Monday, March 16, 1998 Published at 23:40 GMT
Democracy returns to Sierra Leone
Revellers celebrate the return of the President
Last week a highly unusual event took place in Africa - the reinstallation of an elected civilian President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone, after he had been ousted in a coup d'etat. Our West Africa correspondent Mark Doyle was in the Sierra Leonean capital, Freetown, to witness the celebrations.
A visiting journalist from South Africa, who I was working with, compared the scenes in Freetown to the joy he'd seen when Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa. In terms of the intensity of mass, public emotion, although of course it was a different sort of emotion, I could only compare what I was seeing with the scenes in London when Princess Diana was killed. Sierra Leonians were singing, they were dancing, they were holding up placards. Of course, there was some political organisation behind the welcome. But this was undoubtedly a geniune celebration.
The returning President, Ahmed Kabbah was elected to office in 1996. The elections weren't perfect; there were some complaints. But when, last year, junior army officers overthrew him, there was a wave of disgust among Sierra Leonians. How dare these soldiers challenge the will of the people? How dare they arrogantly break into homes and loot? How dare they chase away the elected government?
For someone, like myself, who is used to living in a democratic system, who almost takes for granted the fact that my vote will be fairly counted, the brave opposition of the ordinary people of Sierra Leone during those nine months of military rule was humbling to watch. I remember one poignant scene a few months ago on one of Freetown's attractive beaches. It was Sunday afternoon and two senior members of the military regime, or military junta as it was usually known in Sierra Leone, were parked at the western end of the bay.
They had their regulation four wheel drive vehicles with blacked out windows, and they were wearing the sort of forbidding mirror-shade sunglasses that seem to be de rigeur with soldier politicians. Next to their cars on the beach were half a dozen teenagers with automatic machine guns who had taken up positions to protect their masters. This was a totally incongruous scene for Freetown, where the beach, on Sundays, is normally a place for fun, families and relaxation.
But no-one on that three mile long beach wanted to be anywhere near these men who were, nominally, at least, their leaders. I drove along the beach for several minutes, past a huge stretch of empty sand before I came across a game of beach football and a few families picnicing. That distance along the beach was symptomatic of the gap between the democratic aspirations of ordinary Sierra Leonians and the mostly thuggish actions of those in power during the military regime.
But back to the celebrations in Freetown as the President returned home. It was impossible to move vehicles because the streets were groaning with the weight of people. On one corner there was a group belonging to the Watch Menders Association of Sierra Leone. These are the men who work mainly at tiny stalls on the roadside, making minute repairs to watches which in richer parts of the world would be thrown away. A banner read proudly: "The watch makers association of Sierra Leone welcomes home President Kabbah".
At this point in my report, I should, I suppose, give some political analysis. I should say that President Kabbah is not going to have an easy ride, that his political honeymoom may soon be over. I should add that some members of the ousted military are still at large and control parts of the East of Sierra Leone. I could speculate that President Kabbah may end up being totally beholden to the Nigerian led military force which returned him to power. And I should certainly point out that it's supremely ironic that Nigerian soldiers, hailing from a country with its own military dictatorship, have re-installed a civilian regime in Sierra Leone.
But, for once, I'm not going to dwell on that sort of cynical political star gazing. And here's why. When we went onto the streets of Freetown with our camera and tape recorder to ask people what they thought, they were all, every single one of them, optimistic. When we asked them if they were worried about the role of the Nigerians, they all, every single one of them, said no, they were just grateful to Nigeria for having removed the military from power in Sierra Leone.
I've reported enough depressing stories over the years and there will be plenty of time to chronicle Sierra Leone if things go wrong. For now, I can report that Freetown, when the civilian President returned home, was a place that was overwhelmingly happy.