Sierra Leone

Who Killed Sam Hinga Norman?

Sam Hinga Norman, accused of war crimes during the 1991 to 2002 conflict in Sierra Leone, at the start of the opening trial of the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone, June 2004. (Photo: Ben Curtis / AFP-Getty Images)

Former Deputy Defense Minister Chief Sam Hinga Norman first stuck out like a sore thumb in Sierra Leone's post-independence elections in 1967. Then a junior army officer on a semi-administrative appointment as aide-de-camp to the office of the governor general between 1966 and 1967, Norman felt duty bound to carry out the command of his then force commander, Brig. David Lansana, when he held the governor general under house arrest in the wake of the close-call elections outcome that year between the then ruling Sierra Leone People's Party (S.L.P.P.) and the opposition All People's Congress (A.P.C.), that sparked controversy and political crisis in that nation.

A marshal law ensued in a coup and counter coup within days between Brigadier Lansana and his junior officers in which the latter formed the National Reformation Council. When the dust settled, an A.P.C. civilian government was restored that saw the technical defeat of the S.L.P.P. and the exile of its leader, Sir Albert Margai. This situation, despite its humps and bumps, still is considered the first time a ruling party had been defeated in an election in post-independence Africa.

But that was just the omen for his fulfilled tragic ending: It was the beginning of Norman's 40-year span ending, after a spate of cheating death between 1967 and 2007, on Feb. 22.

It also set the stage for Siaka Stevens' 17-year rule of manipulative politics, assassinations of political opponents, reckless budgetary spending, and unaccountable squandering and raping of the national economy, when Brigadier Lansana and others were executed for treason.

In his Special Court for Sierra Leone testimony in January 2006, Norman painfully told the judge, "… arms and singing around me, and were just holding me from all sides and I was being led. And then suddenly we ran into gunfire and eventually I never saw those who were carrying me and just saw myself alone and I had to just dive for cover and I survived." To which, the judge responded, "You must be very lucky." Norman was explaining to the Special Court how lucky he had been despite the many times he had cheated death. He was agreeing with the judge in his own words, "I count myself very lucky. In Sierra Leone that luck had earned me very miraculous issues and names."

In 1968, Norman was charged with treason for his role in the 1967 election incident. His death sentence was later set aside on appeal after spending four years on death role at the notorious Pademba Road prisons. He counted himself lucky because many senior military officers, police officers, and politicians were executed. That luck was put to the test again soon after he was released in 1972 to walk the street as an unemployed man and later a businessman. In 1974, while on a business trip away from Freetown, he learned of a coup attempt on the government. Norman returned to Freetown to be with his family only to be arrested by Siaka Stevens' Special Forces on suspicion of treason. In another painful narrative, Norman told the Special Court:

Not long after my return, I was picked up as one of the suspects. I spent 14 days at the C.I.D. in a very terrible condition. That was from the beginning of August 14 almost to Sept. 1, 1974. I was transferred from the C.I.D. to Pademba Road and I was placed in the solitude confinement with just one blanket and one cup of water. I was there in my cell for 13 months without leave my cell or taking bath. I had fleas, in Sierra Leone I referred to them as karangbas. Eventually, I was released, and there was no case for me, no question, nothing.

But he still counted himself lucky to walk out of a case that ended up in another execution spree of Stevens' political opponents. In 1977, Norman narrowly escaped death in a campaign rally with other political activists for the S.L.P.P. in which A.P.C. trained hit men assassinated two of his compatriots.

Norman knew then that if he were to live it was time to leave the country. He went into self-exile to Liberia. He knew he was now on the A.P.C.-led government's Special Forces' radar for any suspicious subversive political activity. In Liberia, he accepted demeaning jobs as low as a houseman.

Just when he managed to become a poultry farmer in Liberia another misfortune befell him—a civil war broke out in Liberia that spilled into Sierra Leone.

The Sierra Leone and Liberia civil wars have been characterized as some of the most atrocious wars in recent history. For his role in the civil war in Sierra Leone, Norman became a prisoner of the United Nations-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone for being one of many war leaders allegedly charged for bearing the "greatest responsibility for crimes against humanity" committed in the civil wars before his mysterious death this February in the custody of the Special Court. The most infamous prisoner presently in the custody of the Special Court for crimes against humanity in these civil wars is former rebel leader and former leader of Liberia, Charles Taylor.

Norman returned to Sierra Leone where he was shortly once more haunted by the civil war in his own country, the war he had fled from in Liberia, when Taylor ordered some of his notorious commanders to attack Sierra Leone ahead of plan. It was understandable that once Taylor was to have had a good grip on Liberia, Sierra Leone was next according to that plan. Liberia had become the staging ground for rebel takeovers in the West African region all-loyal to Libya's Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and France.

