You can catch the 6 am bus from Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown to the southern capital city Bo. You would spend about five hours on a bright-green luxury bus, probably the most comfortable way of travelling between cities in the country.
But these days, you would pay closer attention when people call it ‘the Gaddafi bus’. This is because some of the best vehicles owned by the public in Sierra Leone were donated by the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi; the name stuck.
Gaddafi has always supported Sierra Leone, although sometimes in less admirable ways. He was one of the main supporters of the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, pumping money and arms into the hands of RUF rebel leader Foday Sankoh and former Liberian president Charles Taylor. In 1985, Taylor received military training in Libya as a guest of Gaddafi; there, he met Sankoh, and the rest is bloody history. Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission even recommended that Libya pay reparations for its role in the conflict.
In recent years, Gaddafi’s support has come in the form of food aid, transport and money to build a beautiful mosque in the eastern part of Freetown. This is now popularly known as ‘the Gaddafi mosque’; it is indeed quite striking.
The Gaddafi mosque. Photo by Allison Cross.
Apart from this, there are partnerships to build hotels, mine rutile, bauxite and iron, and also introduce the Libyan mobile network GreenNet into Sierra Leone, which launched earlier this month. This is why the Sierra Leone government has been completely silent on the issue of the 17 February revolution. While the Arab League has condemned Libya’s actions, there hasn’t been a peep out of the African Union. While many receive aid from Libya, others are terrified of Gaddafi because of his keenness to prop up rebel leaders and dictators.
In the past, Freetowners have been in awe of Gaddafi and his maverick presence. On her blog Sweet Sierra Leone, Freetown resident Vickie Remoe recounted the excitement on the streets when he came to visit in 2007.
Today, people I speak to denounce him as a lunatic. For many, he brings back memories of the civil war and of citizens turning on their own. Our office driver Amidu Kuyateh who, like me, has been glued to the BBC World Service for news updates, is horrified. ‘I don’t care how much he’s done for Sierra Leone, he also helped start our war and now he will kill his own people to hold on to power,’ he said to me.
Yes, Gaddafi’s symbolic presence in Freetown is hard to miss. But if he is exiled, I’m sure Sierra Leone, cash-strapped as they are, would not welcome him with open arms.