TRANSCRIPT OF THE BBC RADIO 4 PROGRAMME "TAKING A STAND"
FEATURING FORMER UK HIGH COMMISSIONER TO SIERRA LEONE, MR PETER
PENFOLD. HE WAS INTERVIEWED BY THE BBC'S FERGAL KING
How far should you go to protect somebody else's democracy? That
was the question which ended the career of Peter Penfold, the
former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone. He was accused
of turning a blind eye when British mercenaries imported weapons
to Sierra Leone in 1998. It was to become known as the Sandline
Affair. The plan was to reinstate the country's elected
President who'd been overthrown in a brutal military coup. Well,
the plan worked, but it broke an international arms embargo and
led to serious embarrassment for the British government. Peter
Penfold was accused of acting as a freelance. He was
investigated by Customs and Excise, grilled by a Parliamentary
committee and refused another diplomatic posting. The stand he
took saw the end of his diplomatic career. Peter Penfold, can I
just take you back to that morning of the coup d'etat because
you were present in Sierra Leone and most people who live in
democratic societies have no idea what it is like to wake up and
to look out the window and suddenly realise that all law and
order has vanished and that the government they knew has been
Penfold: Yeah, that's right. It all happened on a Sunday
morning when I woke to the sound of some gun shots and mortar
fire being heard around the city.
of all the feeling is one of total chaos and a lack of
understanding exactly of what was going on. Nobody was really
certain and it was extremely difficult to try and piece together
exactly what's happened.
Did you hear anything because the radio I know from personal
experience is almost the first thing you turn to?
Penfold: The shooting started at about five o'clock in the
morning. Just before nine o'clock we suddenly heard this voice
coming over the local radio station, this chap who now announced
himself as Corporal Gborie. He was clearly somewhat drunk and
excited and he announced that he and the army had taken over the
When the reports of atrocities start coming in what kind of
things did you hear about them?
Penfold: We immediately started getting in touch with
members of the British community and talking to diplomatic
colleagues anyone else I could talk to. We heard of a scene of
total chaos. It started effectively with just seventeen (17)
soldiers and very quickly the rest of the army joined in and
they went on looting and pillaging spree and nobody was spared.
It wasn't just the rich expatriates they were going after, even
the poor Sierra Leoneans were suffering. We began to have
pictures of for example the wife of one of the expatriates
working there had been raped, other people were being shot at.
We hear that the President had had to jump in a helicopter and
was flown out of the country by his Nigerian bodyguards.
Did you see this coming? Did you have any intelligence to
suggest that this was going to happen?
Penfold: There was clearly signs of unrest within the army
partly led by the corruption that was going on in the army.
Indeed one of the projects in which the British government was
involved when I arrived was the training of a new army. It was
through that project we discovered that instead of the fifteen
thousand strong army which is what the army claimed it had and
therefore was drawing fifteen thousand salaries and rice
rations, it effectively only had eight thousand people and
therefore the rice ration ended up with senior officers being
rice traders and only part time soldiers.
So you weren't surprised that people further down the line, as
it happened in so many African countries, would have decided to
mount a coup?
Penfold: No it didn't surprise me. I'd seen it before. I'd
seen coups take place in Uganda in the 80's when when I was
there, I was in Ethiopia during the revolution in the 70's and
indeed in Nigeria during the civil wars in the 60's. However I
don't think anybody was prepared for it actually happening on
that specific Sunday morning.
So the President flees the country for his life effectively. You
decide to stay on. Did you at any stage find yourself in a
position where you have to meet the leaders of this coup?
Penfold: Oh very much so. The decision to stay on was led by
my need to look after the British community and indeed most of
the European community. We had about two thousand British people
and also as the British High Commissioner, I was responsible for
a number of other Commonwealth citizens and after the mayhem of
the Sunday when things clearly seem to be coming under control,
I got in touch with my colleague, the American Charge' and the
United Nations Special Representative and said we needed to get
in touch with these soldiers to find out exactly what was going
on to be assured about the safety of our communities. In fact I
sent a message to them inviting them to come to my residence the
next day Monday. It was quite amazing. They, first of all, it
was incredible they turned up. They were this bunch of soldiers
which had just taken over the country receiving an invitation
from the British High Commissioner. But they came and I think
that partly demonstrates the important position that Britain has
with regards Sierra Leone.
