Sixteen years ago today a group of young soldiers led by Captain Valentine Essegrabo Melvin Strasser took over power from President Joseph Saidu Momoh. It was a tumultuous occasion.
A few days later just after taking the oath of office as Head of State, Strasser was driven in a heavily guarded motorcade through the main streets of Freetown into the stadium and out again on to State House. (Pictured)
In his right hand was clutched tightly a short green staff sprinkled with gold and sparkling in the April sunlight. He waved it for all to see emphasizing his legitimacy to rule by being in possession of the staff.
For most Sierra Leoneans however, they were seeing for the first time the official symbol of authority of the Head of State of Sierra Leone.
The second time the staff was displayed was four years later in March 1996 when Strasser’s successor Brigadier General Maada Bio handed the staff over to the newly democratically elected civilian president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in the well of Parliament.
A year later President Kabbah was forced to run away to Guinea and in May 1997 the same green coloured gold sprinkled staff was again displayed in public, when AFRC Junta leader Major Johnny Paul Koroma took the oath of office at the Military Headquarters in Cockeril.
When President Kabbah was re-elected in 2002 he took the oath of office in a short ceremony in his official residence at Hill Station. The staff was never displayed.
Again when President Koroma took the oath of office in State House (2007) the staff was not displayed.
In November when the official inauguration of President Koroma took place at the National Stadium the staff that President Kabbah handed over was very different from the staff that was displayed by Strasser(pictured), Maada Bio, and even Johnny Paul. Whereas the earlier staff was green, short and sprinkled with Gold, the staff displayed by President Koroma (pictured) was all over Gold, long and had a distinct bulge at the top which had not been present in the what is arguably the original staff.
This certainly set tongues wagging. So the million dollar question was where is the original Presidential Staff? Or rather in whose custody must the staff be?
Just before the Inauguration the rumour mill was running overtime, with allegations that President Kabbah’s son had seized the staff, under some bizarre allegations. The former President himself (Kabbah) has not been available for comments on this issue, but his former Chief Security Officer (CSO) Senior Police Officer William Fayia Sellu however debunked that story as “baseless rumour.” Indeed if it were true, he should be the first person to know. And this was not all. The former CSO says he has never seen the staff with President Kabbah.
Fayia Sellu took over as CSO from now retired senior police officer Mohamed Jalloh. It was Mr Jalloh who was the Chief Security Officer to President Kabbah on May 25 when the AFRC stormed the City. It was Mr Jalloh who took during the entire period he served with the the President from his juba Hill residence on that fateful day, up to Kabassa lodge where they were picked up by helicopter enroute to Guinea.
Mr Jalloh says “I have never seen the staff”. He disclosed that when he told the President to go and pack on that fateful day, President Kabbah came out of his room with only a briefcase and he (Jalloh) did not know what he packed neither did he ask him about the contents of his briefcase.
Mr Jalloh said during the period before the coup and after they came back to Sierra Leone after the coup he did not at any time see the staff with President Kabbah.
The next important official close to the President is the Chief of State Protocol. Mr Abdulrahman Wurie who is presently the Permanent Secretary Ministry of Transport and Aviation served as Chief of State protocol from the period of rule of Capt. Valentine Strasser right through to President Kabbah, before the and after the coup.
Mr Wurie also said that he had “never seen the staff.” According to him, it was likely that the Secretary to the President could be the person who keeps the staff. This is something very important to the President he said because the staff is the “symbol of sovereignty and executive power.”
Questioned whether after the return from exile in Guinea – an order was put in to create a new staff, Mr Wurie said he recalled that the then Secretary to the President – James Allie – had placed orders for various categories of medals “but not the staff”.
The former Chief of State Protocol said that the staff was not necessary during the swearing in of the President because that (ceremony) had to take place as soon as the elections results were publicly declared. “The inauguration is planned and that is when the symbolic gesture (handing over the staff) is made.”
Efforts to get James Allie the first Secretary to President Kabbah and who is now the Sierra Leone Deputy High Commissioner to the UK were unsuccessful.
However the search for the staff seemed to have intensified just days before the inauguration. According to the former Speaker of Parliament Justice Edmond Cowan “they asked me whether the staff was kept in parliament I asked Mr Carpenter and he said no it should be with State house.”
“That is his staff of office – I think it is personal to him, like the Paramount Chief’s staff” Justice Cowan said. Questioned whether the staff had any legal implications like if it is not around whether that would have any impact on the legitimacy of the holder of the office, Justice Cowan said “I think it is something coined.”
He ventured “I have not seen anything in the constitution … I think it is purely ceremonial … no laid down legal implication … unlike the Paramount Chiefs who must carry it as part of their office.”
Apparently when the real staff was not found a substitute was used in its place. That substitute (pictured) was according to our investigations provided by the Military. Infact sources say it is the staff of the Chief of Defence Staff of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces.
However back on the trail of the staff, since it was last seen in the hands of Johnny Paul Koroma during his swearing in ceremony at the Cockeril Military headquarters, the staff could well be in their hands.
Speaking to Eldred Collins of the RUF who was also in the AFRC arrangement.
The staff was taken by AFRC officials from parliament for the swearing in of Johnny Paul Koroma and it was kept by him wrapped in a navy blue cloth.
After the ECOMOG intervention in February 1998 the staff was taken along because passions were high that if Kabba was coming back he should not have any staff to rule. So the staff was with some of the AFRC Principal Liaison Officers (PLO) who used the hills above Freetown to run away from ECOMOG.
Johnny Paul went straight to Makeni but did not sleep there he went straight to his village Magbonkani some three miles after Binkolo. He did not seem to have it in his possession.
The staff of office of the President of Sierra Leone was established by the first executive President – Siaka Probyn Stevens. The late George L.V. Williams who was President Steven’s Secretary was succeeded as Secretary to the President – Siaka Stevens – by Mr Joseph P.A. Koroma.
Mr J.P.A. Koroma recalled that it was sometime around 1972 that the Presidential Staff of office was established. It was crafted by a Swedish firm who also crafted the various medallions which were handed out as awards and honours during the Republic day ceremonies.
As Secretary to President Stevens and later President Momoh up to the time he was overthrown by capt. Strasser and his colleagues, Mr J.P.A. Koroma says he recalls seeing the staff only on some ceremonial occasions like when the President would go to open parliament or deliver a speech from the throne. After that he said the staff is kept by the President himself and it is he alone who knows where he keeps it.
The medallions, he revealed, were during his own period as Secretary to the President kept in a vault at the Bank of Sierra Leone, and when it is time to give them out they would ask the bank first to establish how many were there before a list is prepared for who and who should get the honours or awards.
Mr J.P.A. Koroma however noted that the chain medallion for the highest honour then which was Grand Commander had real diamonds on it and even the maedals that were given out were either pure Gold or Silver. “If that is the case” he opined “the staff had pure Gold.”
The unanswered question is has it been smelted or is it still in the hills overlooking Freetown?