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Paranoia Grips Civilian With Sierra Leone Young Guns

March 20, 1994|MARK FRITZ | ASSOCIATED PRESS

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — John Benjamin has a closed-circuit television monitor on his desk that gives him news he can use, such as who's outside his electronically controlled security door.

Honest paranoia is part of power in Sierra Leone, a West African nation engaged in a civil war and run by an unpredictable military junta led by 27-year-old Capt. Valentine Strasser.

While much of the attention is focused on Strasser, some of the spotlight is shifting to Benjamin as Leonians begin pondering the government's recently unveiled two-year transition to civilian government.

Benjamin, secretary-general of the ruling council, is the only civilian in Strasser's junta and is widely considered to be the No. 3 man, after Maj. Maada Bio.

The new constitution was drafted by an advisory council chosen by the government and is to be voted on in May, 1995. Since its publication in December, Leonians have talked much about how it seems to have been styled to suit Benjamin. For example:

* The new government must be civilian. Benjamin is the only civilian on the ruling council.

* The president must be at least 40 years old. Strasser and his junta all are in their 20s. Benjamin is 41.

* People of mixed parentage may run for president. Benjamin's father was German, his mother Leonian. His full name is John Benjamin Hirsch.

Benjamin, a casually dressed, affable man in striking contrast to the tense, uniformed young officers, acknowledged that he makes most of the day-to-day government decisions. He laughed when asked whether the constitution was custom-built for him.

"The constitution is not built for one person," he said. "We want people to rise above whether one person would benefit."

Benjamin is the brother of Capt. Prince Benn-Hirsch, an army malcontent whose mysterious assassination helped spark the coup by disgruntled young soldiers that put Strasser in power in 1992.

Leonian newspapers have speculated that Benjamin, who was head of a computer firm at the time, helped bankroll the coup.

Benjamin, glancing at a security man furiously shaking his head, said he could not comment on his role.

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