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Remembering former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah

Remembering former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah

I want to pay a glowing tribute to a statesman of the 21st century modern Sierra Leone. Born in Pendembu, Kailahun District on February 16, 1932, former President, Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah rose to the rank as Permanent Secretary in the Civil Service hierarchy only to flee Sierra Leone after President Siaka Stevens won the 1967 hotly contested election. While at the UN, he acquired the cherished wisdom and the magnetic gift of negotiation – something he sacredly used during  the peace talk with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebel leader, Corporal Foday Sabana Sankoh both in Abidjan, Cote d ‘ivoire and Lome, Togo in West Africa.

If some men are born with greatness and others greatness entrusted in them, Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah personified both predispositions with alarming similarities. His memoir – Coming Back from the brink in Sierra Leone –  narrated  his “mysterious birth”  that he was born with a clasped left hand containing what was believed to be an Arabic inscriptions. Reportedly, it was taken to a nearby mosque and read but the content was never revealed. What we now know of this great giant of peace was what he did for Sierra Leone as a citizen and as a President. He was the statesman many historians called the iconic wartime President and the most consequential leader of all ages.

At the occasion of the laying-in ceremony of the former President, Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah at State Hall of Parliament Building, Tower Hill, Freetown, President Koroma somberly described him as “a great giant for the partnership of peace and democracy in Sierra Leone.” President Koroma drew mourner’s attention to the Lome Peace accord that was signed against the resistance of many insiders but with his “patriotic stubbornness” Sierra Leone today is a peaceful nation. Others have credited him for building democratic institutions like the National Social Security and Insurance Trust (NASSIT), National Revenue Authority (NRA), Anti- Corruption Commission (ACC), Independent Media Commission (IMC) and for transforming Sierra Leone into a more credible democratic nation before departing the political scene.

I want to remember President Kabbah not more so about what he accomplished, the universities he went to and what he even did not achieve during his Presidency. As important as they may be – the most befitting way to honor his memory is to look at how he overcame his most tumultuous challenges, how his actions shape the course of history, what lessons did his solitary life brings to the  national aspirations of our people and how can we build on the foundation he has laid. These are the projected variables through which his valued leadership and charismatic personalities connects to our human imaginations and to the future of our nation.

 I want to pay my humble respect to a leader who was a champion of conflict resolutions, a man who changed many lives in Southern Africa and served the United Nation with an unyielding heart of compassion. He touched the lives of many Sierra Leoneans from women whom he inspired to be part of nation building to citizens who lost their limbs during the brutal Civil war. President Kabbah opened the eyes of many students to exercise their democratic rights to protest peacefully and petition their government while encouraging the press to be guardians of justice and transparent journalism. He was indeed the father of transitional democracy in Africa and beyond.

When he retired from the UN, President Kabbah wanted to enjoy his time with family and the longing memories of what he missed after more than two decades away from the shores of Sierra Leone. Like most leaders who are destined to something great, he never saw his ascendancy to the Presidency as an inevitable phenomenon. But setting his foot on his native soil made him a free man again. He never had to worry about the hunted ghosts of the past with those political adversaries who spent tireless nights planning to ruin his future and render him irrelevant in making the history that God had bestowed upon him.

 Before returning to Sierra Leone in 1992, President Tejan Kabbah promised his late wife and friends, that he would not get involved in national politics. Their agreed plan was to return and enjoy their hard won retirement. Since both Tejan Kabbah and his late wife were lawyers, they planned to set up a private legal practice to help indigent or poor defenders with free legal representations in civil and criminal matters. That was the sheer passion both wanted to pursue because of the injustices they saw during the Siaka Stevens era – where the poor had no legal representation – only money and not justice will set you free.

 Indeed, as fate will have it, Sierra Leone was at a cross-road between two possible futures – the advent of the military regime that toppled Joseph Momoh and the rebirth of a new democracy in Sierra Leone. Because of his United Nations background, the NPRC military led government commissioned him to help in the transitional team to prepare the country for elections. President Kabbah’s experience won the admirations of many who urged him to run for the leadership of the SLPP. And he won the Presidential election in early 1996. The timing of his retirement to the significant events that took place in Sierra Leone was not coincidental but providential – something the Almighty God had ordained this towering statesman to serve his people.

