THE AFRC COUP, OMRIE GOLLEY'S ARREST & DETENTION IN GUINEA & HIS EFFORTS FOR PEACE & THE RETURN TO DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE IN SIERRA LEONE
It can safely be said that the period between the 25th of May 1997 when the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) staged their coup and the return of the Tejan Kabbah administration in February 1998, was one of the darkest moments in the history of Sierra Leone.
On the morning of the 25th of May 1997, a group of soldiers of the former Sierra Leone Army staged a military coup and ousted the Government of Former President Tejan Kabbah. Like his predecessor Former President Joseph Momoh had done in 1992, President Kabbah fled by helicopter to the Republic of Guinea. The country was now rudderless without an effective legitimate government.
Omrie Golley was in London during this time, and like many other Sierra Leoneans had become increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of the peace process.
“It was at this point in time that I became disillusioned with how the Kabbah Government was handling the peace process. Hearing that he had travelled to Guinea on the morning of this coup left me with a deep sense of foreboding. I felt that he had deserted his people and that the country was truly rudderless with no one available to deal effectively with matters on the ground.”
Even prior to this event however, the relationship between Golley and the Kabbah Government had been deteriorating.
Golley had been one of the supporters of the 'Peace before Elections' campaign which had advocated that the creation and sustenance of conditions leading to lasting and sustainable peace, was infinitely more important than calling for Presidential and Parliamentary elections during that turbulent period. However the Bintumani 1 and 2 Conferences, had led to elections in 1996 that forced the NPRC military administration out, and brought in the Tejan Kabbah Government.
Additionally, having initially encouraged Golley to maintain contacts with the RUF in the pursuance of peace, Late Former President Kabba had subsequently become antagonistic believing that Golley had become too favoured by the rebel movement, against the interests of his own administration.
As far as Golley was concerned, he believed that the time and effort expended by his NCRD think tank, working to bring about a peaceful settlement of the war, had not brought about his genuine and heartfelt desire for peace, and was truly disappointed with the subsequent failure of the Abidjan Accord.
This failure led to the resumption of hostilities, coupled with death, destruction of properties throughout the country, and the abduction of children and young people into forced labour and young combatants. In addition, the leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) Group, Foday Sankoh, remained under arrest in Nigeria, and was in limited contact with his soldiers fighting in the country.
The relationship between Kabbah and Golley became fractured, and it was not until late January 1999, that the United States Government, through their State Department facilitated a telephone call, whilst Golley was on a visit to Washington DC, between both gentlemen. This call led to the resumption of discussions between them on the overall direction of the peace process. The involvement of the US Government in the peace process, and their interaction with Golley will be highlighted in later episodes.
The Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) coup in May 1997 was a very unwelcome addition to the already deteriorating situation in the country. The reasons enunciated by the coup makers in the early days of the coup ranged from anger felt by the soldiers because of the failure of the Government of the ousted Tejan Kabbah Government to implement the provisions of the Abidjan Peace Accord, to the establishment and support of the Kamajor Militia by Kabbah and the reorganization of the regular military based on tribal lines.
Golley was woken on the day of the coup by a telephone call from one of the principal leaders of the coup, a Lieutenant Gborie, who was previously unknown to him. Gborie stated that their Group had taken over the country and requested the telephone contact details of the RUF leader. Golley informed Gborie that he did not have direct telephone details of Foday Sankoh, but indicated that he understood that Sankoh was residing at a hotel in Abuja, Nigeria, which was known to all those involved in the peace process at the time.
Golley also informed Gborie that he (Golley) had grave misgivings for the country and the peace process, informing from the outset that he could not see how such an act could be sustained and acceptable either to the people of Sierra Leone, or for that matter, the international community. Gborie indicated that he had contacted Golley because the coup leaders had followed and had respected his (Golley’s) efforts to bring peace in the country, and that their group wanted a lasting and sustainable peace.
A few days after this initial contact, Golley was contacted by Major Johnny Paul Koroma, who had been named and sworn in as Head of State. Koroma informed Golley that he recognized his efforts at peace and also that he had decided to bring the RUF in to join them in administering the country. Koroma indicated that he had made contact with Foday Sankoh, the leader of the RUF, and had invited him to join his administration as his deputy.
However, even at this point it was clear to Golley that Major Johnny Paul Koroma, even with his goodwill, could not hold the situation emerging together, because of the swift condemnation of this military coup by the sub-regional and international community, and the blockades that had swiftly been put in place by ECOMOG military personnel, at the Port of Freetown together with the main occupation of the international airport at Lungi.
Mounting death and destruction of property moved Golley immensely.
“This was a truly horrific period. We heard horror stories of literally scores of innocent people being killed on a daily basis by ECOMOG jets.”
One incident which stuck in his mind during this period, was an incident in the east of the capital, Freetown, in a poor and dilapidated area called Mabella. One morning, not long after the coup date in May 1997, a whole community in Mabella was decimated by a bomb. Scores of innocent civilians were killed, maimed and injured. The bomb, it was found came from aerial bombardments of the city by forces belonging to ECOMOG, that had been sent into the country to reverse the AFRC Coup and restore the Government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah.
Against this backdrop, Omrie Golley decided to travel to Freetown to meet with the AFRC coup leaders to plead with them to accept the demands made by the sub regional body, ECOWAS and to also comply with United Nations Resolutions on that issue.