France's motivation is that Western Europe is in a struggle over its former colonies for the spoils of cold war victory. Sierra Leone's A.P.C.-led government leaders, who were busy raping their country and suppressing opposing views by intimidation, marginalization, and executions carried out by special security forces, were to be overwhelmed by Foday Sankoh, leader of the Revolutionary United Front on that front. It was this plan that Taylor double paddled to forestall the building up of the Economic Community of West African States-ECOMOG forces in Sierra Leone that Taylor and his backers saw as detrimental to the marshal plan of rebel takeover of the region.

Norman was now in the middle of the conflict at a stage he could not resist joining in: the war had reached home. For the sake of a better understanding of the heroic angle many Sierra Leoneans are espousing in honor of Norman, we must shed some light on the motivation behind his actions in the civil war.

Norman had fled from the war in Liberia at a time when Taylor and his backers were in search of war mongers; where the spoils of war was a profitable enterprise for soldiers of fortune; where Sankoh had been recruited. Sankoh's reason for self-exile could be stacked up against Norman's as he had also been released from prison for treason, but as an embittered man, unlike Norman, who had always looked at the good side of every misfortune that befell him.

Norman quietly returned to Sierra Leone to settle in his village away from national politics, becoming an interpreter and a spokesman for his Valunya chiefdom. He was later appointed regent chief for Jaima Bongor chiefdom, Bo district, in 1994. By then, the civil war in Sierra Leone was in its third year. The National Patriotic Reformation Council had overthrown Siaka Stevens' pre-ordained successor, President Joseph Saidu Momoh, from power. But Sankoh's rebels remained a challenge for the young military regime that had been showered with praises for gallantry by the marginalized, politically suppressed, and wearied society for removing the A.P.C. from power.

Norman's chiefdom headquarters town of Telu-Bongor had been saturated with people displaced by war in surrounding chiefdoms and refugees from Liberia. He knew his chiefdom was next, and in preparedness for such onslaught, he narrowly survived. According to his Special Court narrative, he helped to form a coalition of chiefs that offered 75 young, energetic, and civic-competent chiefdom men to defend his people. This is the coalition we now know as Kamajor in Mende, meaning hunters, that was emulated across the country as a defense mechanism against rebels we know as the Civil Defense Forces (C.D.F.).

In the first attack on his chiefdom, Norman counted 50 dead of his 75 young men he had submitted to the coalition of chiefs for the purpose of self-defense that were hastily trained and armed by the National Patriotic Reformation Council military regime. Although he counted himself lucky again, it suffices to state that he was the best-trained former army officer of the lot, yet many have called him a warrior with magical powers that protected his body from bullets.

He left Telu-Bongor and settled in Bo. He never returned in Telu-Bongor until he helped to reinstall civilian rule. He continued to organize the C.D.F. nationally from between Bo and Freetown without any evidence of another live encounter with rebels. In that respect, many Sierra Leoneans are saying that Norman was as guilty as President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah is guilty. He organized the C.D.F. in his capacity as the deputy defense minister. Such was how Norman and his C.D.F. fighters helped to restore civilian rule in Sierra Leone. President Kabbah and his army had disappeared upon being demoralized by rebel onslaughts. The people were now left at the mercy of rebel fighters known for hacking off the limbs of their victims in the cruelest way akin only to the ironic King Leopold's Congo Free State of colonial Congo.

Norman's luck started running out when through his knowledge of military intelligence he knew there was going to be another political crisis in Sierra Leone before President Kabbah was overthrown about a year after the 1996 elections by Johnny Paul Koroma's Armed Forces Revolutionary Council rebels. In vain, Norman did his best to give President Kabbah early warning signs of the looming political crises: "And I was told that there was an imminent coup, but that with those parts of the weapons absent the coup may not be deadly and destructive. And so they were giving it to me for safekeeping. I took it from them. And as soon as they left, I also left and took this bag to my boss."

Norman was referring in his testimony to President Kabbah, commander in chief of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Sierra Leone. Instead of taking action, Norman became the one who was now on President Kabbah's radar as a suspect of a coup until he was overthrown only for Norman to stay behind with his C.D.F. fighters to restore him.

Norman had become an enigmatic figure in Sierra Leone for treading where no other politician dared. He took both weapons and orders from President Kabbah who was in Guinea and worked in collaboration with the United Nations-peacekeepers throughout the process of restoring civilian rule to Sierra Leone.

Vice President Solomon Berewa, who was the attorney general with his eyes on the succession of President Kabbah's leadership, according to some speculations, signed the Special Court deal that fell short of accommodating the protection of Norman, who many Sierra Leoneans have called "First Class National War Hero #1." This in itself contravened the Lome peace accord and the Truth and Reconciliation submissions that indeed advocated amnesty for all. In fact, the Lome peace accord was ratified in the Parliament of Sierra Leone.

