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Sierra Leone
Wednesday, May 18, 2022
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My Last Respect to Tejan Kabbah

TRIBUTE

By Alpha Rashid Jalloh

Sierra Leone’s third Executive President, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, has passed away at the age of eighty-two and there have been numerous tributes paid to him. He was laid to rest on March 23 at the Kissy Road cemetery, in the east of the capital Freetown, and joined his predecessors that include: Joseph Saidu Momoh, the second Executive President of Sierra Leone; S.I. Koroma aka Agba Satani, former Vice President in Siaka Stevens’ government; and Christian Alusine Kamara-Taylor, also a former Vice President under Siaka Stevens’ government.

Paradoxically, March 23 on which Tejan Kabbah was buried is notorious for being an anti-APC (All Peoples Congress) day because history reveals that all the struggles to oust APC were between March 21 and March 23. Brig. David Lansana announced his rejection of the 1967 election results, which APC won, on March 21 and executed his coup on March 23. The NRC of Brig. Andrew Juxton Smith planned their coup on March 21 and executed it on March 23; the Brig. John Bangura coup of 1973, in which Foday Sankoh was involved, was planned on March 21 and executed on March 23; the Mohamed Sorie Forna and others had to do with March 23. Foday Sankoh first sent snipers across the border on March 21 and made an invasion on March 23, and now tribute was paid to Kabbah in Parliament on March 21 and he was buried on March 23.

Anyway, it was just coincidental, please. There seems to be no conscious planning for the funeral ceremony to reflect what I have asserted. I am just pointing out that it is a paradox. Let it not be interpreted in a bad light, please. My apologies if it causes any anguish in anyone.

Back to my friend Tejan Kabbah, as he was fondly called. He came to power in 1996 at the height of a raging civil war that started in 1991, which I would describe as a continuation of the anti-APC agitation. The war itself started in March 21, 1991, though the date many knew was March 23 when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) led by Rtd. Corporal Foday Saybah Sankoh invaded a village called Bomaru from neighbouring Liberia. The first incident was actually described as a “cross-border raid” and attributed to Liberian rebels of the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), who were reported to have attacked a Sierra Leone military garrison because the lieutenant in charge duped them in selling looted items. (That was the story given to the public but what I gathered from official sources at the time was different). The intelligence report that came at the time and reached President Momoh was that they were rebels who were mostly Sierra Leoneans and that after the attack, they were overheard saying that they would come back soon. On March 23, they made a full onslaught on Bomaru village and Foday Sankoh called the BBC and misleadingly told Robin White that he was calling from Makeni, the northern provincial headquarter town from where the then President Joseph Saidu Momoh hailed.

The war raged till when soldiers at the war front planned to oust the government itself, a plan that Momoh knew of through intelligence reports when he arrived from Korea. He was also informed by other soldiers, including Major Kanu, who was killed at the war front and who the soldiers alleged was killed by rebels. By 1995, Tejan Kabbah was Chairman of the Advisory Council (NAC) of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) then led by Captain Valentine Strasser, a paymaster in the army before the coup. I first came to know who Tejan Kabbah was when my colleague reporter at The New Breed newspaper, Mohamed Bangura, who is now the leader of the United Democratic Movement (UDM), told me that he wanted to interview Pa Kabbah about the Beoku Betts Commission of Inquiry which he faced after the downfall of the SLPP. We discussed the issue but unfortunately by the time Mohamed Bangura was to meet him, he could not take me along.

Then it happened that Desmond Luke was already telling some of us that it was time the media led a campaign for a return to civilian rule. He was one time Minister of Health in President Siaka Stevens’ government but left and lived abroad, and later returned to reengage in politics, but he refused to be interviewed for a symbol when he met Shaki and his former Vice President S.I. Koroma in a panel responsible for awarding symbols during Momoh’s reign. He argued that since they had left power, they had no business in party politics or in deciding national issues. He left the party office abruptly and soon returned abroad. Shaki was reported to have said, “Na borboh wei craise”. Desmond later came back and settled quietly. I met Desmond and asked him during one of our discussions who was Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. I learnt that Tejan Kabbah was not only Chairman of the National Advisory Council of the NPRC but that he had been approached to lead the Sierra Leone Peoples Party, which had been in the political wilderness since 1967 when it was the first party in power in post-independence period in Africa to lose elections to an opposition.

