By Sulaiman Momodu
Have you ever met someone who left a lasting impression on you? When news recently broke of former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah passing on at 82, Osman Benk Sankoh, currently working for the United Nations, immediately called me up. I knew why he was calling. The news was just breaking. “I am waiting for your tribute, Sulaiman,” he requested, as we both lamented the loss of Pa Kabbah, recalling moments we had separately met him as journalists and our critical analyses of his then administration.
Some weeks after Allah called him to rest some people continue to pay glowing tributes to our country’s wartime president, generally hailing him. But while many laud him, some stories and articles have been uncomplimentary, describing him as a foreigner (a Guinean), the worst leader the country has ever had, and more. I call the different views the beauty of democracy. The important question is: what lessons have we learned from late Kabbah?
I remember it all as if it were yesterday. I had just entered the risky world of journalism at a time when our stories were full of blood and horror. I was a young reporter in Makeni covering the Northern region for the Concord Times newspaper. Presidential and parliamentary elections were to be conducted in 1996 as the monstrous RUF rebels threatened to disrupt the process. At the Wusum Stadium in Makeni, presidential candidates were like celebrities. To some people, it was a season to harvest. I covered the campaigns of all presidential hopefuls; needless to say some of them did not like my reports. Although the SLPP did not attract crowds like the People’s Democratic Party (Sorbeh) of late Thaimu Bangura or the United National People’s Party (the lamp) of late Dr. John Karefa Smart, Tejan Kabbah was the most impressive of all. He spoke quietly but passionately about his vision for Sierra Leone. Later in Freetown, I met Kabbah in his capacity as president. Our meetings were purely official and professional.
As he rests in peace, let me echo what some of you may already know. After years of working at the United Nations, Pa Kabbah returned home to rest only for him to be chosen to serve as leader of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) which had been in political wilderness for many years.
Lesson one: you don’t have to be desperate to gain political power and by extension for anything in life. One of my favourite religious stories is the Joseph story. Sold into slavery by his brothers to kill his dreams, falsely sent to prison for resisting to have an illicit affair with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph ended up becoming who God wanted him to be.
For a man who returned home to rest and was not interested in politics, all Sierra Leoneans should appreciate the fact that the late man found himself in a very difficult situation – he was chosen to end a bloody civil war. Basically, Kabbah assumed leadership and was confronted with the herculean task of cleaning up a terrible mess which some of those currently in authority had created through bad governance and deeply revolting corrupt practices. With their sense of reasoning and service to the nation beclouded by greed and corruption with ‘wusai dem tie cow na dae e for eat’ (a cow grazes where it is tethered) refrain, signs of war were blatantly ignored. Since Kabbah returned home to rest, his overthrow in 1997, less than a year after he was elected, should have given him the excellent excuse to retire. But that would have been too selfish. As a well-meaning Sierra Leonean who gained the love and respect of the international community, Kabbah returned when some barely literate armed men overthrew him and unleashed carnage on the country. The only thing members of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) achieved was to invite RUF lunatics from the jungle to turn the country into a slaughterhouse. While Kabbah ended the war which the APC had created, some of us were shocked that upon returning to power in 2007, the priority of the APC was to introduce tribal and regional politics which clearly jeopardized our hard-earned peace for which for many people, including peacekeepers, lost their lives. If we are not experiencing systemic violence today it is only because the current administration started tasting their own medicine with government officials potentially at risk of receiving punches — no respect for the rule of law. Some of us, perceived APC critics, forcefully condemned the countrywide violence that erupted with APC supporters going berserk in “Operation Pay Yourself” as soon as Ernest Bai Koroma was declared president. That was an ominous sign. Say what you will, Kabbah preached peace and allowed barely literate compatriots with very painful understanding of issues to sing whatever they wanted. He allowed freedom of the press, including allowing the opposition to establish a radio station and much more.
Lesson two: whosoever is in power should ensure that peace is maintained above all else. Or have we suddenly forgotten when dogs were feasting on decomposing human remains and armed men dismembered bodies including babies and split the bellies of pregnant women? Have we forgotten the ten atrocious years when it appeared all the demons and evil spirits in hell were living in Sierra Leone?
At the end of his second term, Pa Kabbah again allowed peace to reign. He did not stay longer than necessary and did not refuse to hand over power even in controversial circumstances. Lesson three: leave power when your time is up, please.
In addition to establishing democratic institutions, Pa Kabbah’s SLPP ensured that all regions and tribes were represented in his government. As a matter of fact, for the SLPP that is believed to have strongholds in the South and East, those regions had fewer cabinet positions. Kabbah should be credited for publicly telling SLPP supporters, when he was apparently under pressure to give party supporters positions in government that he was president of the country and not the SLPP.
Having highlighted positive lessons to learn, I met Pa Kabbah eyeball-to-eyeball on a few occasions. In the run-up to the 2002 elections for instance, at a meeting with editors, I asked Pa Kabbah why he was complaining about many political parties in the country when he should have been celebrating the disunity in the opposition. Kabbah’s response was touching. He suggested that opposition parties should come together and that our country did not need many parties. Not surprisingly, Kabbah and his SLPP government won the elections by a landslide. With the war behind us, Kabbah’s government was expected to do better during his second term. But did his government really do so? Remember Kabbah Tiger? The SLPP with Solomon Berewa as presidential candidate was focused on winning the elections that it failed to fulfill campaign promises, such as providing the much promised regular power in Freetown. Also, the SLPP took everything and everybody for granted. Then opposition leader Ernest Bai Koroma did not come into the political limelight because he had done anything spectacular for his country, but the SLPP loss in popularity was Koroma’s gain. The question is: is the APC government making things better by ensuring that the promised regular electricity supply is achieved and that our resources are truly befitting the country and not shrouded in tax controversies? Are we not regularly witnessing queues for particularly petroleum products? Lesson four: those in authority must serve the people and should remember that the power of the people is stronger than those in power.
From a rather humble background as a teacher to a businessman to president, Koroma, unlike Kabbah, struggled hard to ascend to power and only became president because two older former schoolmates, Charles Margai and Solomon Berewa, from Christ the King College in Bo, could not resolve their differences. Also, if Koroma had been offered a position in Kabbah’s government as late Sewa Marrah had discussions with Kabbah (courtesy Dr. Lans Gberie), he would not have become president. Lesson? Pursue your dreams but don’t be disillusioned if things do not happen as you may want them.
Those in authority should remember that power is not about misappropriating foreign aid and our country’s natural resources; instead it is a privilege and it is about unfettered commitment to serve one’s country. The truth is the more you steal the more you want to steal. Like people who abuse cocaine and get addicted, people who steal get addicted to it.
After 82 years on earth what did Kabbah take along to His maker? In death we all get the true meaning of life. Vanity. Kabbah may have had his challenges, but I will always remember him for rejecting the offer to be presidential candidate at the first instance but eventually becoming president and for all his efforts for all of us to live in peace even at the expense of his own political party. Rest in peace, Pa Kabbah!
Note: Sulaiman Momodu is former editor of the Concord Times newspaper. The views expressed here are personal.