Coming Through Slaughter

An Interview with Sierra Leonean Journalist Philip Neville

Philip Neville Sierra Leone

"When God created the world," an old Sierra Leonean joke runs, "He endowed Sierra Leone with such a wealth of natural resources that the angels protested. 'Oh that's nothing,' God said. 'Just wait and see the people I have put there.' " After 10 years of gruesome civil war, the joke seems strikingly unfunny. From 1991-2001, rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and pro-government militias kidnapped children to use as combatants. Drug-addled, heavily armed children roamed the country, killing indiscriminately. Warring militias routinely raped, tortured, mutilated, and burned civilians, funded by the governments of Sierra Leone's neighbors, who vied for control of Sierra Leone's diamond resources at the expense of the Sierra Leonean people. International organizations—the Commonwealth of Nations, the Economic Community of West African States, and the United Nations—unsuccessfully intervened to stop the war at various points throughout the 1990s. A series of peace accords failed.

So any sign of hope in Sierra Leone has been welcomed abroad. Since March 2001, almost 17,500 U.N. peacekeepers have been deployed to the country. They have succeeded in disarming approximately 50,000 rebels since. Elections are scheduled for May 14, 2002. But Sierra Leonean journalist Philip Neville warns that it would be premature to celebrate an end to Sierra Leone's problems.

Neville, 39, has been a journalist for more than a decade. Since he founded Standard Times in 1994, he has endured government reprisals for his paper's independence and hard-hitting reporting. He has been arrested and detained numerous times between 1994 and 1996. After the overthrow of the elected government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in May 1997, the AFRC military regime targeted the journalists of Standard Times. Neville and his staff went underground, but continued to publish the newspaper. He was attacked, and eventually fled into exile in the United States.

Key Events in Sierra Leone's History
1787 - British abolitionists and philanthropists establish a settlement in Freetown for repatriated and rescued slaves.

1808 - Freetown settlement becomes crown colony.

1896 - Britain sets up a protectorate over the Freetown hinterland.

1954 - Sir Milton Margai, leader of the Sierra Leone People's Party, appointed chief minister.

1961 - Sierra Leone becomes independent.

1967 - Military coup deposes Premier Siaka Stevens' government.

1968 - Siaka Stevens returns to power at the head of a civilian government following another military coup.

1971 - Sierra Leone declared a republic, Stevens becomes executive president.

1978 - New constitution proclaims Sierra Leone a one-party state with the All People's Congress as the sole legal party.

1985 - Maj.-Gen. Joseph Saidu Momoh becomes president following Stevens's retirement.

1987 - Momoh declares state of economic emergency.

1991 - Start of civil war. Former army corporal Foday Sankoh and his Revolutionary United Front (RUF) begin campaign against President Momoh, capturing towns on border with Liberia.

1991 September - New constitution providing for a multiparty system adopted.

1992 - President Joseph Momoh ousted in military coup led by Capt. Valentine Strasser. In response to international pressure, Strasser announces plans for the first multiparty elections since 1967.

1996 January - Strasser ousted in military coup led by his defense minister, Brig. Julius Maada Bio.

1996 Ahmad Tejan Kabbah elected president in February, signs peace accord with Sankoh's rebels in November.

1997 Peace deal unravels. President Kabbah deposed in May by coalition of army officers led by Maj.-Gen. Paul Koroma and members of the RUF; Koroma suspends the constitution, bans demonstrations and abolishes political parties; Kabbah flees to Guinea to mobilise international support.

1997 July - The Commonwealth suspends Sierra Leone.

1997 October - The United Nations Security Council imposes sanctions against Sierra Leone, barring the supply of arms and petroleum products. A British company, Sandline, nonetheless supplies "logistical support", including rifles, to Kabbah allies.

1998 February - The Nigerian-led West African intervention force Ecomog storms Freetown.

1998 March - Kabbah makes a triumphant return to Freetown amid scenes of public rejoicing.

1999 January - Rebels backing Revolutionary United Front leader Foday Sankoh seize parts of Freetown from Ecomog. After weeks of bitter fighting they are driven out, leaving behind a devastated city.