When you say soldiers - what are we talking about, the sort of
generals of the army, or something quite different?
Penfold: No, no we're talking about the actual guys who led
the coup. The corporal Gbories, the sergeant Zagallos and along
with them they also brought Major Johnny Paul Koroma who they
had freed from prison the previous day and now made him the
Chairman or de facto President of the country......and they all
turned up still wearing all these guns and carrying Rocket
Propelled mortars and grenades. I invited them all into my
With all the guns?
Penfold: Well I was a bit fearful...in fact I suggested they
might like to leave their heavier guns outside because I did not
want to scratch the dining table and kindly they did so and
started to explain why to me why they had done it, what they
were doing and then Johnny Paul Koroma in trying to explain why
he had done this said to me that he had done it for the cause of
democracy which I felt was absolutely flabbergasting and I told
him so and he said well he supported democracy because he'd
voted at the last election. Then I explained to him that there
was far more to democracy than just voting in an election and in
fact one of the most important things in a democracy even if you
have an inefficient corrupt government is by the ballot box, not
by the gun.
Nonetheless, you do manage to negotiate patiently with them to
get the expats out. How big an operation was that and what was
the response of London when you called them up to tell them that
this was happening?
Penfold: As I explained this happened on a Sunday and so
therefore....my first contact was with the Resident Clerk...in
the Foreign Office and I was just keeping them informed...
Hang on a second. You spoke to a clerk about a military
coup...they had overthrown a democratic government. Why was
there nobody more senior to....
Penfold: Well the Resident Clerk is a very/fairly senior
person. I had been a Resident Clerk myself at some stage. It's a
system we have...like a duty officer who're on duty out of
hours...out of normal hours.
It does strike one as a bit strange ... a military coup
overthrowing a democratic government which Britain supported
couldn't have had at that stage even ministerial attention?
Penfold: Well I think it was early days, ...still trying to
piece together what had happened ...sadly of course it is not
that unusual for these sorts of things to happen particularly in
So you do get in touch with London and a major evacuation
operation is mounted. In all how many people ....
Penfold: Altogether we moved five thousand people, two
thousand of them British in a combination of ways. We were able
to bring in a jumbo jet ..and get the women and children out.
Then we were able to bring in a French corvette, a ship that was
close by and then the American sent down this big USS Kearserge,
a sort of helicopter carrier got the bulk of the people out.
Indeed in one particular operation they took two thousand people
out which was the fastest ever evacuation of a community from
any war-torn area.
These people were being airlifted and taken out by ship under
the eyes of Sierra Leoneans who'd now having to live with this
brutal government. Did you feel any sense of guilt that the
people were being abandoned?
Penfold: While all this was going on, at no time did I
consider I was leaving myself. I thought we were beginning to
stabilise the situation, we were getting out the most affected
and I particularly did not want to leave in a hurry leaving my
own staff....and the Sierra Leoneans. At the very last minute
during the last evacuation by ship, I received faxes from London
that I had to be on the ship and I was rather upset and
concerned about that ....
Did you argue against that?
Penfold: Yes I did but I was over-ruled.
You leave Sierra Leone and you move to neighbouring Guinea. In
that time and for the time that you were away, many people have
described it as an age of "darkness descends on Sierra Leone".
Just give me some idea of the context of which you would later
make decisions in relation to Sandline's importation of arms.
What kind of human rights abuses were taking place?
Penfold: The total breakdown of society had occurred in
Sierra Leone. I think one has to understand the enormous
sacrifices that the people of Sierra Leone had made to usher in
their democracy in the 1996 elections. Many of them had suffered
tremendously. Even on the day of the election itself, the
soldiers went out on the streets and started shooting at people
that were lining up to vote. There was one particular story that
had a deep impact upon me. When they voted in election, as they
do in many African countries, is not very sophisticated so to
demonstrate that you voted the back of your hand or thumb is
marked with indelible ink. If the rebels found somebody with
that mark, they chopped off their hand and there was one person
who had had his hand chopped off just for voting and he was
asked how did he feel now about voting, about democracy and he
bravely waved his other hand and said, "Well I have another
hand. I can use this one next time to vote. When I heard that
story, I was amazed and wondered for example, here in Britain if
people had the fear of losing their hand will they still
continue to vote and it showed therefore the sacrifices the
people were prepared to make for their democracy. When the 17
(seventeen) soldiers therefore came along we know.....that
people were incensed. They, bravely and for ten months, these
people just refused to acknowledge this junta, they refused to
accept that this was the new government. The students passed
resolutions refusing to go to school, all the banks remained
closed, many businesses remained closed, the people were all
determined to see the end of this bunch of soldiers and to see
their democratic government back in power.
