I then called upon Col. Momoh to give an account of the situation as he saw it. He told the meeting that as commander of the major unit in the army, he had not observed any lapse in the morale of his men and that if there had been any indication of this sort, his Regimental Sergeant Major would have brought it to his notice. He said he had no doubt whatever of the loyalty of his senior N.C.O.’s, especially the Regimental Sergeant Major. He concluded by expressing surprise that an officer junior to him in rank, Major Noah, should have gone over his head to make a report of that nature to the Force Commander. Major Noah, bristling with weapons, was at that moment guarding the door of the room.
The effect of Col. Momoh’s report on the representatives of the army and the police at the meeting was like that of an electric shock. They stared at him with hostile expressions frozen on their faces, too stunned to utter. I seized this psychological moment to drive home my attack on Bangura and Smith, to operate, as it were, while they were still anaesthetised.
“Neither of you,” I declared, “has given me the co-operation necessary for the effective observance of the State of Emergency. And you,” I said pointing to the Commissioner of Police, “you have never believed in this operation. You have deliberately failed to attend meetings designed to plan army/police operations and instead of obeying my instructions, you have taken to seeking the advice of the Attorney-General.” Their mouths were working as if they wanted to defend themselves, but not a word issued forth from either of them. “If this is the way …“
At that moment my voice was almost drowned by the shouting and general commotion created by a large and excited crowd and everybody’s attention was transferred to the mass of people who had gathered around the State House. “Those are U.D.P. people who have come to protest,” the Governor-General declared. “On the contrary,” Sembu Forna corrected him, “they are A.P.C. supporters anxious to see fair play.” With that everybody rose to see for themselves. Rumour was rife among our detractors that we had imported plain clothes army personnel from Guinea. This was quite untrue, but if it was now the cause of an extra worry line or two on the brows of the service personnel in the room, this was all to the good.
As Noah relaxed his guard to determine the nature of the crowd, Sembu Forna and S. I. Koroma left the room and proceeded into the courtyard to acknowledge the excited people and assure them that we were in control of the situation. Hot on their heels came Noah, his gun at the ready. Sembu Forna turned to face him.
“Let me warn you, Noah, as I warned the Governor-General earlier today,” he said. “If any shooting starts these people here are going to have to search for new leaders among themselves, because not one of us will remain alive. We came here today with full knowledge of your plan and well prepared to blow it to smithereens if you try to carry it out.”
After that evidence of the support we had, when the plotters came face to face with realities, the meeting fizzled out. The arrogant self- confident attitude displayed by most of the service personnel was now sagging pitifully beneath damp and creased uniforms that all of a sudden seemed too big for their wearers, and their dejection seemed to plumb the depths when the Chairman, their heretofore protector and cham pion, made an attempt to tidily bring the matters to a close for the sake of the records, by suggesting that a solution to the problems facing us might be found if the Prime Minsiter had a private meeting with the Police Commissioner and the Force Commander.
It was certainly a victory, but one that left a very sour taste in my mouth; the kind of victory, perhaps, that the Duke of Wellington had in mind when faced with a lady’s rapturous comment “What a glorious thing must be victory, Sir!”
“The greatest tragedy in the world, Madam, except a defeat,” he replied. Apart from the dismissal of one or two lower-ranking army officers, no heads rolled as a result of this abortive coup, though one could hardly describe it as a ‘coup’, a word that carries with it an element of surprise, for we were well and truly prepared for it. Many of my Ministers and party supporters could not understand why I retained the services of those who had plotted against me.
“If the Commissioner of Police and the Force Commander are allowed to remain in their posts, I will never contest the elections,” one of them declared. “And if the Governor-General remains in office you are going to have more difficulties, Sir!” another warned. “He has no personal liking for you. His friends are in the opposite camp.”
