The Sierra Leone Web



27 August 1997


Mr Chairman,
Distinguished Heads of State of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS),
Honourable Ministers,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

My very first words must be the expression of my thanks and gratitude to you the assembled Heads of State for the principled stand you have taken and continue to maintain on the Sierra Leone crisis precipitated by the bloody seizure of power on 25 May 1997 by an alliance of elements of the Sierra Leone army and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). I have come to Abuja to share with you this momentous occasion and my presence here today represents my faith and commitment to the profound ideals of peace, stability and economic progress which inspired the establishment of ECOWAS.

The events of 25 May have ushered the people of Sierra Leone into a long night of darkness and barbarism, putting into question for the first time since Sierra Leone's emergence as a sovereign state the very future of our national society. The race is against catastrophe and only your unwavering support and solidarity can avert such an eventuality. As I see it, nothing else stands between the people of Sierra Leone and the fate which the military junta seems to have ordained for the country.

Mr Chairman, this is not just my assessment. It is the assessment of the people of Sierra Leone united in a common fear, the fear that unless something is done and done now, the brutality and adventurism of the military junta will push the country into total chaos and destruction. The common home of Sierra Leoneans is that the international community, led by ECOWAS, will not allow the military junta to covert their beloved Sierra Leone into one vast killing field.

For the people of Sierra Leone this is therefore a decisive summit. They look up to this summit to put an end to their nightmare and to enable them to recover their fundamental human rights. In the darkest period of the Second World War, Winston Churchill spoke of the hinge of fate. Sierra Leone is at a similar pass. Whether the people of Sierra Leone are to be restored to a life worthy of human beings or to be consigned to barbarism a long time to come, depends on the outcome of this summit. [passage indistinct] one of a political nature. It is not one related to the conduct of patriotic nationals who are striving to establish their own political agenda and take over the reigns of government in order to implement that political agenda. The events in the six years of civil conflict leading to open collaboration between the RUF rebels and the national army have exposed the actors in those events as people whose sole interest is, and has always been, to fleece the country economically and in the process inflict untold havoc and suffering on the population. In the centre of all this is the diamond and gold business which was the prime reason for the involvement of third parties, especially International Alert with the RUF. The duplicity and greed displayed by the RUF and International Alert almost wrecked the signing of the Abidjan Peace Agreement last year. The lack of faith in this agreement by the RUF inspired by International Alert has led to the difficulty in implementing the agreement. I shall say more on this in due course.

The coup makers in Sierra Leone have attempted to conceal their true objective for wanting to assume power. Instead they have given the following as their reasons for staging the coup:

  1. They question the legitimacy of my Government;
  2. They accuse my Government of favouring the civil defence organisation, the Kamajors, as against the national army;
  3. They talk about my Government's failure to provide adequate financial support for the national army; and
  4. They allege the practice of tribalism on the part of my Government.

Mr Chairman, please permit me to make a few comments on each of these allegations.

My government emerged as a result of a transition process presided over by the then military government of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC). It was that government which appointed the Interim National Electoral Commission (INEC) as the management body responsible for the conduct of both the parliamentary and presidential elections. At the request of the INEC, the Commonwealth Secretariat in London provided three experts, including a legal draftsman, to help with the preparations for the elections. None of these people had been to Sierra Leone before and they knew nobody in the country. The point of their attachment to the INEC was to bring to bear on the work of the commission the highest international practices. The European Union also provided a voter education expert from Britain while the United Nations supplied a logistical expert. In other words, at the heart of the election management body, the international community had a presence to ensure the highest standards of probity and transparency in the conduct of the elections. In January 1996, in the middle of the preparations for the elections, Brigadier Maada Bio replaced Captain Valentine Strasser as Chairman of the NPRC and immediately launched a campaign to postpone the elections. The banner of that campaign was "Peace Before Elections." A National Consultative Conference comprising representatives of political parties, the army, the police, trade unions, women's organisations, the churches and mosques, and other organs of civil society was convened in February 1996 to pronounce on the matter. I should add that representatives of the international community were also in attendance. Of the 70 people who spoke at the conference, only 14 supported the idea of postponing the elections. The great majority was for the elections to proceed as planned.