1999 May - A cease-fire is greeted with cautious optimism in Freetown. In hospitals and amputee camps, victims of rebel atrocities express hope that eight years of civil war may soon be over.

1999 July - Six weeks of talks in the Togolese capital, Lome, result in a peace agreement, under which the rebels receive posts in government and assurances they will not be prosecuted for war crimes.

1999 November/December - U.N. troops arrive to police the peace agreement - but one rebel leader, Sam Bokari, says they are not welcome. Meanwhile, Ecomog troops are attacked outside Freetown.

2000 April/May - U.N. forces come under attack in the east of the country, but far worse is in store when first 50, then several hundred U.N. troops are abducted.

2000 May - Rebels close in on Freetown; 800 British paratroopers sent to Freetown to evacuate British citizens and to help secure the airport for U.N. peacekeepers; rebel leader Foday Sankoh captured.

2000 August - Eleven British soldiers taken hostage by a renegade militia group called the West Side Boys.

2000 September - British forces mount operation to rescue remaining UK hostages.

2001 January - Government postpones presidential and parliamentary elections—set for February and March—for six months because of continuing insecurity, which it said made it impossible to conduct free and fair elections nationwide.

2001 March - U.N. troops for the first time begin to deploy peacefully in rebel-held territory.
2001 May - Disarmament of rebels begins

2002 January - U.N. mission says disarmament of 45,000 fighters complete. Government, U.N. agree to set up war crimes court.

Source: BBC

Neville returned to Sierra Leone after the restoration of the Kabbah government in 1998. But after the rebels invaded Freetown in the first days of 1999, they targeted Neville's newspaper for reprisal. On Jan. 9, 1999, rebels burned the offices of Standard Times and murdered Paul Mansaray, Standard Times's news editor, as well as Mansaray's wife, his children, and his nephew. Neville again went into exile in the United States and returned to Sierra Leone in July 1999. After two years back in Sierra Leone, Neville and several other Sierra Leonean journalists received death threats, forcing Neville back into exile in the United States.

In September 2000, World Press Review named Neville and two other Sierra Leonean journalists, David Tam-Baryoh and Paul Kamara, International Editors of the Year. After learning of his return to the United States, World Press Review caught up with Neville for his insight into the situation in Sierra Leone today.

WPR: What brings you back to the United States?

PN: Well, you know I own a newspaper in Sierra Leone [The Standard Times], so when I'm there it's just a question of supervising what is going on there, but basically I am in the United States. But at times I go to Sierra Leone to see what the people are doing, what the problems are, and to give the journalists at the paper assistance so that the paper can continue.

But recently, it was rather unfortunate that some of us received a letter from… certain unidentifiable people threatening to take our lives because we have been very critical [of the government]. Or I should say, these people thought we had been critical of the SLPP [the ruling Sierra Leone People's Party]. We really were not critical of the party; we were only bringing problems in the country to light, trying to correct the SLPP's approach. But the letter said [the senders] would make sure we wouldn't live to see the coming election. Some of us did not take the letter too seriously, but others of us took it very seriously because we know what people there are capable of doing.

From first-hand experience?

Some of us at the paper had problems in 1997, in 1999… You know, there are lots of things the government of Sierra Leone does to journalists—we were locked up, even tortured, as journalists we were put in containers, they beat us mercilessly—so we know what these people are capable of doing. That's why I took the threats seriously. I contacted international organizations and media outlets like World Press Review and, and they told me that they had heard about the threats, and that they also were not going to take [the threats] lightly.

In the past, we heard quite a bit about the dangers of being a journalist in Sierra Leone, but lately the Western news media have devoted less attention to the topic. From what you're saying, though, it sounds like things haven't become much safer for journalists in Sierra Leone.

If I could jog your memory back, you'll recall that in the year 2000, when we won [World Press Review's International Editor of the Year] award, [co-recipient] David Tam-Baryoh and I agreed that working as a journalist in Sierra Leone is one of the most difficult things on Earth, since when you write certain articles that the government sees as negative, they say you are preaching the gospel of the RUF, and when you write something that approves of the government, the RUF says, "Well these people are not on our side." When you find you are between the devil and the deep blue sea, you have to go! … But, despite all these difficulties, journalists have been doing their best to bring out the ills [of Sierra Leonean society] so that people can correct them.