I was fully aware of the risk I was taking and of the fact that many thought I was far too soft to be in command when I retained in key positions men whose aim it had been to bring about my downfall. However, I still had, even if it was becoming somewhat diminished, a faith in the better side of human nature predominating. I believed that however antagonistic a person might be, it was possible to win him over by affording him another chance, after making it understood that his past behaviour was considered reprehensible. I have never seen the wisdom of making an enemy of a man who could, with patience and tact, become a friend. But it was not easy to explain this to my people.
The feeling was that offering the other cheek was all very well in theory, but if practised in conditions obtaining in Sierra Leone at that time, not only the other cheek but the whole head would be grabbed. They saw much more sense in plucking out the offending eye. Parliament ratified, by an overwhelming majority, the State of Emergency Declaration which I made on September 14th; and on October 23rd I broadcast to the nation to apprise the people of the current situation. I explained that the declaration of the State of Emergency had not been an easy decision to make but that Government had duties and responsibilities to the people and believed that this was the most effective means of safeguarding their interests. Our action had been proved right by the wonderful support which it had got from Parliament, and Parliament, I reminded them, was the supreme governmental machinery in Sierra Leone and representative of the whole nation.
“I am sure that everyone would agree,” I said, “that when anxious parents start rushing to school to withdraw their children, as happened in Freetown on October 8th; when schools start shutting down, as happened in Makeni on October 7th; when people start firing shots into the air in various parts of the country; when people start throwing acid at their opponents; especially at a time when treason prisoners are waiting for their appeals to be heard, then it is high time that any Government worthy of its name, took action in the national interest.
“Until a few weeks ago, when a handful of disgruntled and ambitious power-drunk men sought to discredit Government by breeding discontent among the people, the stable atmosphere necessary for carrying out our principal task of nation-building had been well nigh achieved. That stability, however, became seriously threatened by those rebels, and if Government had not acted promptly to maintain law and order, Sierra Leone would have been pitched back into an even worse state of chaos and confusion than that which followed the military take-over of March, 1967. We salvaged precious little from that wreck with which to start the business of government and the creditable stage of development that we see around us today, and of which we can be justly proud, has cost us dearly in terms of effort, determination and sacrifice.
“Fellow Citizens,” I declared, “my Party and Govermnent will never stand by and see those years of labour and hardship expended in vain. Nobody — and I repeat — nobody — will be allowed to obstruct our forward march toward economic independence. We must be constantly on our guard, for there will be many other power-seeking opportunists who will make promises to lead the nation to ‘easy street’ overnight. Nobody is going to fool us into believing that there is a short and easy road to achieving financial independence. Economic development is a slow and gradual process — for the most part it is a tedious route march on subsistence rations towards a nebulous goal, for no date can be set for the achievement of economic indepen dence, as was the case for political independence.”
I recounted our achievements during the short time my Government had been in power, and stressed the fact that the A.P.C. Government was interested in developing the resources of our country and improving the living standards of the people, but not concerned with power for power’s sake or in ideological alignments: “To succeed in our aim there must be an atmosphere of stability and full co-operation from all the people. But if you — the people of Sierra Leone — are going to give your whole-hearted and unstinted support to Government, you must have an accurate understanding of the problems facing Africa today and of the history that created those problems.
“We on the continent of Africa are a people who have suffered untold hardships. To begin with, our personality was crushed and degenerated by the slave trade. Since then we have been humiliated by the massive exploitation of our continent and so long as we — the independent African states — remain balkanised, each individual state of Africa will continue to be so humiliated and subject, economically, to those that exploit us.
“Our aim, therefore, is: Firstly, to redeem the dignity of our race by proudly upholding the ancient and well-tested traditions of our ancestors, rather than blindly aping the customs and mannerisms of foreigners. Secondly, to develop our nation to the utmost so that not only may it be self-supporting, but equipped to aid those African states who are less fortunate. Thirdly, but perhaps most important of all in the context of a Third World, to work for the unification of our continent without which our individual achievements will count for very little indeed.
