'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
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Sport
Luke Shaw’s performance in the derby will be key to how his Manchester United side get on
footballIt's not a game to lose, writes Paul Scholes
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music
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

One to One Teaching Assistant - Pupil Referral Unit

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Randstad Education are looki...

Experienced Teachers & TA's required - Autism - Notts / Derby

£50 - £60 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: The establishments that we w...

KS1 Teacher - Mansfield

£100 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: Key Stage 1 Teacher - Nott...

SEND Teachers Required - Nottinghamshire

£130 - £161 per day: Randstad Education Nottingham: SEND Teacher required to t...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes