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This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

A hero's return to Sierra Leone 8/2/02

MILLIGAN:
The party has begun. Peter Penfold, the former disgraced British High Commissioner in Sierra Leone, now a Paramount Chief, is being welcomed back and honoured. Here he's a hero. But there's no such honour in Britain. He was blamed for an illegal arms deal and was told to keep his mouth shut. Now, for the first time, he has decided to tell his story of the arms-to-Africa affair. Peter Penfold is a model diplomat, clocking up nearly 40 years with the Foreign Office. But he won't be working here any more. His career is over and he's now free to talk.

PETER PENFOLD:
(Former British High Commissioner, Sierra Leone):
It's a very unusual feeling. 1963 is when I joined the Foreign Office and went into this building here. Those were the days when you used to have coal fires. You didn't have computers. We didn't even have photocopiers and fax machines.

MILLIGAN:
He had hoped to look back on his long career with pride, but that dream turned to dust when the Sandline scandal broke.

PETER PENFOLD:
I was hopeful that after Sierra Leone there would be just one last posting to end what had been a very rewarding and successful career. Sadly that didn't happen.

MILLIGAN:
Now he's heading back to Sierra Leone. He didn't want a fuss when he landed back on African soil. But his face is instantly recognised. To these people, he is the man who helped rid them of the rebel junta, restore their democratically elected president to power and bring peace back to this war-torn country. It is a short helicopter flight to the capital, Freetown. A priest sitting near Peter Penfold welcomes him back immediately, asking him to preach at his church. Across his face and chin are scars from a machete attack, a reminder of the country's violent past. It's the former High Commissioner's first private trip to Sierra Leone. He's clearly delighted to be back.

PENFOLD:
It just feels tremendously good. I feel really good inside. Part of me never left Sierra Leone after all that time, so I'm just reconnecting with what was left behind, and it is good to come back at this time, when I think there's more optimism around.

MILLIGAN:
When the violence erupted across the country, Peter Penfold helped the evacuation of hundreds of ex-patriots from Freetown. It was a dangerous time. Even the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, praised the bravery of our man in Sierra Leone.

TONY BLAIR:
Mr Penfold did a superb job in dealing with the consequences of the military coup. He did a superb job in working closely with the democratically elected regime of President Kabbah.

MILLIGAN:
It's a busy morning in Freetown. The signs are that Peter Penfold has returned to a country enjoying calm - at least for the moment. Peace has been declared and weapons are being handed in. Life here in Freetown in Sierra Leone is fairly normal. People are going to work, children are going to school, the market is up and running. But when I came here three-and-a-half years ago, that wasn't the case. The RUF were on the streets, wielding their machetes, hacking people to death. The Revolutionary United Front attacked Freetown in 1997, forcing President Kabbah to flee to Conakry, the capital of the neighbouring country, Guinea. Peter Penfold was by his side. While the country was plunged into the most ferocious fighting, the two men worked closely together. The British were committed to help restore the exiled president. Peter Penfold was privy to President's Kabbah's decision to sign a deal with the British firm Sandline to supply arms and mercenaries. Peter Penfold, speaking publicly for the first time about those days in exile, remembers how the president arranged a meeting between himself and Sandline's Colonel Tim Spicer in London, to discuss the contract.

PENFOLD:
That meeting was when they actually handed me over a document - I think it was called Operation Python, or something - which spelled out the package of assistance Sandline were proposing to give to the government of Sierra Leone, to President Kabbah. I went into the Foreign Office the day afterwards and I handed over that document to the department, so that they then had the full information.

MILLIGAN:
But a UN arms embargo was in place, and interpreted into British law, it made it illegal to arm any side of the conflict, not just the rebels. But Peter Penfold says he was unaware of this.

PENFOLD:
It was a very clear view of President Kabbah and myself, and certainly the view that had been passed on to me from everybody, that the sanctions order applied to the provision of arms for the rebels, and not for the provision of arms to the legitimate government of Sierra Leone, which was outside of Sierra Leone, in Conakry.

MILLIGAN:
With the rebels driven out, President Kabbah and Peter Penfold returned to Freetown. For the High Commissioner, it was a triumph - democratic government had been restored, and Britain was credited with a decisive role. Peter Penfold was then recalled to London, he thought to discuss the future of Sierra Leone.

PENFOLD:
I received a phone call or a message - I can't remember how it happened - from somebody in our personnel department who informed me that I should not go into the African Department, I should not have any contact with anybody in the department, but I was required to be interviewed by Customs and Excise, which took place in some sort of basement by the Tower of London. Something like you would see in police melodramas, being interviewed down in the cells.

MILLIGAN:
At Westminster, questions were being asked about the role of the High Commissioner in the arms deal. Peter Penfold was facing a seven-year jail sentence. The crux of it was whether the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, knew about the illegal arms deal, or had officials kept him in the dark?

ROBIN COOK:
If ministers are found to have been at error, if they have knowingly misled the House of Commons, or if they have adopted the wrong policy, then they must face the consequences.

MILLIGAN:
The arms-to-Africa affair was born. The inquiry Robin Cook set up cleared ministers of any blame, but Peter Penfold was officially reprimanded. However, he argues that he was acting with the full knowledge of the Foreign Office. He presented various documents to back up his claim at the Customs and Excise interview.

