''All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing'' - Edmund Burke


S I E R R A  H E R A L D

Vol 9 No 6

The tendency sometimes to protect perpetrators for the sake of peace...doesn't help society. Impunity should not be allowed to stand. - Kofi Annan on Waki report

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Staging the Coup

677.    The mastermind of the 25 May 1997 coup was Sgt Alfred Abu Sankoh (alias “Zagallo”). The coup was not detected by the officers or the military intelligence because it was planned on the 24th and executed the next day. Zagallo was a bodyguard to a former Secretary of State during the NPRC regime, and had enjoyed a lot of benefits from that association. He was also a footballer and had been associated with a number of Freetown clubs and was finally requested to set up a football club for the army. The membership of the club was to provide the nucleus of the coup plotters. Zagallo gave vent to the frustrations in the army that led to the coup:

“Soldiers in the lower ranks were not paid a good salary unlike the officers…we were denied of privileges such as overseas courses… soldiers were killed at the war front and no provision was made for their families…there was the burning issue of the rice allocation, our rations had been drastically reduced and many times we got them quite late…the issue of Kamajors was another thing that finally discouraged the soldiers under the regime of the SLPP. As all of this was happening there was widespread rumour in the army that the government wanted to cut down the size of the army…about 240 soldiers were retired from the army early in 1997…most of them had served for more than 30 years…when their retirement benefits were finally paid it was a mere four thousand Leones and four bundles of zinc to each retired soldier and nothing more. There was a lot of grumbling from both the retired soldiers and even serving soldiers were not happy about the way the old men who had suffered in the army were treated.”

678.    There was complete disorderliness in the military among the rank and file. The officer cadre played ostrich while the soldiers complained. Many of the rank and file, including Zagallo, decided to resign from the army. Their letters of resignation were not accepted.

679.    On the morning of 24 May 1997, Zagallo assembled his team of footballers numbering 17 at the billet of the Wilberforce Barracks where the footballers were camping and reiterated the problems in the country to them, the need for them to take action, and that the way forward had been presented to him in a dream the previous night.  He was told in the dream that all their problems were caused by the senior officers. They agreed to arrest all the senior officers and detain them at the military headquarters in Cockerill, Freetown. They further resolved to carry out the operation the next day.  In attendance at this meeting were the following people, listed overleaf: 

1.    Sgt. Alex Tamba Brima
2.    Lance Corporal Tamba Gborie
3.    Corporal George Adams
4.    Warrant Officer 11 Franklyn Conteh
5.    Warrant Officer 11 Samuel Kargbo
6.    Sgt. Ibrahim Bazzy Kamara
7.    Sgt. Brima Kamara
8.    Sgt. Moses Kabia alias Rambo
9.    Sgt. Sullay Turay
10.    Corporal Mohammed Kanu alias 55
11.    Corporal Momoh Bangura
12.    Lance Corporal Foday Kallay
13.    Lance Corporal papa Bangura alias Batuta
14.    Ex SSD Officer Hector Lahai
15.    Civilian Bioh Sisay
16.    Abdul Sesay, a civilian staff of the army, and
17.    Sgt. Abu Sankoh (alias “Zagallo”)

680.    On Sunday 25 May 1997 they all met at 6.00am at Cockerill, the military headquarters. They went through the main gate and met Corporal Gborie who was on duty. All seventeen of them were encouraged to assemble with their personal arms. Major King, the Commanding officer in charge of the Air Force in Cockeril was allegedly contacted by Alex Tamba Brima and had pledged his support to the group. Alex Tamba and WO II Franklyn Conteh were to take care of the armoured tanks. The group then moved on to the arms store. The door was not locked. They collected as much arms as they could carry on their persons including AK 47 rifles and rocket-propelled bombs and tubes. They arrested the soldiers on duty at the Airforce and headquarters security office, tied them up and locked them at the Military Police guardroom. They seized all the arms and ammunition contained in both offices. They then proceeded to the tanks and ammo stores. There was no soldier on duty there either. From this store, they collected a formidable supply of rocket-propelled grenades which they loaded in three Mercedes Benz cars they found at Cockerill. They then surrounded the perimeter of the military headquarters and mounted a road block.

