KABBAH’S FOUNDATION: THE ENDURING LEGACY OF POLITICAL LEADERS
June 20, 2019
BY Andrew Keili
As a close relative of President Kabbah on his mother’s side of the family (his house is less than a hundred yards from ours in Moabi, Mando Chiefdom Kailahun District), I was fortunate to deal with him on several family issues. I recall that at a meeting of our family association which some over exuberant uncle had convinced him to host, the fifty odd family members who were expecting the usual spread of food offered by the host were surprised when at the end of the meeting, after waiting for what seemed like an eternity for “item 13”, he simply and politely said goodbye to us. “Our wife IJ is unfortunately out of town”, he explained. A well-proportioned aunt who said she had “starved herself” that morning to make special space for the “Presidential food” accused the uncle of “gross deceit” after the meeting, accompanying this with a considerable number of four letter words on Kabbah drive on the way back.
Kabbah was powerful but appeared to care little about money and the trappings of power. Stories of his spartan lifestyle and thrift are legion amongst his associates.
It is said that leaders must be brave because they use their creativity and imagination to envision a future that doesn’t yet exist. They may face backlash or ridicule from their peers or a public that can’t see the possibilities that they are visualizing. Leaders must be willing to hold their ground while putting themselves on the line.
Kabbah was a leader in this mold. His greatest legacy is universally considered to be the peace dividend after the ten-year brutal civil war. Most of Kabbah’s time in office was influenced by the civil war. There were a lot of setbacks with both the pursuit of the war and the numerous peace initiatives. Whilst a sizeable proportion of his advisers and the populace clamoured for a decisive military solution to oust the RUF which had caused untold mayhem to the populace, Kabbah doggedly and stubbornly pursued the peace to the extent of what many thought initially was capitulation.
Giving Sankoh the de facto status of a Vice President was not considered magnanimity but abject stupidity by many. Many were incensed with the various peace accords and with amnesty provisions. Through it all however, Kabbah had one dogged determination-to bring this country together at the hour when this country needed this virtue most in a leader. There has not been any leader who has so engendered national unity as Tejan Kabbah. His cabinet and other appointments cut through all tribes and regions.
And so, with this in mind, we all gathered at Bintumani conference centre last Sunday for the launch of the Ahmad Tejan Kabbah Foundation for Peace and Democracy by President Bio. The occasion was well chaired by the Chief Minister with several dignitaries in attendance. The former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf graced the occasion and former Nigerian President Obasanjo in a video presentation on President Kabbah’s legacy referred to him as someone who was both “human and humane” with a penchant for accepting things anyone else would have found difficult to accept in the interest of national peace. The presentation by Dr. Emmanuel Gaima and Professor J.A.D Allie referred to President Kabbah as the Peacemaker/builder, the great unifier, a great respecter of the national constitution and strong institutional builder, a democrat and a statesman.
Kabbah’s attributes are best illustrated by some of the comments made by members of the organizing team as stated on the brochure.
According to Mrs Afiju Daramy, Kabbah was “an excellent man”. She stated-“I am playing this tribute to an excellent man, a loving Personality, a Good man and a God fearing man. God Almighty gave me the privilege to interact with someone special. He inspired me. His humility is exceptional.”. Siaka Mansaray, who served Kabbah in three successive positions-Special Adviser to the peace process, National Security Adviser and Secretary to the President wrote this about Kabbah: “With these leadership qualities, together with his abundant gifts of patience, empathy and foresight, President Kabbah achieved the seemingly impossible goal of pulling Sierra Leone back from the brink of collapse. By the time he left office, Sierra Leone was the toast of the world as a peaceful society poised for take off as a prosperous nation. Ambassador Sullay Daramy, his long serving SCOP told the story of Kabbah’s numerous nicknames which included:
“REV ALHAJI – Every time he was invited to a Church function, he honoured all and more. He would jokingly tell his peers he was both a Reverend and Alhaji in the service of the nation.
LEFT HAND – Indeed he was left handed but because courtesy demands that we give money with the right hand, Pa Kabbah was not known to give money easily.
CHIEF STEWARD – He was quick to take a tea-pot or food tray to serve his visitors with a broad smile on his face.”
The CEO of the Ahmed Tejan Kabbah Foundation for Peace and Democracy, Mrs I.J. Kabbah explained about the essence of the foundation:
“This event is a dream come true. It has been a long, difficult and sometimes uncertain journey that started in 2016 with a small group of people, known in the organisation’s document as Foundation Members. Since then, the number of people from different political convictions, ethnic groups, religions, districts, and entertainment groups that have demonstrated interest in the Foundation has grown considerably, in fact beyond my wildest expectation. This is a vivid indication of what President Kabbah stood for and how he related to people. The man and leader that only saw Sierra Leone and blind to tribe, district and region!”