The decision to travel to Freetown to engage the new AFRC Government was not made lightly. Golley was aware that a visit of that nature posed great dangers to his personal safety and security. The stories of death and destruction in local and international media were enough to dissuade anyone to return to Freetown at this difficult time. Golley however was motivated by his manifest desire to try to bring some sanity to an already confused and dangerous situation in the country, where ordinary civilians were the main casualties.
Prior to making the perilous journey into Sierra Leone at this time, Golley engaged a number of Sierra Leoneans who he considered had intimate knowledge of the situation on the ground at that time. One of those people was a former NPRC senior Government official, Captain SAJ Musa. Captain Musa had been a senior member of the NPRC Government who Golley had known as a junior subaltern, years before the NPRC came into power in 1992. Both Golley and Musa had attended the same Catholic Church at Wilberforce in Freetown, the St Luke's Garrison Church. SAJ Musa was one of the altar boys at that time.
After the NPRC administration handed over power to the civilian Kabbah Government, Musa elected to travel to the United Kingdom to pursue a law degree. It is said that Golley, who himself is a lawyer in the United Kingdom, actively supported Musa in this endeavour, encouraging him in his pursuit of the law and acting as a mentor to Musa as he embarked on his stay in England as a student.
Like Golley and many other Sierra Leoneans, Musa had become alarmed at the deteriorating situation in the country. He felt he had a duty to return to Sierra Leone to assist in restoring some order and sanity there. He informed Golley that he had engaged the new AFRC Government, and he felt he could assist in returning the country to normalcy and ultimately to democratic governance.
Golley embarked on the journey to Sierra Leone with Musa in early July 1997. They took a flight to Conakry, the Guinean capital, intending to continue the journey into Freetown by road from Conakry, through the border crossing at Pamalap. The International Airport in Freetown was closed to commercial traffic, and had been taken over by ECOMOG forces, who were now using the airport to launch aerial bombardments into Freetown, to restore the administration of Kabbah.
Golley had intended to get to the border crossing point in Pamalap in Guinea, well before the 6pm daily closing hour at the border post at the Guinea-Sierra Leone border. Unfortunately however for Golley, his convoy of vehicles got to the border point an hour later.
Upon arrival at the border point at Pamalap, both Golley and Musa were arrested, questioned, and both gentlemen were detained at the police station there. Unknown for Golley at the time, the Guinean Forces had witnessed massive troop movements on the Sierra Leone side of the border earlier that day. Additionally the arrival of a military helicopter on the Sierra Leone side had unsettled the police on the Guinean side of the border.
Golley and Musa were held in detention for 3 days. They were both questioned separately and extensively as to the purpose of their visit into the country at this time. Golley noticed that each and every day of their arrest brought with it an array of Guinean police, the much feared Red Beret military personnel and other officials pouring into the police station where they were being held.
The atmosphere became increasingly tense. Both Golley and Musa were unsure of their fate. They were unaware of what had unsettled the Guineans on the Sierra Leone side of the border on the day of their arrival, and could only surmise that the Sierra Leonean administration in exile had become aware of their presence in Guinea and were discussing their fate with the Guinean Government.
Golley had in fact informed the Kabbah Government through an intermediary in the United Kingdom, of his plans to go to talk to the AFRC Administration and the RUF, in pursuance of peace, but had not informed of the intended date of his arrival because he was unsure of the real reaction of Kabbah to this move.
The third day of their detention in the Guinea border town dawned with an ominous development. At around 11am, both Golley and Musa were bundled into a lorry by Red Beret Guinean military personnel and taken back towards the Guinean capital. After an hour or so on the motorway into Conakry from the border town, the military conveyance containing Golley and Musa veered off the motorway and into a rice growing plantation. This area seemed completely uninhabited. They were taken off the lorry into the plantation. Guns were then cocked by these military personnel and pointed in the direction of both Golley and Musa who were handcuffed to each other.
Golley recalled the moment:
“It was a surreal encounter. These military officials looked very mean. They didn't utter a single word to us. They pointed their guns into our direction. It was so quick and sudden. I felt that I didn't even have time to think or pray. After a minute or two, again very silently, without any command from other officers present, those soldiers pointing their guns at us, simply uncocked their weapons, and led us back to the truck. The military convoy then boarded the conveyance with us and we headed towards Conakry.”
Golley was taken to the Inspector General of Police, who again questioned both men as to the purposes of their visit. Not long afterwards, the Inspector-General of police released both men and provided them with a police escort to return them to the border town.
Golley arrived later that afternoon at Pamalap, and crossed the border into Sierra Leone. Both men were met by a large number of military personnel and were helicoptered from Pamalap into the military headquarters in Freetown.
Golley spent a week in the capital Freetown, in July 1997. During this time he held discussions with Major Johnny Paul Koroma and senior officials of both the AFRC and the RUF. He pleaded with the AFRC administration for a speedy return to democratic governance. He was in no doubt that the military intervention by the AFRC was unsustainable.
Golley remembers the general situation in the country at the time:
“The general situation on the ground was chaotic, almost in shambles. It was unnerving to listen to bombardments by heavy weaponry from the direction of Lungi which was under the control of ECOMOG forces, every single day and night. The leadership of the AFRC administration was moving from house to house to conduct their affairs, and most of them hardly stayed in the same place at night. Even though the RUF had become part of the new administration, they were complaining ceaselessly of the unfair treatment that most of their personnel were receiving by some senior AFRC officials. The level of tension was very high on many fronts. It also appeared that the AFRC were being harassed continuously by ECOMOG Forces. Most importantly the people were suffering very much. Prices of basic commodities were unduly high and in most cases out of the reach of ordinary civilians.”
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