The run-down mansion rising above the Freetown slum was the first giveaway, but it got even stranger. As Valentine Strasser’s home came into view, my guide screamed in Krio, “I go scared!” then yanked open the car door and bolted.
He emerged 50 meters away, behind a tangle of banana trees. Fair enough. Yusuf Dumbuya was a lanky 16-year-old from the shantytown of Grafton, and unsurprisingly didn’t want to hang around for what might follow.
I’d been lucky to get him to take me this far. In a neighborhood with no street names, nobody wanted to take me to Strasser’s house. Older residents recalled cheering in the streets when he first rode into power over two decades ago, but generally people shuddered when I asked about him.
“Everybody is scared of him here. Even if you say hello to him in the street, he will get angry with you,” Dumbuya had informed me cheerfully. He’d made the mistake of waving at Strasser a few weeks earlier. The former president of Sierra Leone felt the greeting showed a lack of respect.
“I don’t want to use abusive language, so let me just say he got very, very angry,” he continued, crossing his arms protectively. “He was shouting, 'Who are you and who am I?' He said, 'Why you didn’t call me capay [captain]?” Strasser lunged, so Dumbuya scampered.
I'd found Dumbuya outside a youth computer center that Strasser ran, though a thick layer of dust suggested it hadn’t been used for months. A knot of teenagers were loitering around, though, and Dumbuya, wearing a beret tipped at a jaunty angle, offered to show me the way to Strasser's home. He strode to my car with a swagger that implied he wasn’t afraid. That initial bullishness gave way to silence as we drove up the hill to where he said Strasser lived. Rice fields tumbled down to a river in the valley, where a group of boys were splashing about. “He go fight, maybe small, maybe big,” Dumbuya said, staring wistfully at them.
Then he looked up, noticed suddenly how far up the hill we’d gone, and let out a piercing scream. And that was pretty much the last I saw of him.
At least I was still with my driver, I thought. Cheikh Kabal had been my constant companion over the weeks. Tattoos snaked down his biceps and disappeared into the leather driving gloves he wore permanently as protection against Ebola, eschewing the blue surgical ones everyone else chose.
Officially I was in Sierra Leone to report on the country’s Ebola epidemic and ensuing international panic. It was the summer of 2014 and land borders had long since shut, but when a British nurse in the capital, Freetown, caught the virus that August, international flights were also canceled. I was stranded in the country.
To stop myself from sinking into a spiral of paranoia that I was going to die of Ebola, alone, in a deserted foreign hotel, I’d come up with another plan: I’d busy myself looking for the country's former dictator.
Kabal accepted pretty much everything I wanted to do — watch an Ebola burial in an isolated village, find a volatile ex-dictator — without asking questions. His sentences were never longer than necessary. “If you scream, I’ll come get you,” he said. He waited for me to climb out, then firmly locked the car doors behind me.
I took a deep breath and began walking toward the crumbling white house. Its porticoed front beamed majestically over the ramshackle tin roofs below. But the sweeping driveway was empty of the kind of flashy cars that typically announce a big man in these parts, and instead an elderly man — I later found out he was Strasser’s brother — was sweeping the dusty ground. Closer up, the columns were crawling with green mold, and the windowpanes were missing. The whole setup looked like an abandoned fairground attraction.
A thought occurred to me, and I turned back and tapped on the window of the car. Kabal rolled it down a couple of inches. Might Strasser have a gun?
“He’s an army man. If he doesn’t have a gun, he will have one of these,” Kabal said, rummaging around the glove compartment. He pulled out a chopping knife. The blade glinted in the sunlight. Now wasn’t the time to think about why Kabal kept a meat cleaver in the glove compartment.
Since being deposed and exiled in 1994, Strasser's legend has become more of a mystery. About the only thing that was known about him was his penchant for drinking and his explosive temper. I wanted to dive deeper, but on more neutral ground — not in a deserted house in the hills with a knife-wielding Kabal as my only protection.
