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.
Days after the historic meeting in Yamassoukro, Republic of Ivory Coast in March 1996, the leader of the NPRC Julius Maada Bio, handed over the reign of Government to President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah who swiftly formed a new administration and continued with efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation in the country.
The telephone conversation at a safe house in Danane, Ivory Coast with Corporal Foday Sankoh was to become the foundation upon which Omrie Golley’s role in the peace process was built. It was through that safe house bush radio conversation that Golley was able to detect an uncanny desire for international recognition and acceptance from the RUF leader.
The formation of an external delegation by the RUF was no small measure an attempt to establish diplomatic contact with the outside world and it had become obvious that the RUF leadership wanted to be taken seriously.
Golley met Foday Sankoh for the first time on the 24th March, 1996 at the City of Yamassoukro, Ivory Coast, 450 kilometres north of Abidjan. This was a couple of months after the meeting at Danane with the RUF external delegation.
He had returned to London after that initial encounter to escalate his engagements with International Alert, the ICRC, the Commonwealth Secretariat, UN and occasionally, through telephone conversations, with members of the RUF he had met in Danane.
It didn’t take Golley long to learn that a meeting had been scheduled between the NPRC military government of Sierra Leone and the RUF. In his quest to see a peaceful resolution of the conflict, as well as the realization that the said meeting would afford a wonderful opportunity for his group (operating under the umbrella of the National Convention for Reconstruction and Development NCRD) to meet with Foday Sankoh and the RUF leadership to continue the process of dialogue and encouragement for a sustainable peaceful resolution of the conflict, he wasted no time to mobilize other members of his organisation to travel with him to Yamoussoukro for the historic meeting.
He contacted Oluniyi Robbin-Coker, Osman Yansaneh, Lans Gberie, Ambrose Ganda and other Sierra Leoneans and offered to meet the cost of the travel for the whole Group, from their respective departure points in the UK and West Africa.
The Late Ambrose Ganda, penning details of the historic event in his Focus on Sierra Leone in March 1996, wrote:
"I arrived in Abidjan Sunday morning 24 March, determined to witness the historic meeting between Maada Bio and Foday Sankoh, but not knowing what the program of events was. I checked into my hotel room and was just about to steal a wink - having travelled on a night flight from London - when the telephone rang only for me to be told that both men were due to arrive in Yamoussoukro that very evening.
"I hurriedly surrendered my keys at the reception and checked out. I was in the company of three compatriots - Omrie Golley, Chairman of the National Convention for Reconstruction and Development - which also paid for my trip as with an earlier visit, Mr Osman Yansaneh, a personal assistant of ex President Momoh, who travelled from Conakry, and Mr Lans Gberie, editor of Expo Times, who had travelled from Freetown as an independent observer. We boarded a hired jeep, and headed with a rendez-vous with history, nearly 450 kilometres in the North of Ivory Coast.”
Golley and his fellow compatriots arrived late that evening, finding accommodation at the same hotel where both the Government of Sierra Leone delegation together with that of the RUF were residing, and sent word to both delegations that they had arrived to witness the historic event, expressing a desire to meet with them.
Golley and the rest of the group that accompanied him received immediate word from Foday Sankoh that he was very keen to meet with them.
Warmly welcoming Golley and his fellow Sierra Leoneans, Sankoh went on to berate Ambrose Ganda, in a friendly way, for some unflattering remarks Ganda had made months earlier about the RUF, in one of his publications which had been brought to his attention. Sankoh was equally swift on putting that episode aside, engaging the group in an informal manner. He then went on to speak copiously about the reasons why the RUF had embarked on what he termed ‘an armed struggle’, and giving a lecture on what he termed the core of the thinking of the Movement - Pan Africanism- and the need for grass roots involvement in the political dispensation of Sierra Leone which he described as lacking.
Golley and Ganda in their own individual comments mentioned to the RUF leader that they had come as independent observers to the peace meeting, not being part of any official delegation. Golley went on to add that they would probably be waiting outside the hall - where the meeting was to take place - until it’s conclusion, and that the Group had come to Yamassoukro to give moral and where necessary, practical support to both sides.
Sankoh’s immediate response was;
"We are all Sierra Leoneans, aren’t we? We are here to talk about peace for our country. Every Sierra Leonean must be welcome! You do not need an invitation for that, do you? You should come to the hall tomorrow to make your presence felt."
Golley remembered this initial encounter in which these historic deliberations also brought with it an amusing moment.
‘’We were all seated in the inner suite of Foday Sankoh’s quarters with Sankoh resplendent in traditional ronko attire, with us listening animatedly to him dilating on the reasons why the RUF took up arms.
In the middle of this discourse, Sankoh got up suddenly to attend to a call of nature. Thinking that this brief interlude, would afford the group a few minutes to compare notes on our individual feelings, we were surprised to witness Sankoh enter the bathroom, sit on the toilet seat, bathroom door ajar, continuing with his discourse as if there was absolutely nothing wrong with this particular mode of engaging in public conversation” said Golley.
The scheduled peace talks eventually took place, the following morning, on Monday 25th March 1996. It was a historic meeting between the NPRC Leader and Head of State Brigadier Julius Maada Bio and the RUF Leader.
This initial encounter was itself preceded by high drama for which Omrie Golley and his brethren had not expected.
Just before the event itself started one of the NPRC Delegates came into the Hall and formally objected to Golley’s group, naming him in particular, stating that he (Golley) and his team were neither part of the government delegation nor part of the RUF Delegation.
The meeting stalled and escalated into a serious stalemate.
The RUF Delegation maintained that, as Sierra Leoneans, Golley and his Group, were perfectly entitled to remain as observers of the Meeting. The Government delegation on the hand argued that the NCRD team was not illegible to attend as they weren’t part of the official or RUF delegation.
“For my part, initially I dug my heels in, stating that as observers recognized by the hosts in the Ivory Coast, together with one of the participating Delegations who had insisted that we attend, we couldn’t simply leave the Hall because the Government Delegation objected’’
The Stalemate sadly continued, with the delegations maintaining their respective positions. Tempers flared.
‘’The historic Meeting was on the verge of collapsing even before it started. One side, it seemed, had to back down or give in’’
It was however not long before Golley relented, taking the view that his being singled out by one of the Parties to the peace talks, objecting to him and the Group witnessing the occasion, was a small price to pay, taking into account the reason why he was there in the first place - giving peace a chance, and doing everything possible to end the hostilities and bring about a lasting and sustainable peace to Sierra Leone.
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