Fleeing the Jurisdiction

Checking out
February 23, 2007, 3:24 am
Filed under: Government, Sierra Leone

 The night before I’d said some farewells. I’d taken in the Atlantic sunrise over a cup of coffee from my balcony; smiled fondly, with premature nostalgia, at the hawkers and waved at the schoolchildren on the morning drive in. I was straightening things up at the office, filing some final reports, when the news came. Hinga Norman is dead.

Chief Norman, in some ways, represented the remaining divisions in post-war Sierra Leone. As Deputy Minister for Defence in the Kabbah government, he was instrumental in mobilising the feared Kamajor sect, along with the Kapra, Gbethi and Donso hunter societies, into the conflict. These so-called ‘magic warriors’, known for their belief in the use of traditional medicines to variously render them invisible to enemies or impervious to weapons, were dubbed the Civili Defence Forces (CDF). Despite Norman’s public statements endorsing their atavistic, scatter-gun approach to warfare, insiders suggest they were only ever loosely under government control.

Aided by their (not undeserved) reputation for cannibalism and human sacrifice, the CDF wrested control of a number of regional centres from the rebels. Norman’s home district of Bo, where he retained standing as part of the tribal elite, was ‘liberated’ by the Kamajors toward the end of the war. In this part of the country, and many others, Norman retains a significant following. He is also believed to have been instrumental in engaging mercenaries, leveraging favourable mining contracts against their protection of government interests. Regardless of his more unsavoury activities, many see him as having brought peace, and having orchestrated the downfall of the Liberian-backed rebels. Several Freetown dailies refer to him in their pages as a hero.

His subsequent indictment by the Special Court came as a surprise. In February 2003, he had been acting in his capacity as Minister of the Interior, making public statements denying visiting rights for prisoners in Sierra Leone’s under-resourced prison system. He may have had cause to regret this some weeks later, when he was himself placed under arrest. Blithely ignoring the indignity of doing so behind bars, he continued to administer his governmental portfolio from the cell block for more than a year.

Pointing to the atrocities committed by the CDF, allegedly on his authority, he had been detained under the Court’s mandate to bring to justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for the bloodshed. Maintaining his innocence of the war crimes and crimes against humanity charges brought against him, Norman at first dissolved his legal team and attempted self-representation. Prone to long-winded courtroom tirades, he always commanded an audience. The public gallery was packed with onlookers throughout the hearing of his case, many vocal supporters among them.

A decision was imminent. The trial chambers had indicated their judgement would be handed down within a few days. This was likely to further polarise the community, exacerbating tensions already heightened by the coming election. Norman’s death, at a military hospital in Dakar following routine hip surgery, will cause an uproar. Despite a swiftly-issued press release stating he had died of a heart attack, and detailing an independent investigation, rumours of foul play are already rife. With no complications following surgery, Norman had been active and in good health.

Some suggest Norman had privately expressed fears he would never leave the Special Court alive. His authoritative demeanour and standing as a paramount chief combined to win him support even in the cell-block, where other detainees deferred to him, even across factional lines. He had, in the last few days, traded on his influence in support of the opposition People’s Movement for Democratic Change, fronted by embittered political bridesmaid Charles Margai. A press release issued by the Committee to Elect Hinga Norman pointed bluntly to his supposed betrayal, by Presidential heir apparent Solomon Berewa, in negotiating the Lome Peace Accord that was to have provided amnesty to political leaders.

Security concerns are currently mounting as word spreads of the Chief’s death, with word of riots brewing. Though it seems likely that the Court will, more than ever, be painted as the nefarious agent of interfering Western powers, it seems entirely more probable to me that Norman saw the writing on the wall and decided martyrdom was the best possible legacy. It is uncertain what an investigation might find and even more uncertain what might be disclosed. The Special Court is effectively in lockdown, awash with cohorts of blue helmets. The sign on my office door, which reminds me to consider taking cover under a desk should the compound come under armed attack, suddenly doesn’t seem so absurd.

I’ve now gotten a security advisory that indicates MONBATT, the battalion of Mongolian UN troops, and the associated detachment of Sierra Leonean police, have been placed on high alert. Personnel are being advised to stay indoors, to keep phones and radios charged, to vary travel routes and avoid unnecessary travel. All staff are being recalled from regional investigations. Members of my own team have now, after a worrying period of fraught telecommunications, been contacted and are cutting their investigations short to make a speedy return to Freetown.

Though it’s likely that outbreaks of violence will be quickly dissipated, and/or politically mediated, this initial UN boost to security does not seem like an over-reaction in light of the simmering tensions in Freetown of late. A spate of unusual child deaths, which might at any other time be overlooked given this country’s abysmal perinatal mortality rates, has caused great anxiety, being widely attributed to a rise in juju practices. Some say that the government has entered secret pacts with the legendary vampiric practitioners of ‘thunder medicine’, seeking to secure electoral victory through rituals involving the blood of newborns. Further evidencing local unrest, altercations between increasingly heavy-handed police and local traders recently flared, a block from my house, reportedly culminating in one death by burning.

Before long, I’ll be following developments via internet, rather than sniffing the orange-and-gunpowder scented air of Freetown for fresh signs of trouble. The term of my contract ending, I’ll shortly be flying out. After some short weeks, and indigestible airline meals (which, I was recently ashamed to discover, distant relatives of mine are responsible for pioneering/inflicting upon the world), I’ll touch down in Dili, East Timor, for a year and a half of legal sector advocacy. I was reminded of this by an email received this morning, advising 17 vehicles had been burnt there overnight, Australian aid workers are increasingly being targeted and 20,000-strong demonstrations have been forecast ahead of next month’s hotly contested elections.

Another rioting seaside city, five years post-conflict. At this rate I’ll barely notice the move. Hope the seafood’s good there…


1 Comment so far
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As one who worked in Sierra Leone during the difficult times of 1999-2002 and who new Sam Hinga Norman very well, I find you report interesting but very one-sided. Regrettably, without the Kamajors the RUF murderers, who inflicted terrible suffering on the population, would not have been beaten. Sam Hinga Norman deserved the thanks of his nation.

Comment by Mike Dent

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