FREETOWN, SIERRA LEONE — With its easygoing, colorful culture and pleasantly seedy, balcony-lined streets, Freetown has long been known as the New Orleans of Africa. Now, following the flight of Major Johnny Paul Koroma and his street-gang-style junta, it feels like Mardi Gras.
More than a week after the first Nigerian-led West African peacekeeping troops fought their way into the town center, something approaching normal life has returned to the chaotic streets of Sierra Leone's capital.
Colorfully dressed women haggle on the pavement over cloth spread with lollipops, razor blades, or rice. A scattering of watchful pale faces marks the return of Lebanese traders, the linchpin of the capital's business.
Only the unusually low number of cars and the occasional heap of burned rubble testify to the nightmare that Freetown has endure since Major Koroma and his fellow officers seized power from elected President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah last May.
Stolen cars and burned houses
The cars were mostly stolen early on, while the houses were burned more recently, destroyed by vindictive junta fighters after the Nigerians began advancing on the capital earlier this month.
"They just went around attacking people and burning houses," says Henry Conteh, a Freetown businessman. "They said if the AFRC [Armed Forces Ruling Council] can't have Freetown, then nobody's going to have Freetown."
Mr. Conteh was hitchhiking near a Nigerian checkpoint on Main Motor Road. Once prosperous, he too lost his car to the junta fighters. The general looting of vehicles also ruined his business selling spare parts. But, he admits, he feels great.
"I am so pleased this thing is over. For so long now we have lived in the valley of the shadow of death."
A belated 'Happy New Year'
One of the few remaining embassy officials in town put it another way. "People are so glad these days you know what they are all saying. They are saying to each other, 'Happy New Year. Happy New Year and a Merry Christmas.' "
There have been bloodier regimes in Africa than Koroma's eight-month junta, but few have approached its naked cynicism and greed. Having ousted President Kabbah less than a year after his election, Koroma and some of his men let it be known that, as with an earlier junta whose members all did well out of a palace coup in 1992, they felt entitled to enrich themselves for a while at the expense of their already beggared country.
Even more shocking to many was the merger between Sierra Leone's army and the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) announced shortly after the coup.
This confirmed what many ordinary people had long been alleging: that the civil war, which had killed more than 20,000 people since 1991 and displaced 1.5 million people, had been conducted at the combatants' mutual convenience, to give both sets of gunmen an opportunity to pillage to their hearts' content.
"We saw them all going around Freetown, stealing and killing and raping women," says Abduli Bah, a resident of the capital who used to chauffeur foreign journalists around before his car was stolen. "We saw that there was no difference between the RUF and the Sierra Leone army. The only thing was that among themselves, the RUF maybe had more discipline."
Many people in Freetown are so delighted to be rid of Koroma and his gun-toting thugs that they are not inclined to look too hard at their liberators' credentials.
"Those guys were just great," says Debbie Frazier, an American citizen who remained in Freetown throughout the eight-month standoff.
Yet the Nigerian government has a record of oppression and corruption at home, causing some foreign observers to question its motives in ousting a junta in a nearby country.