Africa

Harvest of Shame: Former Sierra Leonean Ruler Valentine Strasser

Valentine Esegragbo Melvin Strasser was born on April 26, 1967, in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he attended the Church Missionary Society Grammar School up to the sixth form, postsecondary level. On completing school, he enlisted in the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces. After his training, he rose to the rank of junior officer. He never nursed the slightest intuition that between 1992 and 1996 he would be making history, emerging as the world's youngest dictator and founding leader of the National Provisional Revolutionary Council in Sierra Leone, at the young age of 25. The subsequent events that apparently electrified him to seize power were more dramatic than tactical.

As a young, ambitious military officer, Strasser was commissioned to the eastern district of Kailahun to command and rout a rebellion and insurgency, supported by local provincial subjects, against the legitimate government of Joseph S. Momoh. The contentious, formidable, and notorious aggression actually gave birth to the Revolutionary United Forces. Momoh had peacefully sailed to power in a pioneering, seemingly unique constitutional novelty. This genius was the brainchild of president Siaka Stevens, who was battling a sagging health and did not favor any of his natural successors to succeed him.

Unprecedented drawn battlefields turned bloody and vicious: the government had grossly ill-supplied enough boots on the ground and the necessary military armament to help fortify Strasser's battalion to win the prolonged warfare. Ironically, the soldiers in the war front sometimes did not receive their salaries on time: their welfare was hardly at the top of the government's list of priorities. At the same time, the nation was nursing an avalanche of general malaise and disenchantment. The soldiers, after many appeals, warnings, or threats, decided to march down in their combat fatigue gear to the State House in Freetown, to protest about their setbacks in pursuing the war, demanding their outstanding salaries. The austere audacity and shock dramatically forced President Momoh to flee for his life.

His perception of the soldiers' intentions was flawed because he concluded that the rapid, unfolding events were a coup. The emergence of a power vacuum motivated Strasser and his men to seize power, forming the N.P.R.C., with Strasser as the nominal head. His ascension to power inspired the youth and the young at heart, who believed that a youth had finally emerged to champion their cause. Before, the youth was the Cinderella in the political, economic, and social machinery of the government. However, Strasser was neither trained nor groomed to steer the complex machinery and routine of government. Numerous folk were left petrified, some gasping for breath or biting their nails. His youthfulness as naivety multiplied his woes as well as the hatred of his endless foes.

Once in power, he vigorously pursued the rebel war against rebel leader Foday Sankoh as one of his top priorities. But he was able to bag little success. He broke the deadlock by hiring the mercenary firm Executive Outcomes to supplement the army: since most of them had defected to beef up the Revolutionary United Forces, the rebel army. I remember traveling to Vermont and New York in1993, together with a group of Sierra Leoneans, to join in welcoming Strasser during his visit to the United States. Women were clad in ashorbies, uniform-like tailored African dresses, to greet their new head of state. Folk were pregnant with hope, believing that Strasser was the expected Messiah, who would usher the chlorophyll of change and champion the redemption of the people of Sierra Leone. Down the road their dreams would be prematurely shattered.

In January 1996, he was ousted from within. The coup was led by army officer, Madda Bio, who sent him into exile. Strasser's limelight lasted only four years. The United Nations then sponsored him to study law at the University of Warwick, in Coventry, England. He dropped out of school after a year. Actually, his sponsorship was withdrawn without notice. He was left unemployed and probably homeless in a foreign land, until 2000. This was when public awareness began to spread like a virus about his fate. He was treated with disdain, though his rule was unremarkable, according to most African dictators' standards. British newspapers ran scathing headlines like "Butcher of Sierra Leone on the dole." Amid his turmoil, his wife had left him while he was still a roaming nomad, wandering from place to place in search of solace.

The human rights organization Amnesty International had demanded that the British government should investigate allegations of torture against the former N.P.R.C. leader, and accused his troops of "torture, ill treatment and arbitrary killings of unarmed civilians," while posing as Revolutionary United Forces fighters. "Strasser's men were responsible for, among other things, torture of political opponents," an Amnesty International spokesman said, "The government has a responsibility to investigate because torture committed anywhere is a crime under U.K .law." Strasser, however, dismissed the allegations.

"How can you say the claims Amnesty International is making are justified?" Strasser asked. "They know it is the Revolutionary United Front that has been responsible for those abuses and violations." He also rejected criticism of the N.P.R.C.'s execution of 26 political opponents, eight months after he took power. "They were tried, they were prosecuted, they were convicted, they were sentenced," he told the Sunday Times.

Strasser, who told the newspaper he is unemployed and dependent on his family and friends for financial support, showed scars above his eye and on his leg, and said he was attacked outside a London Underground station. "I was going to an off-license, and then this guy just turned around and came at me with a knife—something like a Swiss Army penknife," he said. "I was stabbed and I had to be taken to hospital. I couldn't put it down to anything other than racial motivation." It was no surprise that the British government after collecting evidence beyond reasonable doubts had sufficient grounds to deport him.

