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A tale of two coups

A tale of two coups

A constant source of amusement for me is when people write or speak with authority on matters about which they, in fact know nothing beyond hearsay. They may have read or heard it from people who themselves had read or heard it from others and so the hearsay story continues. Some of those who have got it from a fourth source degree source often repeat it with such gusto and conviction that if one didn’t know better, one would be taken in by their account. An ugly incident took place in Segbwema during the 2007 Presidential runoff campaign. If Ernest Bai Koroma had lost the election we would have been reading a very different account from that which alleges a plot by John Benjamin and the SLPP to ambush and even murder Ernest and Charles. There are numerous examples of twisted accounts of events told with a definite bias in favour of those who wield power and influence. (Photo: Dr. Sama Banya)

In March 1992, a group of young army officers, with only one of them above the rank of captain, overthrew the APC government of President Joseph Saidu Momoh and took over the reign of government of our Republic. No one had the faintest notion that it was going to take place on that Wednesday morning. For me it was like any other Wednesday when I would walk over to my 12, Wilberforce Surgery after early communion service at College Chapel Methodist church. Like all such Wednesday mornings I was at my desk before my nurses and my attendant arrived. It came out of the blue. I could hear intermittent sounds of explosion, which I attributed to fishermen detonating explosives around sawpit wharf in order to improve their catch. The sound came from the open windows of my consulting room, which opened to the sea. Some twenty minutes later, a breathless nurse Marian rushed into the consulting room and announced that there was firing around the PZ roundabout and that people were running helter skelter in all directions. The firing intensified with every minute and I had the impression that whoever were responsible, were moving towards my surgery, but it was not the case.

An hour later President Joseph Momoh’s voice came on SLBS radio; he announced that a small group of renegade soldiers had attempted a coup but that the security forces had rounded them up. He advised citizens to go about their normal business as the situation was under control. His voice had hardly echoed out when a voice, claiming to be a Captain Valentine Strasser came on air to announce that they, young army officers had taken over the government and that former President Joseph Momoh had fled. Apparently, what we had earlier heard was a recording of the President’s voice, which was played over SLBS. It was never repeated; I learnt later that a group of soldiers had descended on the broadcasting studio, ceased the cassette and replaced it with the recording of Strasser,s voice. Events moved rapidly after that. Jubilant crowds jumped out into the street in celebration of the military take-over. There were reports that market women along the Kroo town road spread their lappas in front of the gallant soldiers. Spontaneously, large crowds of mostly young people and students descended on the Siaka Stevens stadium as a sign of solidarity.

I was to learn firsthand later, that the former President had requested the ECOMOG forces then stationed in Jui to intervene on his behalf. The commander had replied that driving through the capital, he could see nothing except overwhelming support for the take-over. He added that the most they could do was to take him out were he to so desire and so they flew him out to Conakry. The military regime received immediate international recognition; most foreign donors restored aid that had been suspended.

It was around six o’clock on Sunday morning May 27, 1997; I could hear boom, boom like distant gunfire but I was not sure and continued to dress for my usual Sunday morning walk from the entrance to Murray Town barracks to the Atlantic restaurant on Lumley beach. It was my wife who asked whether I was crazy; did I not hear the sound of gunfire in the distance? I could not believe it; what had gone wrong, why a coup? Had the boys gone mad? Then corporal Sahr Gborie’s voice came over the SLBS radio. That they, that is the military, had overthrown the corrupt Tejan-Kabbah government and had taken over.  Interestingly, the Murray Town garrison was quite unaware of what had happened until I shouted to the guards at the gate that their colleagues had overthrown the SLPP government. They began indiscriminate shooting all over, boarded vehicles and headed for the city, screaming and firing as they drove along. Gborie had mentioned the draconian press laws which had been passed by Parliament but which had Not received Presidential assent. He also referred to the problems within Dr. John Karefa-Smart’s UNPP party as one of the reasons for the coup. They announced Major Johnny Paul Koroma as the chairman of the AFRC and head of state.

It was not a popular coup; a lot of looting and rape was reported all over the city. The international community refused to recognize the regime. That notwithstanding, two newspapers run by Chernor Ojuku Sesey and Seaga-Shaw respectively were in support and became advocates of the regime. While Johnny Paul was still at Cockrill and even before he was sworn in, many APC party stalwarts visited him every day. It was not surprising that some of them served in the unrecognized regime. It is true that students, school children and people from nearly all works of life, refused to recognize it. Other reasons were given for the coup was that when former President Joseph Saidu Momoh came to attend his wife’s funeral, a group of his tribe’s men in the army, and there were very many, called on him. He reportedly expressed disappointment that they had not defended him in the NPRC coup. It was reported that they expressed regret and promised to make amends.

Some of former President Tejan-Kabbah’s critics have been most unfair in their criticism of the manner in which he dealt with rumours of the coup. It is true that he got intelligence report of the plan; when he raised it with his Force Commander as the Chief of Defense was known in those days, Brigadier Hassan Conteh assured him that the military were aware and were in total control of the situation. It proved to be a false assurance. What did those critics expect him to do, go on air and say that he was aware of a coup plot but they were ready for it? 

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