John Benjamin’s Submission to Truth & Reconciliation Commission on the
THE DECEMBER 1992 COUP TRIALS AND EXECUTIONS
Presentation to Thematic Event – Specific and Institutional Hearings on the December 1992 Coup Trials and Executions
BY JOHN OPONJO BENJAMIN (Year 2003)
My profound thanks go to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for affording me this opportunity to contribute to this national process of healing the wounds of our past civil war.
Mr. Chairman, let me crave your indulgence to allow me to use this opportunity to make statements on certain issues which we all know brought us to the situation we now find ourselves. I was born in Segbwema, Kailahun District where I attended primary and secondary schools. Thereafter I studied at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone where I majored in Mathematics and Physics graduating with a B Sc. Degree. I trained as a computer programmer and rose to the position of General Manager at NCR (an American multinational company), with responsibility for our operations in Sierra Leone and The Gambia.
I was at this substantive post when I was appointed to serve my country in various capacities during the National Provisional Ruling Council military regime 1992-1996. I served that regime as Chief Secretary of State, Secretary of State Chairman’s Office and Secretary General at various times. After the end of that regime by way of a successful holding of a relatively free and fair elections (considering the circumstances), the country returned to civilian rule.
That was the rebirth of democracy which we all are benefiting from today. Once power was handed over to the winners of that election, the current ruling Party - The Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), I returned to the private sector and continued to work as Executive Director for African Information Technology Holdings (AITH), which was formed out of the NCR. I have since been able to establish new branches in Bo and Kenema and am working on plans to set up branch in Makeni. Our business includes sale of computers and accessories, Automated Teller Machines (ATM), training in Hardware and Software, LAN Installations, Internet Cafes, Maintenance Support for Hardware etc.
SPECIFIC KNOWLEDGE OF THE DECEMBER 1992 COUP AND EXECUTIONS
It is against this background that I want to make specific comment on this specific request by the TRC to come and do a presentation on the theme “The December 1992 Coup, Trials and Executions”. It is generally clear that as a member of the NPRC Government, we all assume responsibility for the over all performance of that Government, good or bad. It was in view of this consideration that the invitation of the TRC dawned on me with mixed feelings. As a well meaning Sierra Leonean, I felt internally gratified to be accorded the singular opportunity to make my contribution by way of complementing the objectives of the TRC in its drive to restore sanity, openness and reconciliation to our beloved country. However, on the other side after a careful perusal of the topic under review i.e. “The December 1992 Coup, Trials and Executions”, I felt a little constrained in making meaningful submission for the specific events mentioned, since my knowledge on these events is very limited because they were never within my official responsibilities.
I was Chief Secretary of State until November 1992 when I was transferred to the post of Secretary of State in the Chairman’s Office, where my responsibility at that time was to carry out jobs assigned to me by the then Head of State, Captain Valentine Strasser. When I was Chief Secretary of State, I chaired all cabinet meetings and directly supervised the operation of all the cabinet members including the Attorney General. In November 1992, when I was appointed Secretary of State in Chairman’s Office, I was no longer a member of Cabinet and did not attend any meeting where, if at all, the issue of an alleged abortive coup in December 1992 could have been deliberated. Indeed like any other member of the public I followed the events through the press reports and unofficial sources. The office of the Attorney General then, I believe could have documents relating to the facts of the then trials and the executions that were subsequent to the trial. It is but prudent to ask those who were in charge of the entire episode. They are, I believe, the most appropriate people that can throw light on the whole issue so that the true story is brought to the knowledge of us all, including my humble self.
We must first and foremost note that the regime I served was a military regime, and matters such as coup and executions were not the domain of administrators or civilians like myself. I therefore had no input whatsoever into such matters.
It could be recalled that at the time of the change of Government from the APC to the NPRC, most State Institutions had virtually collapsed. This was the reason why NPRC was accorded universal welcome both locally and internationally. This change at that material time removed the yoke of dictatorship and backwardness that had devastated every facet of Sierra Leonean society. The NPRC was able to command the confidence and trust of even traditionally hostile multilateral financial institutions like the IMF and World Bank, which are generally known for their abhorrence for military regimes. It could be recalled that donor organizations had lost confidence in the country and had hence blocked substantial assistance packages to the country under the then APC. Also it is but necessary to note that the NPRC resuscitated several development-oriented programmes, among them were the SLBS television service, 99.9 FM Radio station, winning of zone2 trophy two times, qualification for African Nations cup two times, introduction of IDD system, rehabilitation of the Connaught Hospital, construction of Satellite Clinics, construction of several community market structures, roads network reconstruction in the city and the provinces; salvaging crises such as the queues for fuel, rice, services at the Banks, total power blackout ...the list is long. But this regime was not without its own mistakes. In fact no regime in the world is blameless, let alone one that governed by decree. They are however on record as one of the few military Governments in this part of the world that sought the opinion of people, accepted their wishes and returned this country to civilian rule through the ballot box.
