Salone News

A chat with former president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah

28 May 2009 at 22:22 | 1036 views

By Lans Gberie, Monrovia, Liberia.

[Editor’s Note: The interview for this item was conducted in September last year]

Ahmed Tejan Kabbah has been living up at his Juba mansion, in the far west-end of Freetown, since his retirement nearly two years ago. The mansion, at the end of a short "special" road called Kabbah Drive, is in the modern style, but it is completely devoid of flash or shoddiness. From outside, it is not at all imposing among the dozens of similar expensive buildings in the area; and its understated part-ochre exterior suggests a deliberate drabness. Inside the huge compound, however, the view is breathtaking: the elevated Italianate balcony of the four bedroom house (a protruding elevator in the sitting-room adds a piquant touch to an otherwise curiously domestic ambience) overlooks a well-designed and sedate-looking swimming pool (the water very blue and inviting, and seeming to await use) and, above it, Freetown slopes majestically, stunningly beautiful.

There is an inexpensive abstract painting in a corner of the sitting-room, and another (canvass) in the somber style of an early Picasso. The most remarkable art are a beautifully-framed Ashanti bronze cast with an inscription from Ghana’s President John Kuffuor, and another, also finely-framed, of an anonymous Arabic inscription, a gift from Libyan leader Gaddaffi: Mr. Kabbah is clearly not a collector. There is a glass encased bookshelf, but the titles aren’t many: noticeable are Bill Clinton’s My Life (not surprising since Mr. Kabbah is writing his memoirs), a biography of Clinton, a book about empire by the historian and apologist of British imperialism Niall Ferguson, about half a dozen volumes of UNESCO’s History of Africa series (Mr. Kabbah, a former UN man, is particularly proud of these), and several other (mainly obscure) titles.

The place suggests tranquility, rest - and rest is important to Mr. Kabbah who, at 77, can claim to have achieved all his life’s ambitions and more, including attaining the very pinnacle of the public service he dedicated his entire life to. After two, partly turbulent, terms as President of Sierra Leone, Mr. Kabbah gracefully handed over power to the leader of the opposition All Peoples Congress (APC), Ernest Bai Koroma, rather than to his vice and preferred candidate, Solomon Berewa, in November 2007. In retirement, Mr. Kabbah exudes the serenity of a man whose work has been done. “I have suddenly developed this phobia for flying,” Mr. Kabbah said, apropos of nothing. “I spend almost all my time here now.” Almost: Mr. Kabbah had just returned from monitoring elections in Kenya as an African Union statesman, and would soon be heading to Zimbabwe on a similar mission.

Mr. Kabbah(pictured) speaks slowly, deliberately. He hardly gestures, and only his clean-shaven, preternaturally smooth face shows emotion - intense interest and a little humour mainly, with occasional flashes of irritation.

The irritation came early in our meeting. A local daily had carried a page one story that morning alleging that a shady Lebanese businessman, Mohamed Wanza, had contributed a hundred million leones to Mr. Kabbah’s 2002 presidential campaign. The story, one might say about 11 years late, apparently had a powerful extraneous purpose: it seemed to have been published as part of the new government’s effort to award millions of dollars to the Nigeria-resident Wanza for services he markedly failed to provide for the country over a decade ago. Mr. Kabbah brushed aside the newspaper report without contesting its verity. He said: “Wanza was very close to the NPRC [the National Provisional Ruling Council junta, which ruled Sierra Leone from 1992-1996]. He monopolized all business dealings having to do with the regime, and at one point entered into some agreement to purchase a gunboat for the Sierra Leone Navy,” Mr. Kabbah said. “As well as that he was given millions of dollars to equip Connaught Hospital. None of this was done, of course.”

Under the NPRC this little detail - non-deliverance - would not have been any problem: a contract had been signed, the military boys have had their percentages, and the Lebanese would be paid in full. To his shock, when Wanza submitted the final invoice - for amounts in all totally $10 million - to the new President Kabbah (who he had reasons to think was an ally), he was told to wait, pending further clarification. “First, I asked my officials to tell me where the gunboat was, and I was told that the boat was somewhere in Liverpool (England), where it would be inspected,” Mr. Kabbah said. “Then I realized that my Minister of Health, Tejan Jalloh, had submitted a long list of equipment items needed to be purchased by Connaught. As it happens, Wanza had not delivered any equipment to the hospital.” Soon enough, an expert consultant hired by Kabbah found that the gunboat was junk.

