By Dr Michael N. Wundah
Like most of my compatriots within and without the diaspora, I write this brief tribute with a heavy heart. I sincerely do because the esteemed mortal that took such a giant and brave step that wiped away the tears from the faces of all of us has finally joined his ancestors. As a country in deep mourning in this time of national grief, it is but fitting that we reflect soberly on some of the significant smiles which the late statesman, nationalist and patriot of our country put on our faces during the most difficult times of our history. This is pertinent because in anguish times the late president cried and sobbed with us. He did so because he loved his country and all that designed to potentially bring pride and happiness to us all.
Undoubtedly, it is fair to state that President Alhaji Dr Ahmed Tejan Kabbah was brave, sincere and holistically committed to the goodwill of his country and that which His Excellency’s fellow countrymen held dear to their hearts. In that regard, against all the odds and contentions, President Alhaji Dr Ahmed Tejan Kabbah did undertake and accomplish a mission not many leaders would dare contemplate let alone accomplish. He put out the most despicable flames that consumed our pride, integrity and national character for almost a decade and half during the senseless civil conflict.
I must hasten up and ask that you forgive me, my compatriots, for the inherent shortcomings in this attempt to constitute the fitting words that would make a classical tribute to a man of the stature, integrity and pedigree of our beloved president.
In this endeavour it will be counterproductive to attempt chronicling the rich history of his life and times of this illustrious statesman and patriot. Any attempt would take volumes of textbooks. Hence, I find it fitting to scale down and limit this tribute to selected significant facts, which will occupy deserving chapters in the annals of Sierra Leone’s national history. In the early 1990s, the late president affably referred to by his admirers simply as Tejan Kabbah, still feeling unfulfilled and unaccomplished, too a giant step. He opted after retirement, as a top technocrat at the United Nations and returned home in order to serve his people. With exceedingly viable skills and qualifications backed by solid years of glorious experience under his belt, he took up that mantle of political leadership under the banner of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).
Prior to his retirement from the diplomatic service, the party in particular and country at large had been in shambles for decades and were desperately in search of a political Messiah and redeemer. That historic clarion call cut across political and religious divides because a lot was at stake. Unlike most of his cohorts, that had tried before and failed or even declined any attempt to try, he took up the challenge in good faith as a keen patriot and nationalist. It was a challenge of breath taking magnitude, which the gods may argue, he didn’t foresee or forecast, but in the end, all turned out to be a fruitful leap of fate for the good of all his compatriots at home and abroad.
Throughout his life time, as a senior civil servant in his homeland and at the United Nations as a senior technocrat, a retiree and then a politician and great statesman, President Kabbah manifested huge pedigree worth emulating by those who believe in progressive politics and national unity. Shrewd, extremely talented, astute and eloquent, he was always in charge of his briefs. His knack for details and logical arguments and critical analysis regarding sensitive and crucial political matters and diplomacy was superb. Many leaders, our generation has known, would rather dwell on clichés and sound bites as their saving grace at press briefings and international conferences, when it comes to assessing and analysing at the lateral levels. But the great man was quite the opposite, for his eloquence matched his degree of knowledge on most topics and subjects under the sun.
Two important occasions still endure, and fresh in my mind, which crowned the astuteness and alacrity of our departed to pursue and accomplish fruitful national courses of this great leader and fellow citizen. The matters which precipitated the two occasions under discussion were and are still very crucial for the priceless peace and political stability Sierra Leone continues to enjoy. Party faithful and Stewarts would take a further yard and argue convincingly that those occasions defined the lasting impact of the SLPP on Sierra Leonean politics and our national history. They were to do with the Lome peace deal and the two institutions which were established to seek redress for victims of the conflict, help heal their wounds and nurture and cement national peace and reconciliation.
At the height of the Lome Peace deal, President Kabbah flew to London and elsewhere in the diaspora in order to sell the deal to his compatriots and members of the international community. In London, the SLPP faithful, the branch executive members and Sierra Leoneans from all walks of life were summoned to a vital meeting. I sat next to the late Ambrose Ganda (one of our finest brains) who painstakingly contributed and participated at every phase of the peace talks. Vice President Solomon Berewa did most of the talking as Anthony General and Justice Minister, while the president listened keenly.
