By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff
Late President Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah passed away on 13 March 2014 after a protracted illness; he was buried on Sunday, 23 March, to great adoration, reverence and ululation, as the nation, save for a few, are in agreement that he was the man of the moment, the right man to serve as president at a time when the only news to emanate from the country was rape, amputation, killing and maiming.
Having served as president from 1996 to 2007, Mr. Kabbah left a rich legacy for his successors to emulate, not least his ‘Churchillian’ belief in overcoming adversity and strife in the midst of anarchy, chaos and mayhem. At great personal peril and sacrifice, he was dedicated to peace from the first day of his presidency, and peace he was able to negotiate and achieve, much to the delight to his compatriots and the world at large. Beyond that, the late former president, aptly described as “a doyen of peace”, was able to nurture that peace and build a solid foundation for democracy, good governance and sustainable development. His legacy is there for all to see, at least those who are honest enough to admit, whether while he was alive or posthumously.
But alas! While many, including His Excellency, President Ernest Bai Koroma, have extolled the saintly attribute of President Kabbah the human being, politician and statement, Mr. Oswald Hanciles decided otherwise. Thus, he dedicated two articles to throw spanners in the legacy of this great man, or at best repudiate assertions made in tributes to the late man, by some distinguished gentlemen, in his attempt to lampoon the latter and rubbish the legacy of a man who went through great personal sacrifices just in order that we could today enjoy peace and prosperity.
He did that by toiling for peace and cementing, by his acts, including building state institutions which now provide jobs to thousands and generate billions for the running of government. By some strange coincidence, Oswald happened to have worked one of such institutions- the National Revenue Authority, where he served in the Public Affairs Department. The least said about his legacy there the better, before he was rewarded by President Koroma to serve as presidential aide on media matters for his pamphlet about the president, a misnomer, “Natural Born Leader.” (We are still waiting for subsequent editions he promised to author). Like your archetypical Professor Okong in Achebe’s Anthills of the Savanah, Oswald went on praising the current president to a cult hero status, perhaps much to the embarrass of the Pa himself, who in line with his humility could have quietly disagreed with some of his presumptuous and exaggerated claims, challenged only by Dr. Alpha Wurie, a college mate of the president. Let me leave that for another day.
Back to the two opinion pieces under my microscope. By Oswald’s estimation, a ‘self-respected columnist’ obviously referring to himself, should proffer an ‘objective analysis’ of the death of Pa Kabbah, and he did so by electing to utilise a propaganda narrative many who conspired to undermine the peace and security of the country in those difficult years would trumpet, that Pa Kabbah knew about both the Johnny Paul Koroma coup (May 25, 1997) and January 6, 1999, invasion of Freetown, and did ‘nothing’ about it.
I am in no way insinuating that you were one of those who betrayed this country at that critical moment in her history, rather in a farcical way, perhaps to satisfy your puppet matters, who have decided to impugn the good legacy of a good man.
Thus, true to form, in his first article he declared that President Kabbah was not the man for the job in 1996. Absolute fallacy. Kabbah had a tough fight with Charles Margai for the SLPP flag bearer position and emerged victorious. He was later declared president of Sierra Leone, defeating a packed field led by the quintessential John Karefa Smart and the charismatic Thaimu Bangura. By so doing, Kabbah achieved a feat for the SLPP which no northern politician had done for a party with a strong south-eastern backing. This I am sure is what Kandeh Yumkella had alluded to, which Oswald used a political lens to critique. However, to say Kabbah should not have been elected president was to be in a grotesque denial of history. The fact is that, by hindsight, even yours truly who was an avowed Charles Margai supporter, cannot agree more that Kabbah was the right man for the top job. But if Kabbah was not suitable for the job, who was? Oswald wouldn’t say.
Again, Oswald chose to deny the course of destiny by asserting that the UN was not a training ground for Pa Kabbah, precedent to his attaining the presidency. I find this not only absurd but a bit amateurish as every school pupil knows that the late man got his pacifist inclination both from his genetics make up, largely honed after years of serving as a senior international civil servant. It was no accident, therefore, that the military junta appointed him head of their Advisory Council. Quite apart, the country needed more of a dove at that time than a hawk. But make no mistake, the late president took key decisions during his two terms as president, which I am sure he spent hours, if not days pondering over: such as to sign the death warrant for the execution of twenty-four soldiers found guilty of high treason, the peace agreement with Foday Sankoh, for which he was much maligned, but we all are enjoying today, and indeed the invasion of Freetown by ECOMOG, to rout the murderous AFRC/RUF fighters, and many more.
Kabbah had written in his book –‘Coming Back From the Brink in Sierra Leone’ (which I have not read yet. Credit to Oswald for the excerpt) that “An army? What Army? “The greatest challenge I face on assuming the presidency in 1996 was in the area of peace and security….(Although) there were many dedicated soldiers who were prepared to defend the motherland, there were others whose loyalty was deeply questionable…. Outgoing NPRC …elements who were not in favour of handing over power to a civilian administration…”
He was certainly spot on here, being a man of impeccable character, to make bold to reveal in his book that he was hoodwinked by army bosses at the time that all was fine, three days prior to the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council coup, which unfortunately proved President’s worst fears – the (dis)loyalty of our army then. So do you blame the man, a civilian president, for summoning army chiefs and getting reassurances that all was okay? Well, I would not, and most of our compatriots who are now privy to the wider picture wouldn’t.