By 1996, Tejan Kabbah or Pa Kabbah as he was fondly called, had won the elections at the convention to lead the SLPP amidst controversies between him and Charles Margai, the other contender who cried foul. At that time I was the editor of AFRO TIMES, one of the leading newspapers at the time. I was in my office one day when a man called Prince Harding, who later became Pa Kabbah’s blue-eyed boy, came to my office and pleaded that he wanted me to interview Pa Kabbah and also told me that he wanted me to be doing some publicity for them once in a while, but I told him I did not want to have anything to do with politicians because they were quick to forget. He said some good things and pleaded. So I went with him to Roxy Building on Walpole Street, and we were announced by Momodu Koroma, who was secretary to Pa Kabbah. Inside Pa Kabbah’s office, one of the faces I noticed was Sulaiman Tejan Jalloh commonly known as STJ, who I had known for decades. He manifested delight when he saw me and told Pa Kabbah that I was one of the professional journalists in the country. He turned to Prince Harding and said, “You have brought the right man”.

The first interview was a lengthy one and I published it verbatim. I did several interviews later for him and his party. Some of the things Pa Kabbah revealed to me were that; his grandfather came from neighbouring Guinea, Kankan to be specific and settled in what is today known as Kambia, in the north-west of the country where his father was born and grew up. At that time the provinces had not yet even been declared a protectorate (it was a pre-1896 period). He said his father travelled later to the South-East of the country and settled at a village called Mobai in the Kailahun District where he married his mother and had children. According to him, at the time of granting the interview, one if his brothers was in Guinea where he settled. He also told me that during the SLPP reign he held several senior positions including that of Permanent Secretary. He told me that he had a very good relationship with then Prime Minister Albert Margai, who led the SLPP up to its downfall in 1967. He said Patricia Kabbah, who later became his wife, was Senior Assistant Secretary in the Prime Minister’s office, and it was she who used to help him to see the PM. He revealed that it was during those visits that they grew a very “tight” relationship that culminated into a marriage and they had two children. He said Patricia’s surname was Tucker, and that the Tuckers were related to the Margais. I pointed out to him that he was a lucky man to be a “komaneh” (in-law) of the PM, he broadly smiled. But when I pointed out to him that Charles Margai was also his “komaneh”, he blushed and said, “hmm, hmm” and indicated to me to continue the interview.

President Kabbah said after the fall of the SLPP, he went to stay in the UK and was visiting Sierra Leone once in a while, but he suspected that President Siaka Stevens had been falsely informed that he was taking information to Albert Margai in the UK for which Shaki planned to have him arrested. He stopped coming to Sierra Leone until when Momoh came to power and ordered the then Attorney General, Abdulai Conteh, to make legal provisions for restitution of property under which Kabbah’s house that was seized in the Beoku Betts Commission of Inquiry was returned to him. He said he also studied law in the UK. I asked him how he came to work in the UN. He said while almost completing his law course, an expatriate who was in Sierra Leone and knew him while working in the civil service, called at his home to visit him but he was out. He said the man called on his phone twice later and on the third time got him on the line and they spoke. The man subsequently paid him a visit. He asked Kabbah if he would like to work in the UN.

Kabbah said he responded “sure”, but told the man to give him time to complete his studies. “When I completed my studies I went to the U.S. and he helped me get a job at the UN. So, that was how I came to work in the UN,” he said. Then I asked him about his involvement in the Beoku Betts Commission of Inquiry. He said he was hunted by “enemies” and that he was innocent of all the allegations in that Commission. But he also revealed something that was very controversial and proved to be erroneous. When I asked him who was hunting him, he said, “It was the APC”. After that interview, some of the APC stalwarts, including Ibrahim Baba Kamara of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) commonly known by its motto ‘Sorbeh’, who had also been a Minister of Lands in President Siaka Stevens’ government (and surprisingly later Ambassador to U.S. in President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah’s government) told me in his office at Howe Street in Freetown that the allegation that it was APC hunting Kabbah was not true. “Jalloh, when you are told about a period in which you were not yet born, please ask the elders instead of transmitting the wrong thing,” he said to me.

