'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)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker