First Published September 1, 2001 – Sierra Leone Live
SLL: Tell us a bit about your experiences with the rebels in these circumstances.
J.S.Momoh: Okay, yes, but first about the journey to Makeni. You can just imagine going through the forest for five days and five nights without food. There was no food whatsoever. We lived on water only. When we came across a little mountain stream, we drank a little bit of water. That was all. A good number of people died on the way. They could not make it. They just collapsed and were left there to die. By the Grace of God we got there, 27 of us who were the key people they wanted. Later on, I got to know that the RUF was looking for people of note who could become part of their administration because they had decided to become a political party. So they wanted people of substance to be associated with their party. So people like myself, Victor Foe, Hilton Fyle, you name it, we were all part of this group of 27. Eventually, we got there but it was horrible and tough going. Fortunately, with the help of my military background, I was able to make it, but not without wonderful pains. There were bruises and scars all over my body. Eventually, we got to Makeni. I found myself behind rebel lines for 11 months. There again it was horrible living with the rebels. The rebels are terrible fellows. They are people who have no respect for human lives. For them to kill somebody it was just like that. It was by the Grace of God some of us survived.
To start with there was very little to eat. You see rebels can only eat after looting from people. If they go for their loot and there was nothing available for that day there was no food. So for most of the time, we lived on fruits, mangoes and oranges, and that was all. Eventually, they said they wanted to take us to Kailahun. This was where I stood my ground. They said Mosquito, you know the notorious Mosquito, said they should take us to Kailahun. I said I was not going any step further than here. With all that I had gone through, I said that I am quite an old man now, and for me to travel from here again to Kailahun was out of it. Some of them, Victor Foe and others decided to go. I think 11 of us said we were not moving an inch. So we stayed in Makeni. I stayed with them. I was in the hands of a brigadier. He was a Liberian, Brigadier Isaac. Again it was horrible.
SLL: How did you feel as former Head of State finding yourself in that kind of situation with the rebels?
J.S. Momoh: There was nothing I could do. It was not a question of your own choice. With them, once they say come with us, if you are sensible you go with them. If you don’t go with them, the next thing you know you are shot and you die. I had to go with them. I had to live with them under very difficult conditions. No food at times. People were shot left, right and center. You see among them they had no regards for human lives. A little quarrel between them would result in a shoot out and one person is killed. And once that person is killed, all they did was go behind the house, scoop the ground and bury him there. In fact, it came to a time when I advised them that we should decide on one site as a cemetery because people were killed almost every day. I said you see Makeni uses a lot of wells. By burying people all over the place, elements of decomposed bodies would sip right into the wells and people would begin to drink that type of water, and there would be a lot of diseases here. But the rebels… I hope I will never have that unfortunate incident of living with people like those rebels again. So I stayed with them for 11 months. They tried as much as possible to tease me. But I was too smart for them. I realized they were only trying to find an occasion perhaps to deal with me brutally. But I kept a very low profile and made myself very humble. After some time they came to realize that well there is nothing we can do with him so let’s leave him alone.
They kept me there until Foday Sankoh eventually came to Makeni. Before then, I had made a lot of overtures. I said the Lome agreement had granted an amnesty to everybody. All my other colleagues including those in Kailahun had been released, so why are you still holding on to me. They said no we cannot release you until Foday Sankoh comes. So I was able to get a message to my lawyer in Freetown, and members of my party, saying I am still being held here even though the Lome Accord has given us a general amnesty. They too were able to put some pressure on the UN representatives in Freetown and the UN said look, he had to be released.
And so when Foday Sankoh started making trips, he eventually came with a UN helicopter, with the UN commander, his deputies etc, a high powered delegation so to speak, came to Makeni and demanded my release and I was brought to Freetown. Foday Sankoh, when he eventually came to Makeni. In fact, incidentally, Foday Sankoh is somebody I had known when he was in the army, until 1971 when he got himself messed up with a military coup. By then I was the lieutenant colonel in command of the first battalion, then he was one of the signals at the regiment. So I knew him there. But since 1971 I never saw him again until when we met in Makeni in 1999.
