Why our man in Freetown flies the flag for freedom

Alex Duval Smith meets the British diplomat who the Sierra Leoneans call Chief Komrabai Penfold. He believes that the ravaged country deserves far more of our support

"I MET A MAN whose hand had been chopped off with a machete because he had voted in democratic elections. He said to me: `I believe in democracy. I still have another hand.' That is the kind of heroism you find in Sierra Leone and Britain must defend it."

The man who tells the story, Peter Penfold, Britain's High Commissioner to this war-ravaged West African country, is an idealist. Here, he is a hero - rare for a white man. He truly believes, in his heart, that even this sweaty little place deserves democracy.

Last week, it was again made clear that Sierra Leoneans consider him their spokesman to the world. He flew in to Siaka Stephens stadium, on a trip to assess aid requirements for the capital, Freetown, and was greeted with cheers and chanting by the thousands of people gathered there.

Chief Komrabai Penfold - his Temne title since last May - is not the kind of diplomat the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has traditionally set out to produce. If he had been, he would not, at the age of 54 and after 25 years in the diplomatic service, be posted here. And here, Mr Penfold invites African musicians to his receptions.

Britain, which still has an unproductively confused relationship with its own coloniser-past, does not know what to do with Mr Penfold. It would be so much easier if he was aloof in a crisp linen suit and drove a battered Bentley like someone out of Our Man in Havana. It would even be more appropriate: Graham Greene lived in Freetown in the 1940s. Since last month, the FCO has effectively kept Mr Penfold in exile. He has been allowed only day trips to Freetown and must return in the evening to his room at Hotel Camayenne in the Guinean capital, Conakry. It is only a 20-minute flight away but that is not the point.

"I have spent 272 nights in Conakry in the last year," he said matter- of-factly. While this career diplomat would not dream of criticising British policy his frustration is clear. He knows he could make a difference in Freetown where thugs challenging President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah were still, yesterday, mutilating men, women and children.

The problem was the "arms-to-Africa" scandal which grabbed the headlines in Britain last year because it involved shipments to pro-Kabbah fighters which breached a United Nations arms embargo. The image-conscious UK government - thinking it had an arms-to-Iraq-style crisis on its hands - set in train an inquiry. It went on to criticise Peter Penfold last summer for giving the British firm Sandline "a degree of approval" to sell a pounds 10m package of arms and equipment to the country's exiled government, despite the UN ban. He was also criticised by the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook.

Yet Britain, in a guerrilla war pitting brutal bush-fighters against defenders of a democratic president, was on the side of the angels.

"I am not allowed to let the word Sandline pass my lips," is all Mr Penfold says now. He has been grounded and HMS Norfolk is circling Aberdeen Bay while the Government thinks, slowly and deliberately, about the best way to handle Sierra Leone. It wants to be here - it would like to bring democracy back - but there is a feeling that it would only do so if it believed the publicity would be good.

Meanwhile, the 15,000-strong Nigerian-led Ecomog (West African) intervention force battles on against the ruthless men with their machetes who invaded Freetown on 6 January. The Nigerians make no secret of the fact that they, and the pro-Kabbah Kamajors, take no prisoners. There are executions every day.

But Mr Penfold, it is clear, would like to spend a few nights in his white villa on Spur Road. President Kabbah, he says, is one of the brightest politicians in Africa. His 23 years at the UN prove as much. "Britain has always had the inside track in Sierra Leone. We have a close relationship with President Kabbah and his government. " But most of all, he believes the people of Sierra Leone deserve peace and the democracy they voted for." People have a very clear idea of what democracy should be. Under the junta which preceded President Kabbah (who was elected in 1996), people refused to go to school, to work, they closed the banks and locked their shops.

"After President Kabbah was restored to power this time last year, Britain set in motion a demobilisation and disarmament programme. We had 3,000 ex-soldiers in the scheme. It was going really well."

But democracy must be defended and, he now believes, President Kabbah and the Ecomog forces were not given sufficient resources to defend themselves He believes President Kabbah can still be saved - and should be. After all, he believes in the democratic potential of this diamond-rich land the size of Scotland. Others are not so sure. Charlie Whitfield, owner of a women's boutique in Freetown, has a fairly typical view: "Kabbah is a fantastic man but he is too good for us. What is happening is not a war between two sides but a battle for control of wealth, such as diamonds. The armed guys will always win over the nice ones. We need someone much more ruthless."

t Rebels have shot dead one of six nuns they were holding captive, Sister Aloysius Maria, who was kidnapped last week. They also tried to murder a kidnapped missionary, but he escaped with gunshot wounds. There was no news of the five other nuns. But, it emerged on Friday that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Freetown, Joseph Henry Ganda, and four other missionaries snatched during fighting in Freetown 10 days ago, had escaped their rebel captors.

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