Sunday, July 7, 2013

Diplomatic Life: War and Circumstance

In the summer of 1992, I made another of those career decisions that many of my colleagues, laden as they are with conventional wisdom, considered unwise. In the Foreign Service, we submit our request for the next assignment, called a bid list, a year before the end of the current assignment, and I was a year away from reassignment eligibility. I’d been told by my career development officer (CDO) and others that as an administrative career FSO I should concentrate on assignments in the administrative area (general admin, finance, and general services). None of the available jobs really interested me, but I dutifully prepared a list of some ten admin positions worldwide and submitted it. And then, fate intervened.

The deputy chief of mission (DCM) at the embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone was requesting a curtailment of his tour. My CDO recommended that I bid on that job. It was a grade 1 job, and I was an FS-02, making it a stretch, but he said I had a slight chance. Sounded interesting, and I’d never served in Africa, so I tossed my name into the hat. To my surprise, my name made the short list of candidates.

Except for my CDO, no one – myself included – thought I had a snowball’s chance in hell of getting the job. The ambassador at the time, the late Lauralee Peters, interviewed those on the short list by telephone. Imagine my surprise two weeks later when I was informed that she’d selected me. In discussions with her later, she said she chose me because I was administrative cone (cone is how the Foreign Service describes career fields for officers – don’t ask me why) and she felt it balanced her experience as an economic cone officer, and because of my military background, given that the country was embroiled in a violent civil war and had just had a military coup.

Anyway, the wife and I had just packed our daughter off to Georgetown – our son had entered University of Pennsylvania the year before – I took the DCM course, and we flew off to Freetown, by way of Amsterdam.

The embassy was small, 10 – 20 Americans and about 40 local staff, located in an old building in the downtown area near the historic Cotton Tree, which was home to a huge colony of fruit bats, and woefully underequipped for the situation. There was no political or economic officer and the defense attaché was based in Monrovia, Liberia and got up to see us two or three times during my three year tour. So, as the number two, in addition to filling in for the ambassador when she was out of country and supervising the embassy sections, I had to do the political reporting (the country’s economy was in shambles, so there was no economic reporting), handle the day-to-day military issues, which included supervising training for the Sierra Leonean army and overseeing military construction projects (yes, we had a few), as well as liaison with the local military, and I had to supervise the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance contractor we had in the embassy who ran humanitarian aid programs (mostly feeding).

Meeting with Sierra Leone's first democratically elected
president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, shortly after the
The military junta, the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) was a hapless bunch of captains and lieutenants who didn’t have a clue how to run a country, but because I was former military, I hit it off with them. They would sometimes come to me for advice, and the head of the junta, Captain Valentine Strasser, used to send his aid, Major Abu Tarawalli, to my office once a week to brief me on the military situation in the country. The rebels, Foday Sankoh’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) controlled most of the eastern and northeastern part of the country, while the army maintained tenuous control of the major towns. I also got to know many of the civilian politicians who were pushing for elections, including the guy who eventually became president, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. He and I actually became friends of a sort, and after he was elected, just before my tour ended, he actually drove himself to the ambassador’s residence for my farewell party. I had his direct phone line and his permission to call him if I ever needed anything. I never used the number, but it was nice to have.

Even with a war going on, we found time at the embassy to enjoy ourselves. We had an 18-foot Boston Whaler boat and would take it out sometimes on weekend, to keep the engine tuned, but also to fish in the Atlantic. Once, my wife and I went to a national park in the northwest of the country where we followed a herd of hippos down a river in canoes.

A lot of my attention, though, was focused on the military situation. Even though many in Washington, and Ambassador Peters herself, didn’t think the country was ready for elections, I disagreed. I didn’t think it was a call we should make. I followed my boss’s instructions, though, and kept mum about it. As luck would have it, her tour ended, and she departed several months before her successor, John Hirsch, was confirmed by the senate. Left in charge, and with on one in Washington really paying attention, I began working with the civilian groups, the UN, UK, Germany, and surprisingly the Nigerians to pave the way for elections. This involved convincing the members of the junta to step down. While the others were able to broker scholarships and safe havens for these guys, it was my connection with them that allowed us to discuss the subject with them. They agreed, and the process began to move forward rather rapidly. Lucky for me, John Hirsch shared my views, and when he arrived, gave my actions his full endorsement.

The elections came off, not without a few hiccups, but rather peaceful, and the first democratically elected civilian president took office. One incident a month or so before the election points out the importance of personal contact in diplomacy. The junta had given me their promise that they would stay out of the political process. Strasser’s mother, though, had convinced him to make a run for president. The others on the junta took this as breaking their word to me. One Saturday morning, one of the captains on the group came to my apartment, saying he’d been sent by the junta’s number two, Julius Maada Bio. He said they were going to keep their word to me, but that meant that Strasser had to go. My plea was that they avoid violence, which the captain said they would. So on Monday, Strasser was placed in handcuffs and hustled off to Conakry, Guinea next door, and things got back on track.
Ambassador John Hirsch (c) and I meeting with Captain
Valentine Strasser (l) who was head of the NPRC.

Another benefit of my contact with the military was that I visited the headquarters frequently, and was kept apprised of what they were doing. I was even invited to travel around to their major headquarters in the run-up to the elections to give a talk I’d prepared on ‘The role of the military in democratic society.’ I was ferried from place to place in an old Russian helicopter flown by a South African mercenary from a group called Executive Outcomes that the government had hired to help them fight the RUF.

One of my pastimes was sitting on my balcony in the evening with a shortwave radio and an antenna array I’d concocted, and listening to RUF radio broadcasts. They spoke in a combination of English and Krio, and had a rather simple code which I broke in a couple of days. In many instances I had better knowledge of RUF plans and activities than the units in contact with them.

It seemed like a strange world at the time; this was way before Iraq and Afghanistan; but, in West Africa, it was the reality. Shortly before my tour ended in 1996, things in Liberia deteriorated, and the order came down to evacuate all Americans. Even with our civil war, Sierra Leone was chosen as the intermediate staging base, with the American units doing the evacuation based at Lungi Airport on the peninsula across the river from Freetown. I was charge d’affaires at the time and the only person in the embassy with any military experience, so I spent a lot of time at the airport getting the military guys settled. I was actually in the control tower when the first plane of army Special Forces guys from Europe landed.

I’d like to end this little tale with the story of my final day in Freetown, or rather, the end of my tour. My wife and I took off from Lungi on the evening flight to Amsterdam. The plane made a stop in Conakry to pick up passengers. To my surprise, the exiled Valentine Strasser was five rows behind me on the plane. He asked a flight attendant to ask me if he could speak to me. I walked back to where he sat. He said he was on his way to London via Amsterdam.

“I think I made a mistake,” he said. “Do you think that will make it impossible for me to ever get a US visa?”

“I can’t say definitely,” I replied. “But, my advice would be not to apply for one for a few years. Maybe in a few years’ time people will have forgotten.”

He was visibly contrite, and explained to me that his mother had convinced him to do what he did. What could I say? We shook hands and I went back to my seat, and I never saw him again.