What ills? The consensus in the American press, and indeed, the international press seems to be that all of Sierra Leone's problems are solved: The RUF has disarmed, fair and peaceful elections are scheduled for May 14, 2002. Sierra Leone seems to be emerging from a dark chapter in its history. Is this accurate?

This is very, very ridiculous. Whatever stories suggest this are not true, the reports need to be revisited. Because the editor of the New York Times, or whatever paper it was where you read these things, cannot just sit in New York and make a telephone call to Sierra Leone and really know from that what is happening there. They should go there and see what is happening. For the New York Times or any other publication to say everything is peaceful is very ironical. In fact, the RUF has not disbanded, it has not been disarmed, they are still holding on to their guns. I was just talking to [reporters at the Standard Times] the other day, and they told me that members of the RUF recently told the government that they would not hand over their guns unless the government paid them US$30,000. Not everywhere in Sierra Leone is absolutely free, as those papers may have written… For the Sierra Leonean government to know all this, and to still be prepared to conduct an election… I find it incredible. One can only conclude that the government is very insensitive to the plight of the people.

I've heard reports that the RUF has merely moved back to their patron state Liberia. Have you seen evidence that this is true?

This is true. You ask for evidence. As I'm speaking to you, most of Sierra Leone's troops have been stationed on the boundary between Sierra Leone and Liberia. And most of these guys [in the RUF], they've gone to Liberia. We don't know whether they're waiting to return until after the election, we don't know what they are going to do. We don't know how many of them have gone into Guinea. You see, the situation is very threatening. The only thing of which we can be certain is that most of them have gone to Liberia.

So in your view, they're still a threat to the security of Sierra Leone.

Of course! Of course, especially when we cannot lay hands on them. Neither have we laid hands on [senior RUF military commander] Gen. "Mosquito" Sam Bokari, who is one of the main players. We don't know what he is up to. We don't know where he has gone. We do know that he has acquired a lot of wealth during this 10-year war; he has acquired a lot of diamonds. So the RUF is really a threat, we cannot underestimate the power and the strength of the RUF, especially when we know that these people have connections outside. The RUF is a terrorist group with connections to international terrorist groups. When so many of them are still at large, and have such wealth at their disposal, it would be folly to underestimate their destructive capabilities. We don't know what they're waiting for now, but we must not underestimate them.

When you say they've been doing business with international terrorist groups, you mean…

Osama bin Laden. In fact, there was an article in the [Nov. 1] Washington Post that made a lot of revelations about the business that Sam Bokari and the RUF had been doing with Al-Qaeda. [Based on specific information from unnamed U.S. and European intelligence sources, Post journalist Douglas Farah outlined how suspected Al-Qaeda and Lebanese Hezbollah members allegedly raised and laundered money though trading in RUF-mined diamonds].

You said that you don't know if the RUF is waiting to strike until after the elections. Are you concerned that if the elections don't go well, the RUF might seek to capitalize on the instability?

The RUF isn't the only potential source of instability in Sierra Leone. We also must worry about the politicians. They are determined to stop the elections because they have seen the fraudulent manner in which the elections are to be conducted. They say that if this is what the Kabbah government and the electoral commission plan to do, then they're going all out to see that the elections don't take place in May. [On Dec. 20, 2001, the Sierra Leonean parliament approved the "District Block" voting system (DBVS), whereby parties will submit names of candidates in each electoral district and the election of party representatives will be based on the percentage of votes won by parties in the district. Opposition MPs said that the electoral commission itself had not been approved by Parliament, and so the laws it wrote outlining the new system were meaningless.—WPR].

I've seen reports in the Sierra Leonean press claiming that the structure of the coming elections is unconstitutional. Do you agree?

The manner in which [the elections] are to be conducted is very fraudulent. The system [the electoral commission] has adopted is unconstitutional and illegal; it has not gone through the proper channels to implement the system. In the past, we had the Proportional Representation (PR) system, which operates on a "first-past-the-post" basis. [The government] thinks the people don't know, that they're illiterate, and so they can just introduce whatever system they want to, just as long as the people they want to put in power are in power.

