Valentine Melvin Strasser accidentally seized power in Sierra Leone on April 29, 1992. Strasser had been an unknown army captain until that day. He was newly installed as the leader of a nation of 4 million people and the commander-in-chief of a fractious, poor army at the age of 25.
Most Sierra Leoneans welcomed the coup-makers, and Strasser was elevated to messiah status after more than two decades of corrupt governments. Print shops designed out calendars with his childlike face stamped on them.
The inner circle of the party was made up of similarly young men, including a vice chairman who was just 22. They named themselves the National Provisional Ruling Council, and their rule was marked by the type of peculiarities you’d expect if you walked into a college bar and handed over a country to a bunch of students.
Here is the complete story of Africa’s youngest President, Valentine Strasser, who ascended from rags to riches and back to rags .
Valentine Esegragbo Melvin Strasser was born on April 26, 1967, in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown. Strasser grew up in the Allen Town neighborhood of Freetown’s extreme East End.
Strasser graduated from the Sierra Leone Grammar School in Freetown in 1985, when he was eighteen years old. He was a gifted student in math and chemistry in high school.
He enlisted in the Republic of Sierra Leone Military Forces (RSLMF) at the age of eighteen after graduating from secondary school in 1985, during the presidency of President Siaka Stevens, and was assigned to the Benguema Military Training Academy in Benguema, a town just outside of Freetown, for military training as a cadet officer. He was commissioned into the Sierra Leone army at the age of nineteen after completing his training.
On March 25, 1991, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a rebel group led by Foday Sankoh, launched its first attack in Kailahun District’s Buedu villages. Strasser and other soldiers stationed in a military barracks in Kailahun were dispatched to command and put down the RUF uprising.
During Strasser’s time fighting the RUF rebels , the government of Sierra Leone, led by President Joseph Saidu Momoh, hardly provided enough boots and military equipment to the army to help strengthen Strasser and his fellow soldiers in the war. The soldiers were never paid on time, and their welfare was far from the top of the government’s priority list.
After numerous appeals, warnings, and threats, the young soldiers decided to march to the State House in Freetown on April 29, 1992, to protest their setbacks in pursuing the war and to demand their outstanding salaries. Strasser led the group of soldiers, along with his two best friends and fellow soldiers, Sergeant Solomon Musa and Captain Sahr Sandy. President Momoh was forced to flee the country after the soldiers appeared in the capital city, and he went into exile in Conakry, Guinea. Strasser and his men were motivated to seize power by forming the NPRC in response to the power vacuum.
The coup leaders were so unprepared that they did not appoint a new leader. Strasser was eventually chosen not for his leadership or martial authority, but because, as one of the few who had finished secondary school, his English was good enough to read the junta’s declaration over the radio. They all agreed that, if nothing else, a young lad could instill youthful optimism in a frustrated nation. Strasser became the youngest Head of State in the world at just twenty five years old.
After becoming president, Strasser set about implementing grand plans to establish a functioning democracy. The soldiers organized a cleanup campaign to clear the streets of mountains of trash, and many of them participated. The economy was improving, and gas and electricity were once again readily available. Ambulances, which had all vanished from Freetown, were imported and put to use again
Optimistic once more, young people sprayed murals of inspiring slogans and national heroes across downtown Freetown. There was talk of a long-awaited revolution finally blooming.
It didn’t take long for the excitement to wear off. In December 1992, after only eight months in office, the government declared that an attempted coup had been foiled. Twenty-nine accused men were executed by firing squad On a beach outside Freetown, . Some of them were in prison at the time they were allegedly plotting the coup.
The stories of extravagant state-funded lifestyles were equally despicable. “There were stories of Valentine Strasser and his close military friends selling diamonds worth tens of thousands of dollars and spending the money on brand-new cars.
In October 1993, a Swedish newspaper reported that Strasser and other officers had flown to Antwerp, Europe’s diamond capital, with smuggled stones worth tens of millions of dollars. Some of the funds were used to purchase weapons for the army’s floundering forces, while the remainder was divided among officials. The article was shocking because it came at a time when Sierra Leone earned less than $2 million per year from legitimate diamond trading.
By 1994 Strasser had clearly failed to control the war brewing in the east against the Revolutionary United Front rebels . Initially, RUF rebels were fighting to unseat the corrupt government, but it became clear during Strasser’s reign what they stood for. Diamond deposits had become a resource worth fighting for in their own right.
Strasser disappeared from public life. “The rumor was that he was drinking heavily and abusing cocaine, and he didn’t appear to be in control at all.”
Strasser’s government struggled to contain growing protests over the next year. Facing equally intense international pressure. Strasser decided to hold elections in February 1996, However, by running as a candidate despite the constitutional minimum age of 40, he aggravated existing leadership schisms within the party.
A few weeks before the election, Strasser attended a routine government meeting with Maada Bio, his second-in-command. He entered the conference room without his armed security detail, so there was nothing he could do when Bio grabbed a gun from under the table and pointed it at him, according to his own story. Strasser was put into a helicopter and taken to neighboring Guinea,
Strasser was ousted in a low-key military coup, but this time it was his own NPRC members who were unhappy with his leadership.
Post-Head of State
Strasser was offered a UN fellowship to study law at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England. However his presence at the university did not sit well with the student body, which included some students in exile from Sierra Leonean. “Some teaching staff expressed worries that he was involved in atrocities and breaches of international criminal law.
Strasser dropped out of university after only 18 months and began floating around London, frequently clashing with Sierra Leonean expatriates.
Strasser’s asylum application in England was rejected in 2000, and he fled to Gambia, only to be denied entry. He finally returned to Sierra Leone, where he lived in poverty in Grafton, east of Freetown, on a small pension of $42 per month. He became severely ill in January 2019 and was transferred to Ghana for treatment. Due to peripheral artery disease, his left leg was partially amputated. He returned to Sierra Leone in July 2021 after completing rehabilitation and was given an apartment by President Julius Maada Bio.
Surprisingly, President Bio, with whom he had a strained relationship, was the one who oversaw his medical treatment in Ghana.
Despite the fact that Valentine Strasser’s reign did not end well, he will always be recognized as Africa’s youngest president, who ruled Sierra Leone from 1992 to 1996. At the age of 25.