You became equally determined to see the end of them. You're the
ambassador in exile as it were in neighbouring Guinea where the
democratically-elected government and President Kabbah...but it
is at this point that things start to go in terms of your future
career....Discussions are held with what is described as a
mercenary company about the importation of arms. You're told
about this. What is your first impression when you learn that
the government is about to import arms?
Penfold: It was not as clear-cut as that. First of all one
has to ....Sierra Leone has a good experience of dealings with
this firm called Executive Outcomes.
Executive Outcomes was a South African-based company but linked
to Sandline that already operates in places like Angola...
Penfold: Many people claim that it was thanks to Executive
Outcomes that the rebels were stopped from taking over Freetown
two years earlier. So the people of Sierra Leone saw the
Executive Outcomes as a force for good...Kabbah (the President)
is sitting there now in Conakry.....ECOMOG and ECOWAS, the
sub-regional force are committed to seeing his
restoration...He's more or less totally dependent upon them and
the international community. He has some indigenous forces, not
the army, but the civil militia who are prepared to fight for
his restoration but he has no chance of getting any assistance.
A firm called Sandline come along and offer him a package of
training and equipment including some arms and ammunition. He,
just before I was coming back from Christmas, showed me the
draft contract. I told him clearly that this was for him to
decide whether he went ahead with it there would be a certain
amount of consternation that he was doing deals with so-called
Wasn't this the point where the diplomat with a grain of
commonsense would have immediately called the Foreign Office and
said, "Hang on a second, do you realise that President Kabbah
was planning to engage mercenaries and that these mercenaries
are British. Isn't that red alarm button time?
Penfold: First of all Sandline had been in touch with the
Foreign Office for a long time before they came to my attention.
They had been having meetings with my colleagues in the Foreign
Office before then so there was nothing new from that point of
But it certainly was new that they were planning an arms import
Penfold: The draft contract, which was shown to me, I
reported to the office as soon as I got back here...this was on
a Friday, on Saturday morning I was on a plane back to
England......but one of the puzzling things that came out, this
all was happening during the Christmas period that I sent a
letter into the Foreign Office before I was then flying out to
Canada for a holiday and that letter apparently never made it
into the Foreign Office which was strange....this was veritaby a
small amount of assistance which effectively was mainly for
training, a very small amount of arms and ammunition - very
peripheral to what was the major source of fighting which was
the ECOMOG force. In total, the package was only about one
million pounds and indeed as we know when it actually came
through it was all over anyway. Kabbah had been restored, so
it's been a great exaggeration over how big this package was
Big enough to cause massive political embarrassment for the
British government and to end your career effectively
Penfold: Yes, because of the view that it was breaching UN
sanctions which of course was something that was never tested in
You don't accept there was a breach of UN arms embargo?
Penfold: I don't accept that it breached UN sanctions. No.
It may have breached the UK Ordering Council
That Order in Council was the legislation which would spell out
exactly who was covered by that UN arms embargo?
Penfold: Yes, but I think UK Order in Council misinterpreted
what UN sanctions was and indeed that's the view of the Legal
Department of the United Nations as well who at the time also
said that they felt their sanctions was not directed against
President Kabbah's government.
views at the time cropped up...there was a feeling that you were
naive and the other you were devious. That you walked the
British government and the Foreign Office into a situation which
caused massive embarrassment and undermined the nascent Ethical
Penfold: I would deny both accusations certainly I knew I
wasn't being devious because as I say everything that I did was
being reported from me to colleagues. As for being naive we all
have the potential of being naive but I expect at that time,
sixteen years serving in Africa, ...and being in a number of hot
spots, troubled spots, at no time did anybody inform me, those
who knew what was happening, that this was in breach of
sanctions......the position was the point I was taking was not
in breach of sanctions. Every statement issued by the Foreign
Office talked only about arms embargo against the junta. The
United Nations Legal Department itself said that sanctions were
not being breached. It was not until I saw the UK Order in
Council which some months afterwards that I saw where the
confusion was. That in fact we had, I think in my view,
misinterpreted what the situation was.