And so the elections were duly held on 26-27 February 1996. There were observers from the United Nations, the Commonwealth, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU), the African-American Institute, the African-American Labour Centre, the Commonwealth Trade Union Council, and the World Council of Churches. At the close of polling and before the official declaration of the results, the international observers issued a joint statement on 29 February in which they said that despite setbacks they had "witnessed a remarkably peaceful, orderly and transparent conduct of the vote" which led them to conclude "that the results will genuinely reflect the will of the people of Sierra Leone, and usher in an era of democracy."

But of the international observer groups, it was the Commonwealth Observer Group which issued the most detailed and the most widely publicised report on the elections. Having regard to the fact that the rebel war had cast a long shadow over every aspect of the elections, the Commonwealth Group concluded that under those circumstances the elections "were nothing short of an act of faith on the part of the people of Sierra Leone. They were the first truly democratic elections in nearly 30 years. For the citizen voters in the queues, these elections were more than an opportunity to replace a military regime with a democratically elected and accountable government. They saw them as an historic watershed, the one opportunity to make a new beginning; and judging by the impressive voter turnout, they intended to seize that opportunity with both hands."

Mr Chairman, I have gone into the details of the background to the elections to show that every stage of the transition out of which my Government emerged was transparent and beyond question. They were recognised on all sides as the fairest elections in Sierra Leone's post-independence history. And, perhaps most significant of all, none of the other political parties which contested the elections questioned the validity of the outcome at that time.

At the time of the elections the following view was expressed: "The RUF consistently and publicly opposed the holding of the elections; but it was by no means the only group opposed to them. Other armed elements were similarly opposed to the transition and may well exploit every opportunity to destabilise and discredit the new democratic order."

Mr Chairman, that is exactly what has happened. On the evidence, the planning of this coup preceded the transfer of power to my Government and would have been directed at any other elected civilian administration, irrespective of its party stripe. All the subsequent pronouncements by the military junta have been no more than desperate attempts to cloak the nudity of their treason which they had long since contemplated.

The claim by the regime to have restored peace to Sierra Leone by the joint participation of the RUF and the army in the coup is probably the most grotesque and preposterous of all its claims. No one who has seen the reign of terror unleashed by the regime on the defenceless citizenry or witnessed the daily looting and rapid and other brutalities which have now become a way of life in Sierra Leone, can mistake it for peace. Foreigners have had their wives and daughters raped in their presence, private citizens who have never in their lives worked for or associated with politics or Government are being ordered out of their houses, houses built out of their own hard earned labour, to provide accommodation for AFRC members. These are behaviours that no one will attribute to professional soldiers except the hooligans in Sierra Leone.

Students, trade unions, women's organisations and other citizens groups organised a demonstration recently in Freetown to let the world know their disgust with the AFRC/RUF [passage missing] and maim students and innocent citizens. Female students were taken to homes where they were used to satisfy inhuman sexual orgies. Many more such atrocities are being committed against my people, some of them too horrendous to mention publicly. This is part of the reason why the entire country has vowed not to cooperate with them. What has happened is that the horror which the RUF used to inflict on the rural communities of the country has now been generalised to encompass the urban centres as well.

Yet Mr Chairman, this was precisely what my government set out to avert. In my inaugural statement as President, I made the pursuit of peace at the end of the rebel war my pre-eminent priority. Within a matter of days of assuming office, I signed a communique at Yamoussoukro with the leader of the RUF, Corporal Foday Sankoh, in which we effectively agreed to a permanent ceasefire. That agreement opened the way for substantive negotiations between the Government and the RUF, culminating in the Abidjan Peace Accord of 30 November 1996.

By the Peace Accord, the instrument for attaining durable peace was at hand and if the RUF had shown good faith and cooperating in the implementation of that peace accord Sierra Leone would have been enjoying lasting and permanent peace today. But ten days after the Peace Accord was signed, Corporal Foday Sankoh instructed his main collaborator in Sierra Leone to attack towns and villages in the Kailahun District so as to enable them to illegally harvest cocoa and coffee plantations belonging to other people in that District. He explained his instructions by saying that he attached no significance to the Peace Accord which he signed merely as a diversionary tactic. Their objective was to stockpile arms and ammunition and shoot their way through to Freetown. This serious violation of the peace accord was brought to Sankoh's attention personally by me. I also brought it to the attention of the peace guarantors as well as the Governments of Ghana, Guinea and Nigeria.

