Salone News

Harvest of Shame: The Case of former Leader Valentine Strasser

2 July 2008 at 16:56 | 4974 views

Commentary

By Roland Bankole Marke, USA.

Valentine Esegragbo Melvin Strasser was born April 26, 1967 in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he attended the Church Missionary Society (CMS) Grammar School up to sixth form, at post secondary level.

On completing school, he enlisted in the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces (RSLMF). After his training, he rose to the rank of junior officer. He never nursed any intuition that between 1992 -1996 he would be making history, emerging as the world’s youngest dictator and founding leader of the National Provisional Revolutionary Council(NPRC) in Sierra Leone, at the youthful age of 25. Subsequent events that apparently electrified him to seize power were more dramatic than tactical.

As a young, ambitious military officer, he was dispatched to the eastern district of Kailahun to deal with a rebellion and insurgency,led by a former army corporal, fighting against the legitimate government of the late Dr. Joseph S. Momoh.

The contentious, formidable and notorious aggression would give birth to the Revolutionary United Front(RUF). Momoh had peacefully sailed to power, changing the baton as head of the military to president, in a pioneering, seemingly unique constitutional novelty. It was the brain child of the aging, late president Dr. Siaka Stevens, who was battling sagging health, and did not favour any of his natural or constitutional successors to succeed him.

At the theatre of war, things grew bloody and vicious. The government in Freetown woefully failed to supply enough boots on the ground and the necessary military armament to support Strasser’s battalion to win the prolonged military campaign.

Ironically, the soldiers at the war front sometimes did not receive their salaries on time: their welfare was hardly at the top of the government’s list of priorities. At the same time, the nation was nursing an avalanche of general malaise and disenchantment. The soldiers, after many appeals, warnings or threats decided to march down in their combat gear to State House in Freetown, to protest about their setbacks in pursuing the war and demand their outstanding salaries. The audacity of the men and the shock of seeing battle-hardened troops in town dramatically forced president Momoh to flee for his life.

Momoh’s perception of the intentions of the soldiers was flawed: he concluded that the rapid, unfolding events was a coup in the making. That was not actually the case.

The emergence of a power vacuum motivated Strasser and his men to seize power, forming the NPRC, and Strasser becoming the nominal head. His ascension to power inspired the youths and the young at heart, who believed that a youth has finally emerged to champion their cause. Earlier, the youths were the Cinderella in the political, economic and social machinery of the government. However, Strasser was not trained or groomed to manage the complex machinery or routines of government. Numerous folks were left petrified, gasping for breath or biting their nails. His youthfulness and naivety multiplied his woes as well as the hatred of his foes.

Once in power, he vigorously pursued the rebel war against rebel leader Foday Sankoh, now deceased, as one of his top priorities. But he was able to bag little success. He broke the deadlock by hiring the mercenary firm Executive Outcomes to supplement the RSLMF: since most of his soldiers had defected to beef up the RUF, the rebel army.

I remember traveling to Vermont, New York in 1993, together with a group of Sierra Leoneans to welcome Strasser during his visit to the United States. Women were clad in ashorbie, (uniform-like tailored African dresses), to greet their new head of state. Folks were pregnant with hope, thinking that Strasser was the expected Messiah, who would usher the chlorophyll of change and the redemption of the people of Sierra Leone. Down the road their dreams would be abruptly shattered.

In January, 1996, he was ousted from within. The coup was led by army officer Maada Bio, which sent him into exile. Strasser’s presence in the limelight lasted only four years. The UN sponsored him to study law at the University of Warwick, in Coventry, England. He dropped out of school after a year. Actually, his sponsorship was withdrawn without notice. He was left unemployed and probably homeless in a foreign land, until 2000. This was when public awareness began to spread like a virus about his fate. He was treated with disdain, though his rule was unremarkable, according to African dictators’ standards. British newspapers ran scathing headlines like “Butcher of Sierra Leone on the dole.” Already, his wife had left him and he became a roaming nomad, wandering from place to place in search of solace.

The human rights organization Amnesty International had demanded that the British government should investigate allegations of torture against the former NPRC leader, and accused his troops of "torture, ill treatment and arbitrary killings of unarmed civilians," while posing as RUF fighters.

"Strasser’s men were responsible for, among other things, torture of political opponents," an Amnesty International spokesman said. "The government has a responsibility to investigate because torture committed anywhere is a crime under UK law."

Strasser, however, dismissed the allegations. "How can you say the claims Amnesty International is making are justified?" he asked. "They know it is the Revolutionary United Front that has been responsible for those abuses and violations." He also rejected criticism of the NPRC’s execution of 26 political opponents, eight months after he took power. "They were tried, they were prosecuted, they were convicted, they were sentenced," he told the Sunday Times.

Strasser, who told the newspaper he is unemployed and dependent on his family and friends for financial support, showed scars above his eye and on his leg, and said he was attacked outside a London Underground station. "I was going to an off-license, and then this guy just turned around and came at me with a knife - something like a Swiss Army penknife," he said. "I was stabbed and I had to be taken to hospital. I couldn’t put it down to anything other than racial motivation." It was no surprise that the British government after collecting enough evidence, eventually found sufficient grounds to deport him.

