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'The Boys' try to do a man's job: Richard Dowden, in Freetown, reports on the young officers who hold power in Sierra Leone

THE OFFICIAL portrait shows him in battledress but he looks away from the camera, with soft lost-boy eyes. At the age of 27, Captain Valentine Strasser is the world's youngest head of state. He is also the shyest. His daily public non-appearance consists of a convoy of seven Land Rovers filled with heavily armed uniformed youths who pose Rambo-style in reflecting sunglasses, one leg draped casually over the tailboard.

Every morning the convoy screeches into State House with sirens howling and returns every evening to the private residence, the palace of a former president.

Yet the captain is said to be too shy to meet visitors. At the Commonwealth Conference in October, the Queen tried to show a motherly interest but Captain Strasser only managed a meeting with a Foreign Office official. He did not want to meet the Independent this week. One Sierra Leonean official said he would feel awkward if he couldn't answer questions.

'The Boys', as the half-dozen junior officers who seized power in Sierra Leone 18 months ago are known in Freetown, have had only one falling-out so far. The fiery second-in-command, Solomon 'Saj' Musa, was blamed for the execution of 26 people last December and was sacked. The British government found him a place on a course in Wales to avoid any nastiness.

The Boys' latest tiff is with the German ambassador, Karl Prinz, who upset them by visiting a group of Sierra Leonean journalists detained in prison. The journalists, staff of the New Breed newspaper, had asked if allegations made in a Swedish newspaper that Captain Strasser had flown to Europe to sell diamonds and buy a house, were true. The German government was asked to withdraw Mr Prinz, but when experienced officials pointed out the implications of expelling the ambassador of the country's largest aid donor over an issue of human rights, they changed their minds.

Captain Strasser and the Boys have promised a return to civilian rule by 29 April 1996 but they have yet to announce what sort of politics the people of Sierra Leone will take part in. The National Provisional Revolutionary Council, as the Boys are officially called, has completed the first part of its 'revolution'.

Queues for food, fuel and essentials that marked the end President Joseph Momoh's regime have gone and Sierra Leone is being cleaned up. On one day a month everyone has to remove rubbish from streets. The scheme is policed by young men working for Nasmos, the National Social Mobilisation Secretariat. Failure to conform earns a fine.

The Boys have left the running of the country to a cabinet of civilians, headed by a former businessman, John Benjamin. The country is following a strict adjustment programme, with the International Monetary Fund, and the government has brought inflation down from 95 per cent to 16 per cent. The Leone has held steady at about 850 to the pound for the past year. Less than 10 years ago there were 2 Leones to the pound and the crash is a graphic illustration of the collapse of this once-prosperous country.

The government has scored some recent military successes against the rebels in the east who came in from Liberia three years ago. But the price of war has been paid by the peasant farmers. Hundreds of thousands have fled from their homes in the past three years or have been killed, raped or robbed by men in uniform.

The government insists that unruly soldiers have been court-martialled and punished. But when a country is taken over by the junior ranks of the army, civilian authority and the army is undermined. There are drunk soldiers at the road-blocks in the capital at night and the newspapers have published pictures of government troops holding up the severed heads of alleged rebels.

Most Sierra Leoneans are cautious about expressing political beliefs but the commonest view is that the coup was popular for getting rid of the corrupt and ineffective Momoh regime; but there is widespread scepticism about a return to civilian rule and a growing suspicion that the corruption the Boys pledged to clean up may be beginning to defeat them, or even embrace them. Only a few of the reports by the commissions of inquiry into the corruption of the past regime have been published and people are asking what will happen to property seized from corrupt officials.

Which brings us back to the claim that Captain Strasser flew to Antwerp in the private jet of Serge Muller, an Antwerp diamond dealer, to sell dollars 43m (pounds 29m) worth of diamonds. Well-informed sources in Freetown and Antwerp confirm the truth of the story.

Once this becomes common knowledge at home, the country is in trouble. Where does a country turn to if its radical young government betrays its confidence? One young Sierra Leonean said: 'Don't ask that. We have to believe in them. There is no one else.'

(Photograph omitted)