Dr. Karefa Smart – eternal peace in Sierra Leone
It was in the Friday, 6th August 2010 edition of the Independent Torchlight Newspaper I came to know about his ill-health. This is how the paper reported Dr. Karefa Smart’s condition:
“Reports reaching The Torchlight state that one of Sierra Leone’s most celebrated politicians, Dr. John Karefa-Smart, has been discharged from an American hospital with word that he only now has a few days to live. Karefa-Smart’s wish and request was that he would like to die in his own native Sierra Leone.”
It went on: “The legendary politician and academic is therefore being flown into the country to fulfill his wish. And family sources state that he probably has less than a week or more to live. Our prayers go out to Dr. John Karefa-Smart.”
Like my one-on-one interviews with erstwhile SLPP ministers “Searching For SLPP Ministers” and later “Face-to-face with Ernest Koroma’s Ministers” in 2008 to 2009, I attempted to continue it whilst I was on a private visit to the U.S in February, 2009 – This time, with Dr. John Karefa –Smart, leader of the United National People’s Party (UNPP) fame, a legendary statesman who represented spanning generation of politicians in Sierra Leone.
I rang him to book an appointment, but he apologized and said: “I would have loved to talk to you Mr. Jalloh, but I am very sorry because my health is not that okay.”
“If God willing, I will talk to you whenever you pay your next visit here or when I go to Sierra Leone. Just give me a week notice before the interview. I will see if we can meet at an ideal place to do it,” the octogenarian political icon told me on the phone.
I was again in the US early this year, but I didn’t attempt to call him as we had earlier agreed, because I was reliably informed that his health had still not improved. I could remember vividly when I and a colleague Journalist met him shortly before the 2002 Presidential elections.
He appeared frayed as he reminisced about his participation in more than forty years of national and pre-independence politics in Sierra Leone. But looks can be deceiving. Karefa-Smart was still an active campaigner and a fearless advocate for his party’s philosophy. He had a handshake like a vice-grips pliers attacking a stubborn bolt.
He was 87 years old when he was going all over the place to be the President of Sierra Leone. The question I posed to him was why he was back on the campaign trail after his1996 defeat at an age when most of his contemporaries had long retired from public life, Dr. Karefa-Smart hastily responded: “You are asking the wrong question. This campaign is not about my personal ambitions. If I become a pessimist, I might as well lie down and die.”
He went on: “When I came back to Sierra Leone there was no political activity of any kind in the provinces. I started SOS, got our people with the support of the chiefs to start it, and it’s only because I went away to Nigeria that Sir Milton Margai took my place.”
“I started something; I want to see it finished in the right direction. And until I die, I will continue to see that the path I started which led me to take the country to London to negotiate our political independence, which led me to the United Nations to negotiate our entrance, is finished. I saw all kinds of interruption. That’s why I’m staying.”
In 1996, Dr. Karefa and his UNPP party finished second in the polls to the Sierra Leone People’s Party. But in 2002, many see a resurgence of the All People’s Congress (APC), which could be expected to cut deeply into the UNPP’s voter base in the north. Dr. Karefa-Smart disagreed. “I don’t see a resurgence of the APC,” he said, adding, “If it happens, then that’s the will of the people. But I don’t see myself losing ground to APC for any reason.”
He continued: “Mark you; my grandson, I am very popular in the north. I am sure you are too young to know the contribution I made to the APC Election victory in1961, not only by financing the party but by influencing many northerners, especially in Tonkolili, to support the APC party.”
Asked whether he expects to be president after the 2002 elections, the former Professor of Columbia and Harvard University’s carefully said: “I hope our party will do well. But win or lose, I intend to remain a force in Sierra Leonean politics.”
Karefa however lost both the 1996 and 2002 Presidential elections to erstwhile President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Shortly after Mr. Kabbah was declared the winner in the 2002 elections; Dr. Smart congratulated him on his victory. And these were his last words before he returned to the United States: “I am committed to using every effort to find practical, non political ways to contribute to solving the many serious social, moral, and economic problems that, if left unsolved, will deny our people and our country their rightful place as a model in our region, continent, and the world.”
“Dr. Karefa Smart was a principled politician, whose legacy of public service will be a historic landmark to many generations to come,” they concluded.
He departed this earth last Thursday, August 26th, 2010 at the Bintumani Hotel, in the west-end of Freetown after losing a fierce battle of a protracted illness.
After the elections, many political pundits predicted that 2002 will be the veteran statesman’s last crusade. Indeed, since then, his political activities had been in a low key.
Some of his supporters say, the life and legacy of Dr. Karefa Smart is worth emulating. “Not only did he teach our nation how to never give up in the face of adversity, but to believe that to stand up for a just cause is the highest moral crusade any citizen can do”, his supporters reiterated. May his soul rest in eternal peace
Editor’s note: The author (seen in photo with Dr. Karefa shortly before the 2002 polls) is the Information Attaché at the Embassy of Sierra Leone, Riyadh – Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
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