Without doubt, your brazen counter distinction of Presidents Kabbah and Siaka Stevens only unravel your intent to parody the stellar good governance credentials of the former. Yes, Stevens would have rounded up perceived opponents and executed them. Names which come to mind include the Taqis, Fornas, Banguras. Even Sankoh was not spared in a frame-up for a coup, and the seed of violent conflict he deviously helped sowed, Kabbah later inherited. Because Kabbah was a true democrat, unlike Stevens, he would rather get assurances from army chiefs who had sworn allegiance to the state! Hence, Kabbah may have had inkling about the coup, which he made bold to say, without trying to embellish the facts, but you and I know that key elements of the army were against the government and had always colluded with the rebels. Kabbah was therefore lucky to escape to safety, and thanks to the Nigerians for bringing him back from the brink.
Was Kabbah naive or fooled by Sankoh? I would say he was not naive because he knew the mercurial nature of Sankoh, and true to his UN training and experience in handling mediation in other parts of the continent, cajoled Sankoh to eschew violence and embrace peace. He was as patient as a vulture in doing that, but the reward is priceless. History has told us that dialogue and negotiation are a better option to all out war. Didn’t President Koroma dialogue with the Guineans to return Yenga to us? A territory that is ours and one occupied by another country? How much more a rebel force, a non-state actor with selfish intent to overthrow a democratically elected government. So, Oswald, no president would have gone gung-ho against Sankoh, a veteran soldier who had support from powerful forces in the sub-region, including but not limited to the convicted war criminal, Charles Taylor. Thus, Kabbah’s only option was a peace treaty, not a ‘Capitulation treaty’ as you disdainfully described it. Yes, he may have been ‘fooled’ but history has vindicated him, and common sense teaches us that it is perhaps good to play the ‘fool’ at times for country and people, than pretend to be smart and find yourself in a precarious situation. That was what befell Sankoh and Taylor, the architects of mayhem in our country who thought they were fooling Kabbah, but who both got their just dessert.
Furthermore, what your two articles did, albeit failed to achieve, was to throw some ‘political’ mudsling, no doubt targeting Mr. Yumkella, while also attempting to make ordinary the heroic status of the late former president. Pa Kabbah was not a Mandela in the true sense of the word, as scarcely anyone can equal the insurmountable record of Madiba. But for our standard in Sierra Leone, Kabbah quite emulated that great man. He reconciled with butchers, built a solid foundation for his country, lived a less than ostentatious life style, in fact he didn’t quite like grandeur, so he retired to his house he built before ascending the presidency, without demolishing it to build another! Also, he chose to deposit into the Consolidated Fund $1 million Qaddafi gave him, encouraged musicians to sing against his regime, without branding any of them a ‘dangerous tribalist or a Rwanda genocidaire’. He served only two-terms, and did not attempt to undermine democracy by staying completely neutral during crucial elections to elect his successor. I could go on and on….
Before I rest my case, your pieces somehow tried to refute the late man’s rich legacy in security and intelligence by disputing Mr. Momodu Koroma’s claim that it was during the presidency of Presidnt Kabbah that a National Defence Strategy was crafted, plus the establishment of a National Security Office and a Central Intelligence and Security Unit. I should in fact add the image cleansing and institutional capacity building of the police and the army.
But, in your ‘philosophical’ rambling, you tended to again dispute, stating instead that the former Foreign Minister was deliberately obfuscating in not providing dates. What is so confusing than your obsequious suggestion that what many illustrious sons and daughters of the soil have penned for the late man is hyperbole? The fact is that the late man presided over the change in fortune of the security actors in this country to such monumental height that today our men have excelled themselves in peacekeeping and peace support missions around the world.
And lastly, did Kabbah sacrifice Hinga Norman to the criminal court? I would ask for what? Certainly Kabbah was not doing for tenure elongation, all he wanted was an end to impunity. In that vein, he pleaded with the UN for a Special Court, which by the way had a separate jurisdiction from our national courts, and was charged with a mandate to try those who bore the greatest responsibility for crimes against humanity. Granted that Norman was regarded as a war hero, well, depending on who you talk to, but on one can dispute the fact that the Civil Defence Forces he led committed egregious human rights crimes. Check the Truth and Reconciliation files. And it follows that the Special Court could not have indicted other commanders without Norman, at least that is what the prosecutors thought, which the learned judges reasoned with. Plus, the Court had the sacred duty to tackle impunity, which was informed by sound legal and moral considerations, not puerile political jibes, based on the principles of equity. As a result, Kabbah was not indicted for any ‘criminal negligence’ even after he left office when the Court was still operating.
To conclude, I would like to say that Kabbah may not have been a ‘natural born leader’ but he certainly was God’s anointed and the peoples chosen. He did his best to take his country from the brink, and helped built a solid foundation and a huge legacy for his successors to emulate and build on. Like all humans, he made mistakes, but his good works surpassed his few mistakes. May he rest in peace.