Africa, Headlines

SIERRA LEONE-POLITICS: Palace Coup Shocks West African Nation

Lansana Gberie

FREETOWN, Jan 17 1996 (IPS) - A palace coup barely five weeks before elections expected to return Sierra Leone to democratic rule has shocked the West African nation and sparked fears that the polls could be delayed.

The ruling National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) ousted de facto president Capt. Valentine Strasser (29), replaced him with his second-in-command, Brig. Julius Maada Bio, and imposed a dusk- to-dawn curfew.

Director of Defence Information Col. Karefa Kargbo announced that Strasser had been flown out of the country. Although there have been allegations that he was being detained at the military headquarters here, eyewitnesses reported seeing him arrive at the Sierra Leonean embassy in neighbouring Guinea in handcuffs.

Speaking on state radio, Kargbo said the ouster resulted from Strasser’s “blatant attempt to make some major legislative changes in the electoral laws of this country and start machinations to ensure that he is installed as the next president.”

Strasser’s ouster came just four days after an unsuccessful attempt by his brother, Reginald Strasser, to have him designated leader and presidential candidate of the NPRC-backed National United Party (NUP) at an NUP convention held on Jan. 12-13.

The convention rejected the bid, throwing its weight behind NUP leader John Karimu, Sierra Leone’s finance minister.

Even before the convention, there had been reports that Strasser had fallen out with his NPRC colleagues over his determination to hijack the NUP leadership and issue a decree lowering the age limit for presidential candidates to 30 so that he could contest the election, scheduled for Feb. 26.

Kargbo said it was a “definite catastrophe if one man tries to impose his personal ambition upon the destiny of the nation”.

He added that, had Strasser succeeded, that “would not only have derailed the whole democratic process but would have also put a lie to the NPRC’s avowed stance of … creating a level playing field and ensuring free and fair elections”.

But the claims that Strasser had wanted to run for president contradict earlier reports that the former NPRC leader had genuinely wanted to leave office and had planned to pursue studies abroad.

The indication was that Strasser considered Karimu a front for Bio, whose intention was maintain the military in office legitamised by an NUP victory in controlled elections.

According to a political insider, Bio is a hardliner who thought Strasser was too soft in dealing with the country’s politicians.

“The change of hands is a very good excuse,” said the source, who asked not to be identified by name. “Wait and see how long it is going to take before the new boys start talking serious about holding elections. Even if they agree to the scheduled date, they are going to manipulate it to ensure victory for their sponsored party.”

Other politicians and observers also appeared worried that Strasser’s removal could delay the elections.

“We do not know what they want at the eleventh hour, but if experiences from other countries should be anything to go by then the elections are going to be delayed at best,” Jeredine William Sarho, one of the country’s few female politicans, told IPS.

Desmond Luke, leader of the National Unity Movement (NUM) and one of the few outspoken politicians in the country, described the development as “unfortunate”.

“This is no time for military leaders to start playing musical chairs in the seat of power,” he said. “The nation sits on a powder keg. This democratic process must not be interrupted or the nation will face a major destabilisation, something far worse than what we are now seeing” — a reference to a rebel war that began in 1991.

“We have reasons to be disturbed,” Bamy Cheedy of the People’s Democratic Party, told IPS. “We have a group of military leaders supporting one political party but who have now apparently fallen out over power. The signs don’t seem bright enough.”

In a “special commentary” in its Wednesday edition, the ‘Expo Times’ newspaper said Sierra Leoneans “are bound to entertain forebodings because the leading players in this new coup are too staunch in support of the NPRC political party.”

“We must say that we are encouraged by the assurances that the democratic process remains on course … however, we have heard such promises much too often,” the paper added. “We insist that the elections must take place as scheduled.”

The NPRC has announced that the new head of state will “soon hold dialogue with political parties, traditional rulers and INEC (the independent national electoral council) on the democratic process.”

It also said that the new strongman “will seek dialogue with the RUF as a priority move of ending the rebel war.”

The NPRC, which who came to power in an Apr. 29, 1992 coup, has proved unable to end an insurgency begun in March 1991 by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and which has all but paralysed economic life in the country, claiming an estimated 10,000 lives and displaced about a third of Sierra Leone’s four million people.

In addition to promising a quick end to the war, Strasser had pledged at the time to rebuild the country’s battered economy and then hand over power to “a genuine democratically elected civilian government” within three years.

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