On April 29, 1992, Valentine Esegragbo Melvin Strasser accidentally seized power in Sierra Leone, a small, diamond-rich country tucked into Africa’s western coast. Until that day, Strasser had been an unknown army captain whose closest brush with fame came when he won a couple of dance-offs in a nightclub in Allen Town, a Freetown slum. At the age of 25, he found himself newly installed as the leader of a nation of 4 million people, and the commander-in-chief of a fractious, impoverished army.
After more than two decades of corrupt governments, most Sierra Leoneans welcomed the coup-makers, and Strasser was catapulted to messiah status. Print shops churned out calendars embossed with his childlike face. Graffiti artists splashed Freetown with his portrait and those of his fellow junta members, who called themselves the National Provisional Ruling Council.
The party’s inner circle was made up of equally young men, including a vice chairman who was barely 22 years old. From the outset, their rule was marked with the kind of eccentricities you’d expect if you walked into a college bar and handed over a country to a bunch of students.
Meetings were often presided over by young men trailing the scent of weed. Strasser at one point sought to make the disco classic “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” the national anthem, and Valentine’s Day and Bob Marley’s birthday were both celebrated with official festivities. Kabasa Lodge, the presidential residence, doubled up as a private disco; on the side, officials also sold fake passports there.
Coups are hardly unique to Africa, but no continent has been so defined by them in the public imagination, and no other region has experienced as many — both successful and failed — as West Africa. Strasser’s own rags-to-riches-to-rags tale shows, in the starkest way possible, why so many leaders in Africa cling to power long after their turn has passed.
His coup came at the tail end of two decades that saw young soldiers, often in their twenties, dominate the continent’s political arena. Dictatorships have since dwindled, but a clique of autocrats, relics of that period, cling to power, tinkering with constitutional terms or holding outright sway in places like Eritrea, Cameroon, Rwanda, Angola, Zimbabwe, Congo, and the Republic of Congo. Three successful coups in the last four years show the playbook hasn’t entirely been closed in West Africa.
Strasser's time in the sunshine didn't last long, nor did it end well. Four years after taking over, he was overthrown by his number two, who literally held a gun to his head. Though his path to power had followed the rulebook of African strongmen, the former captain did not take the well-trodden route of fallen dictators, banished to a life of gilded exile or pulling strings from afar.
His downfall was followed by a brief resurfacing in the English countryside, two years of sofa-hopping in London, and then, for all intents and purposes, the world’s youngest head of state disappeared into obscurity. In 1998, he appeared, too broke to afford a taxi, on the doorstep of a former journalist he had once imprisoned. Another time, acquaintances were shocked to hear he was apparently drifting through Senegal, wearing the ragged clothes of a beggar. But his appearances were scarce, his fate largely unknown.
Residents of Freetown initially didn’t know what to think when a convoy of military trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns rumbled into the capital in the spring of 1992. Supposedly protesting unpaid salaries and a lack of equipment, the soldiers were marching toward the presidential palace. Among them was Strasser, then a young captain.
Meeting little resistance, the soldiers raided weapons depots before looting corrupt officials’ homes. They caused a brief spike in car accidents by driving seized cars wildly through the city’s serpentine roads.
When the mutineers made it into the presidential palace, they found President Joseph Momoh cowering in the bathroom in his dressing gown. By midday, he was on a helicopter out of the country. If the coup had come as a shock to Momoh, the young officers seemed equally surprised at the ease of their takeover.
Later, it would transpire that although the officers were planning a coup, they hadn’t necessarily meant to do so on that day. Fate had simply handed them a chance.
“We saw them in their nice uniforms, and they were young, and they said all the right things, how they’d sweep away the corrupt regime that had paralyzed the country. We were very, very happy,” said Lansana Gberie, an author and historian, who rushed to join thousands of his compatriots cheering in the streets.
Sierra Leone had been rolling toward the political cliff edge since the ascension to power in 1968 of Siaka Stevens, a prime minister whose destructive rule became known as the “17-year plague of locusts.” His successor, Momoh — otherwise known as Dandogo, meaning “fool” in his Limba language — dragged the economy down to the point where civil servants went unpaid, gas shortages were the norm, and water supplies often dried up as hungry citizens stole pipelines to sell for scrap.
