Sprung from jail in May 1997 after being accused of plotting to overthrow elected President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, Major
Johnny Paul Koroma was made head of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) that held power in Sierra Leone for nine months.
The AFRC called on the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to share power, but the rebels effectively took over. The RUF/AFRC were driven out of Freetown in February 1998 by a Nigerian-led Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) force that restored Kabbah, and they took to the bush where Koroma was detained for some time by the RUF in eastern Sierra
The RUF/AFRC attacked Freetown in January 1999 and for two weeks held its eastern suburbs in a reign of terror before again being pushed back by Nigerian troops. Koroma was prevented by the RUF from attending the 1999 Lome peace talks, but was awarded the chairmanship of the Commission for the Consolidation of the Peace (CCP) under the Lome accords.
As the RUF once again threatened Freetown last month, Koroma announced on the radio a call-to-arms that saved the city and redeemed his reputation. His AFRC are now allied with the Sierra Leone Army (SLA), and the born-again Christian is widely touted as a potential future president, although he has repeatedly denied such ambitions.
The following is an exclusive IRIN interview with Koroma on the prospects for peace in Sierra Leone following the resumption of the civil war in May.
Q: What is your analysis of the current situation, where do we stand now in terms of the Lome peace accord.
A: I think the peace accord is a bit shaky, and what we have to do now, the government including the CCP, is to try and find ways and means to bring it back on track, probably with some modification. The only way we can do that is for the government to be talking from a position of strength. In other words the mining areas have to be taken under government control. If that is not done then the war will continue. I think you'll agree that Kono is one of those areas that is fueling the war, because of the diamonds going through Liberia. Until these areas come
under government control, we'll find it even difficult to talk to the RUF. And we're not going to continue the war until the end. At a certain point it will stop, and we'll try and bring these guys on board. We're starting doing it already by dropping leaflets, (and to help) some of those who don't want to fight, who are going for the peace option, to find a way to
Q: So basically the idea is military pressure leading to ...
A: Yes, if that is not done it will be difficult. As long as they are holding on to Kono it will be difficult, but it should be done. I don't think voluntarily they can abandon those areas, they'll have to put up some resistance, and if that is the case they'll have to be removed forcefully.
Q: Turning to Lome, is Sankoh out of the peace process completely?
A: Well, that is for the international community to determine. But personally I don't think he's credible enough to participate at all. But it's for the international community to decide. If we have to bring him on board, then fine. But I don't think he's worth bringing on board at all.
Q: Is there any evidence that there is anybody else in the RUF who is a credible negotiating partner?
A: I think in the (ECOWAS) meeting they held in Abuja they suggested 'Mosquito' (former RUF 'field commander' Sam Bokarie) - but no way. They suggested Issa (RUF northern commander 'General' Issa Sessay) - but no way. So I think they have somebody else in mind, but they haven't disclosed that yet. But I think they have somebody in mind.
Q: But all the commanders are very young, all they've known is fighting, is there anybody ...?
A: But these are the commanders we know who are in the field. There are some living in society we don't know, maybe they are the ones going to be used.
Q: But the idea is obviously that they must have credibility and can appeal to those in the bush.
A: Yes of course, but if they (ECOWAS) see somebody very strong that they think can form a political front, they can join (the peace process).
Q: Any ideas who that might be?
A: Well, I was just told they have somebody in mind, but they haven't disclosed that at all.
Q: You said a peace process but with some modifications. What would be those modifications?
A: Well, Sankoh was a signatory to the accord but he's out, so there are certain things that need to be discussed, taking into consideration the present situation. So there must be some modifications but I cannot tell you exactly.
Q: The issue of Liberian President Charles Taylor who is said to have an influence in this conflict. What does he want?
A: You see the diamonds in this country are a problem. It's not a hidden thing that everybody is trying to enrich themselves from these things, from Kono. That is why I was insisting that until these areas come under direct government control, the war will obviously continue. I'm sure Taylor has influence over the diamond fields.
Q: How did that influence start?
A: People are tempted. As soon as they start making money, they are tempted to continue. Particularly when someone can see an area they can exploit, unchecked. So it's difficult to stop such things unless you clamp down very, very hard and put an end to it.
Q: The pro-government forces, it seems a very wide coalition. You have the SLA (Sierra Leone Army), the AFRC, the CDFs (Civil Defence Force militia), who's commanding it all?
A: You have a central command, the defence headquarters. These
(allegations of disunity) are being orchestrated by the politicians. They are all SLAs - soldiers. They always like to talk about AFRC, CDFs, SLA, but no. We're trying to bring them together as one body - SLA. When you talk of AFRC it's more a political wing.
Q: Political? How do you explain that?
A: Yes. It was a government before, legal or illegal, it was a government called the AFRC that has both military and civilian personnel. It was not just a military wing. Some of the military personnel are now with the guys fighting, you cannot call them AFRC, they are just soldiers.
Q: If it has a political wing, you are leading a political faction and you'd like to play a role?
A: That was how it was as a political wing. But with the coming of the legitimate government I don't think we can talk much about that, we should be talking about SLAs. And I've resigned from the army. I'm a civilian.
Q: Another problem is the historical problem of the Sierra Leone army: Indiscipline.
A: Indiscipline can came from a certain situation. In the NPRC (National Provisional Ruling Council,1992-1996) when junior officers took over and were giving commands to senior officers, something happened. Again under the AFRC. And what we are trying to do is bring everything on course again. The only way you can instil discipline is when you put them in structures with their commanders. So the idea of indiscipline is just for
Q: The army has a history of turning against it's own people: We've had Sobels (soldier-rebels), hand-cutting under the AFRC ...
