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Ex-Dictator Broke, Living With Mom

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 657 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... EX-DICTATOR BROKE, LIVING WITH MOM By Todd Pitman
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 26, 2002
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      By Todd Pitman
      Associated Press / Washington Post
      Thursday, July 25, 2002


      FREETOWN, Sierra Leone ­­ Losing your job, quitting school, going broke and
      moving back home with your mother after living abroad for years would be
      tough on anyone.

      It's even tougher when you're a former military dictator who once had the
      power to execute opponents at will.

      Valentine Strasser became the world's youngest head of state when he seized
      power in 1992 at the age of 25. But the limelight didn't last ­ four years
      later, he was ousted in another coup.

      "I'm basically living off my mother now. She's been very supportive," the
      35-year-old said at a neighborhood bar on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra
      Leone's capital.

      "It's been tough. I'm unemployed, but I'm coping."

      It was well before noon and the former president was doing what he often
      does on weekdays: Joking around with friends, playing checkers and sipping
      diligently on a plastic cup of palm wine ­ a cheap and highly potent
      alcoholic brew.

      In contrast to the days when he commanded an army and courted the favor of
      foreign presidents, Strasser today seems to have reverted simply to being
      just another neighborhood kid.

      Gone are the crisp military fatigues, new suits and wraparound sunglasses.
      In their place: A baseball hat worn backward, a Bob Marley T-shirt, dark
      green shorts and a pair of 'Air' Nike sneakers.

      Asked how he spends his time now that he doesn't have to rule the nation,
      Strasser took a drag of his cigarette and thought for a moment.

      "I've been drinking palm wine," he said. "You shouldn't say that. But this
      is a democracy now. So go ahead."

      Things were very different a decade ago when Strasser, then a captain known
      for winning disco contests, headed up a group of twentysomething officers
      demanding unpaid salaries.

      The protests snowballed into a popular coup that ousted dictator Maj. Gen.
      Joseph Momoh in April 1992.

      Strasser was hailed as a savior by many. Even today, Freetown residents say
      he changed things for the better, drastically cutting inflation, cleaning up
      the capital and putting the long defunct national TV station back on air.

      He and his junta ­ known as "the boys" because most were only in their 20s ­
      scored points by waging war, if unsuccessfully, on the nation's hated

      But Strasser was no angel. The young ruler was widely criticized when his
      government executed two dozen alleged coup plotters without trial on a
      Freetown beach.

      Strasser promised to hand over power in democratic elections in 1996. But he
      was beaten to the punch by his No. 2 man, Brig. Julius Maada Bio, who
      overthrew him in a bloodless coup in January that year.

      Strasser was forced into exile and soon ended up in Britain, where the
      United Nations arranged a special scholarship for him to study law at
      Warwick University in Coventry.

      University spokesman Peter Dunn said the former dictator spent 18 months at
      the school before dropping out, saying in a letter that he'd run out of

      Media reports at the time said Strasser slipped away to London and changed
      his name to Reginald to avoid the press and potential enemies. In 2000, his
      student visa expired and he was deported.

      Soon after, he made his way back to Sierra Leone, which is only now emerging
      peacefully from a decade of civil war in which rebels abducted children into
      their ranks and killed, raped and maimed tens of thousands of civilians.

      Unlike many of the world's former heads of state, however, Strasser was not
      treated to a generous government stipend or given a plush mansion or

      A house he built for himself on the edge of town was burned down by
      aggrieved soldiers in 1999, so he moved into his mother's two-story house
      across the street.

      The government says Strasser is not entitled to benefits because he took
      power by force. Strasser concedes the point but says he should be treated

      Last year, the government called on citizens not to throw stones at the
      former head of state, who without a car, was wandering around Freetown on

      But Strasser is still immensely popular among some, and may be able to
      capitalize on it. In five years, he'll be eligible to run for president ­
      something he says he's considering.

      Charismatic, muscle-bound and six-foot-two, he's the dominant figure at the
      bar he often frequents, which stands tenuously together with bamboo poles
      and plastic sheeting somehow obtained from the U.N. World Food Program.

      Whatever the future holds, Strasser will always have his high-profile past
      to relish.

      "Oh it was good. I was the youngest ... head of state in the whole wide
      world," he said with a guffaw, looking around the bar for support.

      Then he leaned forward with a wide smile and slapped a high-five on the hand
      of someone sitting across from him.


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