Once the Special Court was instituted, Norman was arrested from his office. According to the spokesman for the C.D.F., Rev. Sam Foray, "President Kabbah called Hinga Norman for no reason apparently other than making sure he was in his office. Few minutes after he hung up, officers were in Norman's office and he was arrested by the Special Court."

Norman's family and supporters expressed concern over his transfer to Senegal for medical treatment. Foray had stated that Norman told him in a telephone conversation that he was surprised that he had been taken to Senegal to be locked up in yet another prison that was worse than the Special Court prison in Sierra Leone. Juliet, Norman's daughter, who has become the family spokesperson since Norman's arrest, broke the story on the BBC's Focus on Africa program that Norman was in a cell, a charge that the Special Court press release refuted. But in Norman's last interview with the BBC, he verified that he was in prison.

A local newspaper in Sierra Leone, Concord Times, reported that Norman gave all his belongings to his attendant at the Special Court prison, stating that he would not make it out alive. It was reported in the same edition of the Concord Times that Norman performed some ritual at Lungi in which he rubbed his thumb against the asphalt, licked the dirt off his thumb, and pointed to the heavens. The editor reportedly challenged the Special Court press secretary, Peter Andersen, for yet another rebuttal of the report. In a Special Court press release last month, Andersen called the claims lies. Foray has said investigations show that Norman was indeed locked up in a terrible cell in Senegal as opposed to the Special Court report that stated he was in a hotel.

The Special Court stated probable heart failure as the cause of Norman's death before a proper medical autopsy was performed. This has caused much suspicion among Norman's family members, friends, and supporters. A close family member who was at the Norman family house in Freetown told me that former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone Peter Penfold met with family members in London and offered to help with the conducting of a private investigation into the cause of death of Norman by an independent doctor. Penfold is one of the admirers of Norman's heroism who also gave testimony in the Special Court on behalf of Norman.

The family of Norman has demonstrated dissatisfaction with the S.L.P.P. on suspicion that it had a hand in the death of Norman. Another family friend of the Normans told me that an S.L.P.P. Parliamentarian, Ansu Kai Kai of Pujehun, who was officially charged by the S.L.P.P. with the responsibility of meeting the family to represent the party and the government, was asked to leave the Norman compound and the money he brought for contribution toward the burial was thrown back at him. The Standard Times reported the news as follows: "Kaikai's baptism of fire came when he went to the residence of the family to sympathize with a token of Le 50,000 [about $15, added for clarity] and was ordered, by family members, to quit the premises or have himself to blame. 'Take your money and leave our house now' the family ordered the M.P."

Meanwhile, the Norman family has officially appointed Dr. Joe Dembi to head the Norman funeral arrangements and the investigation of all matters leading to his death. He is a relative and close friend of the Normans. Dembi was also the vice president whose popularity as running mate to President Kabbah during the 2002 elections partly won S.L.P.P. the presidency. Dembi was sacked from his position and replaced with Vice President Berewa, just after the latter had signed the Special Court agreement.

Another twist to this story was the intriguing political drama that preceded the death of Norman. Norman had recently signed a communiqué to join Charles Margai's People's Movement for Democratic Change. Among an array of reasons, he stated that the S.L.P.P. is greatly responsible for divisiveness in the country, shortly before he was taken to Senegal.

What is more, we are yet to understand, fully, the extent of the medical condition of Norman that prompted the hip replacement surgery that could not have been performed in Sierra Leone, but in another developing country. What we do know though, we saw in the images taken shortly before they took him away: a man bound for hip surgery, walking through the gates of the Special Court without a wheelchair or any other ambulatory aide. This reminds us of George Orwell's Boxer in his Animal Farm political satire.

Another butt of suspicion of foul play in the death of Norman is the Special Court. There are reports and statements going around that the Special Court has become a morgue, where high profile prisoners die in its custody or before they are even brought to trial once they are indicted. The list includes Foday Sankoh, Sam Bockarie, alias Maskita, Johnny Paul Koroma, and now Norman.

A woman from Jaima Bongor chiefdom translated a famous Mende folklorist, Jebbeh II's tribute to Norman song for me in a somber mood:

Because of poverty, we have sold our liberties to foreigners. Our appreciation for Hinga Norman's gallantry to save us was to jail him. Where was the U.N. when they were killing our people? Instead, we jailed him and if not released now, he may die in that jail.

It seemed Norman had not been lucky this time: while awaiting the verdict from the Special Court, he died mysteriously in Senegal. The question remains. Who killed Chief Sam Hinga Norman?

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