Worse, a war raging in neighboring Liberia had spilled into eastern border towns in 1991, forcing Momoh to depend on an army so ill-equipped that it was little more than ceremonial. Strasser was unable to get even basic medical attention after being injured on the frontline.
The coup leaders were so unprepared that they hadn’t designated a new leader. Eventually Strasser was chosen, not because of his leadership, or martial authority — but because, as one of the few who’d completed secondary school, his English was good enough to read the junta’s declaration on the radio. If nothing else, they all agreed, a fresh-faced lad could inject youthful optimism into a weary nation.
Once Strasser was sitting in Momoh's chair, it dawned on him that the next step was winning international recognition. He decided to summon Joe Opala, a well-known American historian and lecturer who’d lived in Sierra Leone on and off since the 1970s.
Opala was famous for his work showing that the Gullah language in the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina is a cousin of Sierra Leone’s own Krio vernacular, and he was often stopped in the streets by people who recognized him. These days Opala lives in a cabin in Massanutten, a ski resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and over the phone, he still sounded incredulous when he recalled those early heady days.
“There was no one in the streets, because the soldiers would take your car if they saw it. They actually marched me into the State House — I had never even seen the State House gates open,” he said.
Once inside, Opala was pushed down onto a seat in front of the “big chairman.” Stoned soldiers sat around cleaning their Kalashnikovs. Bullets and spare parts were scattered everywhere.
Momoh’s terrified staff were gathered in a corner. “They were shaking like leaves. All of them were convinced that in a few moments they were going to be shot dead,” Opala said. “I was scared to death.”
Strasser leaned forward and told Opala he had a question: Would America accept the junta as the legitimate government? Opala was too stunned to speak, but eventually managed a reply: “You should probably put that question to the US ambassador.”
“Well, I talk with him, but him big English he speak, I no understand nothing,” Opala recalled Strasser replying in Krio, the language spoken across Sierra Leone. Secondary school in a crumbling education system had left Strasser with only a shaky grip on formal English.
As the conversation unfolded, Opala remembered a young soldier circling around, casting his eye on anything shiny. At one point he opened an ornate box and peered inside, before slowly lifting out a medal — it was the former president’s highest-ever military medal, draped in ribbons. “Na Momoh, him grand commander,” he recalled the soldier saying, before gently putting it back.
Opala eventually left carrying a wish list from Strasser to the US Embassy. Number one, Strasser declared, was “to create a government like Jerry Rawlings, but I don’t think the Americans will let me.” Then-president of Ghana, Flight Lt. Rawlings began a trend that other regional coup leaders would later use to cement their positions. After seizing power just over a decade ago at the age of 31, Rawlings successfully swapped military uniform for civilian garb.
Diplomats on the ground were in a tricky position over how to handle the situation. A week after the coup, Karl Prinz, the ambassador for Germany, met Strasser. By then, a song called “Tiger Come Down to Town” — after the junta’s tiger battalion — was dominating radio airwaves. Yet the newly installed president seemed nervous, and the two men smoked steadily through a packet of Marlboros in a single sitting.
“I was around 43 years and the youngest of the Western diplomats, but still 18 years older than Strasser. I felt sympathy for Strasser,” said Prinz, who is now retired and living in Bonn.
Prinz pushed for democratic elections to be held quickly and advised that Strasser keep on four ministers from the previous government in order to win some international credibility. “He was a nice [man] but ... there was obviously a big distance — already on the level of skin color.”
Perhaps acutely aware of this, Strasser initially heeded the popular older diplomat’s advice, then sacked all the ministers. Within a couple of years, Strasser would make another costly miscalculation in disregarding Prinz’s advice. For now, though, citizens were snapping up calendars decorated with “Strasser, Our Redeemer.” Few realized then that the soft-spoken and easily intimidated captain — “Strasser made Jeb Bush look like a tough guy,” Opala told me — controlled neither his officers nor his cabinet members.
There’s a video of a journalist interviewing Strasser shortly after the coup. The new president can be seen sitting behind a desk, decked in full military uniform, eyes lowered shyly. “You have a lot of support,” the journalist says, almost breathlessly.
