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Sierra Leone
Friday, May 20, 2022

Remembering President Kabbah through his memoir ‘Coming Back from the Brink in Sierra Leone’


By Abu Bakarr Sesay

Adieu President Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
Adieu President Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah

When I heard news about the death of former President Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the first thing that came to mind was the book he wrote, “Coming Back From the Brink in Sierra Leone”, where he gave a vivid narration about his courage, the horrendous atrocities committed during the war and the struggle to rebuild Sierra Leone.

The BBC interview with Umaru Fofana the following morning jogged back memories when Sierra Leone was trapped in that senseless war period when limbs were chopped off and dead bodies littered the streets and communities and houses set ablaze. The news of the death of President Tejan Kabbah provoked the stench of the eleven-year war.

A former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Dr. Sylvester Ekundayo Rowe said former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was a principal actor in the drama of rescuing Sierra Leone from the brink of total collapse. He said Tejan Kabbah provided an insider’s account of the monumental task of trying to implement nation building and poverty reduction programmes during and in the aftermath of a prolonged and devastating rebel war.

In the book, President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah underlines and assesses the role of regional and international players, recounts some of the agonizing experiences of his presidency. The memoir also presents a fascinating picture of the psyche of a rebel leader who would settle for nothing less than absolute political power and control over the country’s diamonds.

Tejan Kabbah, son of Madam Damayei and Pa Abu Bakr Sidique Kabbah, had a “Mysterious” Birth. He was born in Pendembu, Kailahun District on 16 February 1932. It was said that Tejan Kabbah was born clasping his left hand which contained what was thought to be a piece of paper with an Arabic inscription. It was reported that the paper was subsequently taken to a mosque where it was read, but its content never made public. Incidentally, Tejan Kabbah was left handed.

Professor David J. Francis, who wrote the Forward of the former leader’s book, “Coming Back From the Brink in Sierra Leone”, said Tejan Kabbah entered into the politics of Sierra Leone at a time when the country was described as an “old and hardly running-truck parked in a war zone”. In the book, Tejan Kabbah brilliantly captures the abysmal state the country had fallen into between the late 1960s and 1990s. It is a testimony to President Kabbah’s leadership, courage of conviction, magnanimity, political pragmatism and astuteness that even the critics of the late President admitted that he created the conditions to end the civil conflict, brought peace, began the difficult process of national reconciliation, established a credible foundation for post-war socio-economic recovery, democratic consolidation, and facilitated the peaceful transfer of power from an incumbent government and party – SLPP – to an opposition party – APC – a rarity in African politics.

Perhaps this was why many described him as the “father of peace and democracy in 21st century Sierra Leone”. One very important lesson that the book left with us was a very strict warning that succeeding governments in the country would learn from and treat their subjects fairly so the scourge of another war and mindless violence could be avoided. It was also through President Kabbah that religious tolerance was manifested. Despite his parents’ strong Muslim background, his father sent him to St. Edward’s Secondary School, a demonstration of how Sierra Leoneans generally display high degree of ethnic and religious tolerance, which is not common in many parts of the world.

At age 33, Tejan Kabbah got married to his late wife Patricia Lucy Kabbah, both diplomats who had worked for the UN system for several years. After several years of work they both retired and decided to return home and establish their own private business. But an extraordinary turn of events happened in 1995. Before returning to Sierra Leone in 1992, Tejan Kabbah promised his late wife and friends, including the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, that he would not get involved in national politics. Their initial plan was to return and live quite lives and enjoy their hard won retirement. Since both Tejan Kabbah and his late wife were lawyers, their plan was to set up a private legal firm to provide free legal representation for less-economically endowed people.

In 1995 Tejan Kabbah was approached by top SLPP supporters to take up the mantle of leadership of the party. After giving it some serious thought, Tejan Kabbah was pondering as to why would he want to take the risk of trying to fix what was seemingly an old and hardly-running truck called Sierra Leone parked in a war zone, and what would be the reaction of his wife and that of Kofi Annan, who among others he had given his word that he would not involve in national politics. But two of his faithful friends, A.T. Fadlu-Deen, a Muslim, and Joseph H. Ganda, a Catholic, advised him to put everything into prayers.

In the end, Tejan Kabbah finally concluded to accept the challenge. But then came the hardest part of the struggle, and that was how to break the news to his late wife. He eventually mustered enough courage and informed Patricia Kabbah, who was then staying in the U.S., about this development. Two weeks later Patricia Kabbah arrived in Sierra Leone. Her first shock was the large number of political activists she found in their courtyard. Patricia was very angry and threatened to pack out and return later when Tejan Kabbah was done with politics. Patricia Kabbah was upset for two main reasons. First, their plans of setting up a private law firm would no longer materialize once Tejan Kabbah became a full-time politician. Second, they would lose their privacy, as their house would always be crowded with party members and their friends.