“Unhappily,” I went on, “as many African and Asian countries have learnt to their cost, the colonialism they fought and which they believed they had defeated for good and all, returns in another guise. At first, and to the unwary, this so- called neo-colonialism is unrecognisable. Certain world powers believe that they can only achieve their ambition for world domination at the expense of poor, small and struggling nations in Africa and Asia. Generous aid is offered with one hand, while the other holds the ever tightening noose of control. We in Africa are not interested in political and ideological battles between the great powers. Our whole interest is to develop our countries. But it would appear that certain great powers do not want to leave us alone to settle our affairs the way we, the Africans, understand them.”
Reverting to the problems facing us at the time, I said that one of the main aims of the rebel group led by Karefa Smart was to bring about the hegemony of one tribe in the country.
“Government is now in possession of abundant evidence,” I declared, “to prove the means by which these people were going to achieve their aims, and on account of this, it was forced to take drastic action against them in the interests of the country.
“When the going was tough in this country between 1964 and 1967, some people thought fit to bale out and proceed to foreign lands on lucrative appointments with all the comforts that went with them, and there they stayed until they judged the soup to be cool enough. After the heavy spadework has been done, now that peace and stability is taking hold and develop ment is underway, they return to Sierra Leone and have the rank arrogance to believe that they are indispensable to the future progress and prosperity of the country, and seek to grab the reins of office with all speed and by all means. Fellow citizens: Is this the way intelligent people should behave?
“A significant aspect of the difficult situation through which this country is now passing,” I declared, “is the fact that the introduction of the new party in Sierra Leone has coincided with a coup plot within the army. We have the evidence of a junior officer who was engaged in propaganda work for the party. We also have evidence to the effect that one of the ammunition magazines of the army was broken into about a fortnight ago and about 850 rounds of ammunition stolen, some of which have now been recovered. I think you will agree that the setting up of a new party is one thing, but to try to connect such a party with the army is a most dangerous thing to do.
Small wonder one of the leaders of the party declared a few weeks ago that the party had moved on to the offensive. Investigations are still going on in this regard, alter which appropriate action will be taken; and when you come to hear all the evidence that is available, you will shudder to find how near we have been to disaster.”
In conclusion I said: “It has become abundantly clear to Government that the of the troublemakers amongst us are being supported with money provided by outsiders whose sole aim is to make our country a puppet and a satellite. We must thank God that we discovered this conspiracy in time, that we have succeeded in breaking and exposing it, and that our country has been saved from the hands of her enemies. We must not, however, rest on our oars. We must keep on the alert. We must keep an eye on our frontiers. The army and the police are doing fine work, but we the people must help and encourage them. We must have peace.”
Peace, if one can so call a period of cautious watchfulness, doubt and suspicion, lasted but five months.
False rumours were constantly being fed to the people by our detractors in an attempt to cause panic, the most important being that Sierra Leone would be declared a republic on the tenth anniversary of our Independence, April 27th, 1971. I did not pay any particular attention to this. One got used to hearing such things that to waste time and energy refuting them would play into our enemies’ hands by detracting our attention from affairs of state.
One evening in mid-March, however, I received an urgent summons to a secret meeting at which a friend warned me that false rumours were being spread by both soldiers and civilians that I and my Government were going to force a republic on the people of Sierra Leone and that the soldiers intended to make this an issue for staging a coup. “There is no time to lose,” my friend urged. “You must issue a denial of the rumour immediately.” The following day, March 22nd, I arranged for the following statement to be issued by my office:
“There have been increasing rumours that a decision has been taken either by the Government or the Prime Minister of Sierra Leone to declare Sierra Leone a republic on or before April 27th, 1971, when she attains her Tenth Independence Anniversary. “Government wishes to state that whilst evidence is not lacking that it is the wish of many Sierra Leoneans that Sierra Leone should become a republic in the near future, and that public consciousness in regard to the disadvantages of the present monarchical form of Constitution has been fully aroused, no decision one way or the other, has actually been taken on this matter.