“Yes,” Strasser mumbles unconvincingly, “because we know what the people want.”
Whether or not Strasser or his cronies really knew what the people wanted, they certainly put on a show. They attended dreary government meetings in sunglasses and sharply cut suits. Once, Strasser addressed a state funeral in the national cathedral while wearing aviator sunglasses. On another occasion, he turned up to a Commonwealth summit in Cyprus — during which Sierra Leone’s return to democracy was a key discussion point — wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Sunny Days in Cyprus.” While there, he was reportedly too shy to attend a proposed meeting with the Queen.
There were grand plans to install a functioning democracy. The soldiers launched a cleanup campaign to rid the streets of mountains of trash, often joining in themselves. The economy was on the up; gas and electricity were once again available. Ambulances, which had all but disappeared from Freetown, were imported and put to use again.
Optimistic once again, young people splashed downtown Freetown with murals of inspiring slogans and national heroes. There was talk of a long-awaited revolution finally bursting into flower.
It didn’t take long for the euphoria to start fading. In December 1992, just eight months in, the government announced it had foiled an attempted coup. Twenty-nine accused men were executed by firing squad on a beach outside Freetown. Some of them had been in jail at the time they were supposedly plotting the coup.
Strasser would later tell journalists he had covered up for his deputies’ decision, but the atrocity that happened under his watch would haunt him long after he left power. (In 2002, Strasser told the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that there had been a trial after the execution, in which the suspects’ corpses were found guilty.)
Strasser didn’t, as was customary in the region, promote himself, but a habit of generously dishing out promotions to his colleagues sowed confusion and resentment. It meant junior officers were suddenly giving their ranking superiors orders. “Strasser tried to keep in control but eventually he couldn’t,” said Julius Spencer, a journalist who ran a muckraking newspaper called New Breed. Sierra Leoneans joked darkly that NPRC, the interim government’s acronym, stood for “Na Pikin Run Countri” (Children Are Running the Country).
Equally unforgivable were the stories of extravagant state-funded lifestyles. “There were stories of them selling diamonds worth tens of thousands [of dollars], spending the money on brand-new cars and wrecking them in some cases,” said Gberie, the author who lived through the coup and now resides in Canada.
Some officers moved into the lavish houses they’d seized from the previous administration’s corrupt officials. Lagoonda, a beachside nightclub and casino housed in a neon-pink building, became a second home to many of in the regime. There was a lounge reserved for the soldiers, where they were frequently seen quaffing imported spirits as women hung off their arms.
“I suspect he meant well when he took over,” Gberie said. "But remember, he was ... really young when he came to power. He didn’t really know what he was doing."
In October 1993, New Breed ran an article by a Swedish newspaper suggesting that Strasser and other officers had flown to Antwerp, Europe’s diamond capital, with smuggled stones valued at tens of millions of dollars. Some of the money was used to buy arms for the floundering army; the rest was divided between officials. Coming at a time when Sierra Leone earned less than $2 million annually in legitimate diamond trading, the article was explosive. (Press reports shortly afterward claimed Strasser had wept at how badly the authors had misunderstood him.)
A few days later, Spencer, who was the paper’s managing editor, and six other colleagues were arrested. Spencer, who had celebrated the junta when they first swept in, was bitterly shocked. “They tried to give the impression that it was going to be a fair trial, but there was no way the judge was going to rule against the government, and it was obvious,” said Spencer, who ended up spending two years in and out of jail in a widely followed case of criminal libel charges.
“The junta members felt the power they held; a dictatorship of stealth, mutilation, and theft developed quickly,” said Prinz, the German ambassador. In April 1994, after the vocal lobbying for the release of political prisoners, Prinz was booted out and the German Embassy was shuttered. The regime’s popularity plunged further.
Nowhere was the lack of experience more costly than in Strasser’s handling of the war brewing in the east. There were battlefield successes, but “na di wa” (it’s the war) became a get-out clause for any failings of the government. And as the junta partied, the war they had promised to end was spreading. The Revolutionary United Front rebels had originally been fighting to unseat the corrupt government, but with Momoh out of power and continual meddling by Sierra Leone’s neighbors, it became unclear what they stood for. Lucrative diamond deposits also became a resource to fight for in their own right.
