There was no time to absorb the shock of the assassination attempts. I had three jobs of inescapable urgency to tackle: to pacify the rebellious elements in the army; to fill the vacuum in the nation’s defences created by the disorder of the armed forces; and to make it impossible for the same kind of threat to national security ever to occur again.
At the time, I remember, I found it hard to prioritise these problems in my own mind. The last of them — eliminating any future possibility of a violent putsch — seemed to me to be essentially constitutional. It was no less urgent than the others but could not be so quickly solved. At the most optimistic projection, it would take weeks rather than days and whatever I did I was determined to do quickly. I felt certain that only fast, decisive action could cope with the emergency. Every instinct told me that national defence was the top priority. I had lived through invasion scares and knew what it was like living from day to day in government with army officers of dubious loyalty, some of them in league with enemies abroad, some of them in foreign pay.
In the aftermath of the assassination attempts, I could not be sure that the army would be in any shape to resist foreign intervention. On the other hand, I did not want to rely on outside help to protect our country. We had striven for generations to rid Sierra Leone of foreign dependence. I wanted us to go it alone, if we could, in the crisis we faced. I also wanted to give the army command another chance to do its duty by the people.
On March 24th, the day following the abortive coup, I attended a meeting of Ministers and army officers in an endeavour to restore normalcy and confidence between us. It became disturbingly clear to me that elements in the army command were unreconciled. There was evidence in abundance of their lack of confidence. You could see it in the amount of hardware they carried round with them. I was frankly fascinated by one officer who had no less than three revolvers on his person, and found myself wondering whether, like a juggler, he employed them all at once! Little was achieved, and a meeting was arranged for the following day.
“Whatever you do, don’t attend tomorrow’s meeting!” a trusted friend warned me on the telephone that evening. I stayed away from that meeting and from the one arranged for the following day, when pleas were made by some of the dissident element for amnesty for all those who had taken part in the two abortive coups.
“The Prime Minister, Dr. Siaka Stevens, it is understood, was expected to attend the meeting, but he was not there,” Unity reported. “… The whereabouts of the Prime Minister was not known…”
Few indeed knew where I was, and as time went by a number of people began to express anxiety about me. The Governor-General, many of the Ministers and party members, the Diplomatic Corps and even those who worked closely with me in the Prime Minister’s office, sought news one from another as to where I might be. The thing that worried many of them, I was told later, was that it was totally out of character for me to disappear.
“You have so much courage,” one person told me, “that the sort of thing you would normally have done on the morning immediately following the shooting was to drive bare-headed in an open car to inspect the damage and assure yourself of the well-being of your staff and of the public in general.” That I had failed to do this apparently led some to believe that I had either suffered serious injuries, or that I was not in fact free, that I was being held by my enemies and that the reassuring messages from me that were being broadcast at frequent intervals had been forced from me at gun point and were being relayed to deceive the people.All this was gratifying in a way, but it took more than flattery to make me feel secure after escaping the assassins so narrowly. After the first abortive meeting with the army men, I took an instant decision to re-shuffle my priorities in line with my original instinct. I decided to shelve reconciliation with the army until after the immediate defence needs of the country were met.
The previous December, Parliament had passed a Resolution calling for a Defence Agreement with our two neighbours, Guinea and Liberia. After attending the meeting with army personnel on March 24th, and from the reports I received of the proceedings at the other two meetings, I realised that if ever there was dire need for the agreement to be activated, it was now. The way was wide open, in fact, for enemies from outside — for those, no doubt, who had so heavily financed the abortive uprising — to recoup their losses by attacking us. The position was so critical that I left Freetown for Guinea by car during the night of March 25th, and arrived in Conakry around five the following morning.
After consultations with President Sekou Toure and members of his Government he, as the President of the Republic of Guinea, and I, as the Prime Minister of Sierra Leone, together signed a Defence Agreement under which each country could call upon the assistance of the other in the event of a serious threat to its security.
I knew, of course, how dedicated Sekou Toure was to the task of foiling by all possible means any attempt by non-African interests to interfere in the internal affairs of African states. His constant vigilance in this respect turned out to be fully justified when Portuguese troops and mercenaries invaded Guinea in an attempt to overthrow his Government. Coupled with his apprehensions about foreign interference was a constant preoccupation to maintain the political stability of African countries — a preoccupation which he had expressed publicly many a time and which also found an expression in his unequivocal condemnation of coups and his policy of delaying the recognition of regimes arising from the violent overthrow of legitimate governments.