681.    As they did so, other soldiers quickly understood what was happening and joined them swelling their ranks to about 100 men. They began deploying themselves to strategic areas. One group headed by Tamba Gborie quickly left for the state radio station SLBS FM 99.9 to announce the take over of government to a shocked nation, and to alert other soldiers on guard duty at the station. Sgt. Alex Tamba Brima was despatched to the Wilberforce Military Barracks while Sgt Brima Kamara quickly moved to secure the army ordnance at Murray town with a group of soldiers. WO II Franklyn Conteh was left behind to take care of the military headquarters. Group three under the command of Corporal Mohammed Kanu alias 55 was to handle the 7th Battalion. The rest of the group commandeered several vehicles and moved into the town towards the prison. At the Wilberforce Barracks they arrested about 15 senior officers including Colonels K.I.S. Kamara; A.K. Sesay; S.O. Williams; S.T. Davies; A.B.Y. Kamara and Major Koroma. The arrested officers were locked up at the military guardroom at the barracks.

682.    By 7.00am this group had numbered several thousand soldiers. They split into different groups and approached the prison from different directions. There was agreement that all the prisoners, in particular, the military officers who were detained at the prison were to be set free. With the numbers of soldiers who had joined the revolt, sporadic shooting was occurring all over the city.

683.    There was no resistance at the prison gates, as the prison officers obediently opened the gates. The Nigerian ECOMOG officers that previously guarded the prison were nowhere to be seen. They were too few to offer any meaningful resistance. All the detained prisoners were set free. One of them was Major Johnny Paul Koroma detained earlier for alleged coup plotting. He praised the boys for freeing him, describing them as brave.

Later, Major Johnny Paul’s countenance changed and as he assumed command of the operation which had now taken a different dimension, he first gave orders that we should head for CID headquarters… so that we could burn it down. The reason he gave was that this was a place where cases were not decided with fairness taking his own case as an example. He later changed his mind. No one told Major Johnny Paul Koroma to assume command of the operation but seeing the situation and after we explained to him that our intention initially was to arrest all the senior officers in the army for reasons already outlined above, he told us that he was now taking over command as he saw that we were all junior officers.

684.    By 8 o’ clock a blue helicopter flew towards Juba Hill in Freetown. A few minutes later they saw the helicopter flying towards Lungi. The President was leaving the country. They suddenly found themselves in control of the country.

685.    Johnny Paul Koroma has given a somewhat different account of the events of this date. He claimed that he had requested his liberators to simply release him so that he, his wife and children could leave the country safely, to which they replied:

“No you have to be with us. You have to lead or else we will not allow you to go. If you say you are going we will have to kill you.”

686.    Johnny Paul Koroma believed that his presence helped stabilise things as the coup plotters were going to kill all the politicians and all the senior officers.

687.    The first sign that the CDS, Brigadier Hassan Conteh had of the coup was a radio message he received at 4.30am on the 25th from a Lt. Banja Marrah of the Signals Squadron at Wilberforce reporting that some armed soldiers in a Mercedes Benz car had claimed that they were staging a coup and had taken over the country. He began calling on all senior officers to report to the Myohaung Officers Mess. Within a short while, there was sporadic shooting all over the city.

    For the President, he was having his early morning shave, when he heard the exchange between Brigadier Conteh and the Lieutenant on the service radio. He requested information from Brigadier Conteh on the efforts being made to repel the coup. Not satisfied with the response, he continued to call the Brigadier regularly on the service radio.  After a short while, the radio went off air. That was when it dawned on him that the coup makers had succeeded. He quickly accelerated his plans to leave the country.

689.    Meanwhile Brigadier Conteh and a group of other officers having learnt that the plotters had taken over the officers mess and were on the lookout for officers quickly detoured to the British High Commission where they holed up to plan a counter attack strategy for wresting control of the capital city from the coup plotters. He tried to rally the remaining troops to the support of the government. Increasingly it became clear that the respective formations were either not lifting their finger in support of the government or were pledging support to the coup plotters. Col Tom Carew after escaping arrest at the Wilberforce barracks had tried to mobilise the remaining officers and men to mount a resistance. Some of the officers like Major Gottor and Lt Akim had already joined with Johnny Paul Koroma at the State House. By 10.00am there was a broadcast by Corporal Tamba Gborie on the state controlled radio that the “other ranks” of the armed forces had taken over power.  The broadcast called on Foday Sankoh to join the new government and urged the RUF to come out of the bush. This weakened the resistance of the remaining loyal troops who all scampered to different parts of the country for personal safety.