At the beginning of 1994, the government launched a desperate army recruitment drive, enlisting children as young as 12. That did little to help; by the following January, state radio bulletins were urging citizens to “have sticks and stones and machetes ready” as refugees pouring into Freetown brought tales of torture and mutilation from the east.
Strasser vanished from public life. “The rumor was very widespread that he was drinking a lot and abusing cocaine,” said Gberie. “He didn’t seem to be in control at all.”
Throughout the following year, Strasser’s government struggled to rein in growing protests. Facing equally intense international pressure, Strasser decided to hold polls in February 1996. But by putting himself forward as candidate — ignoring the constitutional minimum age of 40 — he inflamed existing leadership rifts within the party.
A few weeks before the election, Strasser went to a routine government meeting also attended by his second-in-command, Maada Bio. According to his own retelling, he entered the meeting room without his armed security detail, so there was nothing he could do when Bio drew a gun from under the table and pointed it at him. Strasser was bundled — just as his predecessor had been — into a helicopter and flown to neighboring Guinea.
The incoming gang wasn’t exactly professional. The keys to the handcuffs were forgotten, and the chopper had to fly back to Freetown to retrieve them. Bio, who was only 32 years old, then put himself down as the presidential candidate in upcoming elections. Strasser’s post-political life would take him far from Freetown, only depositing him back home in a manner as unlikely as his rise to power had been.
Having balked at the idea of entering Strasser’s house alone, I was back at my hotel the following morning wondering what approach to take next, when Kabal turned up, raring to go.
“Good morning. I have Strasser’s phone number,” he said. He unrolled a scrap of paper and dialed the number. “Good morning, capay …” he began.
There was a long silence.
“Please, sir, don’t shout,” Kabal finally said.
An even longer silence followed.
“I’m sorry. Sorry, sorry, sir,” Kabal said. “Sorry, sir.”
A tinny voice could be heard from the handset. The voice sounded angry. It went on for a long time. Finally, Kabal lowered the phone and leaned against the car.
“He said he don’t want to speak to us. He don’t want to know us, we don’t need to know him or about him, so let’s just never go there again.”
For the first time since I’d met him, Kabal looked fearful. “He said he will trace my number if I call him again, and that will be a problem for me.”
But Kabal was nothing if not stoic, and we decided to try asking an aunt of Strasser's who also lived in the slum. Her colonial wood-paneled home stood on a relatively well-off street in front of an orange-brick mosque and a church. She was tending hibiscus bushes and immediately began shouting at our request: “Wetin you na dey fraid fo?” — What are you scared of? — “Am I young?” she demanded, turning both palms upward to show how weary she was with the world and all its young fools.
Her knees hurt because of old age, she told us, and her head hurt because of our stupidity. She dispatched a younger cousin to take us to meet Strasser. The cousin, another skinny teenager, shot us a resentful glance before lapsing into the now-familiar terrified silence in the backseat. We set off to Strasser’s house again.
Are you worried, I ventured, because it’s afternoon and Strasser will be drinking?
“Presently,” the cousin said coldly, refusing to make eye contact, “you really cannot tell if he has been drinking or not.” When we got back to the house he refused to accompany me inside, which had been the whole point of us dragging him there anyway.
This time I walked cautiously round the side. Up some stairs was an open door. Inside, an elderly lady wearing a headscarf sat on a purple plastic chair. Pots and pans were piled in one corner. The walls were bare. We both stared at each other in surprise.
“Hello,” she said.
It turned out the house belonged to Strasser's mom, Beatrice; he'd moved back in with her years ago. I explained who I was, and that I was looking for her son. She sighed, shook her head, and stood up heavily. She clasped both my hands softly — a shock after a week of the “no-touching” Ebola rule.
Strasser wasn’t home, she said, looking exhausted. He’d accompanied a friend to a court case that morning — because, she added, he was a good, kind friend. “Did you make an appointment to see him?” she asked.
I didn’t, I told her.
