FREETOWN (Reuters) - A framed photograph from Sierra Leone’s civil war hangs in an office in the ramshackle capital Freetown, showing former junta leader Maada Bio in military dress.
Below the picture sits the man, reinvented 15 years later as the main opposition party’s candidate for next year’s presidential election.
“I am a people-centered politician,” he explains, his military attire exchanged for a dark suit. “I got into politics because I greatly believe in the welfare of the people.”
In a country riven by civil war between 1991 and 2002 it is not uncommon for Sierra Leonean political figures to have a colorful past.
But Bio’s recent appointment as flagbearer of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) has caused a stir in Freetown over whether the former fighter is fit to lead a country still struggling to put its bloody past behind it.
Analysts say the retired brigadier is the strongest candidate his party could have fielded against incumbent Ernest Bai Koroma, and will offer a strong challenge despite accusations from rivals he was involved in atrocities during the fighting.
“I have never seen anything like it in Sierra Leone,” said Dr. Lansana Gberie, a Sierra Leonean researcher and author of a history of the country’s civil war. “That level of dedication to a politician who at this moment is in the opposition - who has nothing really to offer - is extraordinary.”
Bio, now 47, was part of a group of young soldiers who in April 1992 seized power in Sierra Leone by ousting President Joseph Momoh and installing a 26-year-old army captain, Valentine Strasser, as the youngest head of state in the world.
Four years later Bio deposed Strasser and served as head of state himself for a few months before elections took place. He subsequently studied in the United States, before returning to Sierra Leone in 2003.
Next year’s elections - likely to take place in the autumn - will fall ten years after the end of the civil war and will be a bellwether of the country’s return to stability.
While Bio’s platform is vague — promising a minerals review and to lift barriers to investment — it is his personal history that is getting most of the domestic attention.
Last week the ruling APC party put out a statement attacking his association with the NPRC junta — which critics in the 1990s mocked as ‘Na Pikin Run Contri’ or ‘the children are running the country’ in the local Krio language.
Victor Foh, the national secretary general of the APC, told Reuters he does not think Bio is fit to hold power in a democracy. “We don’t want recycled military people with very bad, very poor human rights records,” he said.
Bio has been accused of involvement in the execution of around 26 people around Christmas 1992 after his junta’s coup, and also of overseeing brutality by soldiers during his short reign in 1996.
Bio says he accepts “collective responsibility” for the 1992 killings, as he was a member of the junta, but denies he was behind the killings. And he says military brutality in 1996 was the result of rogue army units running amok.
“Every solder was armed, not all of them wanted me to hand over (power in elections),” he said.
Others in Sierra Leone though strongly contest Bio’s take on his spell as head of state.
According to Desmond Luke, a former chief justice of the country, he was “reluctant to even contemplate handing over” and only did so under massive pressure.
“They were trying to prevent the elections,” he said. “They shot people, they cut people’s fingers.”
Politics in Sierra Leone is drawn largely on ethnic and regional rather than ideological lines. The APC draws its support from the Temne and Limba peoples of the north, the SLPP from the Mende of the south and east.
Bio is a Mende. He is also likely to profit from a change in the political landscape since the last election.
In the 2007 election a third party, the People’s Movement for Democratic Change, split the SLPP vote.
Since then though not only has the PMDC’s star waned, but its leader Charles Margai also says that he intends to support the SLPP in next year’s poll.
“Come 2012 the chances of us collaborating with SLPP in the event of a run-off are 95 percent,” he told Reuters.
Editing by Richard Valdmanis