Mr. Kabbah duly had Wanza informed that he would not be paid a single cent by the government until several awkward questions relating to the procurement were answered. Normally this would perhaps have provoked a court action or prolonged negotiations, but Wanza had far more potent weapons. A few months later, in May 1997, rogue soldiers overthrew Kabbah in a bloody coup, and Wanza once again became the key contractor - supplying weapons, army uniform and petroleum products - for the new Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) junta. The pathos of it is not lost on Mr. Kabbah, a politician who can sometimes exude a charming unselfconsciousness. “We never said that Wanza, who since we took office was moving between Nigeria and the Gambia, played a role in that coup,” he said. “But we were determined on our reinstatement in 1998 that someone who funded the killing of our people should face certain consequences.” Wanza was stripped off his naturalized Sierra Leonean citizenship, and was told he we would not be paid any money.

Wanza was now living in Nigeria, where during the 2007 elections he allegedly made serious financial contributions to APC, which succeeded in defeating Berewa in disputed polls. Shortly after Koroma took office, Wanza’s Sierra Leonean citizenship was restored. In short order, the Lebanese orchestrated a phony court action against the Sierra Leone government in the ECOWAS Court for Human Rights (which does not have the interest, never mind the competence, to adjudicate such matters) over the non-payment of his contract millions. Parody outdid tragic parody: in short order the Minister of Information, IB Kargbo, announced that the Wanza case posed such embarrassment to the government that it had to be settled out of court. Translation: Wanza was to be paid millions of dollars for delivering no service to Sierra Leone other than arms and other support to a bloodthirsty junta.

I hadn’t known much about the Wanza issue, and I wasn’t really that interested. But its vibrations were ringing, a presage, perhaps, of what now expect in future? “I’m very much concerned and worried that people are getting agitated,” Mr. Kabbah said. “First you had all this sacking of people perceived to be SLPP supporters in the civil service and government agencies. These are professionals, people who had dedicated years to serving the nation. And you get them replaced by largely unqualified people who do not know how proper systems operate. And I see this growing bad feeling among groups and regions.”

Mr. Kabbah, not at all a taciturn man, can be as laconic as that. ‘Bad” is a word he likes, as in “bad hart” (malevolence). Politics still agitates him, but most of his interest in our conversation was the self, the ‘I’ in the lunch company. Part of it was generous, embracing, nostalgic; the other part was narcissistic, self-congratulatory.

Retirement denotes home, so Mr. Kabbah these days likes to begin conversations with visitors with an anecdote involving how he acquired the land where his mansion stands. He bought the four acre land, at the cost of 300 pounds (sterling), in the 1960s from late Chief Yumkella. Mr. Kabbah was then a UN employee based in New York. Sierra Leone’s confusing land law - only marginally now improved - required the land to be registered with the government within ten days. Mr. Kabbah had flown back to New York after the purchase without registering the land. “I was in New York when I got a phone call from friends telling me that Chief Yumkella wanted to sell the same land again because I had not registered it,” Mr. Kabbah said. “This entire place was bush at the time. There were no houses here, so I didn’t understand the rush. But I had to fly back immediately and hire Joko-Smart [a prominent lawyer and academic] to stop Yumkella. I had the place registered. But I actually finished building this house in 1992, just before my retirement from the UN.”

This recollection did not provoke comments from Mr. Kabbah on the country’s murky land market, and I did not press the point. The interest was the famous guests who have stayed at the house since: Libya’s Gaddafi, for example, who stayed there for three days in 2007, just before Mr Kabbah’s retirement from politics. The Libyan, who likes to affect the hardy lifestyle of his Bedouin tribesmen, built a tent in the compound, where he stayed. An additional block of security fence and other devices were added by the Libyan...

Mr. Kabbah had once told me that Gaddafi had readily admitted to him that he had supported the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) rebels who waged a nasty war against civilians for more than a decade beginning in 1991 because, in Gaddafi’s truculent view, the APC party then in power was “fascistic”. This time our conversation veered into an unexpected - and improbable but not at all implausible - revelation that Mr. Kabbah had played a crucial role in getting Gaddafi and Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair thaw their once-frosty relationship. It was during Blair’s visit to Sierra Leone as Prime Minister sometime before his retirement. Gaddafi had visited earlier. In the car Blair suddenly turned to Kabbah and asked whether he could get him to have direct contacts with Gaddafi. The two leaders were not on speaking terms. Mr. Kabbah quickly made a call to Gaddafi, and in the event Blair shortly after made a well-publicized visit to Libya. It just happened that a day before Blair’s visit Gaddafi telephoned Mr. Kabbah, almost begging him, in a long conversation, to be put in touch with the British Prime Minister. Would Mr. Kabbah have been so self-congratulatory if he had known, as was evident, that British intelligence had long bugged his phone? I cannot say.

