History has it that one of the few foreign nationals that stood by the people of Sierra Leone during their darkest days of rebel incursion was Peter Penfold. His acts were chronicled to be from one of those whose individualistic tendencies to appreciate human feeling radiated across various lives in a terrible situation.
When he arrived Sierra Leone in 1997 to assume duties as the British High Commissioner, he met peace and was pleased with it. Having served in Nigeria in the 1960s during its civil war, in Ethiopia in the 1970s during its revolution and in Uganda in the 1980s during two coups, he believed Sierra Leone would be his dreamed peaceful African country of service at last. But six weeks later, the peaceful country plunged slowly into unrest.
While it could be rightly contended that the former envoy acted at the period based on his expected responsibilities as the colonial master’s emissary, there were indications that Penfold’s passion for lives overrode his sense of stopping at performing his official duty.
It started the week before the 1997 coup in Sierra Leone when Mr. Penfold, in the company of the American ambassador and the UN special envoy, went to see President Tejan Kabbah to warn him of rumours that there was discontent amongst men of the armed forces which could lead to a coup. They weren’t time specific but they did warn him.
When the situation became tensed as the military junta had forcefully taken over the country, Penfold held several discussions with the junta and managed to arrange the evacuation of about 2,700 people through the Aberdeen beach during the turmoil in Freetown with the US war ship The Kearsage. He too left on The Kearsage and was taken to Conakry to remain with Kabbah as a demonstration of British recognition of Kabbah’s government as the legitimate.
As long as most Sierra Leoneans refused to acknowledge the military junta as a constituted authority, Penfold remained in Conakry for 10 months where he had helped establish Kabbah’s government with a budget of about £150,000 with which he rented an old Chinese restaurant and turned it into Government of Sierra Leone’s offices.
Alternatively, Penfold ran the British High Commission in Sierra Leone from his Room 523 at Camayenne Hotel, Conakry, where he spent 276 nights. He kept in touch with his staff in Freetown on a daily basis and found all sorts of clever means to smuggle money into Sierra Leone to pay all the staff.
Later, he helped set up a clandestine radio station called Radio Democracy 98.1 alongside former information minister, Dr. Julius Spencer and two other people in a tent at Lungi airport. The radio station rekindled the hopes of many Sierra Leoneans regarding the direction at which the country was moving.
By February 1998, when the ECOMOG forces had removed the rebels and President Kabbah’s legitimacy was restored, Mr. Penfold came back to Sierra Leone on a British warship at the beginning of March (President Kabbah flew back with late General Sani Abacha of Nigeria about a week later).
However, while Penfold was believed to have exhibited passion for people around him as he stood by Sierra Leone and the people of the former British West Africa administrative centre through thick and thin, he was blamed by the British government for an illegal arms deal that became known as the Sandline affair.
It was surmised that Mr. Penfold was privy to President Kabbah’s decision to sign a deal with the British company Sandline to supply arms and mercenaries even though a UN arms embargo was in place at the time which made it illegal to arm any side of the conflict – and not just the rebels.
But Penfold says he was unaware of this and that the Foreign Office were aware of the deal. In Britain, a career review at the Foreign Office said that he had become too close to the government of Sierra Leone. After his retirement, he had applied for 17 jobs but did not get any of them. When he was assured it had nothing to do with the Sandline affair, Mr. Penfold found it hard to believe.
Today, as posterity would have it, Peter Penfold is still a part of the Sierra Leonean fold. His name still ring bells of
When asked to summarize his sojourn in Sierra Leone between 1997 and 2000 in the simplest form, Mr. Penfold said: “I did what I could to help bring peace, alleviate suffering and restore democracy to a very special country, whose people deserved better.”
After active service in Sierra Leone
Born 27 February 1944, Peter Penfold is a man that would hardly be forgotten in Sierra Leone because of the roles he played in the country even after retiring from active service in 2001. That is, after removing officialdom, he still took time to visit the acclaimed
Though British, Mr. Penfold is adoringly known in Sierra Leone as Komrabai – a Temne word meaning ‘Elder of Chiefs’ – after he was made a paramount chief in 1998 by King Naimbana and made a Freeman of the city of Freetown.
Just like he did in Uganda when he was about to leave as the British Deputy High Commissioner, Mr. Penfold worked with students from the Milton Margai School of the Blind in Freetown to produce an album. Also, by the time Mr. Penfold had retired from active Foreign Service, 35 students that comprised the School’s choir group embarked on a UK tour in 2003 which took them from London into Scotland, through Wales and they performed in front of 2,000 people in Westminster Abbey.
Olusegun Ogundeji (2009) SierraEye Magazine