Bintumani 1 and Bintumani 2 were living testimonies.
INTEGRITY OF THE JUDICIARY
Since the 1967 elections, the Judiciary has been subjected to gross manipulations and interference from the executive arm of successive governments. Political interference in the workings of the courts has been used as a medium for settling political scores. The APC coming from the opposition was bent on revenge for what it saw as repressive posture by the then ruling SLPP under the leadership of Sir Albert Margai towards their party and their supporters.
It is necessary to note that in 1967 the APC swept the polls in the North and the Western Area, the latter region providing most of the qualified personnel of the Judiciary. The APC found it less difficult to get the judiciary on its side in its bid to punish SLPP staunch supporters and party members. Ever since there has been this vicious circle, using the Judiciary to vilify political opponents. Treason trials in this country since then have been in most cases a matter of using the courts to get rid of political opponents. The laws are there to ensure this. Legal reform has been a thing to which we only pay lip service. Today, if anything, we must be able to learn from the fate of Brigadier Lansana, Brigadier John Bangura, Sorie Fornah, Francis Minah and those who lost their lives in other coups .
These flaws in our laws must be arrested now if our democracy should work. The Honourable Judges must not allow themselves to be submissive to the whims and caprices of the Executive.
POLITICS: VISION FOR SIERRA LEONE.
Apart from my being active in the private sector, I have also been contributing to the political sphere as well. Since I left public office in 1996 I have been executive member of the National Unity Party and later Interim Leader. I am now a registered member of the SLPP.
It is expected that one must comment on the most topical issue in contemporary discourse in Sierra Leone- corruption. I believe that we cannot deal with this topic in isolation. I know our Government is going all out to address this issue of corruption, through institutional reforms, Anti- Corruption Commission, and setting standards for performance in public office. A case in point is the current move by Government in emphasizing public accountability and subjecting its officials to press scrutiny. It is no secret that corruption has eaten deep into every fabric of society, systematically collapsing state institutions, leading to regrettable fall in standards. We must ask ourselves: Why?
The answer does not only lie in the fact that there is rampant corruption in every sector of society. We must also take into account the years of decadence, that allowed standards to fall, killing values in public servants. The conditions of service for civil servants suffered drastically and over the past decades - they became too ridiculous. This situation allowed corruption to trickle down to the lowest cadre in public service. Poverty became pandemic. Until meaningful and reasonable wage is paid to the public servant, we would not go anywhere in this much trumpeted war on corruption. My view is that, this is a forgone lost war.
Until concrete steps are taken in the direction of ensuring that people get properly paid , corruption will remain a way of life.
The Government has vowed to work in earnest to ensure food security by the time we get to the polls in 2007. If food security is so important to us, we must support this Government now, to take a systematic approach to ensure that they provide the infrastructure for it. We must prioritize - pump in a lot of resources into Agricultural Education and extension projects.
Those endeavoring in that domain must be encouraged by additionally subsidizing their education and enterprise. Added incentive in the form of free agricultural education, ready employment and market will help. Massive overhaul of current methods using trained manpower, modern technology are imperative.
Mechanization and improved technology is the key to food security.
Poor employment scheme and cumbersome management processes for workers is common in most Government departments. Something drastic has to be done, to get rid of the unnecessary bottlenecks so as to avoid the incidence of late payment of salaries, pensions and ghost workers.
There is every need to decentralize the functions and operations of Government. We have now begun seeing evidence of this with the sitting of Cabinet in the provincial headquarters. Once these efforts at decentralization take hold, persistent administrative encumbrances would be tackled. One would not need to come to Freetown to apply for a job as a doctor in Makeni, or a teacher in Bo, mining engineer in Kono, or an agriculturist in Kenema.
The educational, health and housing sectors are areas we have to direct more resources and be innovative, if this country is to move forward. One would suggest the institution of a loan scheme properly monitored by various institutions of government to ensure sustained compliance. We want to ensure that those who want to serve the country are empowered to do so by directly benefiting from these programmes. The 6334 system could be made more meaningful if the foundation of vocational structures is well grounded. We should not lose sight of the fact that massive illiteracy was, and remains a major source of underdevelopment and a big drawback to progress across the country.
Our country should benefit from the education and resources provided to our youths by ensuring that they serve their country for a specified period in a national service scheme. Such a scheme would develop the spirit of nationalism and better understanding of our various regions and ethnic groups.
We must be very conscious of the fact that our role in ECOWAS is primary among the factors responsible for our decade of war and devastation. We need not be hypocritical about this. ECOWAS owes us that obligation in a time like this when we are in the process of reconstruction of our nation. Our nation has suffered grave consequences as a result of our willingness to offer our territory for the cause of ECOWAS in their efforts at pursuing stability in Liberia.
