I never thought I'd be happy to hear about a death, but that day did come, once. It was a former neighbour, Solomon 'SAJ' Musa.
He had been Vice-President of Sierra Leone after the NPRC coup in 1992. As far as I can make out, there were two contenders for the top job; Musa and Julius Maada Bio. They settled on a compromise candidate, Valentine Strasser. 26 alleged coup plotters were executed not long afterwards, supposedly by Musa driving a lorry over them. All I can say is that the man was capable of such a thing. Before long, Musa and his wife were put on a plane at gunpoint, after a series of rows with Strasser. They surfaced in Birmingham, a few hundred yards from where we lived, with a council house, refugee status, and a UN grant to study at Birmingham University. It wasn't long before Musa picked a ferocious quarrel with us, probably because we're democrats.
At the beginning of May 1997, my wife ran into Tina Musa, who appeared to be rejoicing; they'd done some juju, and 'power was coming to return to them'. Three weeks later, on May 25th, soldiers loyal to Musa seized the parliament building and hung out banners calling for his return as President. Local people tried to dissuade him, warning him that it would lead to his death, but the two of them rushed off in a state of grate enthusiasm, and arrived in Freetown, after being delayed by a temporary arrest in Guinea, to find that someone else, Johnny Paul Koroma, had taken the top job. Musa became Vice-President again, and Minister of Mines.
We had just received clearance to bring the girls, then aged 11 and 5, to the UK, and the result was that the elder was caught up in fighting a week later. They arrived in the end, but she still suffers from nightmares. At one point I phoned a family friend, to find her in a state of terror as a gang of soldiers came down the street, looting and killing; I subsequently spoke to people who saw Musa directing these gangs personally. We were worried that Namissa's family was likely to be targeted because of our quarrel with Musa, who was known to be vindictive, but in the event he spent most of his time in the diamond areas, stealing the gems.
The regime lasted nine months, and collapsed; the leaders escaped from Freetown with their forces intact, and with no civilian casualties. I've never come across any details of what went on behind the scenes, but given that the head of the Nigerian-led peacekeeping force was known locally as 'Mr. Ten Million', since that was his annual take from the rebels to allow them to remain in business, I imagine that there was a fair amount of collusion involved.
Musa then established himself as the de facto leader of one of the rebel groups, based at Kabala (Namissa's home town) in the north of the country. It's subsequently emerged that he was behind most of the fighting in the latter stages of the civil war. He was killed in the early stages of a major rebel assault on the capital over New Year 1999. At the time it appeared that his death was due either to an accident or a booby-trap, but it now seems that he was probably shot by his own lieutenants, on the orders of Charles Taylor, the former Liberian dictator whose trial at the Hague ended recently.
God alone knows how many deaths this man was responsible for, and how many were saved by his death. There's no doubt that as long as he was alive, his attempts to steal the country and its mineral wealth would have continued. I don't consider Osama bin Laden to have been a monster on the same scale. His major crimes took place a decade ago, and he's been a declining influence for some years. It's interesting that he was betrayed just when the Arab revolutions had made him politically irrelevant. Apparently he made no attempt to defend himself, and he could presumably have been taken alive. A trial - preferably outside the United States - would have avoided making a martyr, and would have been far more fitting for a country which likes to portray itself as a leader of civilisation. An extra-judicial killing panders to the worst elements of a nation with an unfortunate tendency to confuse violence with justice.