My public diary reveals what I said about it in the broadcasts and speeches I made on my return. But my feelings were more complex. I was grateful for the friendship of my old comrade, Sekou Toure, who came now to help my people as once he had come to my own aid when I was a dispossessed exile from my country. Of course, I was concerned about how the steps I was taking would work out in the perspective of history. What leader worth his salt would not have these on his mind in the circumstances? People often think that because a man acts fast and makes tough decisions he must be either hard or rash. I can put my hand on my heart and say I agonised over each of the terrible decisions I still had to make in the aftermath of the abortive coup. I got down on my knees and prayed every day during the critical period that God would guide me to make my decisions right as well as expedient. And I thank Him that at the end of the day they worked out for the best.
I flew back to Freetown on Sunday morning, March 28th, and shortly after my arrival I broadcast to the people advising them of the step I had taken and the reasons that had prompted me to do so.
“The dissident army men may have their faults,” I concluded, “but there is no doubt that financial and big power pressures played, and continue to play, an important part in the recent troubles. Let us find them and expose them for their due rewards.”
A short while later, I made another broadcast in which I stressed the fact that the rebel soldiers and politicians had wanted “to confiscate and retain the Government in order to show that brutal force prevails over reason, legality and common sense”.
All those who had tried to trample down the legal regime were c outlaws and I declared that so long as I was the Prime Minister of Sierra Leone, I would never permit a clique of men without a mandate to c assume power. “I would rather die for my country than accept government by brute force,” I said.
Even as I ended my speech, announcing that from that very moment the armed forces of both Guinea and Sierra Leone had become as one and were “ready to crush all those who might attempt to destroy peace F and security in our two countries”, several truck-loads of Guinean troops arrived in Freetown and four MiG jet fighters of the Guinean Air Force flew overhead to assure our people that we no longer stood alone, a Our detractors made a great deal of capital over the arrival of the Guinean troops in Sierra Leone. It was obvious that they did not want to see our small states getting together, but preferred us to remain as small r units so that they could swallow us up at will, either politically or economically. The London Times of April 2nd, for instance, areputable newspaper by most standards, produced such an inaccurate report that it even included a picture of a one-time Commissioner of Police here and declared him to be Brigadier Bangura!
“According to Mr. Stevens,” the report said, “the reason for invoking the Defence Agreement with Guinea was last week’s attempted coup, which was alleged to have been organised by elements of his own army. There is evidence that this is the reverse of the truth, and that the disturbances in Freetown on March 23rd and 24th took place after the arrival of the first armed Guineans in Sierra Leone.”
According to the British Broadcsting Corporation, 45 armed Guinean soldiers arrived by helicopter “close to the Prime Minister’s residence.” This false statement was followed up by an interview with Albert Margai who gave some highly coloured views of a situation with which he showed himself to be pathetically out of touch; in spite of his claim to having ‘good contacts’. But I have found in life that there is little point in rebutting calumnies. Better by far to ignore them and get on with the job. Yet sometimes one just sees red and feels compelled to set the record straight.
In some ways, I should much have preferred to fill our defence gap through some sort of co-operative Commonwealth action, arranged through our friends in the U.K. On many occasions in the past, the British have despatched troops to defend ex-British territories, for example, in Kenya and Anguilla, who found themselves in trouble with rebel forces. Yet in 1967, when we desperately needed such help from them, they sent not even a message of sympathy but expected us to sit down with folded hands while the army took over control from the legally constituted government and sacked the Queen’s own represen tative. What more natural thing, then, than for us now to seek the assistance of our brothers on whom we could rely for support, many of them being our own kith and kin, such as the Madingos and the Foulahs? We were in great difficulty, and I am not ashamed to admit it. We had a responsibility to the nation, a responsibility to protect lives and property by whatever means we believed would be the most effective, and Guinea ably and willingly provided those means.
