September 1, 2001 – Sierra Leone Live
SLL: So do you think the NPRC had some justification to invade Freetown and overthrow your government?
J.S. Momoh: No, no, no. Let me come back to the point I made earlier on. My own argument was that, and I still hold on to it, it does not matter how unpopular, inefficient, corrupt and inept a government becomes, nobody has the right to remove that government from power by any means other than constitutional means. I hold on to that on to this very moment. So in that regard, the NPRC had no justification. If they were real loyal soldiers, instead of coming to Freetown with big guns, all they needed to do was to come down to Freetown and say you have asked us to fight a war, we are determined to fight the war, we are committed, but you have not provided us with the wherewithal so how do you expect us to fight this war? So take us to the Head of State. The Head of State is our Commander-in-Chief. Let us go and ask him if he wants us to win this war without making provisions.
This is what they should have done. According to military rules and regulations, nobody had any right to stop them from coming to see their Commander-in-Chief. If they had requested that, they could have been brought to me and I would have asked the military commanders and said now we are making so much money available for these items, how come that these boys are saying that they are not receiving anything. Then we would have known where the problem was. So for the fact that they decided to come to Freetown with big guns, that really has no justification. I still maintain that they were working under some influence, so they simply used that as a pretext, I mean the unavailability of items, to come and stage a coup.
SLL: Most political observers believe that during the NPRC uprising in 1992 which led to the fall of your government and the APC, you failed to stand your grounds as ex-soldier and Head of State and that you gave up power prematurely and fled the country, leaving some of your trusted officials like Bambay Kamara and others at the mercy of the rebellious soldiers. What were your calculations at the time of the uprising, and do you think your actions amounted to a betrayal of your colleagues and the APC as a whole?
J.S. Momoh: Of course not. Let us get the situation straight. Those dissident soldiers, the SAJ Musas and the Maada Bios took all the guns from the war front, guns which were bought for them to fight the rebels. Instead of continuing to fight, they took these big guns and brought them to Freetown. And because of the disloyalty of some of the officers that were at the war front, especially the field commanders, no intimation was given to us that this was the development. We got to know about it when the boys were already in Freetown. So when I got to know that they were already in Freetown and in fact they had taken over State House, I called my own commanders in Freetown and said you have to be extremely careful how to handle this situation. If these chaps have already come, they are right at the heart of the city and they have seized the seat of power, State House, if you have to go and challenge them, you have to do it with considerable tact. Because once they know they are surrounded, they can let loose all these cannons. And from the position in which they were already, they will create a lot of damage not only to property but to lives as well, and so you have to be very cautious.
And while we were trying to see how best we can handle the situation, because we were calling them to come and negotiate, if they had any problems let them come and tell us what they had in mind. So while we were trying to do that in a tactful way, some ill-intentioned politicians went to take these boys and told them to come out onto the streets, and straight away people from Fourah Bay College, Milton Magai and some other institutions joined in. When I realized that this thing had spread out especially into the city, I told the commanders to exercise caution, because if they came down with a heavy hand to contain the situation, a lot of innocent lives would be lost and lots of property would be damaged.
So this was how I advised myself that the best thing was to leave the city, leave the country and get out. I remember even before I left my residence, some of my loyal troops said they wanted to come out and put up a fight, but I said to them that it was already late. That if they were going to put up a fight right in the heart of the city, just imaging how many innocent people were going to be killed, how much devastation it would have brought to the country. As for me, I don’’ want the blood of any individual to be shed in trying to restore me to power. I said I’ll go away, and I’ll get out of the country and I’ll stay away somewhere. If I worked hard for this country diligently and honestly, someday I’ll come back to this country even if not as Head of State, but as a responsible citizen of this country. So it was on that score really. I simply did not want the blood to be shed simply because people wanted to restore me to power. It was not a question of cowardice, for me, I think it was a question of intelligent consideration.
SLL: So it was mainly in the interest of the safety of the lives of the people of Sierra Leone and Freetown in particular that you decided to give up power at the time of the uprising?
J.S. Momoh: Yes, of course.
SLL: Why was it difficult or impossible to rally your friends in the West Africa sub-region, and of course the international community, to fight back the NPRC regime and install yourself as the legitimate leader of Sierra Leone?
