Good Night Berewa, Good Morning President Koroma(Part Two)

14 September 2007 at 04:28 | 936 views

By Sheka Tarawalie (Shekito) in Manchester,UK.

The zenith of Solomon Berewa’s power was not when he was made Vice President, neither when he was Attorney General. In-between those two positions, Berewa was made leader of a presidential task force that would clean up the way for the return of President Kabbah from Guinea after the AFRC had been dislodged by Nigerian forces in February 1998. If you would like to imagine how a Berewa presidency would have looked like (since he’s already lost this contest), then rewind the clock to those days and ponder. In the absence of Kabbah, Berewa had sweeping extraordinary powers and this was clearly manifested in the thousands of people (including an 80-year-old grandmother and even children) that were arrested and crammed in prisons across the country for treason (Sierra Leone has the record of having tried the highest number of treason suspects since the world was created). It was during this presidential-task-force period that the unpalatable, inhuman method of burning people alive was devised, while several people’s names were placed on death lists for jungle justice.

On one of those lists was my name. On another list was that of President Joseph Saidu Momoh. Prior to this, I had never met President Momoh. Momoh, a life-loving, easy-going former soldier who had the presidency handed over to him on a silver platter had been overthrown in 1992 and only came back to Sierra Leone to marry a Guinean woman in1997 when the May 25 coup occurred. But before he was forced to leave power, Momoh had ensured that the properties seized by the state due to the findings of a commission of enquiry in 1967 be returned to Tejan Kabbah, about whom the commission had warned that he should never be trusted with any public office again (we did not heed that advice - at our own peril!).

However, during Berewa’s task force days, Momoh was arrested, and subsequently charged with treason, found guilty, and sentenced - as were journalists I.B. Kargbo, Hilton Fyle, Dennis Smith, Gipu Felix-George, Olivia Mensah (a female journalist), Conrad Roy (who died in prison), Marouf Sesay (who was executed), and many others. I had then narrowly escaped with the help of some fishermen through the peninsular to Waterloo and then to my hometown (where I had to be in hiding, monitoring events, for over one year). But as Wilfred Burchett, “the pocket-handkerchief-sized Australian journalist” who was the first to visit Hiroshima after it had been bombed, would say in his article to the Daily Express in 1945 titled ‘The Atomic Plague’, “diligent journalists have the right to expect extraordinary coincidences from time to time”. President Momoh and I met in the most extraordinary of circumstances in 1999.

When Berewa, as lead prosecutor in the thousand-man treason trial, had interpreted the law by its letter and not by its spirit (in the manner of Shakespeare’s Shylock asking for his pound of flesh), and when he had succeeded in ensuring that twenty four people were publicly executed at the same time asking the spectators to clap like a scene from a theatre in old Rome, the SLPP government became so emboldened as to say there were now only remnants of rebels (some of whom they were recently using as bodyguards/campaign thugs) who would soon be flushed out.

But on January 6 1999, Freetown woke up to the realization that the government had not been telling the truth at all. The rebels entered the city, and one of their targets was to release the masses of incarcerated treason suspects (an assortment of soldiers, ordinary civilians, politicians, teachers/lecturers, civil servants, drivers, pastors, imams, policemen and women, even palmwine tappers). Among the released, obviously, was Joseph Saidu Momoh. But Momoh, like all the others, would not celebrate his new-found freedom, as Nigerian forces started pushing the rebel forces away from the city. The only alternative of not being captured again or killed was to be taken by the rebels into the “bush”. So President Momoh, along with his political godfather Chief Alimamy Dura, and many others, had to walk up hills and through rivers and valleys to arrive in Makeni (which had earlier fallen to junta forces), 115 miles from Freetown.

It was here, specifically at my home village of Mabanta, where I had been in hiding, that the junta forces found the home of Rtd. Col. A.O. Kamara (who was later to be an SLPP parliamentarian) and decided to put both Momoh and Chief Dura there, with restrictions on their movement. This was a house that was just a stone throw away from my family home. Momoh and Dura were brought at night; and by morning, through my village network, I had known the big story. Vice versa, Momoh had been told by the now-Special-Court-sentenced junta duo, Tamba Brima (Gullit) and Santigie Kanu (55) - who had earlier found me out through a local journalist - that Mabanta was my hometown and I was around. Momoh had read my articles before, but he was anxious now to see me face to face. It took over a week before the junta could allow me to start meeting with Momoh (a process that would eventually smoothen to the extent that I needed no more protocol to have access to their residence).

In all my career as a journalist (including here in the UK where I am a member of the National Union of Journalists, through which I have benefited from journalism/media-related courses at Lincoln and Oxford universities, also a Board member of the Exiled Journalists Network comprising of over 200 members from across the world and have been writing in newspapers, newsletters and magazines), I can still say the high point of my journalism was my series of interviews (or let’s call them discussions) with former President - now late - Joseph Saidu Momoh. I had all the time in the world, and I did not have to rush to meet a deadline since I had no contacts with the world outside Makeni.

It would have to take me many more years - perhaps never again - to meet a man like J.S. Momoh. In adversity, he was full of life. Bible in hand, visibly demonstrating the life of a man who had been touched by a superior supernatural force, he never hid his mistakes about when he was president. In fact Momoh was too frank for my comfort when it came to talking about his past. But I learnt a lot from him - especially about the ephemeral nature of power: how power should not be deified, how power should not be seen as a means to make the rest of mankind look like grasshoppers, how power should just be seen a means to serve and not to dictate. It was then that I realized that Momoh’s major mistake was an aptitude to make others feel not inferior even at the detriment of the functions of the presidency. But Momoh was also witty enough to see the mistakes of others: and it was him that indicated to me that the real SLPP power-broker was not Tejan Kabbah, but Solomon Berewa, who was nursing the ambition of becoming president, but would never be.

Momoh went to some historical details that I will not bother to delve in now. But, of course, he denounced the SLPP’s military intervention of fighting back to get power. He made himself an example. He said if he were a power-thirsty politician, he would have done the same in 1992. Momoh said his best friend then, Ibrahim Babaginda of Nigeria with whom he had negotiated for Sierra Leone to be made a base for ECOMOG, together with Lansana Conteh who hosted him, had asked him about the military option, but he vehemently ruled it out “to avoid innocent casualties”. Momoh also mentioned Siaka Stevens before him and Valentine Strasser after him as Heads of State who were overthrown and found themselves in Guinea but did not attack Sierra Leone to regain power. He said those who connived to attack in 1998 and then embarked on a witch-hunting mission to cower all perceived opponents would sooner or later realize that it’s worth not fighting for.

And one thing that amazed me - it still amazes me - was Momoh’s confidence that his party, the APC, would rule Sierra Leone again. He said it with the authority of a prophet. When I met him again in Freetown after the signing of the Lome Peace Accord with his Guinean wife, Momoh was still confident that his party would one day make a political comeback to power. I never realized it will be this soon. Good Night Berewa, Good Morning President Koroma! (Stay tuned for part three)