According to I.B Kamara, the Commission of Inquiry was mounted by the military regime of Brigadier Andrew Juxton Smith which ruled Sierra Leone for two years after the SLPP lost power and when Lt. Hinga Norman (who later became deputy minister of defence in Kabbah’s government) prevented Siaka Stevens of the APC from being sworn-in at State House as PM.  Brig. David Lansana’s regime ruled for two days and was ousted by Brig. Andrew Juxton Smith’s NRC junta which in 1968 was ousted by the Anti-Corruption Revolutionary Movement (ACRM). I.B. Kamara told me that the APC came to power in 1968 when the ACRM that overthrew the National Reformation Council (NRC) of Brig. Juxton Smith handed over power to APC on condition that there should be power sharing between the APC and SLPP. “So how could the APC hunt Kabbah by instituting a Commission of Inquiry when they were not in power and the NRC in power was apprehensive of the APC, which was in neighbouring Guinea?” I.B. Kamara queried? I was speechless.

But on the other hand Kabbah was a charming man. He was quick to smile when he saw you, though it would be difficult to tell what was beyond that smile. He talked very little but when he talked he dominated the discussion and seemed not to like being interrupted except if it were an interview with a journalist. He was very Machiavellian and concerned only with what would be of success to him and not the moral aspect of it. He would embrace something if it had to do with his success. When things got out of hand by 1996, many SLPP fanatics were not in favour of peace, including Joe Demby and others, but when the U.S. piled pressure on Kabbah to wave the olive branch, especially after the January 6, 1999 invasion when renegade soldiers of the Sierra Leone Army called SLA had joined the RUF, he succumbed.

Surprisingly, after the second peace accord, which was the Lome Peace Accord, he regarded Foday Sankoh as a partner in development rather than as a former rebel much to the chagrin of Joe Demby and others who even suspected — through rumours being peddled — that Kabbah was planning to make Sankoh a running-mate in the 2002 elections. This accounted for the storming of Sankoh’s residence that led to a shootout and Sankoh escaped and was subsequently arrested, although there was a propagandistic version being peddled prior to and after the incident.

There are many who would remember Tejan Kabbah for uniquely being a non-tribalist, which caused a furore between him and SLPP fanatics. At one point in time a delegation of southerners went to his lodge and they demanded that Alpha Wurie (a northerner) should be replaced because he had messed the Ministry of Education, but the person they took along to replace him was a southerner. Kabbah point-blankly told them that Alpha Wurie’s father was a founding father of the party and he added something to that which invoked much condemnation and anger from SLPP fanatics. He said, “I am no longer leader of the SLPP but of Sierra Leone”. I recalled that the office of AFRO TIMES was in the same building with SLPP at Rawdon Street. For several days there were loud grumblings and some said that it was a mistake to have elected Kabbah as their leader. But no matter what they thought about him the reality was that Kabbah was a unifier. When the elections results were announced in 2007 that Ernest Bai Koroma had won, he gave the green light for a peaceful handing over of power much to the chagrin of SLPP fanatics who were of the opinion that he should have tilted the situation in favour of Solomon Berewa.

As stated above, he would do anything that would be of personal interest or success to him and discard the moral aspect. Even though I did free publicity for him and his party during their campaigns in 1996, he still forgot and gave green light for my arrest when a mischievous old man in the SLPP told him that I, (late) Olu Gordon and Paul Kamara were the “leading antagonists of the SLPP”. The old man showed him copies of THE INDEPENDENT, which I was then editing, and certain headlines not portraying SLPP in good light, as evidence. Kabbah then gave the green light for me to be arrested. But fortunately I got a call from a very close and grateful friend who hinted me what transpired at the Lodge. When the bait for me to be arrested was put out in the UNITY newspaper by the mischievous old man, I replied accordingly and people like Alpha Wurie called and complained that I exhibited insults in my reaction to the UNITY article. I asked him if he had read the trash against me. He replied, “Yes” but said I overreacted. But I knew it was better to go over than to go under and then be trampled on by a big animal. I told him that when I told the world of SLPP’s chances of winning, and when they came to power when I told the world of the progressive strides they made, it was not for money and I was never paid or ever asked them for a job. Anyway, I later received a letter of apology from the mischievous old man.

But by and large, I still respect Kabbah for one thing that had been the main problem of Sierra Leone and Africa at large, that is, for being a non-tribalist which many politicians preach but do not manifest. May his soul rest in peace!

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