Confusion and chaos among the colonels of Sierra Leone's new junta

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The Independent Online
At the military headquarters of Johnny Paul Koromah's military junta in Sierra Leone, the driving is bad. A commandeered UN Land-Rover kangaroos up the main drive while a new but battered Mercedes, full of soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades and AK47s sticking out of the window, screeches around the corner. It narrowly misses a group of men before the driver loses control and ploughs into a concrete pillar which disintegrates. The driver jumps out and kicks the car and the passengers jump out and kick the driver. The grounds of the base are like a human chicken-coop. Groups of soldiers and members of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) militia wander around aimlessly.

The army launched a coup last month to overthrow the government, and then joined up with the RUF, once its bitter enemy. The result, so far, is not very tidy.

Inside the building the chaos is just as ubiquitous as outside. At the entrance to the office of the Director of Defence Information, a man with a machine-gun wearing a cowboy hat and a pair of sunglasses stands guard. Beneath the bandoleer of linked ammunition around his neck, the logo of his T-shirt reads: "Save the Planet".

Inside the office Lieutenant Eldred Collins - the spokesman for the rebel movement, invited by the army to join the new regime - is attempting to justify the recent coup. "We are a people's government. We are a government for the people by the people. We have peace in Sierra Leone because J P Koromah brought the RUF from the bush. It must have been divine intervention, what else could it have been?"

Colonel Cessay, the Director of Defence Information who now shares his office with Lt Collins, leans back on his chair and stares at the ceiling. He will not say it out loud but it is written all over his face: he thinks his RUF counterpart is an idiot. The colonel politely excuses himself saying he has to report to his superior, a major.

The rank structure in the new People's Army is complicated. Colonels like Cessay have to answer to junior officers; and "Honourable" Sergeants (those on the Army Council) are higher up the ladder than some officers. Where the RUF commanders fit into the rank structure is anybody's guess, given that the vice-chairman of the Ruling Council and leader of the RUF is a corporal.

Apart from harassment on the streets, the flurry of chaos in the barracks has little impact on the outside. This is partly because the country has all but ground to a halt; but mostly because the phones in the barracks don't work.

The inhabitants of Freetown have few illusions about their situation. "What do you expect? When they looted my house they ran off with my computer thinking it was a television set, and these are the same people who are trying to run a country," says Sule Hassan, a local businessman whose house and factory were destroyed by looters.

Despite intimidation, Freetown newspapers continue to attack the junta for incompetence and illegality. "The AFRC [Armed Forces Revolutionary Council] must resign, they have left our nation stranded internationally and our people looted and displaced," states the editorial of the Freetown newspaper, the Standard Times. The greatest influence the military has had so far is the constant reruns of kung fu and Rambo films on Sierra Leonian television.

Although there are no overt street demonstrations, Sierra Leonians are expressing their disgust for the present regime by staying away from work or fleeing the city. The secretary general of the Labour Congress, Gandeh Yillah, continues to defy government demands for a return to work stating: "We will only return to work when we have democratically elected government in Sierra Leone." For many, a return to work is impossible as businesses have closed down and factories have been destroyed.

The atmosphere in Freetown is subdued. Sierra Leonians want to see the back of the present regime, but they are fearful of the possibility of a Nigerian-led invasion by the Ecomog regional military force.

"We don't want this regime but we don't want the Nigerians to intervene. They will cause damage and make the problem worse," says Samuel Foday, an economics student at Freetown University.

At present, Nigerian troops are camped out across the peninsula at the international airport at Lungi and their gunships straddle the harbour. They have so far failed to inspire the inhabitants of Freetown that they have the competence and discipline to mount a successful military operation.

In their initial abortive attempt to oust the junta on 2 June - one week after the coup - chaotic logistics and poor planning led to Nigerian artillery batteries shelling their own troops and the soldiers running out of ammunition. Those who were not killed or captured beat a hasty retreat to their base at Lungi.

Many Sierra Leonians are only too well aware of the Nigerian reputation in Liberia, where the Ecomog peace-keeping force participated in the looting and destruction of Monrovia and earned the nickname "Every Car Or Moving Object Gone". The last thing the inhabitants of Freetown want is another excuse for a looting spree.