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Reading Kabbah’s lips through Lans Gberie

Reading Kabbah’s lips through Lans Gberie

Even as President, he was not a fan of talking to the local media.  Whether he was right on this or not, President Kabbah’s core principle was to keep journalists at bay, except for those he thought wrote or said what he wanted to hear or read. (Photo: Osman Benk Sankoh)

As editor of Concord Times and a reporter for the then West Africa magazine, I was commissioned together with one time Independent Observer reporter, Abdul Rahman Swaray, to do a feature on the country’s Independence. First on the list obviously was the then President and afterwards, the leader of the APC in parliament, Hon Ernest Bai Koroma.   As usual, efforts were made through the Information Minister, Professor Septimus Kai- Kai and then Presidential Spokesperson, Kanji Daramy, to get the President to talk with us.  Assurances were given but in the eleventh hour, his handlers informed us that the President was too busy and would not have time for us.

Ironically, even before we completed our assignment to be sent to London for production, the President was on the air. He had all the time to sit down and grant an interview I think with the BBC, but not us.

It was the then Foreign Minister; Momodu Koroma who stepped in and gave us an exclusive interview, which kind of balanced the story.

Like the BBC, renowned academic and Nobel nominee, Dr Lansana Gberie is perhaps one of few Sierra Leoneans President Kabbah always warmed up to when he wanted to reach out, particularly to the local media.  I may not be right about this but it is being mooted that certainly Umaru Fofana who reports for the BBC and also doubles as President of SLAJ can only boast of less than a teaspoon full of interviews with the former President not because he never wanted to but simply because several of his offers were rebuffed with the usual bureaucratic nicety of, “His Excellency has a rather tight schedule.”

Unlike Umaru, I am sure Lans has had several interviews with the President. Kabbah, it is said holds Lans in high esteem, to the point Lans was said to have been given a high-profile job at the presidency.  Lans, I am informed, politely turned down the offer. I have not had time to talk to Lans about this but I have been reading an interview he had with the former President titled, “Maada Bio is a decent and decisive man, says Tejan Kabbah.”  Lans’ writings have always turned out to be must reads for me not necessarily because of the depth of his analysis, coherency and logic but because he belongs to that class of journalists, (he is also a Scholar/and an analyst on security and a blood diamonds expert) who would critique opposing views without necessarily being an attack dog.

During the heydays of the AFRC interregnum, Gberie and Shekito Tarawallie (now, Deputy Information Minister in Koroma’s government) sustained heated media battles in the newspapers.  Each tried to outwit the other and convince their readership on why the AFRC must be kicked out by force as opposed to not doing so.  Intense as those debates were for the two colleagues, they never resorted to invectives.  Interestingly, they even found time to prepare their next arsenal for the media war over drinks (not certain though which of the drinks they always settled for).

Unfortunately, the opposite is what is now making headlines in the country albeit for the wrong reasons ever since the SLPP elected the retired military NPRC strongman, Julius Maada Bio as its flag bearer.  Whether you listen to the radio or flip the pages of newspapers, you cannot but come across what can best be described as unprintable comments.

Interestingly, it is comments attributed to the former President, his Vice and other leaders of the SLPP that have turned out to be sufficient game for journalists and pundits. And when Lans met with Kabbah his views then on Bio and his NPRC regime have changed considerably. Then, Kabbah accused Bio of stealing some US400,000 before leaving office. Today, the former President has not only chewed his words, he even described Bio as a “very nice, decent and decisive man.”

If this is not flip-flopping, then can somebody help me with what this is? But that aside, the question is, why would Kabbah go to such length to falsely accuse Bio of being a thief? And now he is eating his words because the political goalpost has been shifted.

Everybody knows the President holds a law degree and making unsubstantiated allegations without accurate evidence can lead to litigation. If yesterday he said Bio was a thief and today, he is very “nice, decent and decisive,” then what version of Bio does the President want us to buy?