My Government's attitude to the Kamajors

The Kamajors were not a creation of my government. The need for involving them in the civil conflict on the side of the national army had been recognised by the government preceding mine. The Kamajors as local hunters in the provinces had the advantage of knowing the terrain and the possible hideouts of the RUF rebels. They assisted the army in tracking down the rebels. They performed this useful role up to the time my government assumed office. Conflicts started emerging between the army and the Kamajors only when it became apparent that there was collaboration between the army and the RUF rebels.

In order to prevent any further conflicts I personally addressed a letter to the Chief of Defence Staff sometime in August 1996 on the matter. A copy of this letter now submitted to the Secretariat has since the coup been leaked to the press by a senior army officer who evidently is not a supporter of the coup and who wished to inform the nation of my government's correct attitude to the Kamajors vis-a-vis the army. In this letter I reiterated the constitutional role of the army as the sole national institution charged with the responsibility of defending the nation and that the Kamajors were merely auxiliaries who were to be deployed only at the discretion of the Chief of Defence Staff. I directed in that letter that Kamajors were to be used only at the discretion of the Chief of Defence Staff who was to determine whether and how to army the Kamajors and to decide what rations or other logistics were to be provided for them. The CDS was further directed to prepare guidelines for channeling any complaints which may arise between the Kamajors and members of the defence forces and the mode of resolving such complaints. Again, in early May, 1977 when another conflict arose between the Kamajors and the army I set up a commission of inquiry which was to report to me not later than the 30th of May. The purpose of this commission was to investigate the causes of conflicts between the military and the Kamajors and to recommend ways of preventing future conflicts between these two bodies. The report of this commission was expected to be the basis for legislation dealing with the civil defence [passage missing] 35% of the national budget to the military. This was exclusive of arms and ammunition.

The Practice of Tribalism by my Government

Apart from myself as president, there was only one other member of my tribe holding a ministerial position or any other high ranking position in my government. My government was deliberately broad-based, with ministerial appointments given to members of all the other political parties in parliament with the exception of Dr Karefa-Smart's UNPP, which too was offered ministerial appointment, but he opted to lead the official opposition in parliament. Interestingly, the coup makers have not been able to substantiate any of their allegations against my government with names, facts or figures. This is because none of their allegations can be substantiated.

National reconciliation, after peace, was the other central plank of my government's policy. The pursuit of that policy began with the very configuration of my administration. My party had a substantial majority in parliament and I myself had won the presidential election with a convincing majority. On the basis of the outcome of the elections therefore, I was under no compulsion to include in my government people from other parties. But I took a national view of the matter and decided that if the cause of national reconciliation was to be advanced, it would be desirable to have a broad based government. Accordingly, I appointed one of the defeated presidential candidates my Finance Minister, making him effectively the third most senior member of the government. another defeated presidential candidate was appointed Minister of Lands, Housing and the Environment. Other ministerial and senior positions were filled by people drawn from other political parties. What emerged in the result was a broad based government of national unity in all but name.

Mr Chairman, I now wish to address you on some salient and relevant matters. These may be instructive and may help in the fuller understanding of the background of the present conflict in Sierra Leone and why it has been persistent.

The Abidjan Peace Accord

In the process leading to the signing of the peace accord with the RUF, we as a nation leaned on the shoulders of many others to reach that agreement. The Government of Cote d'Ivoire was at all stages unfailing in its support and generosity. President Bedie took a personal interest in the progress of the negotiations, and it would be no exaggeration to say that without his personal commitment we could not have begun turning, let alone turn the corner. The Government of Nigeria was always forthcoming with assistance and encouragement as were the Governments of Guinea and Ghana. The United Nations, the Commonwealth and the Organisation of African Unity displayed a commendable commitment to the success of the talks. To all these governments and international organisations, the people of Sierra Leone will always remain grateful.

Mr Chairman, what my government did not know in all this was that the RUF as negotiating in bad faith. We took the RUF at its word and assumed that their professed commitment to peace was genuine. The negotiations were protracted because the RUF were adamant on certain particulars. And because we conceded on these particular issues, we thought that the RUF would honour the resulting accord. That is of course not to suggest that there were no doubters in our ranks who harboured misgivings about the sincerity of the RUF. We had our share of these doubting Thomases but such was our people's yearning for peace that we elected to be guided more by our hopes and less by our fears.