We appreciate the laudable contribution of ECOMOG (ECOWAS peacekeeping troops) who strived remarkably for stability and even went as far as making the ultimate sacrifice while working to defend our people and democracy in this country. ECOWAS also made an invaluable contribution during the peace, disarmament and demobilization processes. However, it is my belief that ECOWAS has the moral obligation to support us through this period of reconstruction of our nation. The rebuilding of our country should not be left in the hands of Sierra Leone and Sierra Leoneans alone. ECOWAS should be fully involved since it was at their request that our country was sacrificed as a base for salvaging the crisis in Liberia for which we suffered all this destruction and setback.
With regards to the operation of the Special Court, our government needs the full support of all ECOWAS States so as to ensure that their work is unhindered.The mandate of the court should be respected throughout the region and regardless of status of a person, once you are indicted, the court processes should be implemented without any interference.
PATRIOTISM AND NATIONAL IDENTITY
Though people refuse to debate the issue of tribalism and regionalism, it is very much alive in our society. Politics particularly is run on tribal or regional lines. This often frustrates competent and talented citizens of whatever ethnic background whose contribution can be meaningful to the country. It also promotes sycophancy and leads to putting square pegs in round holes.
The SLPP is currently making moves towards giving politics a national outlook. What is, however, very crucial at this time, is that such a drive should not be undermined by opportunists. It should be directed at the people in their villages right across the country.
Most of our journalist brothers of the fourth estate made a lot of sacrifice in keeping the flame of democracy burning even at the expense of their lives during our past crisis. This is the time for our government to create the enabling environment that will ensure that high standards are maintained in their profession. The recent development of the mass media program into a full degree course is now making this task meaningful. However the survival of this country continues to be in the hands of every true meaning Sierra Leonean and we should not allow anyone to use their profession to destroy good meaning citizens for no just cause simply because they are not from the same tribe or the same party or simply for economic exploitation. This is a time of challenge to our journalists to ensure that what they defended through out these crises is not destroyed by anyone let alone themselves for selfish reasons.
It is at this point necessary to add my voice to the current debate on Local Government elections. Many believe it should be held under the partisan system as in the past. My humble opinion is that this will prove counterproductive under the current circumstances. We have over the years faced a situation where there are obvious divisions in the country on tribal or on regional lines. For example, it does not actually matter who the SLPP puts up in Bo Town or Kenema which are SLPP strongholds. That individual will surely win, in spite of his or her ability to deliver. The same will be the case for the APC candidate in Makeni. This will defeat the essence of the whole process. People must be voted into council offices on the bases of their contribution to their communities, not on the basis of party membership.
There are many areas that dampen the spirit of the Sierra Leonean with regard to patriotism and sense of belonging. Everywhere you go there is no clear demarcation between the Sierra Leonean and the foreigner. If there is, then it is one of dejection.Foreigners get more support and encouragement in various areas of business endeavour. When you travel through our airport you pay the same airport tax and go through the same documentation process as the foreigner. The same obtains in our hospitals and in respect of other essential services. We should be sensitive to the fact that our citizens must receive reasonable preferential treatment to promote love for their country.
There are many such cases in which foreigners enjoy lavish concessions all in the name of encouraging investment that hardly benefit our people. Everywhere in the world there is some form of protectionism. No amount of IMF /World Bank conditions should make us lose sight of that fact.
Another thing that portends un-nationalistic nature is the quotation of prices in Sierra Leonean territory in United States dollars. Fees for mining Licences are in dollars and simple costs of mobile top-up cards are in of U.S. dollars. This is also the case with rent, local shuttle, etc.
Our development should be focused on the people of Sierra Leone so as to empower them to own their programs moreso in the private sector. The participation of our citizens as shareholders in businesses will serve as engines of growth in our economy. This should not only be encouraged by our government, it should be supported as we privatize some of our parastatals.
In concluding this paper, I wish to implore all and sundry to be prepared to take responsibility for whatever mistakes that may have resulted in our acts or omissions in the course of pursuing personal or official objectives during the sad chapter of our history.
One thing that bred a lot of resentment among our people, is the excessive latitude we all as citizens give to our leaders. The introduction of a one-party system and the accompanying bad governance destroyed the resolve of the people or their ability to defend their own rights. This must never be allowed to obtain again.
Lastly, I must state here that this process - that of the Truth and Reconciliation must be treated as a real truth telling process, not a podium for the game of vilification. And most importantly we must be able to learn from our past mistakes or else the whole essence of the process will be lost on us all. We have got peace now by addressing mostly the interests of the perpetrators. This is the time for us to ensure that we have permanent peace by now addressing the interests of the victims of the years of decadence and bad governance that led to the war.
May God give us permanent peace and bless us all.
CULLED FROM WEBSITE: www.sierraleonetrc.org