Whether the former President likes this or not, Bio is going to be judged based on statements the former President and his Vice, Solomon Berewa had made about him.  Point is, there is little now the former president can do to mitigate the consequences of his allegations on Maada Bio and his NPRC colleagues. The good thing though for Maada is that these were mere full of sound and fury statements that were never backed by any known judicial hearings.  It is for the latter, among others, that I strongly believe that discussing Maada Bio and all the NPRC baggage he may have inherited is fair game.  He is running for the highest office in the land and he has had the opportunity of being at State House. Therefore, if he wants to walk in that same direction again, it is fair to look at his past records.  Whether good or bad, let them speak for Bio and let the electorate judge him based on that.

In the same token, President Koroma is going into the 2012 race with something we all could use as a basis to judge him. We are obliged to look at his stewardship during his first term in office and if we are satisfied with his grades, then, why not promote him to the next class? However, if like Charles Margai, we believe that he has flunked his exams with a zero minus grade, then don’t we have reason to say goodbye to him?

This is certainly a debate that is just beginning. President Kabbah may have thought of Bio as a thief in 1996 but now, as the political season enters 2012 and for what he obviously hopes would benefit the SLPP, he is now a Saint. Clearly, they say, only fools and God don’t change and for the former President, he is certainly none of these.

It is important to have this and other debates ahead of 2012 in a much more civil manner, without resorting to the bitterness, pettiness and acrimony that seem to be taking centre stage in our media landscape.  It is high time we realized that holding different viewpoints does not in any way make us enemies. You may think that Bio is a very good man and he has what it takes to turn this country around if given the opportunity for a second time. This is fair game and if on the other hand, you think this is not so and you think Ernest Koroma is the better of the two, sell your candidate.

For the moment, a thought on President Kabbah’s two-tongued assessments of Bio – I am reading his lips through the pen of Lans Gberie

Osman Benk Sankoh, Freetown

The writer was one time editor of Concord Times and Public Information Officer at the United Nations Mission in Liberia ( UNMIL)

Maada Bio is a Decent and Decisive Man, says Tejan Kabbah

Written by Lans Gberie

Former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah has reacted angrily to the antics of anti-SLPP journalists who are “misusing speeches I made over a decade ago in a completely different context” to smear SLPP flagbearer, Julius Maada Bio, in an exclusive interview.  Kabbah, to whom Bio handed over power after he won elections in 1996 and who retired from public life after handing over to President

Ernest Koroma in 2007, described Bio as “a very nice, decent and decisive man” whose commitment to the transition in 1996 was crucial.  “Look: nerves were all frayed at the time. There was that unrelenting war by Foday Sankoh and his rebels. Things were very muddled.  One said many things, sometimes in exasperation – we were trying to find our way out of a great national tragedy,” Kabbah said.

“But I had been working with the NPRC [National provisional Ruling Council regime, of which Bio was at first a member and later leader] as Chairman of their Advisory Council. Solomon Berewa was with me, and so was Serry Kamal. I met Bio many times at the time, and I recently met him again – I think it was at Dr. Sama Banya’s house. He sat next to me. I really like him very much,” Kabbah told the writer Lans Gberie.

“You have been out of this country for a while. People say many funny things,” Kabbah said. “My wife ran for an executive position during the SLPP convention, and my nephew, Usu Boie, ran for the flagbearer position. People said I was giving out money here and there, but I kept quiet, though it was difficult for me to be neutral in the circumstances. As you can see, I am an old man, and I am not feeling well. I want to be left alone. The SLPP is a very fair party. All this talk about tribalism, about Mende people dominating the party, this is simply unfair,” he added.

Read Lans’ report:

Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, Sierra Leone’s former President, has not been feeling well. Retired to his mansion in the west-end of Freetown, Kabbah seems to crave only for peace, rest. But politics are heating up once again, and Sierra Leonean politics are not grand; they can be very mean.

Though he has not spoken to any journalists lately, Kabbah’s name has been dominating the newspaper headlines, being quoted as saying very disobliging things about his party’s flagbearer, Rtd. Brigadier Julius Maada Bio. One newspaper had him accusing Bio of siphoning off $400,000 when the former military leader led the NPRC in 1996, just before handing over power to Kabbah. But the tortured detail is squeezed out of a speech Kabbah made in 1997, on the occasion of the launch of an ill-fated gunboat.

Kabbah, not at all an enthusiastic politician even when in power, insisted that he should be left out of “all this politics” when we spoke on the phone. When I got to his house, he came down the stairs to meet me. For the first time since I met him about 20 years ago, the always sprightly Kabbah had a walking stick, and his movement was faltering, hesitant. He had a slightly swollen left foot. He took me to his study upstairs. The study was decorated in the understated English country style, posh but far from ostentatious.

“They are at it again,” Kabbah said as he slumped in a sofa. “Digging out old speeches and presenting them as news. If they want to quote me, they should talk to me, or read my memoir.”  Kabbah’s memoir, ‘Coming from the Brink’, was issued early this year by a Ghanaian firm. Thousands of copies have since sold out in Freetown.  He said he is very pleased with the book’s reception.

Would he want to say anything on record about Brigadier Bio as he leads the SLPP to polls in 2012 against the incumbent Ernest Koroma?

“I met Bio when I was appointed by the NPRC to chair the National Advisory Council,” Kabbah said. “He was a very nice, decent and pleasant man, and very decisive as well. I had no problems with him at all.” On the Council were also Solomon Berewa, who later became Kabbah’s Vice President and (subsequently) flagbearer for the SLPP in the 2007 elections, as well as Serry kamal, former APC Attorney General and Minister of Justice.  Among the first important advice that the Council gave to the NPRC was an appeal for the repeal of a decree retroactively passed to justify the extrajudicial executions of more than two dozen citizens. If un-repealed, the decree would have set the stage for other secret trials of treason suspects. “I remember that there were many in the regime who resented our even raising the matter,” Kabbah said. “They wouldn’t stand civilians questioning them on a matter they felt was of national security interest. But I found Bio at that time receptive and open, though he was by no means the most senior figure in the NPRC.  Our advice was taken. The decree was eventually repealed.”

What about Ernest Koroma? “Well,” Kabbah said, “the choice is between the leader of my party and that of the APC, so my preference is obvious. But let me say this about Ernest. I don’t know him very well.  When I became President in 1996, my friend SB Marah [who was Speaker of Parliament] asked me to bring Ernest into my cabinet. I remember meeting him at the time. I was rather impressed by what he was doing with the insurance business. I had known his parents in Makeni while I was posted their as District Commissioner way back then, but I didn’t know him. He appeared to be very serious. But I wasn’t sure whether he was a fit for the particular position that SB wanted me to appoint him, but I seriously considered him. In the event SB died, and no one raised the matter with me again. I let it die.”

Kabbah said he was disturbed by the allegation that the SLPP was a Mende party. “I cannot, of course, be neutral in this debate,” Kabbah said. “Look at the picture over there”, he said, pointing to a framed photo of a beautiful and demure middle aged woman on the wall. “That’s my mother, and she was Mende,” he said. There were two other framed photos on the wall, both of Kabbah’s first wife, Patricia, who died in 1998. Though she died a long time ago, Patricia seems to be guiding spirit in the house: her framed photos – superbly elegant, smiling, always un-awed – are everywhere.

“My mother was Mende, and so some might pick on that,” Kabbah, who is Mandingo and a Northerner, said. “But when the SLPP started back in the 1950s, many people wanted Bai Farama Tass to be leader. He was Temne. When this was suggested to him, however, Bai Farama said at a meeting of the party that he would rather prefer Dr. Milton Margai leading. Dr. Margai was the most experienced person in the party. He had worked all over the country and was extremely well-respected. Bai Farama said at the time that because of these, and because Dr. Margai was very fair and principled, he should be the one to lead. And that’s how the very modest Dr. Margai came to lead the SLPP. Ethnicity or tribe played no role there.”