Losing his job, quitting school, going broke, roaming around West Africa, the Gambia, and moving back home with his mother: living and roaming abroad for years would be tough on anyone. It is even tougher when he is a former military dictator who was at the pinnacle of power, exerting an iron fist that is poised to execute opponents at will. His chronicle of multifaceted, unfortunate, and stressful events was enough to assault his sanity and throw him out of mental balance. This would be the trend and fate of Strasser's fortunes.

The Sierra Leone Peoples' Party government led by Ahmed Tejan Kabba granted him amnesty to return home. There is no place like home, especially when many others have despised and rejected him. He was given some dignity to feel human again on his return home. Only for him to return to a depressed and destitute state: when the S.L.P.P. was swept out of power, through the justice of the ballot rather than the power of the bullet.

On his return home he had a white Mercedes Benz 200. Now, he is really a frustrated man, whether it was because of the spell from his wife who deserted him or his military colleagues who overthrew him, is still anyone's guess. Often, he would be seen jogging during the early hours of the morning on the streets of Freetown. Surprised, most people have concluded that his mind is sinking. Then he was living in town. Later, he moved to Allen Town to live with his mother, who has lost a lot of weight within a short time, and her son, his brother. Can a mother's tender, loving care cease toward the child she bore? The yoke of her son's predicament and daily stress could possibly shorten her life. It is the norm or mores that children should take care of their parents here, not the other way round. Newspapers wrote about him being a former president and sitting in a palm wine bar drinking palm wine. Some papers also published pictures comparing his present lifestyle to his past, when he was president, an eyewitness told me.

In a recent conversation with Strasser's relative in Freetown, who chose to remain anonymous, it was confided in me that his condition is deplorable and desperate. One could be forced to shed tears. "He is losing it and losing it very fast," she lamented. This man who was once the head of state has deteriorated so much. When I went to Kossoh Town last year, I could not believe. He was wearing a white Africana suit and sitting at the back of the house during the laying out ceremony of my cousin, who happens to be his cousin too. He was drinking "pega-pack gin" at the peak of the hot burning sun.

Later, when the corpse was about to be taken away, he came to the veranda. He was drunk and the boys were calling him "capa" (captain) then people began to notice him in surprise. He must have got a large quantity of pega; and he was taking them from his pocket and consuming them one after the other in rapid succession. His mother told his girlfriend to take him away, but he was very angry and uncontrollable. He was peddling politics inappropriately in a loud tone. His eyes were furious and wild and his hair was unkempt. He looked very thin and tall. And he is like a lion once referred to as a Leopard. He was finally taken away by his cousins after close family talks. Red light signals are flashing that this former head of state needs mental and medical evaluation. "It is time to take the family pet to the vet," is how a critic characterized it. But who will break the ice or foot the bill?

"When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free." Truly, the words of Catherine Ponder conduct more electricity than a 1,000-watt generator.

The present government should step up to the plate and provide him with the necessary, urgent medical services as a former head of state, to help him regain his mental health and dignity, despite the fact that he had overthrown the old A.P.C. government in 1992. I am also appealing to all Regentonians both at home and abroad to show some compassion to a desperate Regentonian in need. The C.M.S. mission is a reputable Christian entity capable of offering him help. Folk should all join hands together and prove that we are still our brother's keeper. When one falters, the other should be able to pick him up. The United Nations and other donor organizations are doing justice to the humanitarian and peace consolidation front here. It is time for Sierra Leoneans to start helping themselves. Too much dependency on handouts for sustenance could erode one's dignity.

Michael McCullough, professor of psychology at the University of Miami, Fla., in his book Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct, argues that forgiveness, like revenge, is ubiquitous among the world's human cultures, and it appears to be a psychological process that we share in common with many other members of the animal kingdom. Recent scientific breakthroughs illustrate the factors that activate the "forgiveness instinct" in the minds of human beings, as well as in our closest living primate relatives.

In his cross cultural survey to examine the presence of the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation in a representative sample of 60 world societies, McCullough claimed that 56, or 93 percent of those 60 societies, showed evidence of possessing the concepts of forgiveness, reconciliation, or both. Revenge is like a disease or a poison that takes control of human minds and then plunges people into personal ruin and social chaos.

To argue that individual humans must change their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes in order to make the world a more forgiving place, Beyond Revenge argues that when people encounter the right sorts of social conditions, their tendencies to forgive are automatically activated. When people encounter offenders who are apologetic and contrite and who attempt to make reparations for the damage they have caused, people will be naturally inclined to forgive. Also, if we live in societies in which our rights are protected, and are relatively safe from crime and victimization, and in which offenders are given incentives to apologize and compensate their victims, the desire for revenge erodes and the forgiveness instinct automatically activates. Sierra Leone's folk should sing this chorus in their hearts, while swallowing the bitter pill that would help to consolidate its peace and unity in the land of my birth, which we all dearly love—Sierra Leone. To comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable should be our passionate harmony.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Roland Bankole Marke.

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