January 6, 1999: 9th anniversary of a day of great sorrow and pain

8 January 2008 at 11:49 | 991 views

By Abdulai Bayraytay, back in Toronto, Canada.

Gbooom, gbooom, gbalala, gbalala, gbalai, gbalai etc was how Freetown, the once peaceful capital of the West African state of Sierra Leone was onomatopoeically awakened by gun fire unleashed by combined marauding rebels of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and remnants of the renegade regular military forces that left a conservative 6,000 innocent and unsuspecting civilians and uniformed forces dead.

On that chilly morning of January 6 1999, in which Freetonians were not in a hurry to wake up from the harmattan cold, there was the least suspicion that “sobels” and rebels had already stock-piled weapons of all kinds ranging from small arms and light weapons of Russian- made AK 47 kalashnikovs, hand grenades to mortars in a real show down with loyal government forces and soldiers of the West African Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) operating under the auspices of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

As news of the invasion of Freetown became uncontested, I became a walking corpse in my house at Kingtom in the west end of the city not the because I was one of the puerile politicians and part of the status quo, but simply because I was on radio and TV the previous night vociferously calling on the useless and bloodthirsty RUF and its protégés to disarm and give peace a chance.

“This is one of the most callous rebel outfits with absolutely no agenda rather than looking for diamonds to feed their grandiose selfish ends in the history of post- colonial sub-Saharan African”, I could vividly recall dismissing the RUF on air in one of the radio programs I usually organized in my capacity as Information and Research Officer at the local advocacy NGO Campaign for Good Governance in Freetown.

So, as rebels gained grounds with alacrity, some of my mischievious friends and audacious relations took advantage of my fear and scared the hell out of me by taunting outside my premises in this way as I took cover indoors: “Bayraytay, where is he...we are here to get him as he has been criticizing our movement...”.

If I had ever had doubts about how God could perform miracles, I lost all doubts as I instantaneously became a religious fanatic reciting the alfathiya seven times, and other selected Quranic verses invoking God’s timely intervention.

But no sooner than I realized the trick that I shouted at the top of my voice cussing my tormentors indicating that I would not succumb to any blackmail, hammering the point home that Sierra Leone was all ours and that the rule of law, and freedom of speech should reign at all times. I trumpeted these slogans on the assumption that these would make sense to the screwy RUF and sobels gallivanting along the streets of Kingtom as “liberators” of the masses.

As I reminisce over the 9th anniversary of this madness in the political history of our country, any analysis of this nature will definitely not be complete if it does not peremptorily revisit the security cum political blunders of the mercurial Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) government that gave leeway to the invasion itself.

In retrospect, instead of the government being honest with the masses that it lacked the political will as well as the security nerve to secure Freetown after rebels had sacked the countryside, it rather heightened its propaganda machinery by surreptitiously using radio slots of “nar tire boss” (it was a tire explosion) to calm the fears of residents in the East end of the city from fleeing rebel advances.

The rebels not only deceived the people by instructing them to fly high white flags as an indication of their commitment to peace, but they became brutal with civilians by torching their houses and firing on fleeing occupants. Consequently, the chanting of, “we want peace” became dulled by wailings of death, carnage, arson and devastation perpetuated by RUF/SLA in style.

Although this could not be directly ascribed to the blunders of the government, yet it could be inextricably linked to responses made by the erstwhile Information Minister in a British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Focus on Africa program in which he disclosed that they were “getting information through civilians” when asked how the government was getting information about rebels in the East end of the city. This is where the SLPP government would forever need the belated forgiveness of Sierra Leoneans following the sporadic killings that ensued.

As I dedicate this article to the deaths of innocent civilians, the raped, and the drugged children recruited to kill their kith and kin during the course of the war from 1991 until 2002, I call on all activists both at home and in the Diaspora to join hands in advocating good governance, the rule of law, democracy and a corruption free, accountable government that should strive to address the perennial poverty, deprivation, joblessness, lack of shelter of the majority, if not all, of the people rather than feeding them with heaps of the usual mantra of one political speech after another by successive governments.

*PV Deputy Editor Abdulai Bayraytay(photo) was recently in Sierra Leone on a short visit.