The SLPP, Kabbah said, “is a very fair and open party. My wife [Kabbah’s second wife, Mrs. Iye Kabbah] was running for a position in the executive. Usu Boie, who is my nephew, was running against Bio for the position of flagbearer. I couldn’t really be impartial, but I knew the SLPP is a very fair party. The delegates made their choices.”

Mrs. Kabbah, who is Mandingo, retained her position as leader of the Women’s wing, beating a strong challenge from a Mende woman from the party’s heartland of Bo. Boie lost to Bio, and has advised his supporters in a public statement to support the party’s choice.

Presidential and Parliamentary elections are slated for about mid-2011. In 2007, the SLPP presidential candidate, Berewa, lost by a narrow margin to the APC’s Koroma in controversy-wracked polls. The SLPP insists that Berewa would have won if all the votes, particular hundreds of thousands annulled from Kailahun District and elsewhere in the party’s heartland, had been counted. The controversy is reminiscent of very similar polls conducted in 1967, in which the SLPP candidate, Albert Margai, lost to the APC’s Siaka Stevens. Both claimed to have had majority support, though Stevens, who clearly had mass (and youthful) support in Freetown (much like Koroma in 2007), could more decisively demonstrate this. But a secret British cabinet report, dated 23 March 1967, now released, make clear that Margai may have won. It stated:  “The Commonwealth Secretary said that the situation in Sierra Leone was uncertain. It appeared that the Governor-General had acted prematurely after the recent general election in asking the Leader of the All Peoples Congress Party, Mr. Siaka Stevens, to form a government. At that stage the final results of the general election were not available. Mr. Stevens’s party had 31 members returned and the Sierra Leone People’s Party, under the leadership of the previous Prime Minister, Sir Albert Margai, had only 27 members. However, one electoral result had still to be declared and of the remaining seven independent members, five had since declared their support for Sir Albert Margai’s party. It seemed unlikely therefore that Mr. Siaka Stevens would be able to form a government, more particularly if account were taken of the vote of 12 Chiefs in the Legislature, since ten of these were likely to support Sir Albert Margai.”

The APC, in other words, has never won a free and fair contest, and probably simply does not have the numbers to do so. This is history that will be very important for both the conduct and outcome of the 2011 elections.

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  • Like Osman said, Kabba is a Lawyer and is therefore expected to mind his words when spoken or written. If he had said in 1997, as a politician that Bio had stolen $ 400,000 dollars without presenting any proof or instituting any judicial action to match his words, and we believed him why not now believe him if he says he said those things at that time to fit the occasion and the prevailing atmosphere. The ailing Ex- President it is said has invited those who wants to know about what he said to interview him and none has done so but yet trigger happy pen pushers or key board typist are happy to report on an issue which the politicians himself has said he said at that time to gain political point.
    When President Ernest Koroma said in December 2007 that the Commissioner of the Anti-Corruption would have a busy holiday, as lots of corruptions in the past Kabba regime have been uncovered by his transition team, did that amount to Kabba been labelled corrupt. It was just another political game at that time for the president to score points.
    I am wondering were Maada Bio’s government would have generated the much talk about money that he and his ministers stole when we all know that during his six months reign and the last one year of his predecessor, almost 2/3 of the country especially the revenue generating areas were no go areas for any business. Shortly put his government was run on donor funds and I did not hear the donors crying foul like they did with Kabba before and after he left power for embezzlement of their funds

    25th August 2011
  • Osman makes an interesting point about the volatile media landscape and the need for journalists to be civil in political debates. I totally agree with you.

    However, Osman may have missed the point in what former President Kabba said in the interview. President Kabba never withdrew the allegations against Maada Bio or negate what he said in 1997. Put another way, Lans Gberie simply could not prove nor assert that Kabba never made those statements.

    Sir! This is simple content analysis turned on its head. Read the piece again!

    Thomas Mahonney

    24th August 2011

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