Patricia’s anger worried Tejan Kabbah when he decided to call on Archbishop Joseph Ganda and told him that since he was one of those people who persuaded him to enter politics, he should now save his marriage by talking to Patricia to accept his decision as she had threatened to leave him. Fortunately for Tejan Kabbah, the Gandas and Patricia’s family, the Tuckers, were close friends. More importantly, Archbishop (now emeritus) Ganda was head of the Catholic Church in Freetown and Bo and Patricia Kabbah was a staunch Catholic. He was able to prevail on her to accept Kabbah’s decision. Since that time, Patricia Kabbah gave Tejan Kabbah every support and encouragement.

Tejan Kabbah contested the SLPP flag-bearer position with other candidates, including Mr. Charles Margai, Dr. Harry Will and Chief Yumkella. During the campaign period, Tejan Kabbah made ending the war his key campaign pledge. The NPRC military junta, who were enjoying the fruits of power at that time, mounted and orchestrated a campaign with the slogan ‘peace before election’. RUF spokesman Fayia Musa threatened to continue to fight if a civilian administration was restored in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leoneans, following two national consultative conferences (Bintumani 1 and 2), took the courageous step to go to the polls in February 1996.

Due to the lack of security in the country at that time, the Electoral Commissioner for the Interim National Electoral Commission (INEC), Dr. James O.C. Jonah, couldn’t conduct elections on constituency basis, the first-past-the-post system, but rather introduced the Proportional Representation, using the List System. Unbelievably, thirteen political parties contested the elections on 26-27 February 1996. The winning candidate must by law receive at least fifty five percent of the total votes cast in the first round. After the elections, SLPP got 27 seats, UNPP 17 seats, PDP 12 seats, APC 5 seats, plus 12 Paramount Chiefs who were elected on non-partisan basis, which brought the total membership of Parliament to 80. For the Presidential results, SLPP Ahmad Tejan Kabbah pulled 35.8%, UNPP John Karefa-Smart pulled 22.6%, PDP Thaimu Bangura 16.1%, APC Edward M. Turay 5.1%, to mention but a few. Since no one got the fifty five percent to avoid a second round, a runoff election was organized where Ahmad Tejan Kabbah emerged victorious having pulled a total vote of 603,008 votes (59.0%) and John Karefa-Smart pulled 419,099 votes (41.0%)

Tejan Kabbah was sworn in as President of Sierra Leone on the 29th March 1996. In his acceptance speech he told Sierra Leoneans after the victory jubilation, everyone should start working immediately to make Sierra Leone what God intended her to be: serene, secure, and prosperous. He invited Sierra Leoneans to join him in his quest to eradicate forever from our society the tyranny of ignorance, superstition, disease, violence, and poverty.

After all the jubilation, Tejan Kabbah was then faced with the Herculean task of silencing the guns, reintegration, rehabilitation, resettlement, reconciliation and reconstruction of the country. He started all of these by meeting face-to-face with Foday Sankoh, which led to several peace accords and communiqués.

During this period, the country experienced series of army and civil militia unrest. Those disloyal soldiers who collaborated with the rebels were nicknamed ‘Sobels’ (soldiers-cum-rebels). Some communities decided to organize their own defence mechanism by forming militia units. These militia groups included the Tamaboros, Gbetis and Kapras in the Northern Province, the Donsos in the East (Kono District), and the Kamajors in the Southern and Eastern regions.

Things started going sour between the Tejan Kabbah-led government and the Sierra Leone Army when President Kabbah appointed head of the Kamajors, Chief Sam Hinga Norman, who was also an ex-officer of the Sierra Leone Army, as Deputy Minister of Defence. This appointment angered the army as their interpretation was that Tejan Kabbah had created a parallel force that would rival the constitutional army. On the 23 May 1997, Tejan Kabbah heard some unusual communication that made him become so suspicious and immediately summoned the army leadership and expressed his concerns and he was assured that all was well. Just two day after summoning the head of the army, barely 14 months after being elected President of the country, he was overthrown. Johnny Paul Koroma, who was then in prison, was announced leader of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). Tejan Kabbah was eventually smuggled to the ECOMOG base at the Lungi International Airport and sought refuge in Guinea.

During this period, the country came to a standstill. There was no source of independent information except one coming from the national radio and TV run by the junta. Tejan Kabbah wanted Sierra Leoneans to believe that he was still in charge and will soon return to the country. In response, the most popular radio station was launched, FM 98.1. He used the radio station to boost the morale of the people by reporting on all of his meetings with the UN and other international organizations and partners. Under the junta, listening to 98.1 was a serious crime that could cost one his life. No one knew the station’s location until after Tejan Kabbah was reinstated and it was disclosed that it was right in the heart of the ECOMOG base at Lungi International Airport.

On the 5th of February 1998, the ECOMOG Task Commander, Colonel Mitikishi Maxwell Khobe declared war when he said that: “Due to persistent attacks on our positions, we are now in the process of flushing out all forces loyal to the AFRC in all positions in the Western Area; and subsequently in the whole country; in order to ensure that peace returns to Sierra Leone. Civilians are therefore advised in their own interest to stay indoors. All men and women under arms who do not wish to fight should surrender by dropping their weapons, raising their hands above their heads and moving to ECOMOG”.