Once the defence gap was bridged, we could turn back to the task of reconciling the army. There was only one way to do it everyone who supported or sympathised with the putsch had to be removed from command. This meant cutting out the rot from the top. It meant taking action against men whom I knew and, indeed, liked. The Force Commander and six army officers were arrested and detained on March 28th. On the following day, March 29th, I wrote the following letter to the Governor-General, Sir Banja Tejan-Sie:
“Painful as the duty is, I have no alternative but to comply with the expressed desire of the Government of Sierra Leone that the following telegram should be despatched immediately under secret cover to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second …“
The telegram requested that under the provisions of Sections 26 to 28 of the Constitution, the Governor-General should be relieved of his duties immediately and proceed forthwith on leave prior to retirement, and that the Chief Justice, Mr. C. 0. E. Cole, should act as Governor- General until further notice. Approval was received on March 31 stand Cole took office the same day.
It was the day Parliament met to review the events of that explosive past week. The most critical period was over and some members might have been excused for feeling like an audience turning up late for a melodrama and seeing only the denouement. But there remained a crucial role for the House to discharge. There were emergency measures to ratify and, above all, there was the constitutional root- cause of our troubles to tackle. I wanted Parliament to re-cast the Constitution in a watertight form that would be proof against factional instability.
I told the members that we could live in peace only by keeping the rules of democracy. I denounced attempts to force a change of government by violence, “but, if we go by the rules,” I said, “then everybody’s time is bound to come”. I felt that I was struggling to explain what had happened to myself as much as to my parliamentary colleagues, as I went on:
“The real people who can effectively wield power in this country are so few that each one must have a chance, and if you wait a little you will get your chance. I have been in this game for over forty years and if I enjoy some benefits today, I have to thank the Almighty God. Therefore, Mr. Speaker and Honourable Members, I feel that each one of us has a responsibility to see that law and order are maintained in this country.”
I urged the young up-and-coming men to work hard if they wanted to succeed in life. If this world was a place where a person could take another’s post by knocking him out with a weapon, nobody would take the trouble to go to school or college, but would merely go and get his gun, shoot a man and take his job:
“In that case,” I said, “he will be making a sad mistake, because if a sergeant knocks a man down, a corporal who witnessed it would say to himself: ‘So — is it as easy as that?’ and will in turn knock the sergeant down and add another stripe to his sleeve. And so on and so on until nobody gets anywhere at all.
“We who happen to have had a little bit of education and a bit of literacy must realise that we owe a great responsibility to those of our brothers and sisters who have not had the opportunity of education; they look up to us and they mould their behaviour by the example that we set. Let us therefore pray God that we do not fail them.”
When I sat down again, I felt a little bit of normality had been recovered. I was trying to reach back to a feeling of stability and peace, beyond the recent troubles. I was trying to pick up threads of progress and continuity that the conspiracy against my life had severed and ional root- frayed. Parliament responded warmly. Things seems to be resuming Ic-cast the their right places again.
On April 7th, Parliament met to ratify the Sierra Leone/Guinea Defence Agreement which I had signed on behalf of the Sierra Leone Government a fortnight before.
“… In this world of ours,” I declared, “one can only pick and choose when there is an alternative or when there are alter natives. When you do not have an alternative, then you take whatever presents itself, and anyone here who says that we should not have signed a defence agreement with Guinea is invited to tell us now what we should have done when we found ourselves in the position we were in on March 23rd last.
“Could anybody get up and say what we could have done when, without provocation, dissident soldiers went to the head of Government — leave my personality out of it — at half-past twelve in the morning and rained bullets on the whole building? As if that was not enough, they went again to the office of the head of Government at half-past one in the afternoon and started to shoot. I was not the only person there; innocent people who were earning their living were there as well, and were so shocked that most of them were incapable of moving. .We feel, Sir, that we have every justification to call other people here to help us. If you cannot preserve yourself you are finished. The only way left open to us was to call on friendly neighbouring African territories for help. We did not call in Germans, or Swiss, or Englishmen; we called our own brothers along the boundary. Sooner or later we will all be one. It is only the demarcation line that divides us.”
Some people, I said, had wickedly used the word ‘invasion’ when referring to the arrival of the Guinean troops.
“The Guineans did not invade Sierra Leone,” I declared. “The Guinean soldiers are here on the invitation of the Government and people of Sierra Leone; if we had not brought them in, perhaps quite a few people in the gallery today would not be here.”