J.S. Momoh: That again is tied down to what I have just said. When eventually I decided to move out of Sierra Leone, I had a choice of going to either Nigeria or Conakry, Guinea. Incidentally, the two leaders at the time were very close friends. In Nigeria it was ex-President Babangida, in Guinea, it was General Lansana Konteh. But I chose to go to Guinea which was nearer. And indeed when I went to Guinea, the Guinean government was prepared to restore me militarily. The Nigeria government also was quite prepared to do that. In both cases, I said no. As a military man, I know what it would mean to go and attempt to restore me militarily. Take Guinea which is nearer. If they wanted to go and attack the NPRC in order to restore me, from the very moment the Guinean troops go across the border, they’ll start fighting, and they’ll cause a lot of havoc right across the Kambia District, right across Port-Loko District, and by the time they get to Freetown where the NPRC boys were really stationed, just imagine the damage they would have caused to lives and property right across the country. So I told them to just forget about it.
SLL: Tell us about your experiences in exile in the Republic of Guinea. Did you have any room to maneuver politically, in terms of moves to undermine the NPRC and win the support of Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad?
J.S.Momoh: No, no, no. When the President and the government of Guinea decided to grant me political asylum, I gave them my definite assurances that I was going to live a peaceful and quiet life. I gave them the assurance that I will not meddle in the politics of Sierra Leone. That I will stay there until I find it convenient and suitable to go back. I stayed there for five years and never once did I make any political statement. The BBC, VOA and Radio France International made many attempts to talk to me over the radio. I told them that I had given my assurances to the government where I was in Guinea, that I will not say anything that would cause problems. This was how I kept a very, very low profile throughout those five years.
SLL: How did you come to end up in the hands of the rebels after your return to Sierra Leone during the Kabbah administration? Would you say you are lucky to be alive or your clout as former Head of State helped you to survive among the rebels?
J.S. Momoh: It covers quite a long period. I returned home from exile in February 1997. In 1996 when the SLPP government won elections, President Tejan Kabbah went to Guinea and requested to see me. When I saw him, he wanted to know whether I wanted to return to Sierra Leone, and I told him that indeed I wanted to. I was being looked after in Guinea very well, but home is always home. I am yearning to come back to Sierra Leone. I told him that it was difficult to go back to Sierra Leone because there were certain constraints. For example, when I was overthrown by the NPRC, a Commission of Inquiry was set up, the Beccles-Davies Commission of Inquiry. They confiscated all my properties, including my military pensions, my savings in the bank, almost everything that I had laboured for over forty years in faithful and loyal service to my country. They seized everything. Sadly enough when the SLPP government came to power, they endorsed the actions of the NPRC. So then I explained to President Kabbah that it would be very difficult under the circumstances to return to Sierra Leone, because I would not have a house to go into, a vehicle to move about, and I’ll find it very difficult to go with my family because all my properties were confiscated.
President Tejan Kabbah assured me that he would create an atmosphere for me to come back to Sierra Leone, to live a life worthy of someone who had been the Head of State of that country. So I thanked him very much. I said to be on the safe side, as we are politicians, we are here today and we are there tomorrow, to be on the safe side let us put everything down in writing. He went and got a letter which he then brought Conakry himself. He came down with Mr. S.A. Bangura the Secretary to the President. He hand-delivered this letter to me, in fact, it was in my presence that he, President Kabbah, signed this letter. In the letter he made a lot of offers, that they will give me a house where I’ll stay, they will give me a domestic staff, a vehicle and an allowance of 900 thousand leones per month. I said okay that was fair enough. That was not bad, I’ll be able to live a modest life.
So on the basis of such assurances, I came home in February 1997. Unfortunately, when I got to Freetown, I discovered that President Kabbah and his government have had a change of mind. They went back entirely on what they had said. Even the house they said they were going to give me, one of my houses confiscated by the NPRC, even money to renovate the house they refused to give me, the domestic staff they promised to give me they refused to give me. They gave nothing whatsoever. In fact, they gave me only 2 securities, SSDs, and that was all. I was still not angry as I managed my life. Eventually, I went back to President Kabbah. I requested an interview with him at State House, just to tell him that I felt a little bit disappointed. That he had given me firm assurances in Conakry, and he had even committed himself in writing, that he’ll definitely have all these facilities for me. So I was surprised that nothing had been given to me other than those two security men.