A: That I can tell you is propaganda, a lot of stuff is negative
propaganda against these chaps because they were accused of attacking the city on January 6 (1999). Everybody wanted them to come out of that place, so they created some scenarios that would point the finger at them.
Q: There was no hand-chopping?
A: I cannot dispute that, but I can tell you that 80 percent of what they were accused of was not true. And the reason why I cannot dispute that is that I was not involved in it at all. I was arrested in Kailahun by Mosquito. I was not in command, I was not in control, so there was no way even if I wanted to that I could have stopped that.
Q: The point is that the army has not been the people's best friend: The whole Sobel thing, they have been involved in mining, in killings, in using child soldiers ...
A: No, no, no, all these things are negative propaganda. I can tell you how this word Sobel came about. Look, when there was fighting between soldiers and the RUF, and when the RUF killed them, they started using their weapons uniforms and when they went to villages they said they were soldiers. And these villagers started going with the feeling that the soldiers were rebels and started calling them Sobel. The same thing
happened with the Nigerians. When the RUF killed them they used their uniforms. So why didn't they call them Nibel?
Q: There's a fear that if the SLA are not supplied they could start turning on the people again.
A: No, no, that will not happen. They have realised their faults, and it will not happen again. I think they are determined to defend their country.
Q: Why has the military advance taken so long to achieve any significant gains?
A: It's because they have not given the men the necessary logistics. For instance, some of the chaps don't have uniforms, and they can't move forward as there'll be cross-firing, they'll be mistaken for rebels and shot. That's why they are not just moving (forward) like that. If they had all the necessary logistics, they would have moved far beyond (the RUF-held northern town of) Makeni.
Q: If this is such a big war effort shouldn't the government be doing more ...
A: Well, there are some elements in government who are downplaying the whole thing. For some time since this war started some people didn't want to see an end to the war because they are making money from the situation. So as long as they are making themselves rich, they wouldn't mind to undermine the whole process.
Q: What do you think of UNAMSIL's (UN Mission in Sierra Leone) role in this conflict?
A: I think what we are doing now is resuscitating them because they failed woefully; they should accept that. I think they should try to redeem their image by flexing their muscles a bit so the rebels can know they are dealing with professional soldiers. If that is not done, I think other forces have to find ways and means to cover for them.
Q: There has been a pledge of 3,000 more troops from ECOWAS and a more robust response, where would you like to see them deployed, in Kono?
A: The problem, let me tell you, even if they bring more than a million troops here they won't achieve much because the first problem they will encounter is the terrain. They are not used to that. The only way I can see this thing working is if they give back-up to our troops as they move forward.
Q: Turning back to Lome, are there any lessons that should be learnt for a new peace accord?
A: A lot of things. First of all deadlines should be set for disarmament in the accord itself. Then punitive measures should be stated for violators, and also the mistake that was made last time was centralising DDR (disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration). If they decentralise things will move more swiftly. All these guys were choked up in these
camps ... Then disarmament should be done simultaneously - that was another mistake that was made. It will reduce the suspicion and lack of trust and confidence and everybody will be willing if you see the others are disarming.
Q: But now we have remobilisation, because of rearmament we have more guns in Sierra Leone than before. Don't you see a more complicated DDR process?
A: No, I don't think so. Before you were talking about people (AFRC) who were scattered all over the bush to disarm. Now, you are talking about people who are organised. Now all those (SLA advancing) are in a brigade. So all you have to do is contact the brigade commander, contact the battalion commanders, and collect the weapons. So it's simpler.
Q: So records are being kept of all these weapons?
A: Yes ... All our fear is on the weapons in the bush that we don't know about, like those ones that were taken from the Guineans, the peacekeepers, that the RUF took ...
Q: What about the reintegration side?
A: That was what was lacking in the whole process. They concentrated more on disarmament and not the reintegration aspect.
Q: Because of the financial ...?
A: That is what people are saying, but I'm suspecting it was because not much preparation was made.
Q: Amnesty and impunity: Do you think it's a way to buy peace or do you think it stores up problems for later?
A: No, it all depends on the kind of agreement. Like the Lome accord. A pardon and amnesty was given for a certain period. Beyond the signing of the accord, beyond 7 July, after that anyone would have to answer (for new crimes committed). So it was just for a certain period. It's just because at all costs, Sierra Leoneans and the international community want peace,
they decided to forego what happened in the past. But if somebody is repeating what they did in the past, I think the law must take its course.
Q: We've reportedly had 30 years of bad government in Sierra Leone, do you see somebody out there who can save this country and what qualities would they need to have?
A: Of course you have people out there. All it takes is sincerity and the fear of God, that's all. If you have people with these qualities ... once you have a leader like this you won't fail.
Q: You've seen the RUF close up, are they all stone-cold killers or is there a misconception about some of them?
A: There's no misconception. I don't know what you call their ideology, it's like jungle justice. That kind of pattern. I see them as the same kind of people, somebody who will kill for no just cause, (over) something that you could sit down and discuss. They are all the same.
Q: Where did that come from, they all have parents, must have normal emotions?
A: I think they got their indoctrination from the Liberian war (in which the RUF participated in support of Taylor's NPFL faction).
Q: Taylor - is he going to have a seat at Lome?
A: Yes, yes, I think it's important to bring him in. He has influence over the RUF and in some areas where it would be extremely difficult to talk to the RUF he can break those barriers, so he should have a seat.
Q: But what does he want and how do you satisfy him?
A: I don't know what he wants but the only way to move forward is for him and the president to sit down and sort things out.