I first met Mr. Kabbah in 1995, a year before he became President. He was then Chair of the National Advisory Council to the NPRC government. This role would later, after the 1997 coup that overthrew Mr. Kabbah, be rendered sinister, but in fact members of the Council, mainly civilians, worked behind-the-scenes to pressure the NPRC to begin peace talks with the RUF rebels and reintroduce multiparty democracy. It was a delicate balancing act: lacking constitutional power, Mr. Kabbah and his colleagues (Solomon Berewa being the second most influential in the Council) relied on their superior knowledge and experience to goad the young military rulers towards more conciliatory politics, and if they found resistance, would brief selected journalists to give particular slants or emphasis in their newspaper stories. It was their way of putting pressure on the junta to encourage them to exit politics. I was introduced to Mr. Kabbah by the late Garvas Betts, a cigar-smoking Oxford-educated lawyer of easy charm and aristocratic bearing. Mr. Kabbah had retained his firm, Betts and Berewa (housed in a curiously drab building in a far-from-posh area of Freetown): Solomon Berewa was his junior partner.

When finally the ban on politics was lifted, Mr. Kabbah contested the leadership of the SLPP. He appeared unprepared for the nastiness that followed. His rival Charles Margai, a veteran bare-knuckle operator, quickly distributed a 30-year-old Commission of Inquiry report which had said a number of very unflattering things about Mr. Kabbah. That afternoon I got a call from Garvas Betts, who suggested that Mr. Kabbah would like to give his side of the story to a trusted journalist. Would I go see him? I quickly made my way to Mr. Kabbah’s private office in downtown Freetown, and found an enraged Mr. Kabbah seated with his friend Abdul Karim Koroma. Koroma rescued the faltering moment, suggesting to Mr. Kabbah that he and I have an extraneous conversation over tea before the interview. It was smart advice: after that Mr. Kabbah was composed and articulate, and the interview went on very well.

Mr. Kabbah, of course, won the elections, and to the surprise of many he brought the prickly Mr. Margai into his government later. Mr. Kabbah can be as generous as that. In fact by some counts nearly half of his cabinet the last year of his presidency were people who probably did not vote for him. This makes Mr. Kabbah’s malevolent treatment of a very staunch ally, the late Sam Hinga Norman, stand out in sharp relief. Chief Norman led the resistance against the AFRC junta which had overthrown Mr. Kabbah in 1997, and remained loyal to Mr. Kabbah’s government until the very day that he was obscenely arrested by the Special Court for Sierra Leone - with Mr. Kabbah’s approval - and detained along the notorious killers of the RUF. Norman died in the detention of the Court, an appalling end for such an august figure. It was a very low point in Mr. Kabbah’s political career, a fact which should have become clearer to him at the end of his term: his party lost the 2007 elections mainly because of this fact.

A myth has percolated since the defeat of the SLPP in 2007 that Mr. Kabbah did not support his presumed successor Berewa. Mr. Kabbah himself brought up the matter. “I have kept quiet about these rumours,” he said. “But the idea that I did not vote for my own party, that I did not support someone I nominated to succeed me, is simply outrageous.” But was it true, I asked, that he was not on speaking terms with Mr. Berewa? Mr. Kabbah ignored the question, and instead ripped into his former allies the British for undermining the SLPP government and contributing immensely to the SLPP’s electoral loss in 2007. He mentioned the withholding, by DfID, of the budget support to the government, and mentioned a number of unfulfilled promises made by the British, including one about providing two helicopters for the Sierra Leone military. “The opposition, of course, claimed during the elections that the helicopters had been delivered by the British, and that we had sold them to fund our campaign.” He also mentioned the insulting fact - a major breach of protocol - that on the inauguration day of President Ernest Koroma, the IMATT commander, a British Brigadier and part of the presidential security detail, saluted Koroma even before he had been sworn in as President, a not-so-subtle signal to Mr. Kabbah not to be wobbly at that point.

The politician in Mr. Kabbah could not relate this final humiliation to the fact that in his last term as President, he had all but abdicated major national responsibilities to his foreign donors, and that he would have been handing over power to a member of his party if he had not abandoned Chief Norman to be destroyed by foreign prosecutors.

And now Mr. Kabbah speaks to visitors, latterly more and more urgently, about his anxieties over the rising political tensions in the country as a result of confrontations between the APC and the SLPP. Like many people, he blames Koroma’s government for failing to rein in violent APC supporters. “I see my role as helping promote peace and stability,” Mr. Kabbah said. But here Mr. Kabbah does not sound very convincing: he seemed resigned.