After losing his job, quitting school, going broke, roaming in the Gambia, and moving back home to live with his mother, after living and roaming abroad for years would be tough on anyone. It’s even tougher when he’s a former military dictator who was at the pinnacle of power, exerting an iron fist and poised to execute opponents at will. His chronicle of multifaceted, unfortunate and stressful events, were enough to assault his sanity and throw him out of mental balance. This would be the trend and fate of Stresser’s fortunes.

The Sierra Leone Peoples’ Party government led by Dr. Ahmed Tejan Kabbah granted him amnesty to return home. There is no place like home, especially when many others have despised and rejected him. He was given some dignity to feel human again on his return home. Only for him to return to a depressed and destitute state when the SLPP was swept out of power, through the justice of the ballot rather than the power of the bullet.

On his return home he had a white Mercedes Benz 200. Now, he is really a frustrated man, whether it was because of the blow from his wife who deserted him or his military colleagues who overthrew him, is still anyone’s guess.

Often, he would be seen jogging during the early hours of the morning on the streets of Freetown. Surprised, most people have concluded that his mind is sinking. Then he was living in town. Later, he moved to Allen Town to live with his mother, who has lost a lot of weight within a short time and also her son, his brother. Can a mother’s tender, loving care cease towards the child she bears? The yoke of her son’s predicament and daily stress could possibly shorten her life. It is the norm in most African countries that children should take care of their parents not the other way round. Newspapers wrote about him being a former president and sitting in a palm wine bar drinking palm wine. Some papers also published pictures comparing his present lifestyle to his past, when he was President, an eye witness told me.

In a recent conversation, one of Strasser’s relatives in Freetown, who chose to remain anonymous, confided in me that Strasser’s condition is so deplorable and desperate that one could be forced to shed tears.

“He is losing it and losing it very fast, she lamented.
This man who was once the head of state has deteriorated so much. When I went to Kossoh Town last year, I could not believe. He was wearing a white Africana suit and sitting at the back of the house during the laying out ceremony of my cousin, who happens to be his cousin too. He was drinking ‘pega-pack gin’ at the peak of the hot burning sun.
Later, when the corpse was about to be taken away, he came to the veranda. He was drunk and the boys were calling him ‘Capay’ (Captain) then people began to notice him in surprise. He must have got a large quantity of pega; and he was taking them from his pocket and consuming them one after the other in rapid succession. His mother told his girlfriend to take him away, but he was very angry and uncontrollable. He was peddling politics inappropriately in a loud tone. His eyes were furious and wild and his hair was unkempt. He looks very thin and tall. And he is like a hyena once referred to as a lion. He was finally taken away by his cousins after close family talks. Red light signals are flashing that this former head of state needs mental and medical evaluation."

“It is time to take the family pet to the vet,” a critic characterized it. But who will break the ice or foot the bill?"

“When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free.”

Truly, the words of Catherine Ponder conduct more electricity than a 1000 watts generator.

The present government should step up to the plate and provide him with the necessary, urgent medical services as a former head of state, to help him regain his mental health and dignity despite the fact that he had overthrown the old APC government in 1992.

I’m also appealing to all Regentonians both at home and abroad to show some compassion to a desperate Regentonian in need. The CMS mission is a reputable Christian entity capable of offering him help. Folk should all join hands together and prove that we are still our brother’s keeper. When one falters, the other should be able to pick him up. The United Nations and other donor organizations are doing justice to the humanitarian and peace consolidation front here. It is time for Sierra Leoneans to start helping themselves. Too much dependency on handouts for sustenance could erode one’s dignity and self esteem.

Michael McCullough, Professor of Psychology, University of Miami, Florida, in his book ‘Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of The Forgiveness Instinct,’ argues that Forgiveness, like revenge, is ubiquitous among the world’s human cultures, and it appears to be a psychological process that we share in common with many other members of the animal kingdom. Recent scientific breakthroughs illustrate the factors that activate the “forgiveness instinct” in the minds of human beings, as well as in our closest living primate relatives.

In his cross cultural survey to examine the presence of the concepts of forgiveness and reconciliation in a representative sample of 60 world societies, McCullough claimed that 56, or 93% of those 60 societies, showed evidence of possessing the concepts of forgiveness, reconciliation, or both. Revenge is like a disease or a poison that takes control of human minds and then plunges people into personal ruin and social chaos.

To argue that individual humans must change their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes in order to make the world a more forgiving place, Beyond Revenge argues that when people encounter the right sort of social conditions, their tendencies to forgive are automatically activated. When people encounter offenders who are apologetic and contrite, and who attempt to make reparations for the damage they have caused, people will be naturally inclined to forgive.

Also, if we live in societies in which our rights are protected, and are relatively safe from crime and victimization, and in which offenders are given incentives to apologize and compensate their victims, the desire for revenge erodes and the forgiveness instinct automatically activates. Sierra Leoneans should sing this chorus in their hearts, while swallowing a bitter pill that would help to consolidate peace and unity in the land of my birth, which we all dearly love - Sierra Leone. To comfort the afflicted should be our passionate melody.

Roland Bankole Marke © 2008

Photos: Strasser, in military and civilian attire.

Roland Bankole Marke is widely published. He is a Sierra Leonean writer who writes from Florida, USA. Roland has three books under his belt: Teardrops Keep Falling, Silver Rain and Blizzard and Harvest of Hate; Stories and Essays (Fuel for the Soul), in addition to scores of articles, poetry and fiction published in numerous outlets. Visit his website: www.Rolandmarke.com or call 904-645-5738.

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