To repeat, the Constitution prescribes a "first-past-the-post" voting system. It's really shocking that the government has decided to put aside the system laid out in the Constitution to bring in a system that is very new to the people. A recent poll published by [the Freetown-based, non-governmental] Campaign for Good Governance found that nearly 82 percent of Sierra Leonean respondents said they did not understand the new voting system. So you see how the government is confusing the people.

Supporters of the DBVS say that the PR system would be impossible to implement, that realistically, on the ground, they can't guarantee the security of the polling stations, it's too much work to implement on such short notice. How would you respond to them?

It's true—some people have been saying that. Others say that if the country isn't ready for elections, we shouldn't hold them. Let us have an interim government instead, a caretaker government for three months, six years, however long it takes. We must put all the mechanisms in place to have truly representative elections. Let us make sure the disarmament process is complete; let us resettle the refugees [forced to leave their homes in the civil war] in their own districts. Let us rebuild our country and ourselves first. This is what some people are saying. But you see, holding the elections now would be to President Kabbah's advantage.

In what way?

According to him, the opposition parties are not prepared, so he is the only one who is prepared now. And since he is the only one who is prepared, going into an election now would help him and hinder the opposition. That is why he decided to hold an election now. And here we are, hearing that the "international community" has pressured him so that they can withdraw from the region! This is ridiculous.

How so?

How can the "international community" in Sierra Leone pressure anyone? Civil society and international aide organizations are the people feeling the pinch. This is only the excuse the government is circulating. But we all know President Kabbah is very inconsistent. He can say one thing to you, turn around, and say the opposite is true.

Why do you think the international community, and by this I mean the United Nations and countries like Britain and the United States, why do you think they're pushing ahead for elections when there's such evidence the country simply isn't ready to conduct them?

Well, there's the rub. Why is it that Britain—and you know that at one point [the year 2000] Britain had 5,500 [peacekeeping] troops there—why is it that they are pushing for elections now? We don't know. We have heard that there are a lot of mining concessions going to British companies. But we don't know if that is true or not. But if, after the elections, people there begin to see British mining companies mining in Sierra Leone, they will begin to draw conclusions...

Britain has spent a lot of money on Sierra Leone. We had expected that since Britain has spent a lot of money, they would have had an interest in securing a stable situation before having elections. But this is not so.

So you think it's a question of putting a fresh coat of paint on the Kabbah regime, making it appear as if it has a democratic mandate so that people…

Exactly. They're putting a new bandage on the sore so that people will say that everything is fine [in Sierra Leone], when, in actual fact, this is not true. Some people out here who write very beautiful articles… Well, they should know there are those of us who are not happy.

So what do you see as the proper solution to these problems?

My personal opinion is that elections should not be held now. Let us have an interim government.

Now, President Kabbah has said that the idea of an interim government is unconstitutional. In the same way, there is nothing in the Constitution that talks about the DBVS. So why is he accepting the DBVS? If something is not good for him, then he will say it is unconstitutional. If it is good for him then, oh, that is good.

But we are saying, in the interests of the nation, let us postpone this election and create a caretaker government. You know, the country is just coming out of war. We are expecting this kind of innovation. We should not rush into elections now. And I tell you, if we rush into this election, and then it comes out that it was conducted fraudulently—and mind you, we haven't even had the elections and they've already been exposed as fraudulent—there are going to be some problems.

What sort of problems?

There will be some fights. In fact, the attorney general [Solomon Berewa], one of the craftiest people in Kabbah's government, is presenting a bill to Parliament that says that if during the election, there is any confusion—fights or what have you—President Kabbah has the right to cancel the elections immediately and step in as president for another four months. This is what I understand the attorney general is working toward.

And do you believe that the UNAMASIL force in place now is sufficient to insure that there won't be any violence?

If the attorney general is presenting this bill, that indicates [the government] is also worried the elections might not be peaceful. If they were sure that the elections are going to be peaceful, there would be no need for them to prepare such a document.

Your colleague David Tam-Baryoh has told us about some of the more glaring cases of corruption in Sierra Leone, and has written about the many cases Sierra Leone's Anti-Corruption Commission [ACC] has tried. Are they making headway?