So Foday Sankoh came to me and said okay, now we are going to form a political party so I want you to join my political party. I said to Foday Sankoh no, no, no, I am sorry. Politics is no more for me. Now all I want to do is to find a way and get out of the country, as you can see that I am not too well with all that I have gone through since 1998: sleeping at Pademba Road prison under very difficult conditions, then going through the bush, being here with no good food to eat, no medication etc. etc. I said my health has actually deteriorated, so all I wanted was to get a means of going out of the country to go and look after myself, but politics is no longer for me.
He said well if you join my party, automatically the APC would follow. In actual fact, they were trying to look for people of substance to be associated with them, but I stood my ground and said politics was no longer for me. I told him also that there was no guarantee that even if I join his party, automatically the APC would join. I said it was not possible. The APC is a party made up of independent people. It is not a question of whatever the leader says the party would follow. What if I wanted to please you now I can say yes, the APC is now part of your administration, but when people hear it from outside they will say what is wrong with this man. How did he commit us without even hanging heads with us?
So I said to Foday Sankoh that please give me a chance to go to Freetown where most of the people in the APC are. I’ll go and talk to them. If they agree that we should become part of your own administration, then we’ll join. It was while we were on this sort of discussion that the UN came and said this man has been given the green light. He is a free man now. Nothing is against him, so release him. So I was released and brought to Freetown in November 1999.
SLL: You knew Foday Sankoh existed. Why didn’t you treat him seriously when he announced in 1990 that he was going to start a war to overthrow your government?
J.S. Momoh: As I said I saw Foday Sankoh for the last time in March 1971, and since then I never saw him again. He took part in a military coup and then went to prison, I think for seven years or so, I cannot remember what the jail term was. After that, he disappeared. I never saw the man again. I never heard of him again until just after the rebel attack in 1991 when the voice came over the BBC that Foday Sankoh was now the leader of the revolution. Of course, when he was with us in the army, his name was Alfred Sankoh, but then he was now calling himself Foday Saybaneh Sankoh. So it was difficult for me to know whether it was the real Sankoh that I knew in the army. Eventually, I got to know that he was the man, but we didn’t meet ever since, till 1999. And then when we met, Foday Sankoh was really a man of no substance, so I didn’t see any reason why the man should be accorded any importance. If anything at all, I was angry with him that he plunged Sierra Leone into such a mess. I didn’t consider him as a man of any substance.
SLL: Would you then say now that it could have been better to treat him seriously because eventually, his war became very serious?
J.S. Momoh: If there was an opportunity for me to talk to him face to face when he started his so-called revolution, I think I would have told him that Foday, you were in the army, all be it you left the army disgracefully. But you should realize that the question of using military means to overthrow a government is not correct. You are talking about a revolution. Explain to me really what you think would be the overall benefit of this revolution. I should have been able to sit down with him and discuss, but as I said we never met and we never spoke.
SLL: What is your assessment of President Kabbah’s administration so far? Is there anything you could have done differently had you been the Head of State during his period of reign?
J.S.Momoh: Quite honestly I am not in a position to pass judgment on his administration. For the simple reason that he came to power in 1996. Between then and now, for the greater part of that period I have been out of Sierra Leone. From the beginning, I was in Guinea. I went home and in less than a year he was overthrown and he was out of the country. By the time he came back, I was arrested and put in prison. From prison, I found myself with the rebels. From the rebels, I found myself out of the country again. So I have never been able to live in Sierra Leone long enough under his administration to be able to assess him. So if I attempt now to say anything against him, it would not be fair to him.
SLL: If you were president, would you have done differently from what he has done so far given the same set of circumstances?
J.S. Momoh: Well I’ll only address one area which is the question of military intervention. If I was the president and I was ousted by the military as was done to him in May 1997, I think I would have behaved in the same way as I did in 1992. I would have refused to use the military option as a means to restore myself to power. I would have gone for negotiations. That would have been much better for the country. And incidentally, the very negotiation which I had advocated all along, for which I was charged for treason, was what they ended up with. They ended up going to Lome to discuss the matter around the table before the matter was resolved. I am sure they should be saying to themselves now that we wish we had heeded the advice of Ex-President J.S. Momoh, then all these problems would have been avoided. Because after all that they did, they ended up going to talk it around the table, which was what I was advocating all along.
Copyright 2001, Sierra Leone Live.