“The general public must be fully aware that a Constitu tional Review Commission has been set up to sound public opinion and that the Commission has been actively engaged in this exercise, in order to ensure that any decision finally reached would be in complete accord with the wishes of the majority of the people of Sierra Leone.
“Government wishes to state categorically that neither the Government nor the Prime Minister intends to declare Sierra Leone a republic on or before April 27th, 1971. “Government feels it necessary to issue this statement not only to dispel unfounded rumours, but also because of man oeuvres on the part of certain persons with ill-conceived motives who, although fully aware of the earnestness of local aspirations on this matter of a republic, either wish to destroy the spirit and character of the forthcoming important occasion, or to diminish the zeal and enthusiasm with which all patriotic Sierra Leoneans look forward to the Tenth Independence Anniversary celebrations.
I arrived home from the office that day around 6 p.m. and had barely settled down when a friend ‘phoned to say that he had heard very disturbing news about certain activities going on in the army barracks and he warned me to be on the alert. I then called my personal bodyguards and warned them likewise, and sent messages to the barracks that I wished to see the Force Commander and his Deputy. The latter, Lt. Col. Momoh, arrived about 8 p.m. “I hear that there is trouble brewing in the barracks and that some top-ranking men know something about this. Can you enlighten me?” I asked him.
He looked at me aghast. “I swear to God, Sir, that I know nothing whatever about any trouble,” he said with sincerity. “I will return at once and keep my eyes skinned.” About two hours later I managed to get in touch with John Bangura, the Force Commander. By the time he arrived around 10.30 p.m., the Deputy Minister of the Interior happened to be with me, and I invited them both into my study. I told Bangura that I knew about the plot to use the rumour of the declaration of a republic as an excuse to stage a coup and said that this was the reason why I had issued an official denial earlier in the day.
I have rarely seen a man so ill at ease. He kept shifting his position and checking his watch every other minute. My feelings as I faced this Judas were a mixture of revulsion and pity. Was there no way, I asked ca myself, of making him see sense, of rescuing him from certain disaster and destruction. ‘I am concerned about your divided loyalty between myself on the one side and the Governor-General and Karefa Smart on the other,” I told him. “We laboured together to bring back a constitutional government in 1968; we made a good team, didn’t we? I had always hoped that I would be able to rely on you to work with me to make that government work. You disappointed me once. I hope…”
“I swear in the name of God and my mother,” lie blurted out, “that my loyalty to you, Prime Minister, remains untainted. I shall always be grateful to you for what you have done for me and I look upon you as a son regards his father.”
I believe at that moment he meant it, but my illusion was immediately shattered when for the umpteenth time he looked at his watch.
“Are you in such a hurry?” I asked. “Er — no, Sir,” he replied uncertainly. “It’s just that I haven’t eaten yet.”
I sent for some food for him but when it came he refused to eat, saying that he was on a special diet. I invited him to have a drink and he insisted on a non-alcoholic one. I proceeded to acquaint him with some of the things I had heard about him that disturbed me, in particular that he had received Le50,000 from Karefa Smart to stage a coup. I expressed my disapproval at the way he had forsaken his legal wife and mother of his children for a younger woman of mixed race, not only on moral grounds but for reasons of state security. My doubts on this score were later confirmed when certain police officers, posing as her admirers, were paid large sums of money by her to get rid of me and install Bangura in my place. She had set her heart on ‘flying flag’ as the first lady in the land. Ambitious and ruthless women have caused the destruction of many otherwise honourable but gullible men.
“Let us not beat about the bush, John,” I said, in a final attempt to win him round. “I know what is going on. I do not fear for myself, but I fear very much for you. If anyone shoots and kills me at my age, my widow might mourn me for a while, but I have lived a long life and there are others who are quite competent to step into my shoes and carry on as if I had never existed. But you, John, you are still a young man. You have a future to work for and a great deal to lose if you stick your neck out and stop a bullet in the process. All I am asking you is to think very carefully before you take irreversible steps which you will later regret.” Again the time check, the uneasiness and the sweat-soaked face.