“Don’t you think,” she said, “you should have made an appointment to see the former president?”
I agreed I should have, suddenly embarrassed.
She sighed again. “It’s okay,” she said. “I’ll tell him to meet you at Mr. John’s bar tomorrow afternoon.”
Then she said her back was hurting and she needed to go lie down.
The exiled junta members quickly accepted a United Nations-brokered peace deal that would fund their study overseas in return for agreeing to relinquish power. While some went to the US, Strasser found himself in the unlikeliest of locations. Far from the sweltering heat and political chaos of Sierra Leone, he wound up studying at the University of Warwick in Coventry, a quiet industrial city in the UK best known for its car museums.
His presence didn't go down well among the student body at the university, which included several students in exile from Sierra Leone. The fact he was enrolled in a law program didn’t help matters, said lecturers who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, out of respect for student-staff confidentiality. “Some [teaching staff] raised concerns that he was implicated in atrocities and breaches of international criminal law,” one former lecturer told me. Another, who had fled South Africa’s apartheid regime, refused to teach someone who was himself accused of rights abuses.
Strasser did his best to keep his head down on campus, it seems. Hugh Beale, his personal tutor, recalled meeting him no more than twice, both for very short periods of time. "As a student he did not stand out in any way. He was quiet, tried to avoid eye contact, and was not really suited to serious study," one of his former lecturers told me. “I think Val was probably more gregarious away from the law school.”
Even outside the lecture halls, Strasser couldn’t escape his past. There were allegations of him bullying Sierra Leonean students linked to his opponents. The university newspaper ran headlines asking why a former dictator was attending lectures. A fellow student, whose relative was among those executed on the beach, launched a campaign to have him ejected. The UN declined to renew his funding after it expired at the end of the year.
Beleaguered, Strasser dropped out 18 months into his studies and began drifting around London, with frequently disastrous encounters among Sierra Leonean expatriates.
“He was just floating around drinking — he didn’t have any money. He was virtually living off his girlfriend at the time,” said Gberie, who bumped into him a few times in London.
At one house party in 1999, Strasser drank himself into a particularly deep stupor. “He was lying on the floor of my friend’s flat. People came and were poking him and saying, 'This is the former head of state,'” Gberie recalled. “He was being taunted a lot.”
The former president had been sofa-hopping until an embassy press attaché, who was a former schoolmate, took him in. One August afternoon in 1998, the friend organized a meeting with Spencer, the journalist whom Strasser had jailed. After being released, Spencer had risen to become a minister; now his former jailer was late because he’d been unable to afford a taxi to the meeting point. During the meeting, Strasser proceeded to drain half a bottle of whisky.
He cut a sympathetic, if pitiful, figure, Spencer recalled. “He expressed regret at having tried to cover up [about the beach executions] for some of his colleagues. He said he was now wiser.”
Word in the Sierra Leonean Embassy was that Strasser was desperate to avoid returning home, where he’d felt trapped by his supporters. “The story that was made public by those who overthrew him was that he didn’t want to hand over power,” said Spencer, who, like many Sierra Leoneans, later came to see things differently. Four days before he was ousted, Strasser's brother had lobbied unsuccessfully to appoint him as head of a newly formed civilian party widely seen as a puppet of the junta. “He really had no interest — he didn’t want to stay on in power. But he came under pressure from his family and friends, and some of those who had got into power because of him.”
His fall from grace deepened when he was forced to abandon his council flat in the north London borough of Islington after The Independent newspaper tracked down his address sometime in 1999. The Times ran a headline screaming "Butcher of Sierra Leone Drawing the Dole." The following year, he was arrested for allegedly smashing his girlfriend’s car. His mother told reporters back in Freetown that around this time, he was stabbed in the left leg by exiled opposition supporters (Strasser put it down to a racist attack while he was outside a liquor store). Meanwhile, UK-based human rights organizations were questioning why a former dictator was allowed to remain in the country rather than facing trial under international law.
