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Africa's Youngest Dictator Keeps Tight Rein : Sierra Leone: Valentine Strasser has survived a civil war, two coup attempts and condemnation for executing enemies, muzzling the press and drafting boys of 12. But he also has endorsed democracy, cleaned up the capital, resumed tax collections, cut crime and slashed inflation.


FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Capt. Valentine Strasser was a lad of 25 when a group of equally young fellow officers, fresh from toppling the government, asked him to rule the nation.

Two years into his almost accidental regime, Africa's youngest dictator has managed to survive a civil war, two coup attempts and global condemnation for executing enemies, muzzling the press and drafting boys as young as 12 into the army.

He also has endorsed a two-year transition to democracy, cleaned the trash from the capital, resumed tax collections, cut street crime, slashed civil service rolls by one-fourth and lowered inflation from 115% annually to less than 15%.

Thrust into a fishbowl, Strasser, now 27, and his twentysomething ruling junta say they have developed a sense that history is judging them, the first African leaders to be born after colonialism.

"We all believe it is for posterity," said Maj. Julius Maada Bio, 29, the No. 2 man in Strasser's ruling council.

"I've assumed a position of a high responsibility. I like my responsibilities," he said, adding paradoxically: "But as a young man, I can't say I enjoy them."

Strasser and his clique came of age during the corrupt dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, a period when the school system fell apart to such a degree that students took their chairs home so they could be certain to have a seat in class the next day. Strasser joined the army after high school.

He came to power after the Cold War, when the one-superpower world could demand democracy and free markets in return for financial aid--prompting most of the 48 sub-Saharan African nations to try representative government. Most have failed.

By any yardstick, the chances that Strasser's government will be peacefully replaced by a model democracy in two years seem remote. That hasn't stopped the world from giving him an intensive civics lesson.

Strasser is being bombarded by advice from the continent's biggest military dictatorship, Nigeria; the United States and its allies; and that global arbiter of economic aid, the International Monetary Fund.

Dutifully accepting painful IMF restructuring conditions has its rewards. Strasser has received $300 million in global aid.

The Germans finance waste disposal, the British help organize tax collections, ethnic Lebanese run most businesses and an advisory council of internationally respected Leonians has drafted a proposed constitution they have gently nudged Strasser to support.

His junta members, whose trademark attire is sunglasses, berets and jungle fatigues, also are regularly counseled by the fellow West African nation of Ghana, where Flight Lt. Jerry Rawlings turned his own young soldiers' coup 14 years ago into an election victory last year.

Nigeria, meanwhile, is helping Strasser fight a rebel war that has paralyzed the diamond industry in the south and east. Nigerian troops also are defending Freetown, including Strasser's home.

The Nigerian dictator, Gen. Sani Abacha, set what might be considered a bad example for Strasser last year by ousting a civilian government, dissolving elected legislatures and rolling back a decade of economic restructuring.

"They have their useful points," Bio said of the disparate influences, "but they have their own faults."

Still, "the boys," as they are known, have little experience with democracy or the outside world. Bio glared sullenly from behind his office desk while a press aide berated a reporter for asking inappropriate questions.

"One has to be extremely tactful dealing with them," said Tejan Kabbah, former manager of the U.N. Development Program in New York and chairman of the advisory council.

The Oxford-educated Kabbah, 62, said the advisory council is applying pressure to the Strasser government "subtly, so as not to embarrass them."

It has been promoting the 170-page draft constitution by canvassing villages with posters and slogans in the indigenous languages. The schedule calls for a public referendum on the document in May, 1995, and election of a multi-party government in 1996.

The council acknowledges that democracy is not an easy sell in one of the world's poorest nations, where life expectancy is 42 years, 86% of the people are illiterate and infant mortality is among the world's highest.

Young Leonians, who have embraced Strasser as one of them, have been hardened by deprivation and repression.

"The crude culture of survival in the past 30 years has created a situation where people only care about survival, not democracy," said Paul Kamara, 36, a human rights activist and journalist jailed three times by Strasser's predecessor and once by Strasser.

Strasser religiously shuns the press and declined to be interviewed. People who meet him regularly say he has grown isolated and makes few daily decisions. Bio chairs the Cabinet meetings.

But Strasser remains popular in this West African nation of 4.5 million, which was settled two centuries ago by freed slaves from Britain, the United States and Jamaica.

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