When I tried to continue the conversation, he excused himself and said he had to go because the drink had gone to his head. I stared at the innocuous beverage before him and marvelled, but he was too desperate to notice anything unusual about his remark.
At midnight my friend telephoned again to make sure I was on the alert. I checked that the guards were on duty and prepared for any action, then returned to bed. The next thing I knew was that shots were being fired in the very compound of my house. As Ijumped out of bed and threw myself on the floor. I heard a voice ordering: “Fire to the right! Fire to the right!” This was where my bedroom was situated. Bullets peppered the walls and windows of my room and tore the mosquito net over my bed.
People asked me afterwards what it is like to be sleeping peacefully in your bed one moment and the target of a fusillade the next. It is an impossible question to answer because instinct takes over. You become powered by adrenalin. You do not think about it in any normal sense of the word, so afterwards you cannot easily describe it in words. Because I was in bed it felt dream-like in a way; half-real, as though part of me was somehow witheld from the experience.
Crawling on all fours, I went into the corridor to check that my guards were all right. They were stationed quietly at various points returning fire only when necessary so as to reduce casualties to the minimum. Their coolness seemed superhuman. I felt a diffused sense of gratitude for it — to them, their officers and God! Suddenly there was a shout followed by shots from my guards, and the lifeless body of a sergeant slumped and fell from my bedroom window through which he was about to climb. Another soldier was shot as he attempted to enter my lounge. I felt sick — less from fear than from horror. The violent death even of a would-be assassin is no pretty thing.
After about thirty minutes of intensive firing there was a sudden peace. Then, in reply to a command to fire, a man’s voice was heard to say plaintively: “Sir, I have nothing left.” They had run out of ammunition. My nephew, who was on the ground floor, heard one soldier say to his mate: “Thank God the Brigadier himself is here.” This he later gave as evidence on oath at the trial.
The presence of Brigadier Bangura, however, was of little comfort without a further supply of ammunition, and now that their magazines were empty, the troops hastily withdrew leaving behind them their two dead comrades and much wanton damage to my residence, but without having succeeded in their deadly objective. We suffered not a single casualty.
I went to inspect the damage, which was extensive both inside and outside the house, and then left to take shelter elsewhere in the city. Around 9 a.m. I was advised that the country was in confusion and realised that I had to make an appearance to convince people that I was unharmed, and to broadcast a statement to explain the situation. To do this I went to the Party headquarters.
“This is your Prime Minister speaking to you in Freetown. I am alive and well, by the grace of God.”
I had not got very far with the broadcast when a soldier whom I trusted interrupted me and said with urgency: “Come out of here at once, Sir.” It seemed that information had reached him that a further attack was being planned. I immediately left the building with various Ministers and party colleagues and went to my office at Tower Hill where crowds of well-wishers and sympathisers had gathered to greet me.
As soon as I got into my office I ‘phoned the Governor-General on the private line we shared and told him that, from what I had heard, Bangura intended to carry on with the coup. I pointed out to him that as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, it was his urgent duty to intervene and to stop the Force Commander from taking any further unconstitutional action.
After about an hour I felt so exhausted that I decided to leave and try to get some rest somewhere. I had almost reached the bottom of the stairs that led to the entrance to the building when I saw an army lorry pull up at the gate, then another one, and a crowd of soldiers, heavily armed, hurriedly scramble out of them and take up positions to the right and left of the building with their rifles pointing towards it. My guards covered me and pushed me upstairs into my office where I lay flat on the floor. We had barely reached the room before the firing started. Bullets penetrated into my office from left, right and centre. One shot broke the lavatory cistern and burst a pipe so that water flooded the lavatory, the ante-room and, eventually, my office. Before long the carpet I was lying on became like a paddy field and I was saturated.
