Never judge a colonel by his cover. You wouldn’t blink when you see Mike Dent walking his dog in the shafts of early summer light in the green and sleepy village of Hartlebury, Worcestershire, deep in the English countryside. The village that last saw warriors on the march in 1646 when Oliver Cromwell’s roundheads laid siege to Hartlebury Castle, a few hundred meters from Dent’s back lawn, which surrendered without a shot being fired by the 160 defenders. More than 368 years later, only heavy trucks driving down country lanes cause a stir and threaten the peace.
Dent fits the scene like a glove. He looks more like a retired country gentleman than a former military advisor to the president of Sierra Leone who travels the trouble spots of Africa.
Sixty-six-year-old Dent was a career soldier in the British Army. He joined the colors in 1979 and rose to the rank of colonel and a seat on the general staff commanding the army. It was this powerful job that took him to the violent chaos of Sierra Leone as the British government attempted to unravel the country’s tight knot of civil war.
“The streets were full of people, no water, nor fuel. The hospitals couldn’t cope. I have never seen so much poverty, anywhere. Then there was the horror of the amputations. It was an eye opener,” says Dent in his sitting room as birds twitter in the green hedgerows overlooking the castle.
In 2000, Dent went to Freetown as the military advisor to the then president, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the avuncular former United Nations (UN) civil servant and district commissioner who was the first Muslim to be head of state. President Kabbah was elected in 1996; deposed by a coup in 1997 and restored by ECOMOG troops from West Africa in 1998.
When the British arrived in Freetown, two years later, one of Dent’s unenviable tasks was the rebuilding the shambolic remnants of the army of Sierra Leone.
“We were told there were 16,000 soldiers on the payroll. We went round and verified only 12,200 people. The rest were ghost soldiers that the army was paying money for that other people were collecting. It was total chaos; the army didn’t know where their soldiers were nor who they were. We had to take pictures as proof of who they were. The whole place was riven by a civil war for 10 years, there was no payment system, no pension system nothing. It was the only failed state I had ever seen, everything had collapsed,” he says.
Dent and his brother officers also had to advise the UN on the tricky process of what it calls DDR – disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. Muddy waters, clouded further by the fact that two senior officers on the project, an Indian three-star general and a Nigerian two-star general, detested each other and didn’t talk.
This complicated matters amid the uneasy patchwork of armed groups. There was: the Sierra Leone Army (SLA); the Civil Defence Forces – a bundle of seven secret societies and tribes – the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), led by the charismatic orator Johnny Paul Koroma, the man who staged the coup in 1997; deserters from the SLA and the Revolutionary United Front, led by Foday Sankoh.
Dent set up a bush camp in Freetown where 5,500 male and female fighters underwent selection and military training.
“It worked quite well, the majority wanted a job and did what they were asked. It was very sad that the people fighting in the war were only doing so for someone who had fed them or gave them money. People from the same family were fighting on different sides.”
In the midst of this difficult time in 2000, civil war reared its ugly head over Freetown.
“This guy threw the door open, came rushing in and said: ‘you have got to get the gunship up, there are thousands marching on Freetown’. The UN told me this. The UN troops had panicked, 14,000 packed up and moved towards Freetown. They were people equipped with armored cars and helicopters and weapons systems, the lot. They just put their hands up. One of the battalions allowed groups of rebels to bypass them, they took a whole battalion hostage, near Makeni, north of Freetown, that is when the British came in.”
“We tried to calm everything down. They flew the parachute regiment in and the joint task force deployed gradually over the next three weeks. There was a firefight at Lungi Airport. The parachute regiment stabilized the situation with foot patrols. We flew aircraft over Freetown to show we were there and that really was the beginning of the end for the rebel forces. They realized there was no way. It was done very cleverly with the media campaign. General Richards (the head of the general staff) explained we weren’t going to pull out.”
A decade later, Dent believes it was a sledgehammer to crack a nut – the kernel, a ragtag group of around 120 RUF and AFRC fighters.
President Kabbah, who died in March at the age of 82, declared an end to the civil war in 2002 and won a landslide election victory in the same year. In 2003, Dent left Sierra Leone with around 13,000 trained troops and the British Army. That year, the Queen awarded him with a CBE for his work in Freetown. He went into private business with his company, Security & Risk Consultancy Services, and spent time in Tanzania looking after offshore drilling operations and the port of Mtwara.
“From a business perspective, East Africa is the place,” says Dent.
This year, Dent has been working as a risk and security consultant to the developers of the project at Jabi Lake in Abuja, Nigeria. He was in Abuja as the city recovered from a bomb that rocked a bus station on the cusp of the World Economic Forum in the Nigerian capital.
“I was there the week after the bombing. I was impressed by Abuja in that it had good security with lots of police and military. But any attack will be focused on a weak area that is difficult to secure.
“I think potentially the worst case scenario is a split. There is this religious issue and I think federalization has exacerbated it. The rich states in the south are where all the oil is. The perception in the north is why aren’t we getting our share?… I don’t think Boko Haram is going to go away. It is not just one group, this is disparate groups operating across Nigeria and if they get into the south there is real potential for a response. If the civilians in the areas start attacking Muslims you almost have a religious war. The people in the south who are Muslims are in the minority and are going to come off worst.”
Dent believes it’s easier doing business in Ghana, than in Nigeria. Further south, he sees more openings.
In his quiet English village, Dent is far from weak after a lifetime of soldiering and risk in Africa and relishes his next walk on the wild side.