By November 2000, Strasser sought escape by fleeing to Banjul, the Gambian capital, but there he met more of the same. Once again — this time in an upscale nightclub garden — he was beaten up by relatives of some of those who had been executed on the beach. According to his mom, Strasser still wanted to stay in the Gambia but couldn’t afford a lawyer to help him with the immigration process. Beatrice later told me her son found his time there “emotionally stressful.”
Gambian authorities accused him of fomenting another coup, arrested him, and deported him back to London. This time UK officials bowed to the pressure, and Strasser was refused re-entry. There was nowhere left to go except home to Freetown. There, Strasser all but sank into oblivion.
Mr. John’s “bar” was really a wooden lean-to furnished with two benches under a gnarled tree by the side of the road. On offer were poyo — a potent palm wine — and cheap plastic sachets of locally brewed gin with names like double punch, parrot energy, and man pikin.
After driving past the place several times, I found both the bar and its sole customer, Daniel, a nervous man in his fifties who wore bright-pink socks and gave only his first name. He told me he hung out there most days with Strasser, whom he described as “a dear friend.”
“We meet here every day,” Daniel, told me, twitching as he spoke. "We talk about most things, the country and everything." What he didn’t understand, he said, was why I wanted to see Strasser. Mr. John, the bar owner, was equally suspicious.
“If Strasser doesn’t beat people, then too many people will come around him to mock him,” Mr. John explained. “Strasser, nobody cares about him, nobody asks about him. Some of the ones before his time see him and say, 'This is the former president?'”
It was obvious they were both protective of the man they’d known for more than a decade. It was also true, I later learned, that Strasser once struck Daniel in a drunken rage, which probably explained why when Mr. John suddenly yelled, “He’s coming!” Daniel took off immediately.
A boy of no more than 13 trotted in, apparently Strasser’s miniature aide-de-camp. Sit over there, he told me, pointing to the corner of the shack. I sat. The boy shook his head furiously. “No! Not there! Move, move,” he commanded.
A moment later Strasser appeared and strode over to the spot I’d just vacated. The former president of Sierra Leone wore a white sports shirt, faded blue jogging pants, and mud-splattered sneakers. He tore open a plastic sachet of water, gulped it down, and turned to me.
“Do you want to talk about Sierra Leone in general or anything particular?” he asked, his voice soft and polite. Then he hiccuped and the smell of booze was overpowering. He was so tall he almost had to stoop. We talked about Sierra Leone — its history as a colony of freed slaves, its red phone boxes and cricket teams that were legacies of British colonialists, and its ever-failing football team. He reminded me they had made it for the first (and so far only) time to the African Cup of Nations during his regime.
He could be a sharp conversationalist, but the shards of insight were enveloped in a jumble of unfinished sentences, abrupt cutoffs, and ellipses. He sometimes seemed more interested in a conversation going on in his own mind. He clenched his fists, seemingly unconsciously, each time we approached anything potentially political.
I gently tried to steer the conversation that way, dropping gossipy bait. What did he think of the current ruling party? A shrug.
Would he ever consider entering politics again? He had supporters, I’d heard. (“No.”) In fact, he avoided the subject so studiously, I couldn’t help wondering if the opposite were true.
I decided to try Ebola. Did he think the government was doing a good job of handling the epidemic? Everyone I’d asked this question during my trip had the definite answer.
Strasser just shrugged and clenched his fists. “It’s hard for them to do anything, man, look at the roads.”
You mean they haven’t provided the infrastructure necessary to deal with an epidemic, I said instead.
I told him I’d been up in Kailahun, a border outpost that was then the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak — and also where Strasser was first posted as a 19-year-old soldier.
“Do you want to see how things are up there now?” I passed him my camera.
He reluctantly flicked through the pictures, until he reached one of a checkpoint. It was one of dozens dotting every main road, where passersby and motorists were meant to have their temperature taken and wash their hands with disinfectant, in a bid to check the disease from spreading.
The soldier at that particular checkpoint had insisted on posing for a picture, then handed me a piece of paper with his number scribbled on it. For the first time in an hour, Strasser lit up.
“Are those the soldiers sent up there?”
He peered at their uniforms. He wanted to know what kind of equipment they were given, and if they seemed up to the job. How many had they sent up there? Did they seem well-fed?
