to remain at their bases. Then Major Johnny Paul Koroma addressed the nation. “As custodians of state security and defenders of the constitution” he claimed, “we have today decided to overthrow the Sierra Leone Peoples Party [SLPP] government because of their failure to consolidate the claims achieved by the brokers of peace” he informed the nation. Kabbah’s government, he charged, had nurtured tribal and sectional conflicts which, he, as head of the new junta, had come to rectify. Proclaiming the establishment of an Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), he announced the suspension of the constitution, the proscription of all political parties and the disbanding of the Kamajor militia, reiterating the same reasons Corporal Gborie had earlier given for the coup. Then he dropped the bombshell, which, on hindsight, was perhaps his biggest mistake. In an apparent bid to win the support of the people, Johnny Paul informed the nation that he had invited the RUF rebels to join them, the army, in government. To demonstrate this, he appealed “to the international community, and the Nigerian government in particular, to release Corporal Foday Sankoh”, the ruthless RUF leader who was being detained in Nigeria. This connivance between notional adversaries, though shocking and unheard of, did not come as a surprise to most people and just went to confirm the open-secret that some sections of the Sierra Leone Army had been collaborating with the RUF rebels!
I could still vividly remember the horrific expressions of disbelief in people’s faces as the rebels trooped into Freetown. What was Johnny Paul thinking? Did he really believe that by playing the ‘peace’ card and inviting the rebels to share power, his illegitimate junta would be accepted by the people? Or was it because they, the army, were in fact all along in partnership with the rebels and had no choice but to invite them to join in the spoils of government? This was a very serious national tragedy playing out in the form of a badly scripted comedy. I still remember a certain elderly lady in shock, confusion and disbelief, asking me whether indeed those were rebels trooping to Freetown. Inviting the rebels to town just further reminded us why the actions of the army in staging a coup were wrong and unacceptable. The resentment that we felt towards the coup makers was palpable and this translated in the remarkable opposition to their illegal junta throughout it brief, but very brutal lifespan. For the nine months that the junta was in power, the people of Sierra Leone remained steadfastly defiant. The entire country was ground to a halt, as teachers (I was a teacher at St. Joseph’s Convent then), civil servants, students, people from every work of life, downed their tools in opposition to the coup.
International opposition and condemnation of the coup was also swift and widespread. Whether it was Salim Ahmed Salim then General Secretary of the OAU proclaiming that “the international community firmly uphold the principle that the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of governments, and that governments, democratically elected, shall not be overthrown by force” or the British Foreign Office deploring the coup and strongly urging “the restoration of a democratic civilian government in accordance with the Commonwealth’s Harare principles,” the message was the same: the coup was illegal and unacceptable. But by far the greatest pressure came from the Nigerian government, and its ebullient foreign Minister, Chief Tom Ikimi, who was among the first to call for the restoration of Kabbah’s government, a refrain that was taken up by the West African regional grouping ECOWAS, and later by the entire international community.
The events of May 25, 1997, marked perhaps, the beginning of the serious deterioration of the security situation in Sierra Leone and led to a protracted struggle of the people against a brutal rebel movement in collaboration with the national army which was supposed to be protecting the people. The nine month period that the rebel junta was in power was one of the gloomiest moments in Sierra Leone’s history. As pressures intensified on the Junta to quit, so did their brutal tactics and heavy handedness against innocent civilians. Arson, rape, murder and summary executions, wantonly imprisonment and torture, etc. became the order of the day. Months of failed negotiations finally culminated into a Nigerian led ECOMOG intervention that removed the rebel junta from power and restored Kabbah government in February 1998. Kabbah returned to Freetown on March 10 1998, amidst jubilation. However, from this time on to the peace settlement and disarmaments of combatant, the security situation in the country remained precarious. The January 6, 1999, invasion of Freetown, for example, was a direct consequence of the May 25 1997 coup and the events that followed.
Somebody might ask why I am narrating this story all over again. After all, Sierra Leone is now at peace and the country is preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections. Surely conditions have improved, and it is a waste of time to keep happing on the past. In his author’s note to A Grain of Wheat, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, after first proclaiming the fictitious nature of the characters in his book, writes: “the situation and problems [that the book deals with] are real – sometimes too painfully real for the peasants who fought the British, yet who now see all that they fought for being put on one side.” The latter part of Ngugi statement could be appropriated to describe the situation in Sierra Leone. Like Ngugi’s, the problems and situation in Sierra Leone remain too painfully real for those who opposed and fought the AFRC rebel junta, “yet who now see all that they fought for being put on one side.”
It seems to me that we, as a people and a country, have been unable to fully understand what happened in our country and as such we continue making similar mistakes and falling back on some of those very practices that created the conditions that helped ignite the war. The memories of the war might still be vivid for some of us to forget, but because we have not been able to fully understand what happened, we keep falling back into those same traps. Power generally is corrupt, and in Sierra Leone, that corruption becomes banal, and gets inscribed on every form of social relation that involves the exercise of power or mediated through power. The ruling elites, especially, are only interested in projecting various types of self-serving and sectional interests, and crying down anybody who does not agree with, or support, their particular brand of politics.
The scars of the war remain too vivid, in some instances too painfully vivid, for it remains a permanent inscription on our bodies, our psyches, our perceptions, and yet, we have chosen to conveniently ignore those realities. Thousands of good people, innocent people, died during this period, loved ones we would never see again. Lots of people had their limbs hacked off, and they continue to live the pain of their condition as a result of being caught in a vicious cycle of violence, poverty and neglect. There are lost generations of kids forced to fight in a war they knew nothing about and young girls raped, and generations of our young ones robbed of their innocence during the war. What have we done to ameliorate the sufferings and agony of these people?
Our politicians especially keep engaging in negative dismissal of each other, and contemptuously disregarding for the concerns of the suffering masses, who continue to struggle with the daily realities of the effects of the war. We keep denigrating the memories of those that died and reinforcing the suffering of those that continue to live with the pain of the war. Chief Hinga Norman, a champion of the fight against the RUF rebels and their AFRC allies, died in incarceration, and as I write, Moinina Fofana, and Allieu Kondewa, men who dedicated their lives to fight against the brutal RUF are languishing in prison cells, while, Eldred Colins and Alieu Kamara both one time spokesmen for the RUF and AFRC respectively, are free men and members of the ruling SLPP. Abbas Bundu, who was a staunch supporter of the AFRC and who was against any form of action to remove them from power, is now an SLPP candidate for parliament.
The war in Sierra Leone was, however, not only a domestic tragedy, it went far beyond that. It also tells a disturbing tale about the world in which we live, an unequal and unjust world in which the colonising structures of exploitation and domination, the racisms that they thrive on, and the system of global apartheid that they have constructed, have succeeded in creating permanent “death worlds” for the vast majority of the people on this planet. This reality is a sad and grotesque one, but no matter how much we deny it, and continue to hold culpable domestic conditions only, and fail to understand that the violence, and poverty that we experience in our societies are specific manifestations of the effects of the imperialistic and colonising structures of exploitation, domination and control, through which social relations in our societies have over the past five hundred years come to be constituted and mediated, we would remain plagued by these problems.
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