There is something extraordinary about Bio. Among all the core members of the National Provisional Ruling council (NPRC), the fresh-faced junta that ruled Sierra Leone from 1992 to 1996, Bio has somewhat thrived and has remained a national figure. – Says Dr. Lansana Gberie.
Bio has somewhat thrived, and has remained a national figure. His senior colleague, Valentine Strasser, who headed the NPRC for a time and was pushed aside by Bio, is a shambling, barely recognisable figure that occasionally rants incoherently from his home outside Freetown. When he handed over power to Ahmad Tejan Kabbah after elections in 1996, Bio went to the American University, where he earned a Masters degree in International Relations. He then returned to his country and started a pharmaceutical business. When that went nowhere, Bio started another business, exporting cocoa and coffee. He also re-entered politics, joining and contesting (without success) the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) leadership position. Now Bio, 46, is campaigning once again to become presidential flag-bearer of the SLPP (the key opposition in Sierra Leone); if he is successful in March, he will then face the current President, Ernest Bai Koroma, in polls in 2012. And he will have a credible prospect of becoming, once again, President of Sierra Leone.
Although this may be unfair, it might be said that Bio’s continuing gravitas – compared to his ex-junta colleagues – is due to his background, his descent from a ruling house: he has a distinctly regal demeanour and perhaps sense of entitlement. Bio would have none of that. “I am one of 35 children of Paramount Chief Charlie Vonie Bio. In fact, I was the 33rd child,” he said. “That’s not the greatest start in life,” he added, sardonically.
Somewhat to my surprise, Bio went on: “Most of my values, the driving principles of my life, I acquired from my mother. She was a calm, hardworking and calculated person, and she had a strong belief in God.” Bio is associated, among his friends and colleagues, with three of those qualities. And a strong belief in God? “Yes, I am a life-long Catholic. I went to a Roman Catholic primary school, and was baptised early. My belief in God has remained unshaken through all these years.”
The Bio family home was too crowded: 35 children and nine wives (not to mention the many dependants of a ruling house) was a village, not a home. For his studies, Bio had to move elsewhere. He went to stay with her elder sister, Agnes, who was a school teacher in Pujehun, many miles away. Bio stayed with Agnes for five years. Bio remembers those years with great fondness: it might be said, from the way he speaks about it, that Agnes was more of a mother than an elder sister to Bio, that her influence over him was overwhelmingly profound.
Agnes sent Bio off to the Bo School, a famous boarding school some miles away from Pujehun. Bio spent seven years at the school – all his secondary school years – rising to become Prefect for Discipline. Bio said that his experience at the school, the friends he made there, remains his most important. He left in 1984 with his A’ levels, and became a teacher at a Methodist secondary school. He taught there for a year.
About 21 in 1985, Bio applied to enter Fourah Bay College which, founded in 1827, is the oldest Western-style University in West Africa, and perhaps the region’s most famous. Shortly after he did so, however, someone mentioned to him that the army was recruiting new cadets. “I was instantly thrilled. I had always wanted to do public service: it was the way I was brought up. And the army offered the most direct and unambiguous opportunity for that, so I applied immediately.” This explanation appeared correct – but only correct: the Sierra Leone army didn’t have a high reputation for public service in 1985. It had been politicised and degraded by then President Siaka Stevens and his All Peoples Congress (APC) one-party state. The army was headed by a pliable and incompetent Falstaffian character named Joseph Momoh, who Stevens had made a Member of Parliament, and would soon make his successor as President. By the time Bio applied for the cadet, it was already clear that Momoh would replace Stevens as President. This would have provided an attraction of sort for an ambitious young man, in more ways than one: Bio’s colleague and exact contemporary, Strasser, told Ann Bushby of the London Observer newspaper shortly after he became leader of the NPRC that he had joined the army, at about the same time, primarily to make a coup against the “rotten” APC regime. Both explanations have their retrospective glosses, but one was better anchored to be more frank. It was not the one offered to me at Mamba Point Hotel.
Bio trained at Benguema, and graduated in October 1987 as a Second Lieutenant. He was posted at the Lungi Airport, and then later in the Kambia District as part of the Economic Emergency Unit created by the already faltering Momoh regime to combat the deepening meltdown and criminality of the state. The following year, 1988, Bio was re-posted at Lungi to be trained by the UN in aviation security; after the training, somewhat curiously, he posted to Benguema as a platoon commander. In 1990, Bio was brought back to Lungi. War had broken out in Liberia, triggering a massive humanitarian crisis. Tens of thousands of Liberians were fleeing to Sierra Leone every week, exposing the country’s fragile security and adding to the economic hardship. West African leaders, including Sierra Leone’s, decided to set up ECOMOG to stem the tide of the Liberian carnage. Sierra Leone contributed troops to the force: the first batch that left included Strasser. Bio had in the meantime been deployed at the Gendema, at the Sierra Leonean-Liberian border. “While at Gendema, we had cogent intelligence relating to plans by some of Charles Taylor’s forces to invade Sierra Leone. We informed the army intelligence officer about these plans, and despatched him straight to Freetown to inform the government. Nothing came out of this.” Shortly after, Bio was despatched to Liberia as part of the second batch of Sierra Leone’s contribution to ECOMOG..
The soldiers sent to Liberia were the best that the country had; the borders of Sierra Leone were left largely unprotected after their departure. Momoh appeared too busy with women and the booze to envisage that there would be repercussions for such criminal, even treasonable, negligence. Of course in Liberia, “there was no peace to keep,” Bio said. “I really wonder why, given how tense the situation was at our own borders with Liberia, we were sent to ECOMOG at all.” In March 1991, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), fighters with Taylor, invaded Sierra Leone, and overran the border regions in the Eastern and Southern Provinces of the country. It was not until September that year that and some of his colleagues were re-deployed to Sierra Leone, in the Kailahun District.
“We were part of a new battalion called Gladio, under Major Anderson,” Bio said. “This battalion was hastily put together. SAJ Musa was a part of it as well. There were 600 men in all, but most of these were hasty new recruits, poorly trained, and not at all prepared for combat.