Nor did I seek to make the peace process exclusively the affair of the ruling party. On the government delegation at the Abidjan peace talks was one of the presidential candidates in the last presidential election. And when it came to the signing ceremony, I included in my entourage to Abidjan the leaders of the major political parties and representatives of civil society. In all this, I took the view that the cause of peace was too important to be made the monopoly of any one political party.

Mr Chairman, on the basis of the facts already outlined the RUF joined the military to organise the coup against my government. By this act the RUF have, strictly speaking, forfeited the rights and benefits conferred on them under the Abidjan Peace Accord. In the interest of sustainable peace in my country, and as a mark of appreciation to my brother, His Excellency President Henri Konan Bedi and the Government and people of Cote d'Ivoire for the efforts exerted in ensuring a successful conclusion of the peace negotiations, my government remains ready to continue with the implementation of the Abidjan Peace Accord in full. Also, to test the good faith on the part of the RUF I would wish that they give concrete evidence to show that members of the Peace Commission that were abducted, Fayia Musa, Ibrahim Deen-Jalloh and Palmer and Dr Barry are still alive.

However, because of the excessive looting, murder, maiming, raping and mayhem perpetrated by the army junta and their RUF collaborators, the people of Sierra Leone have now adopted a very strong anti-military and anti-RUF stance. I will therefore insist on the implementation of the peace accord or whatever of it still remains to be implemented only at my own peril. Again, I am prepared for the reasons stated above to take that risk.

Mr Chairman, my preferred order for the settlement of the present problem in Sierra Leone will be as follows:

The immediate and unconditional restoration of my government which is also the leading demand of ECOWAS, the OAU, the UN and indeed the entire international community.

The putting in place of a solid security system which will guarantee the security of all those who live within the borders of Sierra Leone.

Complete disarmament in order to prevent trigger-happy people from killing innocent civilians.

The resumption of the implementation of the Abidjan Peace Accord.

Mr Chairman, the policy of national reconciliation was taken further. The NPRC government had confiscated the properties of many senior Sierra Leoneans, not on the basis of law or due process, but on the basis of ad hoc commissions of enquiry whose findings were not published and from which there was no appeal. No one pretended that justice had been done by the work of these commissions of enquiry. Yet, on the basis of their finds, not only had many people lost their properties, some of them had also been disqualified from holding public office. If Sierra Leone's new democracy was to mean anything, this was a state of affairs which could not be allowed to continue. I appointed a National Commission of Reconciliation and applied to the Commonwealth Secretary-General for a senior Commonwealth judge to review the findings of the commissions of enquiry and to put right what had been put wrong. I wanted a judge of suitable seniority and distinction whose verdict would command respect on all sides. The Commonwealth Secretary-General secured for me from the Government of Trinidad and Tobago the services of Justice Ulric Cross. He was due to return to Sierra Leone to resume his chairmanship of the National Commission for Reconciliation when the coup took place.

The earlier coup of April 1992 which had installed the NPRC government in power had led to the exile of other Sierra Leoneans. They too had to be enabled to come home in security and in dignity. Former President Joseph Momoh had been living in exile in Conakry since the coup. My government brought him home and resettled him in a manner befitting a man who had once been our Head of State. At the time, I was criticized by some people for what they regarded as the lavish facilities of his resettlement. But I believe that when the dust had settled, the action would be seen for what it was.

Slowly but perceptibly, the Sierra Leone society was returning to its former peace and tranquility, to its old tolerance, and to its famed civility. The wounds of the war had still to heal but there could be no doubt that the healing process itself had begun. The arbitrariness which had characterised so much of our national life for so long was beginning to be a thing of the past. There was none of the old political conformism. In its place, the vibrant pluralism which had been the hallmark of the country began to re-assert itself. In every major respect the people of Sierra Leone had re-entered the mainstream of human society, living and dreaming like any other people in any other part of the world. What the coup of 25 May 1997 did was to bring all this to an abrupt and brutal interruption. It stopped the forward march of my people. In place of peace and development, the coup substituted a future of strife and violence. The coup makers know nothing of national reconciliation and basic human decency. Insofar as it is a revolution, it is a revolution of fire and ashes.