FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (AP) — Losing your job, quitting school, going broke and moving back home with your mother after living abroad for years would be tough on anyone
It’s even tougher when you’re a former military dictator who once had the power to execute opponents at will.
Valentine Strasser became the world’s youngest head of state when he seized power in 1992 at the age of 25. But the limelight didn’t last Ñ four years later, he was ousted in another coup.
“I’m basically living off my mother now. She’s been very supportive,” the 35-year-old said at a neighborhood bar on the outskirts of Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital.
“It’s been tough. I’m unemployed, but I’m coping.”
It was well before noon and the former president was doing what he often does on weekdays: Joking around with friends, playing checkers and sipping diligently on a plastic cup of palm wine Ñ a cheap and highly potent alcoholic brew.
In contrast to the days when he commanded an army and courted the favor of foreign presidents, Strasser today seems to have reverted simply to being just another neighborhood kid.
Gone are the crisp military fatigues, new suits and wraparound sunglasses. In their place: A baseball hat worn backward, a Bob Marley T-shirt, dark green shorts and a pair of ‘Air’ Nike sneakers.
Asked how he spends his time now that he doesn’t have to rule the nation, Strasser took a drag of his cigarette and thought for a moment.
“I’ve been drinking palm wine,” he said. “You shouldn’t say that. But this is a democracy now. So go ahead.”
Things were very different a decade ago when Strasser, then a captain known for winning disco contests, headed up a group of twentysomething officers demanding unpaid salaries.
The protests snowballed into a popular coup that ousted dictator Maj. Gen. Joseph Momoh in April 1992.
Strasser was hailed as a savior by many. Even today, Freetown residents say he changed things for the better, drastically cutting inflation, cleaning up the capital and putting the long defunct national TV station back on air.
He and his junta Ñ known as “the boys” because most were only in their 20s Ñ scored points by waging war, if unsuccessfully, on the nation’s hated rebels.
But Strasser was no angel. The young ruler was widely criticized when his government executed two dozen alleged coup plotters without trial on a Freetown beach.
Strasser promised to hand over power in democratic elections in 1996. But he was beaten to the punch by his No. 2 man, Brig. Julius Maada Bio, who overthrew him in a bloodless coup in January that year.
Strasser was forced into exile and soon ended up in Britain, where the United Nations arranged a special scholarship for him to study law at Warwick University in Coventry.
University spokesman Peter Dunn said the former dictator spent 18 months at the school before dropping out, saying in a letter that he’d run out of money.
Media reports at the time said Strasser slipped away to London and changed his name to Reginald to avoid the press and potential enemies. In 2000, his student visa expired and he was deported.
Soon after, he made his way back to Sierra Leone, which is only now emerging peacefully from a decade of civil war in which rebels abducted children into their ranks and killed, raped and maimed tens of thousands of civilians.
Unlike many of the world’s former heads of state, however, Strasser was not treated to a generous government stipend or given a plush mansion or bodyguards.
A house he built for himself on the edge of town was burned down by aggrieved soldiers in 1999, so he moved into his mother’s two-story house across the street.
The government says Strasser is not entitled to benefits because he took power by force. Strasser concedes the point but says he should be treated better.
Last year, the government called on citizens not to throw stones at the former head of state, who without a car, was wandering around Freetown on foot.
But Strasser is still immensely popular among some, and may be able to capitalize on it. In five years, he’ll be eligible to run for president Ñ something he says he’s considering.
Charismatic, muscle-bound and 6-foot-2, he’s the dominant figure at the bar he often frequents, which stands tenuously together with bamboo poles and plastic sheeting somehow obtained from the U.N. World Food Program.
Whatever the future holds, Strasser will always have his high-profile past to relish.
“Oh it was good. I was the youngest … head of state in the whole wide world,” he said with a guffaw, looking around the bar for support.
Then he leaned forward with a wide smile and slapped a high-five on the hand of someone sitting across from him.