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PALO CONTEH: FROM PLACATORY POSTER BOY TO VILLIAN

 March 30, 2020

BY Andrew Keili

Palo Conteh’s recent involvement with the corona virus fight, with his overt visibility with the President, Chief Minister and Health Minister at various meetings and field visits was as hailed as it was derided-depending on the politically proclivity of the person making the judgment. Whatever the case, Palo at times looked like someone thrown into the lion’s den. Alas this brief political rapprochement seems to have come to an end because of a gun incident.

There is little doubt that the atmosphere between the major parties is caustic. Indeed it has always been so in the recent past. The division of the country along party lines and the government sharing the spoils to party supporters in a country where parties are roughly aligned along regional and tribal lines has been the norm. The winning party would kick most heads of institutions out and in some cases, clear out whole institutions of senior staff and install their own supporters. The respected scholar Yusuf Bangura wrote in an article a few years ago that “this bifurcation in the party system and voting behavior has led to two relatively antagonistic publics that have the potential to disturb the peace and make it harder to use development agenda”.

The onset of social media has not helped the situation. Pictures and graphic details of happenings, real time news reporting, social media bloggers and self-styled audio and video gurus on WhatsApp groups spew out venom, with red meat being thrown to their party base. Whoever is at fault does not really matter. One could argue that the country has never been more divided. Recent happenings bear this out.

Each government has started its tenure with Commissions of Inquiry into the financial activities of the previous government, viewed by the opposition as an inquisition bordering on a witch hunt. The new government would claim it is to ensure accountability.

I have some personal experience of this bifurcation. I was a member of the National Policy Advisory Committee (NPAC) to President Kabbah-a job which involved reviewing cabinet papers and proffering policy advice to the President-a job I had done for the previous three years with other eminent members. Our Chairman, Professor John Kamara, a quintessential gentleman led us to meet the President. We appraised him of our work and told him we expected to be relieved of our duty as soon as he had his own advisory team in place. He asked us to stay on in the meantime. “In the meantime” became one whole year waiting to be relieved whilst doing our work. Meanwhile in the small office in the single storey building at the front end of State house we were using as an office, I would occasionally hear a particular menacingly-looking OSD tell his colleagues: “Nar dem SLPP man den day ya!”. Despite our unease Prof. Kamara still entreated us to stay on. The imperturbable Professor entreated us to stay and do “national service” even with the threats until we were unceremoniously sacked. Sometimes even the opposition parties frown on any conciliation with the governing party. My appointment by President Koroma to be a member of the Sierra Leone Electricity and Water Regulatory Commission was met with great criticism from SLPP colleagues, with accusations of “dancing with the devil”. I had to go on a private PR campaign to explain that I did this out of a sense of national duty.

Others have suffered a worse fate and the sackings and marginalisation still continue to this day. Those of us who have been critical of President Bio for not reaching out to competent people even within his own party, and depending more of loyalists, many of whom may be ill suited to their jobs were pleasantly surprised at the sudden elevation of Palo Conteh, a “bête noire” to many die hard SLPP loyalists to dine at the high table. Political pundits opined that this must have been done against the advice of hardliners within the SLPP. One cited the very noticeable absence of comments from Palo’s nemesis, Deputy Internal Affairs Minister, Lahai Lawrence Leeman, who previously had a “Tom and Jerry” relationship with Palo as proof positive that some hardliners may have been entreated to cease fire.

Surely this new rapprochement was good. APC hardliners and independent people were full of praise for the President. “Surely, this is a harbinger of things to come”, they said, as the President starts looking beyond his base for competent people to man the affairs of state.

Indeed Palo seems to have come in well qualified for his new task (whatever that may have eventually been). When it became necessary to reconfigure the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) into a separate entity that will have a robust command and control structure, the EOC was renamed the National Ebola Response Centre (NERC) which was located together with the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) at the premises of the former Special Court. The governing body of NERC was headed by President Koroma. With UNMEER & other foreign military personnel on the ground, government needed someone of cabinet rank and probably military background to make decisions. Palo Conteh was appointed Chief Executive Officer of NERC on special assignment from his position as Minister of Defense- a kind of Ebola Czar.

Palo Conteh is an ex-military man and a Human Rights lawyer. The retired Major served in the Sierra Leone armed forced before his retirement. He had overseen changes in the army that saw Sierra Leone excel in Peace Keeping missions. Palo made a reputation for himself fighting lawlessness in various forms. He cowed the previously irrepressible Okada riders in Freetown into submission, made threats to put paid to unbridled street trading and set his sights on cliques and gangs that went about indulging in wanton violence that often resulted in needless loss of life. As I wrote about Palo at that time- “His method is simple and gives credence to the krio adage “kill dog befoe dog mek dog know say die day”. Palo reasoned that “only the credible threat of hanging by the gallows will deter these social misfits.”

He was not however without detractors and there were controversies related to army personnel from time to time. These related to premature discharge of personnel from the army, payment for soldiers wounded or killed in action, and alleged slashing of pay for soldiers on peace keeping missions-accusations which he strenuously denied.

But let’s come back to the accusations against Palo that have ostensibly brought his downfall from the SLPP induced grace to grass. I do not wish to comment at length on these as apart from not being privy to the full details, I may be ill qualified to pass judgement even if I were. Palo is said to have taken a loaded pistol to State House. This came to the attention of State House security personnel and depending on the version one hears, either he declared it without prompting or it was discovered by a scanner or he was confronted to display the contents of his bag. He claims the gun was licensed and was for self-protection. Reports are that he was invited to the CID and a recent letter from his Lawyers indicates his whereabouts are unknown. There are claims other arrests have been made. “I told you so” critics of Palo have claimed in social media postings that this was an assassination attempt and conspiracy theorists have mentioned possible co-conspirators.

The matter is being handled by the competent government authorities and one hopes the investigations are carried out within the ambit of the law. Whatever the outcome however, there seems to be the general acceptance that it may not have been prudent for the gun to be taken to State house. Our recent history with guns, stun guns and pepper spray has not been good. Supporters of Dr Kandeh Yumkella were locked up for having pepper spray at Lungi airport. Opposition leader Mohamed Kamaraimba Mansaray went through hell with his owning of a stun gun. There are several other incidences in the past-some involving President Bio and his supporters.

Others opine that the mere act of taking a gun to State House indicates that there was still an element of suspicion on his part with the government. Whatever the case, and whatever the outcome, the trust between himself and the government is at a new low ebb. Unfortunately this will be translated to distrust in bringing other opposition people on board the governance train. The hardliners appear to have won.

Is there a silver lining on the clouds? Yes. When all is done and dusted, President Bio should rise above the fray and do what he can to put paid to the needless “animal farm division” in attracting good people for national service- “four leg good, two legs bad”. Palo has been thrust from being a placatory poster boy for inter party unity to a villain. His case needs to be treated fairly within the ambit of the law and President Bio should not allow this incident to make him fall into the tight embrace of hardliner loyalists.

Ponder my thoughts.