 Indeed, the UN diplomat turned President was confronted with many sets of challenges that tested his resolve and personal courage – a battered economy, rampant corruption, a dysfunctional civil service and a demoralized security apparatus with a poor judicial sector. And what can we learn from the late President’s action and role at that defining moment of unforeseeable endless struggles. That service to nation must always supersede personal interests. The people of Sierra Leone are grateful for his patriotic service and for sharing his selfless life with us. The poor retirees would have been penniless without him and young democratic institutions today would have been crying out for development.

President Kabbah taught us that everyone must be foot soldiers for the greater good of our country. The task of “country first” must be our crusade against  tribalism and cronyism that  is viciously shaking the moral foundation of our unity, nepotism and regionalism that is brutally undermining the pillars of our freedom and endemic corruption that is increasingly destroying the viability of our economy. Sierra Leone would have been in more terrible conditions without the guided hands of a man born as a miraculous child to Pa Abu Bakar Sidique Kabbah and Madam Damayei of Pendembu, Kailahun District.

President Kabbah did not lift the people of Sierra Leone out of poverty but he saved our nation from the ruthless carnage and bloodbath of rebel conflict. He marshaled the largest international support that today is a model for integrated peace building in war-torn regions across the world. He was a quintessential visionary not only to Sierra Leone but to Africa as a whole. His legacy spanned many countries and his symbol of democracy is a beacon of hope to many trouble spots in Africa. If today, the UN is sending 12,000 peace keeping force to the Central Africa Republic (CAR), President Kabbah was the first leader to urge the United Nation to pursue such unprecedented opportunities in conflict zones – a legacy that is widely admired.

To many Sierra Leoneans, President Kabbah’s commitment and dedication to the peace negotiation in Abidjan and Lome with Foday Sankoh was exceptionally impressive and politically courageous. He demonstrated his power of diplomacy by putting the welfare and security of our nation above personal egos and foolish pride. He showed empathy and humility towards the hopeless circumstances of those who suffered the most during the unforgettable brutal civil war in Sierra Leone. In a nation where ego-centrism is a political garment almost worn by every politicians, who could have enlisted that unwavering fearlessness and courage to confront a war monger like Foday Sabana Sankoh  who hated democracy and freedom.  Only President Tejan Kabbah.

President Kabbah had the opportunity that not many would imagine – he could have pleaded with the people of Sierra Leone to extend his term of office because of the subsequent overthrown of his government by the AFRC in 1997. Maybe, he could have formed a Constitutional Review Committee to subvert and circumvent the constitution to run for a third term. He could have even groomed a candidate of his choice and propelled him or her to the Presidency. But he knew that such cowardly tactics will not bring peace to the homeland nor secure the democratic gains that he had worked so hard to achieve for Sierra Leone.

Instead, he took the road that was never travelled in Sierra Leone – a peaceful transfer of power to the legitimate winner of the 2007 Presidential election against the wishes of his own party and his Vice President, Solomon Berewa. Even though he was branded a traitor and betrayer by those who lost the election – what he did was building an unshakeable democratic foundation that will stand the test of time for centuries to come. And one that is people-centered and mutually based on the fundamental rule of law. For that: he deserved a unique place in our nation’s history.

Pa Kabbah as he was commonly known did not electrify our towns and cities nor build the bridge to Lungi airport that he promised us and neither fed the wrinkle hungry stomachs from Gbense chiefdom in Kono District to  Gbangbatoke, Moyamba District – but his life on earth made our nation more safer and less dangerous to live. Imagine another leader of his era who would have stubbornly refused a peace agreement with the power obsessed Foday Sankoh. That would have been a catastrophic mistake with more loss of human lives, a further destruction of our economy with an endless war of impunity. Imagine rigging the election to favor his Vice President: that would have denigrated our constitution and created a troubling precedent for future elections.

To his remarkable credit, he took the path that no one in Sierra Leone walked by restoring the people’s power to the legitimate winner of the Presidential election in 2007. To remember him is to follow such principled road maps he envisioned for us – service to our country with honor and dignity, respecting the constitution and practicing our civic responsibility to our nation with fidelity and patriotism, building a relationship of friendship and trust with those who may disagree with while promoting justice and fairness to the most vulnerable among us. That is what made him worth remembering.

May God grant unto him the righteous path that he has bestowed for the merciful people. May our nation enjoy peace through the wisdom he has bequeathed to us. May God remove the clouded judgments of whomever seek to trample on the peace and security of our nation.

Rest in peace Pa Kabbah, you belong to the ages!

By M C Bah Atlanta, GA-USA

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