It is an understatement to reiterate that the atmosphere was unhealthy as various lingering premonitions vibrated in words and reactions for most part of the meeting. I was perplexed and distraught, considering what was at stake. To disregard the propositions on offer meant risking a national escalation of the prolonged and protracted conflict that continued to swell the coffers of the warring factions, especially the RUF rebels. At that point, all I could do was mutter in absolute, anguish and silence: “He must be pondering on the protracted voices in this hall. God, will this atmosphere do the damage and put him and his team off?” And indeed there were protracted voices that came across bitterly and strongly, as the Anti-Lome peace accord camp. The premise they held was loud and clear- any peace deal with the RUF rebels was perceived as grossly offensive, insulting to the people of Sierra Leone and therefore a taboo. We held our breath in despair as the commotions continued across the hall.
Little did we know that the political Messiah will save the day! In the end, it turned out that I, and seemingly other distraught and optimists in the audience were wrong! We were wrong to hold the view that in the phase of the chaotic responses, they were going to give up, pack their bags and return to Sierra Leone. At the end of the speeches by members of the panel, the towering figure (President Tejan Kabbah) stood up gallantly and then gracefully made his points sternly. He argued quite convincingly among other things, that Sierra Leoneans had no choice, but make peace with the RUF rebel leader, Foday Sankoh and all the other warring factions. Attaining such a goal, he argued vehemently, would not only be a priceless endeavour, but would go a long way to end the bloodsheds and cultivate the foundation for lasting peace and national unity in post war Sierra Leone.
That redemptive intervention by President Kabbah marked the beginning of an unfolding history that engaged the proactive participations of the United Nations and other major brokers, and particularly the British Prime Minister Tony Blair. That eloquent and meaningful speech delivered by the late statesman put meaningful smiles on the faces of millions of his distraught compatriots in the diaspora and in Sierra Leone.
The second encounter with the Great Man was when he came back to London to sell the rationales, logic for establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Courts for Sierra Leone. Once more he was very positive and convincing. He registered firmly that the two institutions were meant to heal old wounds and seek the vitally needed legal redresses to which victims were entitled.
It is worth recalling that at the centre of the contentions regarding the establishment of the two institutions was the politically sensitive issue that embroiled one of most popular and influential ministers in his government. That personality was the late Chief Hinga Norman. The decision the president took regarding the fate of Hinga Norman is often referred to by some political analysts as well as critics as the nemesis of the SLPP. In other words, they believe that it was one of the inherent flaws or mistaken decisions with far reaching political ramifications, the late man ever made throughout his reign as president of his country and leader of the SLPP. Again, like most intelligent lawyers would do, he navigated his way carefully through the insidious trenches, made his points and won the day. We gave him a standing ovation, which was not foreseen prior to the meeting.
Reflecting on the other side of the coin, yes, Tejan Kabbah was one of the political doyens and visionaries of his generation, but arguably speaking, political doyens and visionaries, like all mortals do not necessarily always make the right decisions. They have flaws, and more often than not, they do take irreconcilable and fatal risks which all mortals do. Put simply, they are mortals and therefore not above mistakes.
There was equally the equation of political conviction which influenced his decisions no matter how ill-fated critics and analysts may class them as yardsticks to judge him. In that context it could be further argued that as a shrewd technocrat, politician and strategist, the president was often carried away by the real and compelling demands and complexities of Real Politik, often punctuated by positive national considerations and priorities.
Notwithstanding any manner of anticipated influences, most of Tejan Kabbah’s critics have accused him of undertaking careless political appeasements to the distastes of the SLPP. Again, the counter arguments among other things are that political appeasement has always been one of the tangible rules of the actual complex games of Real politik. Therefore neither did he give birth to the idea nor did he nurture it erratically without foreseeing the inherent destructive, destabilising implications as well as gains, especially at critical times. In the same vein, they would sustain that in political cultures which are not defined by significant political and ideological markers it is worth experimenting with this project no matter how contentious it may be in the practical sense. The percentage of the ‘‘success’’ of appeasement has turned out to be outstanding.
In brief, it is also educative to remind ourselves and recognise that the appeasement agenda in the politics of difficult and peculiar terrains (for instance in war time Sierra Leone) stretches the concept of pluralistic democracy beyond the simplistic and narrow interpretations.