The ACC is just a political weapon. That is how I describe the ACC. It's just a political weapon for the president. That is, if the president wants this person to be dealt with, he sends the ACC there. The ACC has not been independent. In fact, the ACC is partially funded by the government. So he who pays the piper, calls the tune…

Have you heard of cases of corruption that have gone uninvestigated by the ACC, or have been thrown out by the justice minister once they've been presented to him?

Yes, there are many cases. Let me just give you a typical one, which involves a Nigerian businessman named Ade Otusana. Now this Otusana is an intimate friend of President Kabbah, which no doubt helped him to win many contracts with [Sierra Leone's recently privatized phone company] Sierratel. Anyway, it came out that he wasn't performing on some of these contracts, but that he was still getting paid… for work he never did. The ACC got wind of this and started investigating. After some investigation, they determined the allegations were true. Whether or not Otusana had done any work, he would present his bill to the government, and the government would deposit money in a special bank account Otusana kept for this purpose.

…But when Otusana heard the results of the investigation, he went to Attorney General Berewa to give his version of the story. As he was leaving the attorney general's office, he ran into someone from the ACC and was taken down to the ACC's office. The ACC called the president's office because they knew Otusana was a friend of Kabbah's. Someone at the president's office responded that they should free Otusana immediately, that he was on important business. So they left him! They let him walk free! The following day, he flew out of the country for business in London.

After a month or so, he returned to Sierra Leone, and he was given an escort, a bodyguard. So we [in Sierra Leone] began to say, "Why is this kind of thing happening? Why?"

And there are other cases. There is a case against the income-tax department. Now that income-tax department was headed by a Ms. Commons, the daughter of Berthen Macaully Sr., a prominent London lawyer. Ms. Commons was doing her bit to improve the efficiency of the department. But because somebody from the SLPP wanted her position, they [the ACC] had to bring her up on charges of corruption. They said that she was bribed with Le 1 million, about US$500. Do you think somebody of that caliber, of that quality, would accept US$500 as a bribe? Even though the country is sick, that amount is so small! So now the woman has been removed and somebody else is there now. This is the injustice system going on in that country!

So is there no hope? Do you see any chance of curbing corruption?

The only way that the ACC can be viable, can be productive, is if it is staffed with independent people. We need expatriates leading that commission. We need money, not from the Sierra Leonean government, but from donor organizations, and this money should be monitored thoroughly to make sure it goes where it was meant to go.

If I had my own way, elections would be postponed. And now there's a kind of bitter confrontation between Kabbah and Charles Magai. Charles Magai is also competing for the leadership of the SLPP. Magai recently resigned from his position as minister of safety and security. Since then, he's been a gadfly buzzing around the SLPP.

So he's somebody we should definitely keep an eye on.

Yes, that is it. So Kabbah is not comfortable with Charles Magai and Magai is not comfortable with Kabbah. So they are looking at each other with opposite eyes.

How has this manifested itself? Can you tell us more about Magai?

Well, Magai's father [Milton Margai] was the first [democratically elected] prime minister of Sierra Leone. Just as in the United States we have Bush Jr., who felt entitled to be president because his father, Bush Sr., used to be president, so Charles Magai wants to rule because he feels, "This is my country. My father has been in the office, so I'm also capable of going there."

And he has a following within the SLPP?

Yes, he has a following within the SLPP. That it is the funny thing there now. The SLPP has divided. Those who used to support Kabbah are no longer with him now. Because they see that the man is not for the country, the man is for himself, he is one of the greatest opportunists in the country. He has so many houses…

Where are the Sierra Leonean people in all this? What's your impression of what most people want?

Well you see, the average Sierra Leonean man or woman wants the elections postponed. Why? If you go to that country, you'll see how sorry it is. People are still in the camps [for the internally displaced]. People are still in the refugee camps. People don't even have a square meal to eat every day. So for them, they want something to eat and somewhere to sleep. Politics? Some of them don't know anything about politics. And these are the people who are suffering in that country.

