Friends, voters, countrymen: SLPP brought neither peace nor democracy

7 September 2007 at 16:19 | 535 views

By Sheka Tarawalie (Shekito) in Manchester,UK.

When the war was declared over in 2001 and a nation-wide event was organized by All Works Of Life (AWOL; I have problems with them not using ‘Walks’) to give awards to those who had played significant roles in the country, the award of who brought peace to Sierra Leone was given to two people jointly - President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and General Issa Sesay of the RUF.

Today, Issa is in the hands of the Special Court, while Kabbah’s fate is in the hands of God. However, that event is symptomatic of the reality that no one man, indeed no one party, can claim that they brought peace to Sierra Leone.

The issues of peace and democracy are not really at stake in these elections. Generally, they were in 2002. In 2007, the issues are about bread and butter. And those trying to vainly defend an indefensible SLPP record are failing to realize this. They have already agreed that the SLPP did not perform well in providing basic amenities even in the face of a rain of donor funds and diamond proceeds, so they want to reverse the clock by reverting to the same 2002 campaign theme. Like the new theme of voting for Berewa to balance power which they did not talk about in the first round, so is the one about having brought peace and democracy after failing to meet the trumpeted target of ‘no man goes to bed hungry’. But because they have reminded us of these issues again, it is better to put the records straight before they leave office so they will not accuse anybody of re-writing history against them.

Let’s start with democracy.

When the APC under JS Momoh changed the one-party constitution and introduced multi-party democracy which culminated in the formation of several political parties and the promulgation of the 1991 Constitution, it was a combination of factors that brought this about, internal as well as external. Internationally, the Soviet Union had collapsed through ‘glasnost’ and ‘perestroika’, marking the end of the Cold War (by which Third World, particularly African, countries used to play cat-and-mouse games with the international community in terms of adopting and/or combining communism and democracy).

The wind of change that swept through eastern Europe turned to a hurricane in Africa, and the West called for democracy to take over one-party states. With the international balance of power gone, which African regime would say no? And on the ground in Sierra Leone, with the lack of a vibrant opposition, it was mainly the press and particularly university students that pressed matters home. I remember the famous campaign of Franklin Bunting Davies’ New Shaft newspaper and Fourah Bay College students against the great powers of James Bambay Kamara. The APC had no choice but to introduce multi-partyism. By the time the APC was overthrown, the SLPP was one of the registered parties led by Salia Jusu-Sheriff at a time when Tejan Kabbah was still not in the country.

The coming of the NPRC aborted the democratization process; but after committing themselves to re-introducing civilian rule within four years, the process was bound to continue. And this also not through the work of any one man or party. Maada Bio wanted to hang on to power through a schematic overthrow of his boss, Valentine Strasser, and introducing a puerile ‘Peace Before Elections’ campaign. It was also both internal and external forces that prevented this - as the international community pressed for democracy, so Sierra Leoneans stood up to the soldiers to go ahead with the elections. Now this was neither for Kabbah, nor for Karefa-Smart - it was merely for democracy. So how could Kabbah, who was merely elected (thanks to James Jonah) through the process, be the one to have brought democracy?

In fact, if I want to contend, I would say Kabbah attempted to destroy the very democracy that brought him to power. Kabbah, instead of allowing parliament to be independent, dished out unpaid ‘loans’ to MPs so that they would be soft with him - whatever that means. And when the press became curious, he tried to suppress it. I remember him saying that journalists were preying on the weaknesses of the judiciary, which sparked a wave of arrests and libel suits on journalists unprecedented in the history of Sierra Leone. Not only that, on the eve of the May 25 coup, the SLPP had already passed a law that would have seen many newspapers silenced.

So tell me, which democracy did Kabbah bring? By the time he was brought back after the coup, Kabbah was more of a lame-duck president than anything else. The mantra with which he was brought back (albeit by Sanni Abacha heading a junta himself) was the reintroduction of democracy. In essence Kabbah was heading a make-shift government over which he had no ultimate control whatsoever. In the end, things became so confusing that the Nigerian-led government was arresting people ‘fitty-fatta’ even including their own Sorie Fofanah and Sulaiman Momodu. The essential truth which we would have to accept is that the government of President Kabbah ended up being more the creation of the international community than the choice of the people.

Ours was a government that was largely a puppet one - major decisions of state were in most practical terms in the hands of foreigners at one point or another - Maxwell Khobe, Francis Okello, Oluyemi Adeniji (at one time or another the words of each of these men and others were more authoritative than Kabbah’s). Kabbah was so impotent as to the extent of not knowing when his own Minister of Internal Affairs, Hinga Norman, was being arrested! So too had the government no more power or zeal to re-introduce press-muzzling laws. They couldn’t have. Thus the proliferation of newspapers, radio stations, etc.

And, as earlier mentioned, Kabbah did not bring peace either. To me, he prolonged the coming of the peace. Let’s start from the top again. Maada Bio, through the efforts of the Ivorien government and International Alert, had met and started talking with Foday Sankoh. So Bio wanted more time to finish this business. We shouted ‘Nay! Elections Before Peace’ even when the army said they could not guarantee security and the rebels indeed attacked voters on polling day. Eventually, Kabbah emerged as winner with peace literally left in his lap. This resulted to the signing of the Abidjan Peace Accord, whose preliminary deliberations my good friend, Lans Gberie, witnessed, and gleefully posed for the camera with Sankoh.