In the broader perspective, even in the reverse order, in opposite terrains and cultures, political appeasement is as old as Methuselah in the biblical adage, and has had utilitarian impacts on idealists not necessarily ideologues. The ideologues would argue differently- that political appeasement is nothing other than a schema that constitutes the much needed sweeteners which are often couched in clever cover-ups (so-called unified democracy) for the insidious politics of patrimony and cronyism. Again, realistically speaking, the late statesman was not the only author or disciple of this culture, so even in death as in life he stands exonerated on the varying sound accounts or premises that have been highlighted briefly.
For example, in the Capitalist West, lucrative jobs are created for the “boys” who do the paper rounds, the propaganda machineries, the big business donors to political parties and foot soldiers who campaign in hazardous terrains (those who stick their necks at crucial times).
Tejan Kabbah himself in his reflections might have made sense of these points among other things, that appointing people from other political parties to high positions in the corporate and related world, and cabinet posts constitute sensible strategy in the national interest. And, by extension, I am on his side on this one. The appeasement culture was seemingly ideal for our precarious situation, a war-torn country, trying frantically to mend broken fences and eventually create a new Sierra Leone that is colour blind to divisive politics of race, region and political persuasions.
More significantly is the fact that this culture is not lost on the minds of the predecessors of the late visionary. To recall, at various times as well as in the case of our current president, all politicians know too well, the values and political gains inherent in the kind of political appeasement the late maestro injected into the locus of his policies.
Thus, in totality, it is arguably the case that Tejan Kabbah’s policy of appeasement was desired to reach out to the other side of the political divide. The key premise for articulating political appeasement at those varying times and now is that it was and even now constitutes one of the key drivers for the formation of an inclusive government of national unity
Reflecting on the rich, success stories of President Kabbah, one would ask. Did the statesman deserve a nobel prize for peace? Why not, it is a prize he truly deserved considering his contributions to peace and reconciliation, even prior to his election as President of Sierra Leone. His fine works in that regard throughout his active service at the UN were outstanding. In addition, the significant and uncompromising bravery and selfless sacrifice he made in honour of the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Sierra Leone, exposes the UN and Nobel Prize awarding panellists for not making him one of the many laureates that have such accolades to their names.
Having said that, there is still a potentially possible corridor through which one could advocate for or by virtue of a rethinking scenario, argue for the case that he be granted the posthumous Nobel Peace Prize he richly deserved.
To conclude, it is painful to reflect on the ill-judgment made by the UN the Nobel committee not to honour a prudent and ardent former colleague of the UN and a well-deserving Great Sierra Leonean Leader. Yet, one vital fact endures even now that he has left us in order to join his ancestors. The singular reality abounds that all Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad do believe and seek solace in one compelling fact. That belief is that Sierra Leoneans will continue to be inspired to owe the late president an uncompromising honour and respect as an invaluable regional legacy and national treasure even in death. This honour is found in the unblemished hearts and thoughts of all his compatriots, personal friends and family members he has left behind. Blueprints of honorariums enshrined in Nobel and other related prizes do make a mark, but our enduring regards and respects surpass blueprints written in ink and minted in silverwares.
Thus, in this holistic regard, we shall always remember our illustrious son of the soil and Father of the heartland, President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah and exalt him in these fitting terms till eternity:
In stones and granites we immortalise thee our Dear President and compatriot, President Alhaji Dr Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. In the mirrors of our hearts we admire your great works, bravery and courage for our country and people. In our solid thoughts we eulogise all those values, underpinned by prudent and ardent patriotism and receptive nationalism. Thy great deeds shall continue to heal the wounds which the weapons of Armageddon heaped on our consciences in 1991. The bitter tears we shed together represent the sanctimonious Purification Oil and Holy Water that Armageddon desecrated in our holy lands during those ungodly times. Gold and silverwares measure not thy illustrious services and dedication to humanity and fellow Sierra Leoneans, but we owe thee significant and priceless honours. Our fervent prayers and respect we pledge to thee till eternity. Farewell Mr President, farewell our Great Nationalist and Patriot! May Allah be with you till we meet again! Amen.
On behalf of my family in the UK and at home in Sierra Leone, and on my own personal behalf, we send our condolences to his loved ones including families and friends at home and abroad. May the Gracious and Merciful Allah have mercy on his soul!
Dr Michael N. Wundah