Hinga Norman: Tragic Hero or Opportunist ? (Final Part)

15 February 2006 at 07:01 | 543 views

Stephen Lawrence, our correspondent in Denmark, concludes his series of articles on Hinga Norman and other major players in the Sierra Leonean crisis. His concluding remarks might surprise you if you have been following Stephen’s personal reflections on these pages. Here is Stephen Lawrence:

By Stephen Lawrence in Denmark

You must have heard or read about the testimony of former British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone Peter Penfold on behalf of the indicted former Deputy Defence and later Internal Affairs Minister doubling as Kamajor chieftain Sam Hinga Norman. This shows how much influence Norman wields - even when behind bars. Penfold could not hide his sentimentality towards Norman’s present predicament, and even angered the judges when he kept insisting that his friend should be a free man because he was not a “war criminal” but a “war hero”. Of all the powerful friends of Norman, Penfold has been the most loyal - even when his friend is incarcerated and out of power.

Yet the Court will not be driven by such sentiments. The facts should speak for themselves. And whether Norman is a “war hero” or a “war criminal” will soon be made evident. It would only be known through the past activities of Norman. Let’s then continue to look at things from that perspective.

In my penultimate article, I had already indicated that Hinga Norman’s Operation Black December was actually the catalyst that prevented the AFRC from running the affairs of state effectively, with the blessings of President Kabbah, plus artillery and jet-bomber support from the Nigerians.

But Operation Black December itself was a disaster for Hinga Norman, because the kamajors suffered a string of defeats. By the end of January 1998, it was like the great warrior was losing out. Those who worked with him in those days still suffer pangs of sympathy related to the efforts and calories the old man was losing in traversing the Mano River Union countries, as he moved from updating President Kabbah in Guinea to flying over to Liberian territory for a route to supply his kamajors inside Sierra Leone. There was no other way a man could have been so devoted to a cause.

Therefore, in the end, partly due to his tenacity, Hinga Norman won. Because on Valentine’s Day in 1998, with the sanctions crippling the nation, backed by a more intensive use of jet fighters, the kamajors and the Nigerians, after a seven-day battle, forced the AFRC/RUF to withdraw from Freetown - two months before the April 22 deadline in the Conakry Peace Plan. President Kabbah was seen jubilantly hugging his Deputy Minister of Defence for a job well done. Oh what life has taught Hinga Norman...

And, since day one of the military intervention as the number of towns or villages or hamlets that the AFRC/RUF were routed by the Nigerians and the kamajors increased, Hinga Norman’s powers proportionately increased, and he became so powerful that at some point in time only him and Nigerian Task Force Commander (later to be Chief of Defence Staff of the Sierra Leone Army - you see?) General Maxwell Khobe virtually decided which way Sierra Leone should go. It was so; and so it was until the government paid deaf ears to the call of concerned pacifists to still have included some members of the AFRC/RUF in running the affairs of state in the interest of peace and

Don’t say that to Hinga Norman. No one would negotiate with rebels who would soon be crushed - who already had left behind their fighting equipment!

Eldred Collins, now a witness for the Special Court (how the Court came to that conclusion only God knows - but that’s a different story), was outspoken in calling the BBC to state that the RUF was still intact and they would withstand “the Nigerian invasion of our country” until they were spoken to and their leader Foday Sankoh released from prison. Later, Maskita (’General’ Sam Bockarie) said ‘Operation No Living Thing’ would ensure that nothing was left standing until they achieved their goal. But who would listen to a charlatan? The kamajors would soon kill or catch every member of the savage AFRC and murderous RUF.

Sincerely speaking - or sincerely writing - I am yet to see a group of amputees claiming to have lost their limbs or legs during the nine-month reign of the AFRC. I am still yet to see another that would allege to have met their fate during the AFRC/RUF withdrawal from Freetown to Masiaka through Lunsar to Makeni to Kabala and Kono. In fact it was revealed during the TRC’s public hearings that Johnny Paul actually called a meeting in Makeni and admonished all soldiers to surrender to the Nigerians if they came peacefully - but alas, bombs and jets sent all scampering for safety, breaking the chain of command, thereby making everybody for himself and God for them all.

