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Peter Penfold is welcomed back to Sierra Leone
Hero's welcome for ex-Ambassador

Peter Penfold, the former disgraced British High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, talks for the first time about his role in the arms affair that cost him his job. Newsnight reports on his return to the country on the eve of Tony Blair's visit.

Peter Penfold was blamed by the British government for an illegal arms deal that became known as the Sandline affair. He had to give up his diplomatic career after serving for nearly forty years with the foreign office.

But he is held in the highest respect in Sierra Leone. In 1998 Mr Penfold was made a paramount chief, one of the country's highest traditional honours.

It feels tremendously good to be back

Peter Penfold
Three years later he has been welcomed back and honoured as a hero on his first private visit to the country.

"It feels tremendously good to be back... it is good to come back at this time when I think there is more optimism around," he said.

His face is instantly recognised in Sierra Leone. He is the man who helped rid the people of the rebel Junta, and restore their democratically elected president to power and bring peace back to this war torn country.

Civil war

He has returned to a country enjoying calm, peace has been declared and weapons are being handed in. But Sierra Leone was devasted by civil war through most of the nineties.

Peter Penfold and President Kabbah
Peter Penfold and President Kabbah meet again
In 1997 the Revolutionary United Front were on the streets hacking people to death. Mr Penfold evacuated hundreds of expatriots from Freetown, and was praised by Tony Blair for his bravery.

The democratically-elected President Kabbah was forced to flee the country, with the High commissioner at his side. While the country was plunged into the most ferocious fighting they worked closely together planning the president's return.

Mr Penfold was privy to President Kabbah's decision to sign a deal with the British company Sandline to supply arms and mercenaries.

But a UN arms embargo was in place which made it illegal to arm any side of the conflict not just the rebels. Mr Penfold says he was unaware of this, and that the Foreign Office were aware of the deal.

"The view that had been passed on to me from everybody was that the sanctions order applied to the provision of arms for the rebels and certainly not the provision of arms to the legitimate Government of Sierra Leone," he says.

The rebels were driven out, and President Kabbah returned to Freetown. Britain was credited with a decisive role. It was a personal triumph for Mr Penfold that democratic government had been restored.


He was then recalled to London for what he believed to be a discussion on the future of Sierra Leone. But, questions were being asked about the role of the High Commissioner in the arms deal between Sandline and President Kabbah.

The arms to Africa affair had been born. Robin Cook, then Foreign Secretary, set up the Legg inquiry. Foreign office ministers were cleared of any blame, but Mr Penfold was officially reprimanded.

It was a very unusual situation, I found it very moving

Peter Penfold
The treatment he received in London could not have contrasted more with the support he had in Sierra Leone. When he made it back he was crowned Paramount Chief Komrabai and carried through the streets by jubilant crowds.

"Here was a white man being carried through the streets of this black African capital 30 years after the end of colonialism... it was a very unusual situation, I found it very moving," he says.

But back in Britain, it was felt that he had gone too far. A career review at the Foreign Office said that he had become too close to the government of Sierra Leone.

He applied for 17 jobs but did not get any of them. Mr Penfold was assured it had nothing to do with the Sandline affair, but he found this difficult to believe.

Although Mr Penfold's judgment on how he handled the arms affair may still be open to question, what cannot be doubted is his sheer commitment to the people of Sierra Leone.

The full report on Peter Penfold's trip to Sierra Leone ran on the 8 February edition of Newsnight .

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