Nation rejoices as Sierra Leone leader returns

Ed O'Loughlin in Freetown witnesses a triumphant homecoming
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The Independent Online
THE PRESIDENT of Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, ended nine months of exile yesterday when he returned to Freetown to a hero's welcome.

Several West African heads of state, including Nigeria's dictator Sani Abacha, flew to Sierra Leone to celebrate the reinstallation of Mr Kabbah who was elected president in 1996 but fled to Guinea last May following a coup by junior military officers.

Tens of thousands of people lined the roads from Hastings airport to the National Stadium to cheer the presidential motorcade as it passed. Many had been celebrating at street parties late into the previous night, as police and Nigerian peacekeepers for once turned a blind eye to the midnight curfew.

As the procession passed, the crowds chanted in support of democracy and in praise of the Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping force, Ecomog, which drove Major Johnny Paul Koroma's junta from Freetown last month.

Condemned by the international community and isolated by sanctions, Koroma's army and its allies in the Revolutionary United Front guerrilla movement had devastated the country in a campaign of looting, rape, arson and murder.

"We are very happy to see him [Kabbah] back," said Mohammed Kargbo, the chairman of the student group. "All along we have been working under cover for democracy. This is not a day for politics but for all the people of Sierra Leone. At last we are free of these bandits."

"The people of Sierra Leone have suffered for too long," Mr Kabbah told the tens of thousands packed into the National Stadium. He promised to do everything in his power to reconstruct the country's infrastructure and economy.

General Abacha, who is expected to resign from the army to offer himself as a civilian candidate in presidential elections later this year, attended the ceremony in civilian clothes. He was cheered wildly by the crowd both as chairman of the Economic Community of West African States and as the man who ordered Nigeria's troops to drive Koroma from power. Few ordinary Sierra Leoneans seem worried about the irony of being saved from military rule by a military ruler.

Having reinstalled himself in State House, Mr Kabbah now faces the task of rebuilding a country shattered by nine months under Koroma's Armed Forces Ruling Council, seven years of civil war and decades of misrule and corruption. The army, which joined the RUF in effectively making war on its own people, no longer exists while the police force, already notorious for corruption, has been further tainted by the failure of most of its members to resist the coup.

The economy, previously dependent on the export of aluminium, titanium dioxide (rutile) and diamonds, has been crippled by the war and many displaced peasants have been unable to plant crops. One of the world's poorest countries, Sierra Leone has the world's lowest average life expectancy at 42 years.

According to one of Mr Kabbah's close aides, Julius Spencer, the government will have to rely on foreign aid until the economy begins to generate income again. He believed the president would seize the opportunity to introduce radical changes.

"I know the structure of government is going to be reformed drastically," he said. "His attitude to corruption is going to be more aggressive." One of the first and most crucial tasks facing the president is to decide how to deal with junta members and collaborators. It is likely that the major figures will be tried for treason, which carries the death penalty.