''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 1

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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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 overthrown.

Peter 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. Peter Penfold, former UK High Commissioner to Sierra LeoneFirst 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.

Fergal King: Did you hear anything because the radio I know from personal experience is almost the first thing you turn to?

Peter 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 country.

Fergal King: When the reports of atrocities start coming in what kind of things did you hear about them?

Peter 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.

Fergal King: Did you see this coming? Did you have any intelligence to suggest that this was going to happen?

Peter 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.

Fergal King: 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?

Peter 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.

Fergal King: 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?

Peter 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.

Fergal King: When you say soldiers - what are we talking about, the sort of generals of the army, or something quite different?

Peter 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 dining room.

Fergal King: With all the guns?

Peter 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.

Fergal King: 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?

Peter 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...

Fergal King: 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....

Peter 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.

Fergal King: 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?

Peter 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 Africa.

Fergal King: So you do get in touch with London and a major evacuation operation is mounted. In all how many people ....

Peter 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.

Fergal King: 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?

Peter 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 ....

Fergal King: Did you argue against that?

Peter Penfold: Yes I did but I was over-ruled.

Fergal King: 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?

Peter 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.

Fergal King: 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?

Peter 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.

Fergal King: Executive Outcomes was a South African-based company but linked to Sandline that already operates in places like Angola...

Peter 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 mercenary firms....

Fergal King: 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?

Peter 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 view

Fergal King: But it  certainly was new that they were planning an arms import deal?

Peter 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 .....

Fergal King: Big enough to cause massive political embarrassment for the British government and to end your career effectively

Peter Penfold: Yes, because of the view that it was breaching UN sanctions which of course was something that was never tested in the courts

Fergal King: You don't accept there was a breach of UN arms embargo?

Peter Penfold: I don't accept that it breached UN sanctions. No.  It may have breached the UK Ordering Council

Fergal King: That Order in Council was the legislation which would spell out exactly who was covered by that UN arms embargo?

Peter 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.

Fergal King:....two 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 Foreign Policy.

Peter 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.

Fergal King: 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?

Peter 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.

Fergal King: 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.....

Peter 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.

Fergal King: ...if Customs and Excise had found evidence that you've been involved in breaking the arms embargo?

Peter 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.

Fergal King: These inquiries were looking at what went wrong in the whole affair?

Peter 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 matter .......

Fergal King: 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 peripheral..

Peter 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.

Fergal King: 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

Peter 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.

Fergal King: 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...?

Peter Penfold: I hope not. I don't think so. I neither enjoyed the adulation that I was receiving from the Sierra Leonean people ....

Fergal King: This is the point. There were demonstrations in your favour, you were widely praised ....

Peter 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 job.

Fergal King: 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...

Peter 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.

Fergal King: You come back after your request to stay on longer in Sierra Leone is refused. And you tried to apply for jobs, what happened?

Peter 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 turned down.

Fergal King: How many posts did you apply for?

Peter Penfold: I eventually ended up applying for sixteen different posts and every single one of them I was told there were people better suited.

Fergal King: Has anybody explained this to you?

Peter 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.

Fergal King: Do you feel bitter?

Peter 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 our territories...

Fergal King:...and you haven't got a foot wrong ...

Peter 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

Fergal King:...if 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

Peter 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.

Fergal King: For the record they would of course would of course strenuously deny this.....

Peter 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.

Fergal King: Peter Penfold, thank you very much

Editor's note: The above is not a verbatim (word for word including ehms, ahas etc) transcript of the interview, but is largely correct.

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