The 18th of August was indeed eventful and symbolic in the annals of Sierra Leonean history. Unfortunately, it is a day often overlooked with ignorance and sheer neglect.
August 18, 1997, was the day National Union of Sierra Leone Students (NUSS) massively galvanized nationwide to demand the return to civilian rule after a coalition government by the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF).
The rebel war had begun in 1991 and had pervaded most sections of the interior. In March 1996, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah assumed power after the presidential elections in a nation engulfed by the civil war mainly spearheaded by the RUF.
At the time, Johnny Paul Koroma was in charge of leading the country’s army against the rebel group. However, in 1996, Koroma would be arrested for his alleged involvement in a ploy to unseat the legitimate government of President Kabbah.
On the 25th of May 1997, 17 junior soldiers loyal to Koroma instituted a military coup against Kabbah’s government, broke into the Pademba Road prison, and freed him.
That piece of action eventually led to Johnny Paul Koroma’s nine months temporary assumption to the presidency. He made the warlord and the leader of the RUF, Foday Sankoh, as his deputy.
Johnny Paul Koroma was keen on forming a coalition government with the rebels. That, however, was a nightmare to come for many Sierra Leoneans.
The August 18 Protests
With Johnny Paul Koroma as Head of State, he suspended the constitution, banned freedom of expression, and abolished all political parties. With President Kabbah fleeing to Conakry, Guinea, the national decision was made entirely by the soldiers and rebels initially giving the duo the nickname, “Sobels.”
On the 17th of August, NUSS called for pro-democracy demonstrations in Freetown and other parts of Sierra Leone.
They also called on labour unions to help them in their fight for democracy. The protests were scheduled for Monday. Sahr Kortequee (now Doctor), brave and fearless, was interviewed by the BBC where he maintained that every student must demonstrate regardless of the consequences.
The military government later retaliated with an order from the AFRC’s education secretary that all students leaving on college campuses must evacuate immediately.
They accused these sets of students of planning the demonstration. In addition, the AFRC deployed barricades and armed gunmen in readiness for these demonstrations.
The ramifications of the military coup were enormous. Sanctions and embargoes were imposed on the country with power cuts lasting for weeks.
This bred frustration and valiant students were determined to make a firm statement.
The NUSS agreed that every student must defy the intimidation and scare tactics from the putschists and physically put their lives on the line.
On the 18th, the Sobels regrouped violently to crush the student-led protests. Soldiers and former rebel fighters armed with machetes, automatic weapons, and bazookas, made numerous arrests and barricaded the streets of Freetown. It was an appalling sight to watch.
Vaffie Konneh, a brilliant and well articulated medical student, was killed after a clash with soldiers outside the Sierra Leone Nursing School, where students had taken refuge. The female students in that vicinity were raped, demonstrators were beaten, kicked, bundled and thrown into the backs of military vehicles, and another student was hacked with a machete.
Even before the beginning of the protest, RUF units had sought after key stakeholders in NUSS. A student leader, David Bockarie, and 26 members of NUSS were arrested and taken to the Pademba Road Prison.
The March was supposed to have begun at Kissy Road, and to proceed via the turntable to Siaka Stevens Street, ending at the law court. Nevertheless, the soldiers disrupted the entire activity by firing into the air and speedily driving through the streets, and made arrests everywhere a group of people gathered. Everywhere was unsettled.
Students in Bo also went ahead with demonstrations, despite a show of force by soldiers, RUF “People’s Army” fighters, and SSD contingents, all armed with automatic rrifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and backed up by trucks carrying anti-aircraft guns. After marching for a short distance, the students were confronted by AFRC forces along Prince William Street. The students sat down peacefully, but were quickly dispersed by soldiers using teargas.
Students were detained at the Pademba Road prison for 12 days. Luckily, with negotiations by the international community, they were released.
In 1998, after an intervention by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Johnny Paul Koroma was ousted and President Kabbah retrieved his political office.
This whole chronicle of August 18 is hardly mentioned in the nation’s history. In fact, while it is not necessarily a bad thing, we celebrate June 16 which has little or no connection to history over the realistic sacrifices many more young people made in the quest to have a sane and lawful society. People like Vaffie Konneh and a whole lot of others were never celebrated.
The African Dream caught up with David Stanley-Coker, who relieved the moments solemnly. Speaking of what the lesson learnt was, he said, “I could recall the likes of Siaffa Abdulai, Mahoney Ansu, Egerton Macarthy, and Mike Kamara. We were never celebrated as heroes. It was a sad experience many people don’t like talking about, especially of our fallen colleagues. May their revolutionary souls continue to rest in perfect peace.”