Tejan Kabbah: This Is My Life

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Tejan Kabbah: This Is My Life

Lans Gberie reflects on former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah’s book, Coming from the brink.

Former president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah calls his book, Coming from the Brink. Judging from the topics he treats in the book, it must have taken him many man-hours to write. Kabbah, who retired as president in 2007 after two turbulent terms, now lives quietly in his villa in the far west end of Freetown, the capital.

He showed me the manuscript in early 2010. I introduced it to my London publishers, Hurst, who were instantly interested. In the event, however, Hurst sent the manuscript to be read by one of its reviewers but Kabbah felt the publisher was delaying, and abruptly pulled out of the arrangement.

The book, beautifully jacketed, has now been issued by EPP Books Services, a Ghanaian firm (Kabbah had told me that he would much rather an African company published his memoir).

Kabbah’s career trajectory spans Sierra Leone’s entire post-independence period. After graduating from the University of Wales in 1959 (with a bachelor’s degree in economics), he returned to Sierra Leone to work as an administrative officer in the colonial civil service.

As he recounts, he was “among the first crop of qualified Sierra Leoneans to replace the British administrators.” At that time, “the level of social, political and economic development in Sierra Leone compared favourably with that of other West African countries,” Kabbah writes.

Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961, opening up opportunities for Kabbah, whose rise thereafter was meteoric. He became district commissioner in 1962, and in 1965, at age 33, he was made deputy permanent secretary in the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

His emergence as an important player in the new nation’s political elite was signalled that year when his marriage to Patricia Lucy Tucker became a news item in the Daily Mail, the country’s main newspaper.

But the glories of independence, so liberating at the time, had their perils. While at the Ministry of Trade and Industry, Kabbah played a role in the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board’s (SLPMB) purchase of a palm kernel oil mill and refinery. Prime Minister Milton Margai died at about this time, and was replaced by his half-brother, Albert Margai. Kabbah’s advice, as acting permanent secretary, that the SLPMB should consider several vendors and compare the cost was ignored. The oil mill and refinery were purchased, at an exorbitant cost, from a favoured company. In the event, when the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) government lost power in a military coup in 1967, the new junta set up a commission of inquiry, called the Beoku-Betts Commission, to investigate the Margai government.

On the matter relating to the purchase of the oil mill and refinery, the Commission found that though Kabbah was “very intelligent” and had “qualms of conscience” about the entire deal, he was “instrumental in making the conspiracy possible.”

Kabbah is understandably tetchy while narrating this part, omitting even the quotes from the Commission above. He writes, plausibly, that there was a case of mistaken identity in Commissioner Beoku-Betts’ rebuke of him.

That the ambience was one of vindictiveness and political skullduggery, could be seen in the fact that Prime Minister Siaka Stevens, who the junta handed power to, seized Kabbah’s property – a house and land in the west end of Freetown – though the Beoku-Betts Commission had not recommended that action.

In 1974, Kabbah began petitioning the government to return his property; this was only done when the then attorney general, Abdulai O. Conteh, reviewed the Commission’s findings and Kabbah’s petitions, and concluded that “a combination of errors, flawed actions, etc, have unfortunately militated against Mr Kabbah” and that Kabbah’s “constitutional and fundamental protective rights” had been violated. Kabbah’s property was restored on 20 May 1988 by the government, which effectively repudiated the Commission’s findings against him.
By that time, Kabbah was an international civil servant. He joined the United Nations while in England; his first appointment was as deputy chief of the West Africa Division of the UNDP in New York. Kabbah thereafter took up a series of posts with the UN, and returned to Sierra Leone in 1992 after his retirement.

By that time the country was experiencing what Kabbah calls “state failure”: a civil war had started, and a coup by young soldiers had overthrown the one-party dictatorship of President (formerly Major General) Joseph Momoh.

The junta appointed Kabbah to a senior advisory position, and in 1996, on the return of the country to civilian rule, Kabbah was elected president of Sierra Leone, the country’s first Muslim head of state.

He immediately began negotiating peace with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, but in 1997 Kabbah was forced into exile after a bloody military coup. Nigerian troops and Kamajors (civil defence fighters) restored Kabbah to power in 1998.

The war officially ended in 2002. Kabbah was re-elected to a second term that expired in 2007. He retired comfortably.  

Coming from the Brink is refreshingly brief on Kabbah’s ancestry and early career, concentrating on his political life as president. He was born at Pendembu, Kailahun District, in eastern Sierra Leone, on 16 February 1932. His father, Abu Bakr Sidique Kabbah, was a Mandingo businessman who had migrated to the predominantly Mende and Kissi town from Kambia District, in northern Sierra Leone.

His mother was from a prominent Mende ruling family, the Coomber of the Mandu chiefdom, Kailahun District. The family later relocated to Freetown, allowing Kabbah, a devout Muslim, to attend the Catholic St. Edward’s Secondary School in Freetown.

Reflecting his country’s fabled religious tolerance, Kabbah later married Patricia Tucker, a Catholic who was of the Sherbro/Mende ethnic group.

One would think that this is impressive enough, but the politician in Kabbah seemed unable to avoid wrapping his origin in myth. He writes that he had a “mysterious” birth (he is self-conscious enough to put the word mysterious in quote).

He was told, much later by his beloved first wife, that he “entered the world with a clasped left hand containing what was thought to be a piece of paper with an Arabic inscription”, an augury of great things to come for him.

As presidential autobiographies go, this one is not too bad. Liberia’s President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf wrote in her 2009 memoir that on her birth a visiting old man had looked at her and pronounced that “this child shall be great. This child shall lead.” She modestly used this happy premonition as the title for the memoir.