Clearly, there was sufficient time to have sued for peace. Yet it was not to be. They (the remnants, as they were called) will soon be flushed out and there was no one to talk to (as if the whole leadership of the AFRC/RUF had already been exterminated or rendered hopeless - in fact at some point the government-controlled press claimed that all top AFRC/RUF leaders had been killed in one swoop by a jet fighter) were the reigning anthems. And then, bit by bit, oh my God! limbless victims with oozing blood started appearing.

Hence, Sierra Leone’s war entered its ugliest chapter. And then the greatest controversy arose over who was cutting the people’s hands and legs. The government definitely asserted that this was the handiwork of fleeing rebels now using machetes to take revenge on the civilian population for supporting the restoration of democracy. What other explanation sounded sweeter in the ears of the international community? Yet, vehemently, and up to the last public hearing of the TRC, the residual leadership of the AFRC/RUF denied ever ordering such a horrendous act, and instead blamed it on the kamajors who wanted to gain sympathy and political mileage (On his return to Freetown after the Lome Accord, Johnny Paul visited the Aberdeen Amputee Centre to further denounce and decry whoever must have done such an inhuman act). In truth, there is circumstantial evidence - either by proximity or even by witnesses’ accounts - that the hand-cutters were mostly AFRC/RUF elements who, simultaneously, in a show of villainy and cynicism, sent victims to President Kabbah to give them hands. But whether this was sanctioned by the leadership or not, whether it was carried out by all or by a particular group, cannot be ascertained.

The story however becomes more complicated taking into consideration the allegations which came out of the TRC’s public hearings that indeed some kamajors and RUF rebels formed a heinous league in the bush (a kind of joint administration in the Tonkolili area) and themselves came to Freetown on January 6 1999 to unleash the same brutality of not only killing and destroying, but cutting people’s hands. Yes, that sounds utterly incredible, but it’s part of the TRC records. So the crucial question is still “who cut the people’s hands and legs?”

But all this could have been avoided - the mayhem could have been averted. That is my point - it is my position. Had the change of mind that occurred after January 6, to release Foday Sankoh and negotiate, happened a little bit earlier, then the people’s lives could have been spared, could have been saved. But not when assurances of military victory from the Nigerians and the kamajors were in abundant supply, so that even on the morning of January 6, when the first shots started raining on Freetown like ‘manna from heaven’ (Journalist Kabba Kargbo was severely beaten death by Waterloo residents for saying that), state radio was still carrying the consoling announcement ‘nar tyre fire so’. Freetown’s confidence was never that high- until the people opened their doors and were greeted with ‘we don cam back’ by the ’remnants’, in their thousands. And the melee of brutality started (I hope you’ve seen Sorious Samura’s CRY FREETOWN), with every faction - kamajor or Nigerian or soldier or rebel - turning civilians to guinea pigs. By then, top government officials, having again smelt the rat, were on their way to Guinea, leaving the people to battle it out for themselves.

The rest of the story I need not recount to you. How Hinga Norman and others were totally and absolutely against President Kabbah’s, as they called it, capitulation to the rebels for negotiations; how US President Bill Clinton had to bring his authority to bear by sending his Special Envoy Rev. Jesse Jackson to, as they called it again, drag President Kabbah to Lome; how the kamajors, even after Lome, continued to violate the ceasefire especially in the diamond areas (of course the AFRC and the RUF also violated the ceasefire, with the former’s Westside paraphernalia and the latter’s May 8 katakata the most memorable); and how Pa Kabbah lately realised his mistakes and therefore removed Norman from Defence, are all stories that are well known to us all.
But whether Hinga Norman is a war hero or an opportunist is for you to decide - or, as things stand, is for the Special Court to decide. To me, he could be any or both. The Special Court will prove me right or wrong - because, even if Hinga Norman does not eventually walk a free man, if he only succeeds in getting President Kabbah in the dock (just as a witness to be quizzed), he could be more of a hero than an opportunist. But if he walks free, there could possibly be no other hero in Sierra Leone’s history. Don’t tell me about Bai Bureh!

Photo: The late Brigadier-General Maxwell Khobe of Nigeria. He worked closely with Hinga Norman.

Photo credit: Sierra Leone web.