690.    Johnny Paul Koroma prevented the mounting of an assault on the State House, which had been proposed by the soldiers. He also ordered that no politician should be molested by the soldiers. Many of them were arrested, detained for a while and then released. All senior officers were directed to report at Cockerill and those who did, like this witness, were locked up:

“It was during that period when this fourteen other ranks, mostly junior ranks interfered with the operations of governance.  After that I was detained by junior military officers.  I was there for three weeks on the allegation that the President was in contact with me by telephone at my house.  My official residence was looted and vandalized and they came to my office.  I tried very hard to work with other officers to let the boys understand that it was not acceptable for coup or whatsoever.  They could not understand.”

691.    Later in the day there was a phone call from London to Major Johnny Paul Koroma by Omrie Goley the external spokesperson of the RUF, who said he had heard the radio broadcast calling on Sankoh to join the new government. He said that in the interest of peace he was going to make Sankoh’s phone number in Nigeria available to the coup plotters. Major Johnny Paul Koroma then called Sankoh in the presence of some of the coup leaders such as “Zagallo” and Tamba Gborie. Major Koroma told Foday Sankoh that the war was over and invited Sankoh to take over the leadership of the new government. Sankoh replied that this was impossible since he was detained in Nigeria. He commended the plotters for their nationalistic action in inviting the RUF to join the new government and requested that he wanted to relay a message to his fighters which he wanted recorded immediately. He gave his blessing to the new regime and called on all his fighters to come out of the bush and join the new government. They were directed to henceforth take all orders from Johnny Paul Koroma. This statement was subsequently rebroadcast repeatedly on the state run radio station. The invitation to the RUF was justified as necessary to end the war:

“We are all Sierra Leoneans and were just killing one another all the time; so you see it was senseless.  At least we could call these guys from the bush to come and join us to get peace in this country.  They decided to bring the two armies to one – the RUF and the SLA, we are all brothers; we are all one.  So we should join to make a People’s Army. 

I had small fear of them, because the [RUF] guys were proper trained commandos.  The plan was to train them to be trained like professional soldiers.  I was really surprised [because] it was peaceful at the time – no firing, no ambushes, just peaceful.  I felt happy because I was tired of war at that time.  The RUF too said that they are tired of war and that this is the time to bring peace in Sierra Leone.  There were all Sierra Leoneans, just like us.”

692.    The new government suspended the constitution as well as political parties. To the shock and consternation of the populace, Freetown was overwhelmed within days by the presence of the RUF combatants who came to the city in their thousands.

“Some of us were in the bush at that time, we only heard an instruction that we are to go and join the AFRC junta; that it is because of peace that we should join them and then the UN will come in between for peace.  So that gave the passion to some of us – when the command was given, there was no time to waste.  In the space of three days, some good number of the RUF left their hiding places and came to bigger towns.  Some were sent to Bo, some were sent to Kenema, some in fact went as far as Freetown. 

In fact, as I told you, we believe in loyalty.  When the instruction came that we should join, we never knew the circumstances at the end but our feeling was that when we were coming to a town like Freetown, we could be in Freetown, then the UN and other international bodies would come in between us and make the peace.  That was what the other Commanders told us: that the war is over; we are agreeing to join the AFRC for disarmament. 

But when we came to Freetown, after a couple of times, we saw different issues; things were looking somehow unsuitable with regards to what they had told us in the bush.  So, some of us who had far-sighted thinking started to leave from Freetown.  We said: ‘hey, this is not the peace, this is just a sort of suspended government’.”

693.    This effort to end the war worked briefly in getting the RUF out of the bush but it was counter productive. It endorsed the assertion that the army was in connivance with the ‘rebels’. This stiffened the peoples resolve not to have anything to do with the new “people’s army”.  All commercial enterprises closed shop, schools and offices remained closed for much of the nine months that the AFRC was in power. About eighty percent of the armed forces had forsworn their allegiance to the constitution and the elected government and joined the Peoples’ Army established by the AFRC. The CDF and all militia groups were ordered disbanded and to hand in their weapons at the nearest police stations.


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