The telephone connecting me with the Governor-General rang insistently. It was impossible to reach for it was in the direct line of fire. In any case there was no point in him relaying to me Bangura’s reply to him. The rifles and machine guns did it for him.
Rapid firing continued at intervals throughout the whole afternoon and I was not able to leave the building until after 6 p.m. By this time I had crawled into the ante-room between my office and the lavatory because there was no window there. Most of the glass in the other windows had been shattered; curtains had been ripped by bullets and hung in ribbons, the wall behind my desk was pitted with holes and an acrid stench of gunpowder and damp carpets pervaded the place.
At 3.15 p.m. U. Col. King announced on the radio that the Force Commander had an important message to make. I learnt later that King had not wanted to identify himself, but that Bangura had insisted on him doing so. “Fellow citizens,” Bangura said. “Owing to the current state of affairs, the army has been compelled to take control of the situation until further notice. A comprehensive statement will be made as soon as possible. This statement has the full backing and support of the armed forces. Any undue interference will be viewed with disdain.”
Later that afternoon, King came on the air again, this time to say that the majority of the men in the army dissociated themselves from the Force Commander’s broadcast and that as far as the army was concerned, it regarded my government as the legal authority. It was a most confused situation and the thought went through my mind that if this was a sample of the way our army organised affairs, it was high time that the army itself was reorganised.
Shortly after King’s announcement, and when it was confirmed that the loyal elements in the army were in fact in control, the hostile forces withdrew and I was able to leave the building.
It had been a terrifying ordeal. It is bad enough knowing that men are seeking to kill you, but even worse is the knowledge that there are those who, through loyalty to your person, risk injury and death without honour in putting themselves between you and the lethal weapons that are aimed at you. When I saw the lines of sheer fatigue and exhaustion on the faces of my security guards and their state of general dishevel ment, tears dimmed my sight. Between us — but largely thanks to them we had somehow saved the day; constitutional government still reigned and the nation had been spared the setback of another military takeover.
The editorial in West Africa, in its issue following the disturbance, had this to say, among other things: “So irresponsible is the idea of over-throwing civilian governments in Sierra Leone at this time that unless Sierra Leone is simply proving the unhappy maxim that a country which has experienced one coup is always likely to experience another, one fears that civilian political influence might have been at work to secure army support in the desperate bid for power.”
There was no doubt in my mind that urgent and serious consideration would have to be given to finding a deterrent to a repetition of assassination attempts and other acts aimed at disrupting the normal order of society. Some means must be found whereby personal power- seekers are kept at bay, whereby the consideration of life, law and stable constitutional government takes precedence over money, possessions and high office.
My mind went back to the lenient treatment I had given the two would-be assassins five months before, whose only punishment had been a reduction in rank; to those who had plotted against me at that time who were allowed to continue in their key positions; to the wretched Bangura who could not have been more clearly a traitor tome had he had the word emblazoned on his chest, yet I allowed him to leave my house to keep an appointment with those who, a few hours later, attempted to shoot me, because I refused to believe he was incapable of a change of heart. As things had turned out, I could hardly blame those among my colleagues who accused me of being soft. Yet this was not the case, and I have already in this chapter explained myself on this score.
Now, however, I had come to the full realisation of the fact a fact which I had known all along, of course, though I was reluctant to admit it — that university degree or no university degree, college diploma or no college diploma, refinement or no refinement, man can turn brute and it is then that brute force must be used to deal with him.
That I did not take such action after similar instances in the past was simply because I was not prepared to employ brute force to back the theoretical power I possessed. However, this time those responsible had to be brought to trial and the guilty punished according to, and with the full weight of, the law.
I had learnt to my cost, and to the cost of those who looked to me for leadership, that there was much truth in Shakespeare’s comment that “nothing emboldens sin so much as mercy”.