Most Sierra Leonean politicians don't ever talk to the people. They would be happiest if the elections were called off today and the people were told to go back to their places and be quiet. But the people have no alternative. [The politicians] don't listen to the people. You see, African politics are different than Western politics. In Africa, the government dictates. It tells you what it wants to do. In the Western world, you know, it's the people's power. If the people say no, the government listens. But in Africa, no! That is quite different.

You know, the current corrupt state of Sierra Leone should come as no surprise. Toward the end of 1995, the military was in power. [As the military government opened the country to elections], rhe SLPP was in the midst of a leadership crisis—they needed somebody to lead the party. Fortunately, Kabbah was in town, enjoying his retirement, as he used to say [Kabbah had worked as a district commissioner for the British colonial government in Sierra Leone from 1959-1961. After Sierra Leone won its independence in 1961, Kabbah stayed on, eventually becoming a permanent secretary, a position he held until 1969. Throughout most of the 1970s, he worked for the United Nations Development Program in New York, Tanzania, and Lesotho.] In 1995, he made his position very clear: he wanted to retire and enjoy his life. During the election, he claimed he had only been forced into politics. Apparently he felt then that there were competent people who could rule the country. So I wonder why he is trying so hard to stay in power now?

Now Kabbah left the country some 20, 25 years ago after a commission of inquiry found him guilty [in 1967] of pocketing proceeds from the sale of Sierra Leone's cocoa to a U.S. company. At the time he was working at the ministry of trade and factories. His property was seized; he left the country.

So he had already been found guilty of corruption?

Yes the man was corrupt… The commission found that he was "very intelligent, but could easily lapse into corrupt practices." But when he left, most of us were kids, you know; we never knew him! It was only when he came back to Freetown to retire that we started hearing about "Tejan Kabbah, Tejan Kabbah…" He has been pretending as though he is Mr. Clean, but unfortunately, a videocassette has revealed his true nature. The videocassette offers evidence of what the Sierra Leonean press is calling the [Canadian diamond mining company] Diamond Works deal. [In 1997, Momodu Koroma, who had been minister of presidential affairs in Kabbah's government until it was ousted by Major Johnny Paul Koromah's junta, approached Thai businessman Rakesh Saxena, who is currently in jail in Canada for embezzling US$88 million from the Bangkok Bank of Commerce, to see if he would contact South African mercenary firm Sandline International and ask them to unseat Koromah's government. Sandline, which was run by former British colonel Tim Spicer and staffed primarily by former members of the South African Defense Force, had gained notoriety for its role in crushing a March 1996 rebellion in Bourganville, Papua New Guinea so that copper mining there could resume. A report from Washington-based think-tank The Center for Defense Information, Tony Buckingham, Sandline's chairman, was also the largest shareholder in Diamond Works—WPR]. When the SLPP was trying to get back into power, they needed some kind of [financial] backing. According to the videocassette, they signed a deal whereby Kabbah granted them 25 to 30 percent of the [Kono] mining area, at a value of about US$200 million. The company spent about US$10,000 to get him back into power. Not everybody knows about that videocassette. In Sierra Leone, very few people know. A report ran in [independent Freetown newspaper] The Concord Times, but beyond that, I'm not sure how widely it has been distributed. But Diamond Works' agreement still stands.

The current deputy defense minister, Samuel Hinga Norman, is also in that video, he's not happy. In the video, he said, "Why should Kabbah sign this kind of contract?" He's not happy.

Now Kabbah is not a bad man, but he's not a good ruler. He's made so many promises. When he came to power, the first promise that he made was that he was going to construct a bridge between Changing and Lugi. That never materialized. He said he was going to give duty-free concessions. That never materialized. Then came December 1998. He said the war was going to come to an end. And on Jan. 6, 1999, the RUF attacked Freetown and occupied the city for three months, raping and massacring the population.

And Kabbah promised micro-loan schemes, so that people could build houses and rebuild their lives…. He was playing the political game, thinking that that was the way to control the people…. but he never gave the people the loan schemes. But people are beginning to ask, "Why is this man telling lies?" We all expect leaders to tell lies. But we expect them to tell lies for the benefit of the people, not lies that will harm them. This man is just for himself; he's not for the people.