The junta was eventually thrashed out and ECOMOG troops succeeded in creating stability and normalcy after almost nine months of destruction and reckless disregard for human life.

But Freetown was put in flames again on the 6th of January 1999, and this period was one of the country’s darkest days. Tejan Kabbah’s nightmare did not seem to end. He was also subdued to yet another nightmare on the 8th May 1998 when his pillar, companion and trusted friend, Patricia Lucy Kabbah, died in a London hospital just a month after their return to Sierra Leone. Sierra Leoneans both at home and abroad were touched by the death of Patricia Kabbah. Mrs. Shirley Gbujama, who was Minister of Social Welfare and Children’s Affairs in Tejan Kabbah’s administration and who had been a childhood friend to Patricia Kabbah, wrote in her eulogy: “One impression that will always deeply remain with me is her dignified and overriding authority expressed in a very quite manner even when we were children.”

Exactly a month after the death of Patricia, Tejan Kabbah also lost another friend of Sierra Leone, General Sani Abacha of Nigeria. Sani Abacha was so revered by Sierra Leoneans for his tremendous role in silencing the guns in the country that a street was named after him.

On the 18th January 2002 the country and the entire world witnessed the flames of peace at the Lungi International Airport where the war was officially declared over by President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah (“di wah don don”). Three thousand weapons collected during the disarmament programme were burnt down as a symbol to mark the end of the war. During this ceremony, Tejan Kabbah made a very touching speech when he said: “Never before since March 1996 when I took the solemn oath of office to lead this nation have I been so moved by a public ceremony as the one we are witnessing here today. It is indeed an honor and a great privilege for me to stand here and serve as host for this awe-inspiring declaration of peace in Sierra Leone…..if violent attainment of power becomes the norm, if insistence on ethnic consideration continues to override all concerns, if democratic representation is systematically put aside, if corruption and arms trade continue to rage, then Africa will never experience peace and development, and future generations will mercilessly judge these pages of African history”.

Tejan Kabbah’s first term was full of interruptions and challenges which included bringing total peace, disarmament and reintegration which I am sure gave him a sweeping second term in office by Sierra Leoneans. Tejan Kabbah’s second term was charged with reconstruction, political stability and economic recovery. During this second term, Tejan Kabbah left behind a long list of institutional legacies that include: the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), the National Social Security and Insurance Trust (NASSIT), National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM), National Revenue Authority (NRA), to name but these few. Other institutional reforms include decentralization and local governance, civil service, judicial and legal reforms, promotion of human rights, promotion of accountability and transparency, to name but a few. The institutional reforms also included security sector, the police, army and prisons.

Another very outstanding legacy left behind by Tejan Kabbah was the free space he created for the media to operate fully without restriction or intimidation. In 2000, through an Act of Parliament, he established the Independent Media Commission (IMC), and two of the many reasons why the IMC was established was to promote a free and pluralistic media throughout Sierra Leone and ensure that media institutions achieve the highest level of efficiency in the provision of media services and the second was to protect the interest of the public against exploitation or abuse by media houses.

By Tejan Kabbah’s judgment, without the creation of a reconciliatory process the peace will not hold, hence the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was to create an impartial historical record of violations and abuses of human rights and international humanitarian law related to the armed conflict in Sierra Leone. The TRC and the Special Court of Sierra Leone were established to also address impunity, to respond to the needs of victims, to promote healing and reconciliation and to prevent a repetition of the violation and abuses suffered by Sierra Leoneans during the war.

Unfortunately, the issue of the Special Court became a pricking one for Tejan Kabbah’s administration, especially when Chief Sam Hinga Norman, a strong member of the Kamajors who had sacrificed a lot to restore democracy, was indicted by the court in 2004. The indictment of Hinga Norman and some senior members of the Kamajor militia group created some rancour between Tejan Kabbah and the Kamajors and a good percentage of SLPP supporters more so when President Kabbah failed to testify as witness for Hinga Norman and the other Kamajor indictees, and instead testified for the rebel commander, Issa Sesay, at the Special Court. Tejan Kabbah was in a dilemma. He and his government had taken an oath to the international community that they will not interfere into the operations of the court. President Kabbah was left deeply saddened by the death of Chief Sam Hinga Norman in the custody of the court before judgment was passed.

At last, Tejan Kabbah’s second mandate expired and he stepped down from the political stage. He retired with a wonderful companion, Isatu Jabbie who is fondly called I.J. He got married to Isatu Jabbie on the 11th May 2008, exactly 10 years after the death of his wife Patricia Kabbah.

Tejan Kabbah said he was convinced that I.J. was the correct partner for him to have and to hold till death separate them. Indeed, death has separated I.J. from Tejan Kabbah. The nation has indeed lost a father figure who contributed immensely to the development of Sierra Leone.

Go well President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah!!

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