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Week of 6 November 1998

Vol. II, No. 13

Feature Article

Humphrey fellow plays key role as democracy returns to Sierra Leone

by Eric McHenry

When Ahmad Tejan Kabbah -- by most accounts the first legitimately elected president of Sierra Leone in recent history -- was deposed by a military coup d'état in May 1997, Julius Spencer did what he felt was necessary. He traded the security of Boston for the perils of his home country, where he set up a clandestine radio station that brought messages of hope to the menaced population during the brutal military junta's reign.

"When we began broadcasting, we often had to operate while our location was being attacked," says Spencer, an alumnus of BU's Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program. He and his partners had installed the station at the headquarters of ECOMOG, a Nigerian-led peacekeeping force that was battling the junta. They managed to transmit for 10 or more hours a day despite the intermittent raining of mortar fire and rocket-propelled grenades. "We would prepare programs while we were off the air, then broadcast them during periods of regular firing," he says. "We even recorded the introductions so that we could just slide in the tapes. If there was any firing going on, we wouldn't use an open mike.

Julius Spencer

Julius Spencer, whose clandestine radio broadcasts helped make possible the overthrow of a military junta in Sierra Leone, is now the country's minister of culture, information, communication, and tourism. Photo by Vernon Doucette

"We had to devise strategies for operating without the enemy knowing that there was fighting around our location," Spencer says. "If they had heard gunshots over the air, it would have been easier for them to pinpoint the station."

When Kabbah was restored to power in February of this year, he appointed Spencer the country's minister of culture, information, communication, and tourism. In that capacity, on October 26, Spencer returned to Boston for the first time since his urgent departure. He delivered a lecture entitled Restoring Democracy in Africa: The Case of Sierra Leone to a BU international relations class on the 27th, and to the University's African Studies Center on the 28th.

"His was really a heroic effort," says Ksenya Khinchuk, director of the Humphrey program, "and it benefited the whole nation, perhaps even the whole continent, because Sierra Leone's story can serve as a model for other oppressed peoples."

Return of the native
Learning of the coup, Spencer initially made indirect contact with President Kabbah, then in exile but still internationally recognized as head of state. James Jonah, Sierra Leone's widely respected U.N. ambassador, served as a conduit between the two. "They were enthusiastic about my getting involved," Spencer says. "So I began procuring equipment. Then I went back to Sierra Leone and set up a clandestine radio station in opposition to the military -- countering their propaganda and educating the public about what was really going on.

"That played, from all indications, a major role in the overturning of the coup," he says. "It gave people information, kept their hopes alive, and demoralized the enemy."

He also subverted the illegitimate rule of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) junta by establishing a network of informants and serving as an intelligence source for ECOMOG. Spencer, who spent time in prison for publishing journalism critical of a previous military government, is used to jeopardizing his personal safety for the good of his homeland.

"One cannot simply abandon one's country," he says. "I'd been politically involved in the past, and I knew the implications of a coup like this one. I knew the effects that a group of poorly educated, gun-toting thugs would have on the country if they were left in control."

A polymath, Spencer came to BU in 1996 from Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone, where he had taught theater courses and served as chairman of the English department. The one-year Humphrey program, a Fulbright exchange activity, is designed to give midcareer professionals from developing nations the opportunity to learn in a Western academic environment. Spencer took film classes at COM and developed contacts with colleagues from around the world. He also found time to direct a New York theater company's pre-Spielberg production of Amistad, which with the help of the Humanities Foundation at BU he brought to the BU Theatre for a well-received run.

"The spirit of the Humphrey program," says Spencer, "helped me to believe perhaps more firmly than ever before that one person can make a difference. It gave me more confidence in myself."

Operation No Living Thing
At the African Studies Center presentation, Spencer spoke about his country's troubled political history and showed a short film he had produced, which documented in harrowing detail the junta's atrocities. A band of corrupt junior military personnel, the AFRC drove Kabbah from office in what the Christian Science Monitor has called "one of the most cynical power grabs in modern history," and in short order joined forces with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), an equally self-serving erstwhile-rebel army, to more effectively strong-arm the civilian population. Astonishingly, much of the footage in Spencer's film -- of beatings and even executions -- had been taken by the staff of a state-controlled television station and inadvertently left behind when the AFRC was ousted. Some, Spencer says, has been used as evidence in subsequent treason trials.

Although ECOMOG's intervention put the junta to its heels, it determined to leave a bloody wake. Members have for several months been killing and mutilating citizens of northern and eastern Sierra Leone in a campaign they call "Operation No Living Thing."

"The practice of amputation" -- cutting off the hands, feet, and ears of civilians to spite the Kabbah government -- "became widespread after the AFRC had been thrown out of Freetown [the capital] and the legitimate government had been restored," Spencer says.

He believes violence on the country's periphery is waning, however, as the current government works to reinstate democratic institutions and bring war criminals to justice. Although Kabbah's is generally regarded as a legitimate and just leadership, the question-and-answer period following Spencer's African Studies Center presentation made clear that there are few settled political questions where Sierra Leone's political standing is concerned. One audience member angrily accused Spencer of distorting facts, calling him an agent of an illegitimate and corrupt government. Others were less strident, but expressed concerns about the Kabbah government's aggressive pursuit of treason convictions against civilian defendants.

Justice's complexities
In fact, Spencer says, his government's interest in preserving due process for defendants has meant that punishment has not been meted out swiftly or broadly enough to please the long-suffering people of Sierra Leone.

Denise Lifton, a spokeswoman for the human rights organization Amnesty International, says that the civilian trials have been acceptable, in part because they have been externally monitored and deemed sufficiently transparent, and in part because there is an extensive appeals system in place that helps guarantee due process to those convicted. Her organization objects, however, to the absence of such an appeals process in the country's military court system. Amnesty International is also categorically opposed to the death penalty, which the Kabbah government is applying for treason convictions.

On balance, though, the organization sees Kabbah as a welcome presence in Sierra Leone and in western Africa generally, Lifton says. "Sierra Leone has gone through numerous coups during the past several years. Obviously, its judicial process isn't going to be flawless. On the other hand, it's working well enough to satisfy international monitoring groups."

"Kabbah has always tried to highlight human rights concerns," she adds. "And because he has the backing of the international community, it's beneficial for him to keep doing that."