By JANET OTIENO
Once upon a time, there was a 25-year-old Valentine Esegragbo Melvine Strasser, who took power in Sierra Leone in 1992.
He became the world’s youngest head of state and was respected in his country and beyond. Since he lost power in 1996, however, the world has treated him like a nobody, leading him into depression.
Today, Strasser lives with his mother in a slum, as a very depressed man who spends his days drinking gin by the roadside in deplorable conditions.
Strasser is unlike other African leaders who retire to expensive villas in resort cities.
His situation is so desperate that some of his relatives are imploring the government to provide him with urgent medicare and financial support to enable him regain some dignity.
However, analysts say this might not happen soon since he ousted the old All People’s Congress (APC) regime, thus they are reluctant to embrace him after they swung back to power.
Strasser is credited for setting the path to Sierra Leone’s democracy by removing a brutal, one party state government. He also introduced general cleaning every last Saturday of the month, and the the national soccer team made it to the Africa Nations Cup tournament for the first and so far, the only time.
According to Sierra Leone’s minister of Information Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, various regimes had failed to give him support.
Speaking to the Africa Review on phone from Freetown, Mr Kargbo said that the current government of President Ernest Bai Koroma was aware of Mr Strasser’s situation and was working to assist him.
“President Koroma asked me to contact Mr Strasser and after we got in touch with him, the President met him two weeks ago and they discussed modalities on how his situation can be addressed,” he said.
“The current government feels so sad that former regimes left him in that state,” he added.
Asked why they were swiftly moving to action when elections were looming, he said: “We want to correct the past, while we were in opposition, we raised this issue with the former regime, but they said coup plotters should not be encouraged. Moreover, as things stand now, it depends on the goodwill of the president, as the law does not provide comfort for retired military officials. Initially, a coup plotter would be executed, but this has since changed.”
Born on April 26, 1967, in the country’s capital Freetown, Strasser attended the Church Missionary Society Grammar School up to Form Six before joining the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces at the age of 18.
Strasser rose in the military to the rank of junior officer before seizing power in 1992, and staying at the helm for four years.
As a young military officer, he was posted to eastern region of the country to crush insurgency, which was being backed by local provincial officials against government of Joseph S Momoh. That rebellion later resulted to the formation of Revolutionary United Forces- a rebel army that fought an 11-year war in Sierra Leone.
According to Roland Marke in his Harvest of Shame, published in Worldpress.org, Strasser’s battalion front was ill-equipped to win since the officers even lacked boots to wear in the battle which later turned bloody.
The report goes on to say that the soldiers’ welfare was completely neglected by Momoh’s regime and at times, they went without salary for several months.
The soldiers complained about their situation several times, but their pleas were ignored until one day they decided to march to State House in the capital to protest over the same and perhaps have an audience with the president.
Confusion then reportedly ensued and Momoh thought the soldiers had gone to overthrow his regime, so he decided to flee before listening to what the combatants had to say. That power vacuum was what prompted Strasser and his comrades to ascend to the throne, forming the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC).
Analysts have argued that Strasser was far too young and naïve when he seized power and did not posses governance skills. However, his takeover was cheered, mostly by youths who felt one of their own was at the throne to voice their plights.
However, their dreams and hopes were short-lived as one of his second in command Julius Madda Bio staged a coup that sent him packing, ending in exile in Guinea. The latter is the current country’s opposition leader, heading Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP).
The UN then came in and sponsored Strasser to study law at the University of Warwick in the UK, but he had to drop out after his scholarship was withdrawn without notice after one year, for unclear reasons. Some hold the UN succumbed to pressure from lobbyists who blamed the Strasser regime for numerous extra-judicial killings. The former president was left jobless and homeless in the UK.
Soon after, people learnt of his past courtesy of British newspapers and rights groups. Headlines like;“Butcher of Sierra Leone on the dole”, appeared, prompting people to start treating him with hatred and rejection.
At times, Strasser was physically assaulted on the streets of UK, though authorities were quick to refer to such as ‘incidences of racism’.
He reportedly has scars on his body to testify one such incident.
And with his seemingly unending woes, his wife left him.
Lobbyists were also on his case with Amnesty International calling on the UK to investigate allegations of torture, ill treatment and arbitrary killings of unarmed civilians by his troops, allegations he has since denied.
“How can you say the claims Amnesty International is making are justified?” Strasser asked. “They know it is the Revolutionary United Front that has been responsible for those abuses and violations,” Markequoted him as saying to the Sunday Times.
UK then deported him in 2000 after his student visa had expired and he ended up in Gambia, before being given asylum by the government led by Ahmed Tejan Kabba.
The regime extended him some warmth, but his woes soon resurfaced after Kabba’s party was voted out of power.
Mr Kargbo said Mr Stasser could not be rich because of his personal honesty.
“Once in power, he could have promoted himself and awarded himself a senior military rank, just as his colleagues like Julius Maada Bio did,” he said.
This way, he could have ensured that his pension tripled when he retired, others, however, assert that he could have been rich had he ‘fallen in love with diamonds’.
“Bio was his junior at that time, but he later awarded himself the rank of Brigadier,” the minister went on to say.
As the former African leader languishes in poverty with his aging mother, Capa (Krio word for captain) as he is famously known, has resorted to drinking local gin, perhaps as escapism.
“I agree that he is depressed and needs to be resuscitated as a retired head of state. At least he needs to have an office, his own project and enjoy some salary,” Mr Kargbo stressed.
Time will tell if the Government of Sierra Leone will come to Capa’s aid before it is too late with their robust vision of reconciliation.