Most dictators have a bad ending. Hitler committed suicide, Ceausescu and his wife were executed by a firing squad and Gaddafi was shot dead by a teenage revolutionary.
The few dictators who cheat death often end up living isolated lives in exile as did Mobutu or Idi Amin. In Sierra Leone, there is an atypical kind.
Simon Akam has done a terrific job of profiling the Sierra Leonean former despot, Valentine Strasser. In this case, I use the title “despot” quite liberally.
Except for his sheer brutality, Strasser hardly merits this title.
Dictators in Africa often leave behind visible landmarks. Indeed, despots deserving the name have often led quite ambitious development projects around the continent as did Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso or Kamuzu Banda in Malawi. Strasser, a name hardly recognizable, is in a league of his own.
In 1992, three days after his 25th birthday, Strasser launched a coup. He was then a junior officer, perhaps a captain, in the poorly trained and scantily funded national army. At the time, Sierra Leone was in a state of war with rebels (RUF) allied to another lunatic, Foday Sankoh, funded by Libyan megalomaniac leader, now dead.
It is in the midst of this confusion that Strasser hijacked the country. Staying loyal to his name, he pronounced Valentine Day an official holiday. Also official, although less outrageously, was Marley’s holiday. He surely was brutal but his power crazed antics were that not devoid of style. At the 1993 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Limassol, Cyprus, Strasser touched down in sunglasses and a T-shirt with the words, “Sunny Days in Cyprus”.
The piece is guaranteed to give you a good laugh. But it is painful as well, especially when one reflects on the consequences of this fool’s rule. Six months after self-coronation, he was responsible for the execution of 29 “rebels”. All of these people have been deemed innocent. When the journalist forced him to reflect on these murders, his response was stylistically cynical: “Fuck off, man. In Texas they kill people every day.”
Today, the 48 year old Strasser is a washed up alcoholic living in his mother’s house. He is easily the poorest retired African dictator, earning a pension of $46. He thinks of himself as being better than “Idi Amin or another bad dictator like Colonel Gadaffi”. And he has also become a passionate advocate for an independent Africa–something he never bothered to do during his reign.
While in power, he invited mercenaries, including the infamous Executive Outcomes to havoc the country. They did their job in exchange for diamonds and cash payments. Surprisingly, Strasser has the audacity to say this: “Europe still continues to underdevelop Africa. Africa’s raw materials are Europe’s tool to keep black Africa under so that western Europe continues to improve.” As they say in my native language, a fool sometimes falls on a wise word.
What is there to learn from this brutal but comical story? Perhaps if Africa made it difficult for disposed dictators to access their loot, it would teach a lesson for wannabes. Since few people want to live as kings and die as dogs, maybe such an action would serve as a deterrent. Just like it is hoped that Gaddafi’s execution wills serve a lesson to global tyrants.
However, as long as the likes of Daniel Moi, Sani Abacha, Joseph Mobutu etc. can continue to unregulated access to their billions, stashed in foreign accounts; even in their retirement, dictatorship will continue to be an lucrative and attractive trade.