He then admitted that it was his own intention to give me all these facilities, but some members of his party had prevailed upon him not to do that, and because of that he had had a change of mind. I said to him that I don’t think that was right. If you are the Head of State and you have taken a decision, you have even committed yourself in writing, to go back on that does not seem right. And to tell me now that some members of your party had prevailed on you and that was why you changed your mind, that in itself does not seem right. I said to him that you have the final say, and if you begin to create a situation and some members of your party can always come and prevail upon you to change your decision, you’ll be creating a dangerous precedent. But that notwithstanding the long and short of it was that nothing was given to me, and up to this very moment that I am speaking, not a dime has been given to me.
SLL: So how did you end up in the hands of the rebels, Mr. President?
J.S. Momoh: This is the situation. This was how we were there until the 20th of May 1997 when the AFRC overthrew the regime of President Tejan Kabbah. I was in Freetown. For me, it was a horrible day. If you remember while I was in exile my wife lady Hannah Momoh died on the 24th of May 1996. On the 24th of May 1997 was the first anniversary of her death. So I had arranged a memorial service on her behalf. I had gone to great pains to organize everything. I had made a plaque for her grave and a plague for her to be unveiled in the church. I had made invitations which I had sent to everybody, including the wife of President Kabbah, the late Patricia Kabbah. I sent out all these invitations to even diplomats and to friends. I was just getting ready to go to church that Sunday when I heard gunshots all over the place.
So incidentally it was not possible for the service to take place. Eventually, this thing turned out to be a coup, and we were all in doubt about what had happened. My family and I had to go and take shelter at the house of a friend, a diplomat. We stayed there for three days until we actually got to know that it was a military coup. We heard over the radio that the AFRC under Johnny Paul Koroma was now the government in power. So we decided to come back to our residence. On our way, my vehicle was snatched by one of these military people. It took me three days to be able to get my vehicle back.
After all these developments, and incidentally by then-President Kabbah had gone to Guinea, he had moved out of the country. After all these people started going out with the propaganda that I was the mastermind of the coup, and that Paul Koroma who had been declared the Head of State was in fact a nephew of mine. A lot of terrible things were said, some of them so far fetched that it was incredible. But the unfortunate thing about Sierra Leone is that people swallow stories when they are said. They believed it. Some of them even said it was me who brought Johnny Paul Koroma into the army which was a lie. I left the army in 1985 and Johnny Paul joined in 1986, so we never met in the army. And believe me, before God and man, I had never met Johnny Paul Koroma in my entire life. I had not even met the man, but at least the impression was given that I was the big brain behind the takeover.
So to cut a long story short, when the SLPP government was reinstated in 1988, I was arrested, under the pretext that I was part of the AFRC administration. It was not true. I never accepted any appointment with them, I was not any advisor to them. I had virtually nothing to do with them. You see I am vehemently opposed to military coups. If you look through my military career, for the 27 years I was in the army, I was never ever accused of being a part of any military coup. Quite a good number of coups took place since 1967 when, Hinga Norman now, headed the first coup ever in Sierra Leone. I was a member of the army at that time, but I was not involved. In fact, I was one of those who stood against that coup and many other coups, if I am not mistaking about seven coups in all. I always opposed the coups, and my own argument is that the army is there to defend the sovereignty of the State, not to challenge the authority of the State. And it is the government and people of Sierra Leone, out of their taxes, that provide arms and ammunition for the army to be able to protect them. I think it is indecent and immoral for the army to turn the guns against the very people they are supposed to protect. That had always been my argument.
So I felt very angry when people started calling my name, associating my name with the AFRC coup. And you know of all the coups that happened in Sierra Leone, the most nonsensical was the AFRC coup. Because here was a coup that was staged by junior ranks, lance corporals, corporals, private soldiers and even civilians. So I think by the grace of God I was able to rise to the rank of Major-General in the army. I am a professional soldier in every right, so I wouldn’t see myself stooping so low to begin to rub shoulders with junior ranks, private soldiers and corporals etc. What language would we use to interact? But at least this was the propaganda that was put out.
