Sierra Leone is about to start an official investigation into civil war atrocities even as conflict continues. A truth and reconciliation commission will look into abuses from 1991 to 1999. A special court will try those charged with crimes during the same period.
Captain Valentine Strasser seized power in 1992 and became the world's youngest head of state at age 25. He still defends the takeover as justified. But as head of state, Captain Strasser ordered the execution of 26 people. He says the executions were justified. "Have you heard of the offense called treason? Now under Sierra Leone law, if you are found guilty of treason, you get the death sentence. They were prosecuted for mutiny," he says. "They were tried, and I think that the trial was open, fair, and impartial, and they were found guilty and the sentence was carried out."
Zainab Bangura is a former presidential candidate and director of Campaign for Good Governance in Sierra Leone. She says there was no trial. "On the issue of military. It's not true. He executed civilians as well as military people and police officers. Banbay Kamara was there. He was executed," she says. "Civilian, Salamie Cooker and a few others were also executed. It's true some military people were there, but the majority of them were civilians who were executed on December 29. There was no trial. Definitely no trial took place."
Ms. Bangura says Captain Strasser should appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to tell Sierra Leoneans what he knows about the executions and perhaps to apologize for them.
Captain Strasser says he's ready to appear before either the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the Special Court. "Now if someone argues that I should appear before any court of whatever source, accused of whatever crime committed against anybody at the time when I was in office, I would tell them to come up with the evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that I committed the crimes that they accuse me of," he says. He says the Sierra Leone military, foreign mercenaries, and peacekeepers should also be held responsible for crimes he says they committed against the people of Sierra Leone.
Gone are the days when Captain Strasser was the Commander-in-Chief of the Sierra Leone armed forces and wore nice military fatigues and sunglasses. Now he's out of work and has no money. "In 1996 when I left office, I went to Britain to study. I did not complete that study, so I had to come back," he says. "So basically I haven't been doing anything. I'm unemployed. I'm out of work. I don't own a business. I have not been able to talk with any prospective employer, and I wonder who that employer would be anyway."
Captain Strasser says he shares an apartment with his mother in his home village near the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown. He describes his mother as simply a housekeeper. Captain Strasser says the civilian government of Sierra Leone owes him a pension and other benefits as a former head of state even though he seized control by force. "When I was a head of state, I was seen as a civil servant. In my passport, you would find that my profession was civil servant. I was a civil servant for four years, and if I retired, I think I ought to be entitled to benefits. And I think the government should do that," he says. "But I haven't been able to get the government to do just that yet."
Under Sierra Leone's constitution, anyone who has been a head of state is entitled to a pension. But the government has argued that Captain Strasser was never an elected president. Still, some Sierra Leoneans like Ms. Bangura, say the government might have to give Captain Strasser his pension in the name of peace. "Sometimes to have peace in the country you have to pay a price. If he committed any crime within the period when he was in position, I think they should allow the law to take its course. And I think whatever it was, we were the ones who created him," she says. "We were the ones, the Sierra Leoneans and the government who allowed him to come, and I think for the sake of his office, the fact that he's been president, for the dignity of the office, I think the state should be able to take care of him."
Captain Strasser says Sierra Leone's new democracy is the right way forward for the country, which he says has been in a state of war for over 10 years. But he says military coups in Africa are justified if they are carried out to bring about what he calls positive socio-economic changes, or to wipe out dictatorship, corruption, nepotism, and repression. And he says his 1992 overthrow of the Sierra Leone government was justified.