PENFOLD:
They also had a copy of my reports that I sent, dated 2nd February, clearly showing that arms and equipment were part of this agreement. I also attached a number of documents which had issued from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which clearly showed that, from reading these documents, the understanding of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was that the sanctions did not apply to President Kabbah.

MILLIGAN:
The Customs investigations was dropped and a further two inquiries were never able to establish whether or not ministers had been aware of the arms deal between Sandline and President Kabbah.

PENFOLD:
As far as I was concerned, generally when it came to briefing ministers, that would be the responsibility of the department anyway, acting on my reports.

REPORTER:
Would you have expected them to have briefed the ministers after they had received your reports?

PENFOLD:
Oh, I'm sure they did, yes.

REPORTER:
He doesn't understand why Robin Cook never asked him for his account.

PENFOLD:
I found it strange that something hits the headlines in Britain, in which members of the Foreign Office or an ambassador or High Commissioner are mentioned... I would have felt the first thing to do would be to find out what happened, ask him what happened.

MILLIGAN:
Zainab Bangura, the presidential candidate in the forthcoming elections, joining in the "welcome home" celebrations for Peter Penfold. She believed that Robin Cook panicked and looked for someone to blame when the Sandline affair came to light.

ZAINAB BANGURA:
(Campaign for Good Governance Presidential Candidate):
If he had been a smart politician like Tony Blair he'd have said, "What is the problem here? We support this country, these people, and they are in the right and they won so what is the problem?" I think if that had been done earlier on, it could have saved all this embarrassment. I think he did it basically to save himself from all the embarrassment.

MILLIGAN:
The treatment he received in London couldn't have contrasted more with the support he had in Sierra Leone. After the public inquiry, Peter Penfold was allowed to return as High Commissioner. On arrival, he was crowned a Paramount Chief and carried through the streets by jubilant crowds.

PENFOLD:
I have never had any training in being carried in a hammock! I wasn't sure if I put my legs inside or outside, and so on. Here was a white man, being carried through the streets of this black African capital, 30 years after their independence, with so many Union Jacks being flown. There were probably more Union Jacks than when Queen Victoria was there. It was a very unusual situation. I found it very moving.

MILLIGAN:
We asked the current High Commissioner, Alan Jones, for an interview. "If it has the words 'Penfold' or 'Sandline' in it," he said, "the answer is no." As far as Alan Jones was concerned, his predecessor was history. He had gone too far. That view became all too obvious when Peter Penfold had a career review at the Foreign Office.

PENFOLD:
It was probably the worst report that I ever had in my 38 years in the diplomatic service.

REPORTER:
What did it say?

PENFOLD:
It generally felt that although I was praised for certain merits, I had perhaps got far too close to the government of Sierra Leone, that I wasn't actually representing the interests of the British Government and the British people.

MILLIGAN:
On his latest visit, it's just like old times. A few months before the May elections, President Kabbah has arranged a whirlwind tour of the most devastated parts of the country, and Peter Penfold has been invited along. The first stop is Kono, once a thriving town, now reduced to dust and ruin by the rebels. For the former High Commissioner, it is the first time he has been to these areas.

PENFOLD:
It is a great pleasure for me to be here. It is my first visit to Kono. It is a big pleasure - something I have always wanted to do for a long time.

MILLIGAN:
A house once stood here. The rebels were searching for diamonds and destroyed everything in their way. The people have been left maimed and traumatised. The Pakistani peacekeepers fulfil the desperate need for security. But the President talks of peace and reconciliation. Diamonds are not the future - agriculture is, he tells the people. The election in May is not far from his mind. Armed police and UN soldiers keep a careful watch on the crowd. Security is tight. Many of these people are former rebels and have only just handed in their weapons. Still, Peter Penfold says he is optimistic that the country can recover from the atrocities, but warns Britain must keep up the momentum.

PENFOLD:
The Prime Minister does have a commitment to Africa, like so many other people have had a commitment to Africa. It is very difficult to know exactly what can be done. Ultimately, changes have to take place from within. But, in order, I think, to ensure that conflicts don't continue breaking out, it is important to strengthen the democratic institutions and strengthen the democracy in Africa. We had a big hand in helping to nurture that here in Sierra Leone. That's why I think we have a continued obligation to help them do that.

MILLIGAN:
Back in Freetown, the former High Commission is welcomed with a song at a school for the blind. After nearly 40 years, his career with the Foreign Office is over. He applied for 17 jobs, but didn't get any of them. He was assured it had nothing to do with the Sandline affair, but he found that difficult to believe.

BANGURA:
In the end, it was the man on the ground who took the blame and paid the price, which is very unfortunate, because if he had to pay such a price and now Britain is taking the credit for bringing peace to Sierra Leone - which he started, he started the process - and now the British Government is enjoying the support for it. So it is very unfortunate.

SONG:
No more guns
No more killing...

MILLIGAN:
Peter Penfold wrote and recorded this song to raise money to support the students at this school.

SONG:
No more pain
No more hiding in the rain
Peace...

MILLIGAN:
Although his judgement on how he handled the arms affair could still be questioned, what cannot be doubted is his enduring commitment to the people of Sierra Leone. The Prime Minister's is yet to be tested.


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