Congratulations to the organisers. The event left no one in doubt about President Kabbah’s impressive legacy.
In reflecting on a past leader’s legacy, the focus is often on his presumed personal and leadership qualities; the performance of the economy; the relative standing of the country in the international forum, and the track record of the government in the arena of democracy during his tenure as head of government. Politicians bequeath an important legacy after they leave office and citizens frequently mobilize memories of past politicians in their discussions of current events. By cultivating a positive and enduring legacy, the politician can continue to influence future policy debates even after he or she leaves office. Statistics indicate that former politicians are invoked about twice for every three times a current politician is mentioned. Political legacies are important in contemporary political discussion.
Some leaders may be said to have crafted for themselves an enduring legacy.
One of the most important parts of Former Botswana President Masire’s legacy was his commitment to invest in health and education programs even when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) advised against it. When diamond deposits were discovered shortly after Botwana’s independence in 1966, Masire insisted the government save a significant portion of its diamond revenues. In 1968, Botswana’s government ran 12 hospitals, 16 health clinics, and no health posts. By 1998, it operated 30 hospitals, 222 clinics, and 330 health posts. The number of public secondary schools increased from 9 in 1966 to 261 in 1996. The literacy rate rose from 34% in 1981 to 86.5% in 2014.
, Sankara purged corruption from the government, slashing ministerial salaries and adopting a simpler approach to life. Journalist Paula Akugizibwe “ro Thom Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara rode a bicycle to work before he upgraded, at his Cabinet’s insistence, to a Renault 5 – one of the cheapest cars available in Burkina Faso at the time. He lived in a small brick house and wore only cotton that was produced, weaved and sewn in Burkina Faso. He preached self-reliance and lived it. He embarked upon a combination of massive land distribution, fertiliser use and irrigation that saw agricultural productivity boom. Similar gains were made in health, with the immunisation of millions of children.
Lee Kwan Yew had steered Singapore from the political turmoil of the failure of the Malaysian Federation in 1965. Certainly, there is much to learn from Singapore’s rapid transition from a malaria-ridden swamp to an innovation and technology leader. By 1970, in just five years from independence, Singapore’s per capita GDP had increased to $950, and unemployment was under 3 per cent. By the turn of the century, per capita GDP was $24,000. Perhaps Lee’s greatest legacy was to set Singapore in a direction looking forward. In so doing, he has left an extraordinary legacy, for his own country of course, but also for others aspiring to follow a similar development path.
These leaders were not without their faults. President Masire’s tenure was not without failure. He came to openly regret his administration’s delayed response to HIV and Aids. By the mid-2000s, Botswana had one of the world’s highest HIV prevalence rates. Lee Kwan Yew was known to be repressive. They nevertheless left an enduring legacy.
Kabbah was like all mortals also not without his faults. His detractors would accuse him of being overbearing, stubborn, and stuck in the past. He was not spared criticism even by his party for what was considered a lukewarm approach to having the party retain power.
The logical question to ask is what will happen to the legacy of former President Koroma and President Bio. It is too early to pass judgement on their legacies. There is probably enough out there on which to judge President Koroma but the present political atmosphere may be too poisoned to make an objective judgment. There is currently too much rancour because of the transitional upheavals. President Bio has just started on his journey and has a long way ahead of him. His legacy may only be objectively judged in probably ten years from now. Perhaps this is why I found the session moderated by Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie on reflections/inspirations at the launching ceremony dealing with the views of various major national figures instructive-Dr. Kandeh Yumkella, Mayor Yvonne Aki Sawyer, Haja Alari cole and Sidi Tunis. They were asked amongst other questions- “How do you envision Sierra Leone in ten years’ time? These questions and the legacy of Kabbah may have probably set the President Bio thinking about his own legacy. In reflecting on the legacy he would like to leave, he must have been thinking about what personal and leadership qualities he would bring to the table, what he would do for Sierra Leone’s economy during his tenure, the relative standing of the country in the international forum, and the track record of his government in the arena of democracy. He would probably undoubtedly have taken into cognizance the importance of peace and national cohesion from many of these reflections on President Kabbah’s legacy.
I would end by quoting from a hypothetical epitaph I wrote for Kabbah in a 2014 article after his death:
“Ahmed Tejan Kasbah: once in exile, returned to have a peaceful retirement. Thrust almost by accident into politics. By the grace of God, became President of Sierra Leone. Directed by God to bring peace to a troubled land savaged by war and heal the deep divisions in the land. May the God that gave me that grace pardon my imperfections.”
Ponder my thoughts.