But, alas, Kabbah bungled with this. In the first place, when he came back to Sierra Leone at midnight on 30th November 1996, he predominantly devoted praises to the kamajors and Hinga Norman (poor man, he did not know he was being prepared for slaughter) instead of the peace accord. And the first major action that actually exposed Kabbah destroying the peace process was when an unsuspecting Foday Sankoh was hoodwinked into going to Nigeria for ‘talks’, only to be arrested; while the government was simultaneously supporting a stage-managed overthrow of Sankoh by the very RUF representatives he sent to Freetown to discuss peace. The government rather naively sent back this same representatives to the bush to talk to the RUF on the ground in total disregard of the peace accord to which Sankoh was signatory and which had actually called for power-sharing with the rebels. But the representatives (Fayia Musa, Philip Palmer and others who later confessed that the SLPP bribed them to renege on the peace agreement) were captured by the rebels accusing them of treason and would never talk to anyone again until their leader was released. And when the Nigerian government supported by the SLPP refused to release Sankoh, this was the beginning of the process that would see Sierra Leone go down to its most degenerate level.

By then, Kabbah had shunned the Sierra Leone Army by having Nigerian soldiers as bodyguards for himself and in charge of the security of major state institutions, while at the same time raising the profile of the unknowing kamajors and pampering poor Hinga Norman to even have the effrontery of attacking the military brigade in Kenema and placing curfew on soldiers. And when Kabbah knew of a plot to overthrow him three days before and he did not do anything about it until it had happened; when he insisted that he must be returned to power and ordered the Nigerian assault on Freetown on June 2 1997 (forcing all foreign embassies to close down), that was the beginning of the fire that would roast Sierra Leone almost beyond recognition.

The trouble was that the Nigerians could not do the job ‘pretty soon’; and by the time that job was done, we had had virtually the whole world’s armies on our shores with more than 50,000 of our compatriots slaughtered, some left limb-less for life, and millions of property destroyed. And they say Kabbah brought peace. How? His government and the AFRC signed an agreement in Conakry for power to be peacefully handed over to him on 22nd April 1998; but alas he launched ‘Operation Black December’ before time and pushed for a military intervention, which only worsened the situation, leading to the infamous January 6 1999 return of the AFRC/RUF forces to Freetown. Even the Lome Peace Accord that Kabbah signed after tamely releasing Foday Sankoh was forced on him by America’s Rev. Jesse Jackson. For the SLPP, it was a fight to death (even if Sierra Leone was all consumed in the conflagration), until someone introduced the language of dialogue. So which peace did Kabbah bring? No wonder he was twinned with the RUF’s Issa Sesay to receive the peace award.

Friends, voters, countrymen, we have a great opportunity of changing a government that has totally failed itself and our nation. This is why we have chosen Ernest Koroma, who by all means has demonstrated an ability to move in a different direction to address bread and butter issues. I saw Kabbah recently trying to prey on the situation of Ernest meeting with Berewa to sign a communiqué for peace as if it was his original idea. We all know that Kabbah’s intention was to declare a state of emergency, and the meeting of the two presidential candidates was actually an idea of the Security Consultative Conference comprising both international and internal stakeholders. It is time for a change.

The argument that the APC does not have the capacity to change or to bring change merely on the basis that it did bad things some 15 years ago lacks a logical foundation. The world has changed: at the time of the old APC, one party rule was fashionable in Africa; at the time of the old APC, the world was not globalized in terms of faster communication network especially the Internet and the mobile phone; at the time of the old APC, our eyes were not so open. In this day and age, there is no way of keeping people in the dark. To say the APC would return to its old ways is even an insult to the conscience of the world. Today, even if Siaka Stevens were to be exhumed to the presidency, he wouldn’t dream of talking about a one-party state. Even repressive regimes like Robert Mugabe’s have the semblance of an opposition. The APC under Ernest Koroma cannot just go back to where it came from.

I really pity the SLPP. But the fact is that they can’t account for the money (the British alone sending £210 million since 2001) they have been getting from international donors. Essentially, if anyone would ask me why the SLPP is losing power, I will say two things .First is an imitation of an old APC-style regime where the few lived at the expense of the majority in a world that has changed. The politics of ‘nar we turn for eat’ undermined the whole democratic facade that was put on by the Kabbah regime. The second reason is Tejan Kabbah himself. The man hung on to power till the last minute. He should have handed over to Berewa about a year before the elections ( as British Prime Minister Tony Blair has done to his buddy Gordon Brown) so that the SLPP would have made amends with itself to prepare for the elections. But by Kabbah clinging on to power until he has even exceeded his term is testing the patience of Sierra Leoneans beyond limit. And for this, they are paying a price too costly.

Friends, voters, countrymen, go to the polls and tell the SLPP that enough of lies. We all - through our blood and sweat - brought the peace and the democracy!