As a general principle, would you believe that it would be wrong
for a democratic government to that's being overthrown to engage
the services of a firm like Sandline?
Penfold: When you look at it in the context of Sierra Leone
there was the legal government of a country about to be
overthrown by a bunch of rebels who were going about chopping
off people's hands and legs. There is no offer of any assistance
coming from Western governments - the Americans, British or even
the African governments to send in troops. Your own army is out
of control - what're you supposed to do? Just sit there in your
capital and allow the rebels to take over or do you explore the
possibility of....to stop it? I think it is very difficult for
us to condemn it.
If you followed, as you say you did, the procedures and that you
reported the information as soon as you heard it....the Foreign
Office would strongly disagree that you did...how did you end up
getting so badly.....
Penfold: I have no idea about that. I share the confusion I
think of many Sierra Leone people....we were not just fighting a
cause for the restoration of democracy in Sierra Leone, we're
trying to make the call for the last military coup in Africa. We
were saying that if any other group of soldiers in Africa
decides to do this, this is the reaction they would get both
from the international community and the local people. When the
junta was finally removed I thought because clearly they were
not going to step down without a degree of force being used by
the ECOMOG soldiers, the Nigerian soldiers, it was a great day
for Sierra Leone and a great day for Africa's democracy and the
role that Nigeria and Britain have played was widely
appreciated. Therefore for the New Labour government just coming
in who've made a commitment to help Africa, they had been
delivered a success in Africa. What the Sierra Leone people then
found difficult to understand is that suddenly people in Britain
were calling this a scandal and that totally confused them and
indeed I think it confused me as well when I was asked to come
back. After we had got President Kabbah back I thought it was to
come and talk about the future of Sierra Leone now that
President Kabbah had gone back. It was a couple days before I
flew out. I was suddenly told about the Sandline problem. When I
got back I was told that I mustn't have any contact with anybody
in the Foreign Office - that I must report to Customs and Excise
to be interviewed under caution. It was very distasteful. I
didn't really understand what it meant but I found out that
there was a prison sentence hanging over my head.
...if Customs and Excise had found evidence that you've been
involved in breaking the arms embargo?
Penfold: That's right. Now as it happened, as we know,
Customs and Excise decided to drop the case. I hoped that would
be the end of it but of course I was subjected to the Legg
inquiry and then later to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
These inquiries were looking at what went wrong in the whole
Penfold: All that was very disturbing but I think the thing
that concerns me most is that throughout that period in '98 when
we should have should really have been focusing our energy on
this infant democracy that we'd established instead we had all
our attention being focused on, what I feel, was a peripheral
Hang on a second though - its peripheral for the British High
Commissioner to a former colony is accused of colluding with
mercenaries?. It stretches the imagination to call that
Penfold: ....I had two meetings with a private security firm
that is proposing a contract with the government we are in
touch with. There are, at the time, no rules or guidelines
issued to diplomats ....the documents they passed I passed on to
colleagues.....so I cant see there was any collusion at all.
Africa has people who travel a lot in West Africa. When you
mention the name of Peter Penfold what is usually said, I'm sure
you're aware of this yourself, is this "that was a good man but
he lost himself - he went native". I am not telling you anything
you don't know....you lost contact with London
Penfold: I didn't lose contact with London because I thought
I was very much in contact with what was going on in the country
which was part of my job. Underlying all of this was the
struggle to maintain and restore democracy in that country. This
was felt deeply by the Sierra Leone people. Surely that was a
call to which we the British government were particularly
committed to. We had a genuine obligation to try and help that
democracy to thrive in the country and it was certainly
appreciated by the people of Sierra Leone perhaps not so like
the people here in London.