Next we moved on to photos of the Ebola burial teams, young men who donned full protective gear as they undertook the difficult task of safely interring the dead. “Their job is like soldiers',” Strasser murmured, staring intently at the tiny screen.
Did he miss being a soldier?
He mumbled a few words. “Yeah — I don’t — the point is…” Then, cutting himself short, he looked around the room and asked: “Are you okay with these surroundings? Is this comfortable?”
In five years of interviewing West African heads of state, past and present, not one had ever asked me that. Usually their preferred approach was to make me wait hours before staring down at me as I perched on invariably uncomfortable seats. And here was Strasser asking after my comfort as we sat in stifling heat in a roadside shack. I started laughing, and he wanted to know why. He laughed too, a big, booming laugh.
I threw caution to the wind. "Can I ask a personal question?" The joviality evaporated instantly.
“That depends,” Strasser said, again his voice dangerously soft.
And then it occurred to me: I’m sitting in a very small space with a former dictator, whose right eye is twitching furiously. Neither Kabal, with his chopping knife, nor Mr. John is in sight, and Strasser’s pint-size aide-de-camp is staring at me in horror. I remembered the legend that Strasser once made Bob Marley’s birthday an official holiday.
“Is Bob Marley your favorite musician?”
Strasser narrowed his eyes at me. Then his body deflated. He threw his head back and burst into laughter again. His miniature aide-de-camp looked confused and then quickly joined in.
“No, not really,” he finally said. “I liked Motown best. I liked reggae, but not as much as ska.” Strasser flat-out denied he’d ever made Bob Marley’s birthday a national holiday. His preferred celebration, he said, was June 16, the Day of the African Child. He segued onto the importance of pan-Africanism, a subject I’m always suspicious about since its ideals have too often served as a cover to detract from leaders’ own failings.
I put this to Strasser. He nodded. “I’m a new pan-Africanist, not one of the old ones. This is totally different from [Muammar] Qaddafi’s idea of a United States of Africa,” he said, a barb at the former Libyan leader who was instrumental in creating the African Union but also supported scores of rebel movements across the continent, including in Sierra Leone.
“I’m talking about things like inter-road transit to Liberia, moving towards economic integration, and movement of goods and people — that sort of thing.”
Pan-Africanism was still a powerful idea, he continued, whose social glue was music, whose power was that it couldn’t be hidden or stolen, unlike natural resources. Oil-rich Nigeria was suffering the same fate as mineral-rich Sierra Leone, he said, in that it’s been plundered by white people and members of the elite. I wanted to ask about his own role as part of that elite, but he cut off any attempt to ask questions.
“What about your own role in rights violations?”
“What about it?” he asked, the twitch back again. His whole body was coiled with tension.
“Well, in the December—”
“We were at war. We don’t need to go there,” he said curtly. Had I been somewhere other than a very small enclosed space, I might have pushed the question.
I moved onto London, a city where I’ve spent most of my adult life. What about his time there stood out most?
Nothing at all? “Not really,” he said.
Two hours passed. In that time, we’d covered the African roots of reggae and ska, and the poetry of pan-African idols like Léopold Senghor. But he’d mentioned nothing about his four years in power — in fact, anything about himself, really.
“Are you happy with the interview now?” he asked.
We took a picture together, in which his young assistant nervously cropped off Strasser’s head. He did this again, and then once more. By the time he got the picture right, Strasser looked so bored the photo was ruined. Could I try one more with him smiling?
“You don’t fake a smile,” was the last thing he said to me, stone-faced. I could hear him railing at Mr. John as I got back into the car.
As we drove back to my hotel, Kabal told me a story. About 15 years back, before alcohol had completely fogged his mind, Strasser used to jog past his house every morning. Kabal would watch out for him because both men were martial arts aficionados, and he admired Strasser’s discipline. He’d be out running every day, come tropical downpour or sweltering heat.
“One time some young boys came to jog alongside him. They started mocking him. This is the former president? I don’t believe it!”
One of the boys picked up a rock. A few seconds later, a hail of stones rained down on Strasser. Kabal never saw him jogging again. ●