October 19th, 2013 Headsman
Fifteen years ago today, thousands of Freetown residents piled into a stone quarry on the outskirts of the Sierra Leone capital to cheer the firing squad executions of two dozen soldiers linked to the previous year’s coup.
In an episode of Sierra Leone’s intractable 1990s civil war, the government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was overthrown in 1997 by a military clique in alliance with the murderous Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
This was the height of Sierra Leone’s “blood diamond” chaos, and the RUF had earned an international reputation for savagery in exploiting this lucrative trade — most vividly symbolized by thousands of civilians whose arms or legs were chopped off in an effort to induce population flight away from the diamond mines it intended to control.
The RUF lived down to its terrifying reputation when it marched into Freetown with its military allies in May 1997. Disorderly gangs brandishing AK-47s looted buildings in Freetown* as President Kabbah fled the country.
The oppressive putsch was short-lived: Nigerian-backed intervention reversed the coup early in 1998, causing the RUF to melt back into the bush.**
The Freetown populace’s enthusiasm for revenge against the rebels is to be understood in this light. Those shot at the quarry this date included some major figures in the coup, according to the New York Times: “Brig. Samuel Koroma, a former chief of defense staff and the elder brother of the junta leader, Johnny Paul Koroma, who is a fugitive, and Cpl. Tamba Gborie, the man who announced the coup. The junta secretary general, Col. Abdul Karim Sesay, was also executed.”
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights later found Sierra Leone in violation of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights for denying the soldiers a “right of appeal to competent national organs” which “falls short of the requirement of the respect for fair trial standards expected of such courts.” Sierra Leone was so little perturbed by the non-binding and unenforceable ruling that it didn’t even bother defending itself against the complaint.
* Dubbed “Operation Pay Yourself”.
** They weren’t done by a long shot. In January 1999, the RUF’s more systematically homicidal “Operation No Living Thing” attack on Freetown claimed 7,000 lives, half of them civilians.
Also on this date
- 1489: Domenico Gentile and Francesco Maldente, Bull-shitters
- 1973: 14 during the Caravan of Death
- 1983: Maurice Bishop, Prime Minister of Grenada
- 1928: William Edward Hickman, Randian superhero?
- 2005: Wang Binyu, desperate migrant laborer