I'm just wondering though if there is something seductive ...the
British High Commissioner - the most powerful Westerner, if that
in any way, went to your head...?
Penfold: I hope not. I don't think so. I neither enjoyed the
adulation that I was receiving from the Sierra Leonean people
This is the point. There were demonstrations in your favour, you
were widely praised ....
Penfold: Twenty thousand people, Sierra Leoneans marched on
the streets of Freetown while I was back here being questioned
and on my return I was made an honorary Paramount Chief which
was a high accolade used in Sierra Leone. So on one hand I was
using ...but on the other hand here in the UK I was being
denigrated with the media camped outside my house. I could just
sneak out through the garage just to go and do some shopping. I
didn't feel comfortable with ....I just wanted to get on with my
But maybe a part of that is your problem. You weren't paid and
you worked hard to represent the interests of Sierra Leone. You
were hired to represent the interests of Her Majesty's
Government. Absolutely, you forgot that...
Penfold: No, not at all because the interests of the British
government on the whole were to promote democracy and economic
stability and that is exactly what I was trying to do.
You come back after your request to stay on longer in Sierra
Leone is refused. And you tried to apply for jobs, what
Penfold: When I'd gone out of Sierra Leone I had been made
to believe that I would have one more posting after Sierra Leone
- which was something my wife was particularly looking forward
to not least because of all the upheaval that we'd gone
through. My wife had barely been able to join me most of the
time I was in Sierra Leone because of all the troubles. So I
came back and as is the normal system I started applying for
various posts again in Africa. But every post I applied for was
How many posts did you apply for?
Penfold: I eventually ended up applying for sixteen
different posts and every single one of them I was told there
were people better suited.
Has anybody explained this to you?
Penfold: Well there were also suggestions being made that I
take an early retirement. I was not necessarily against early
retirement but I would like to ...it would be the time of my
choosing. In the end arrangements were made for me to be
seconded to DfID as a conflict adviser working for Clare Short.
And so for the year I worked there but of course all this was
spinning out time in the office....but of course there was no
longer any years left for me to apply for a full posting. So
somewhat reluctantly, I then retired a couple of years early.
Do you feel bitter?
Penfold: I cant say I feel bitter about my career because
I'd had a tremendous career. I'd spent thirty eight years in the
service. I come into the Foreign Office at the very lowest rank
in the ladder as a Clerical Officer in the days when we used to
light coal fires in the Foreign Office. I was able to work my
way up through a variety of very interesting jobs ...I served
all round Africa, in South America, I was a Governor in one of
you haven't got a foot wrong ...
Penfold: ...Up until Sierra Leone, I'd had outstanding
reports everywhere I'd went and all I was looking forward to was
that one final posting in somewhere less hectic where my wife
and I could just retire after a thoroughly enjoyable time
you had your time again in Sierra Leone, would you have opted
for the safer option and that was telling London immediately and
in great detail about the plan with Sandline and then getting
out of there as fast as you possibly could which would have
seemed the diplomatically safe way to go about things
Penfold: I have no regrets about anything that I did in
Sierra Leone. I would still maintain that I did not do anything
wrong and that I did keep everybody fully informed all the time
on what was happening.
For the record they would of course would of course strenuously
Penfold: Well it depends on which record you look at.
Whatever happened here, whatever happened personally to me, what
has been very encouraging is the vast support that I got from
friends but particularly from the Sierra Leone people. Many
people would claim that because of my support, because of my
actions, we did save lives. One person said something which I
found very very moving when I was being installed as a Paramount
Chief. He announced to thousands of Sierra Leoneans that in
Sierra Leone's history Britain has sent two great British people
to Sierra Leone. In the last century they had sent Governor
Clarkson one of the famous colonial governors who's given Sierra
Leone a prayer and indeed Governor Clarkson's Prayer is still
read out every day on the radio and then he said then in this
century, Britain sent us High Commissioner Penfold who gave us
hope and I was very moved and I understood what he meant because
when you saw the desperation and the atrocities that had
happened to Sierra Leone, the only thing that was left for
people in those circumstances is hope.
Peter Penfold, thank you very much
note: The above is not a verbatim (word for word including ehms,
ahas etc) transcript of the interview, but is largely correct.