What is good in Kabbah’s memoir is often very good. In one breathtaking moment, the former president narrates how he was violently unseated in January 1999 by a band of brutal rebels and his own (rogue) soldiers. He was woken up at 3am by a Nigerian military commander (from the West African intervention force, Ecomog, then based in Freetown), and was taken to Government Wharf (the grimy oceanfront celebrated in Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter) to board a boat that would take him to a Nigerian warship anchored a few miles away.

It was a chilling and immensely symbolic moment. The Sierra Leonean state had atrophied; even the boat would not start. It took 30 minutes of trying before its creaking engine finally roared, and it left just before the rampaging rebels overran the place. They fired at the fleeing boat, which nearly capsized, and once it got to the ship, a rope was lowered and President Kabbah was pulled up into it – and taken to Guinea.

That extraordinarily telling scene – a fleeing president being rescued like a drowning man by a foreign ship – was not captured on camera, which perhaps partly accounts for the high drama of the revelation. For, as it happened, during that attack the rebels who nearly killed Kabbah succeeded in killing about 5,000 people in Freetown, abducting thousands of children and torching large parts of the city.

We learn, very importantly, of the existence of a Special Task Force, a secret Liberian militia set up by the Sierra Leonean armed forces under the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) junta whose existence, Kabbah writes, was unknown even to him until the very day of the coup staged against him by the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) in May 1997, by which time Kabbah had already been president for over a year.

This group participated in the coup, and Kabbah is right to bash the roguish Sierre Leonean army for its “reckless disregard for the security of the country” for not bothering “to trace the real origin and the real motive of members of [the Task Force]”.

But Kabbah should also have reflected that as commander-in-chief, he bore some responsibility for an evident lack of vigilance towards such a flawed army at that point. Kabbah provides some insights into the prolonged negotiations leading to the end of the rebel war, in particular into the treacherous character of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) leader, Foday Sankoh.

But he disappoints by a failure to provide a first-hand account of the complex political impulses, alliances and deals that made presidents and prime ministers from several countries get intimately involved in Sierra Leone, which was of no great strategic interest to some of them at the time.

So, what does Kabbah really think of the role of Nigeria’s General Sani Abacha? Or of Britain’s Tony Blair, for that matter? On matters of the personality and role of important foreign players, Kabbah maintains polite reticence bordering on blandness.

He even attempts to minimise the ex-Libyan leader, Muammar Gathafi’s destructive role in the Sierra Leonean civil war, doubtless because Gathafi, a fellow Muslim, later became a close friend. Gathafi trained and funded the original insurgents who invaded Sierra Leone in 1991. But the former Libyan leader is first mentioned on page 111 of the book, where Kabbah confronts him with evidence the Sierra Leonean authorities had wrung out of Yair Klein, a notorious Israeli arms trader.

That evidence, which I have seen, clearly implicated Gathafi in the carnage in Sierra Leone. Kabbah writes that when he showed Gathafi the evidence, the Libyan leader was “very shaken” and told him that he had provided support to some Sierra Leoneans who had “appealed to him to assist them get rid of what they considered a fascist government” (the absurd reference is to Momoh’s incompetent regime).
And “Gaddafi swore that his support to the RUF had stopped when I assumed the presidency,” Kabbah writes.

He, of course, knows that Gathafi was lying. On page 52, Kabbah quotes from a letter Foday Sankoh wrote on 4 December 1996 (months after Kabbah came to power) to his “international contacts” thanking them for assistance in procuring “fighting materials” [sic].

What Kabbah markedly leaves out is that Sankoh wrote the letter to Mohammed Talibi, of the Libyan Peoples Bureau in Ghana. I have seen the letter and several others implicating the Libyan leader, and I quoted some in my book, A Dirty War in West Africa: The RUF and the Destruction of Sierra Leone, 2005.

The same frustrating evasiveness can be seen in Kabbah’s treatment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone (which he helped bring into existence) and particularly of the indictment of his own deputy defence minister, the late Chief Hinga Norman.

He writes that he was “stunned and upset” by the arrest of Norman (page 329), and that some of the court’s activities were among the most “agonising of my presidency”. But he is defensive about his role in bringing about the Court and resorts to legalese, rather than introspection or a proper analysis of the Court’s impact, to account for his dealings with the Court.

This is most clear in his obtuse reason for testifying on behalf of Issa Sesay, the one-time leader of the RUF (after the arrest of Foday Sankoh), who, however, made a “significant contribution” to ending the war, and not on behalf of Norman, a true hero who risked his own life to save Kabbah’s presidency and the nation.

The last part of Kabbah’s memoir makes an impressive list of important institutions that he set up in his final term of office, including a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a new National Revenue Authority (NRA), an Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), and a new National Social Security and Insurance Trust (NASSIT). He also revamped the security sector, and enacted major new laws protecting children and promoting gender equality. There are reports of the systematic downgrading of some of these institutions by Kabbah’s successor government, and it would have been most helpful for the ex-president to have reflected on how they have fared.

Curiously, Kabbah is at pains to take credit for a so-called Attitudinal Change programme which the current president, Ernest Koroma, has made the sort of ideological – for want of a better term – cornerstone of his government. That programme was the brainchild of Kabbah’s administration.

One cannot escape the conclusion, going through Kabbah’s memoir, that though not at all a great man, Kabbah is (aside from Milton Margai, the country’s first prime minister) without doubt the most successful, as well as the most personable, leader Sierra Leone has had in five decades of independence.

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