As I was saying in 1998 when the SLPP was reinstated, they started arresting people, and I was arrested and taken to Pademba Road Prison. And the next thing I know was that I had been charged with treason, together with many other people. I went through the treason trial but as God would have it, at the end of it all, none of the treason counts was proven against me. But just to make sure that I was let off the hook, they said they found me guilty of conspiracy. And what was the conspiracy? That I went to Guinea and spoke to President Lansana Konteh to ensure that military means were not used to restore the SLPP, but instead it should be a negotiated settlement. And in actual fact, I did that, but at the behest of people, very influential people in the society; judges, people in high positions. They came to me and said this is the situation in the country, the army had taken over and we are not in favour of it. You have a part to play, you have kept too quiet over this issue, you were the former Head of State of this country, you were the Major General and head of the army for many years. You must try your very best to ensure that this situation is resolved.
I did say to them that I felt very angry that junior ranks like these ones could decide to meddle with the affairs of the country, and that was why I advised myself not to have anything to do with them, and this was why I kept quiet. Even Members of Parliament included. A delegation of three Members of Parliament came to me trying to prevail on me. People from overseas even were telephoning me to say you have to play a part, don’t keep quiet. So on the basis of that, I decided to go to Conakry, Guinea, to talk to Lansana Konteh, to say to him that look, I am a military man like yourself. President Tejan Kabbah is now here with you, he had been overthrown. Everything should be done to restore him and his administration to power. But I am begging you not to use military means. As a military man, you should be able to see the consequences. There is a military government there already. However inept and inefficient that military government might be if you want to use military people from outside to overthrow them, there is going to be a big fight. And in the process who is going to be the sufferer, the poor innocent civilians in between, they’ll be caught up.
So this is why I’ll strongly advocate that you use a negotiated settlement. Call the three parties, President Kabbah, Johnny Paul Koroma and Foday Sankoh, these are Sierra Leoneans and we are all brothers. Call other influential people in the sub-region to come and talk to them to say look, the way you came to power is not the right way. Give back the power to President Tejan Kabbah, as he was the one voted for by the people. That would be a peaceful way of resolving the matter. And I did not even stop at that. Another good friend of mine, President Eyadema of Togo, happened to be the doyen of the sub-region, the most senior Head of State and he was also the current chairman of ECOWAS. I was not able to go to Togo because I did not have the means to travel by air. But I sent him a fax message which he received. And I said to him you are going to Abuja very soon for the annual summit of ECOWAS. I would advise that as the senior prefect so to speak of all the presidents in the sub-region, please use your very best influence to ensure that the Sierra Leone situation is resolved not militarily, but by negotiations. That as a military man you should be able to understand the implications if military means were used to restore the administration that had been overthrown.
That was all I did when I spoke to President Lansana Konteh and the message I sent to Eyadema of Togo. And on the basis of that, I was charged with treason. This was what was supposed to be the conspiracy, that I conspired with the two presidents to ensure that President Tejan Kabbah and his administration were not brought back to Sierra Leone. And for that I was given 10 years imprisonment, to run concurrently, which in actual fact I was to do 5 years. Two months after my conviction, the troops came from the provinces. This was a mixture of disgruntled elements of the Sierra Leone army who had gone to the bush, and elements of the RUF, who came and overran the City of Freetown. They broke open the prison and released all of us who were there, and it was quite a big crowd. Without any exaggeration, there must have been up to 5,000 of us in a prison that is meant for only 385 people. We were packed in like sardines in tins. So we were released.
When we were released I didn’t know what to do when I got out of the prison right there at Pademba Road. I didn’t know what to do. So I said the best thing to do was to go to the CID and surrender myself. I said I am too big to hide. That if I attempted to go anywhere, people would say this was the former President. And in any case, the kamajors and other members of the civil defence forces were doing their thing in the city. They were burning people alive and setting houses on fire, killing people etc. The ECOMOG too were overreacting and that sort of thing. So I said to myself it would be very stupid of me to attempt to go anywhere, so the best thing was to surrender myself to the CID. Meanwhile, the rebels came to me, the troops who came, the invading forces. They came to me and said you have to go with us. I think something like 27 of us were selected to go with them. So this was how we were abducted.
SLL: So where did you go with them?
J.S.Momoh: I eventually ended up in Makeni. We travelled through the bush, and eventually, after 3 weeks we got to Makeni. This was tough going, I tell you it was tough going…
Sierra Leone Live
This concludes Part 3 of J. S. Momoh’s Interview…