Kabbah Tiger

19 October 2006 at 03:46 | 840 views

"Kabbah, who owes his emergence in political leadership to the military junta of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) of Valentine Strasser, has such a backlog of treasonable criminal offenses with the Sierra Leone government that political observers would not even have thought of him as a possible choice to head a committee mandated to search for a presidential candidate..."


By Gbanabom Hallowell

“The tiger does not boast of its tigritude.” -Wole Soyinka

As Sierra Leone braces itself for its first post-war presidential elections in 2007, I examine the presidency of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, who, after nine years (two terms) as controller of state machinery, will step down from that position and strongly push his vice president forward to succeed him. Outside of his party and constituency, Vice President Solomon Berewa hardly has a mandate of national franchise; therefore, in order to launch himself, he has to stem forth from whatever foundation his boss has built. The feeling that Kabbah, fundamentally speaking, has ever been the controller of Sierra Leone’s state machinery is certainly not generic among Sierra Leoneans. Even if a dichotomy cannot be negotiated between the president’s supporters and his detractors regarding the latter assertion, we can all agree that the leadership that steered the nation the last nine years has been and still is a rather unique one, mostly stumbling along its way, rather than sailing through it. Perhaps, a clear thesis might be couched in the form of a question: would President Kabbah’s leadership deficiency adversely affect the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) in the upcoming presidential elections?

Kabbah, who owes his emergence in political leadership to the military junta of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) of Valentine Strasser, has such a backlog of treasonable criminal offenses with the Sierra Leone government that political observers would not even have thought of him as a possible choice to head a committee mandated to search for a presidential candidate on behalf of a formidable party as the SLPP, which was poised to break the chains of political impotency that the All People’s Congress (APC), the erstwhile ruling party, had knotted around it in the last twenty something years. (The SLPP had lost political power to the APC shortly after it had inherited it from the colonial masters in the early 1960s.) Surprisingly, the head of a committee to locate presidential material for the SLPP was exactly what Kabbah became on the eve of political pluralism acceded to by the NPRC on the uncompromising demands of the civil society. Of what elements, then, is Kabbah made that he could come from an obscure background to assume the presidency of a troubled nation, which, by all accounts, needed a person of sterner stuff?

A lawyer by training, President Kabbah conducted his professional career mostly as a “silent” technocrat. When he was at home in Sierra Leone, he leaned heavily on government civil service employment, and when he was abroad, he was in the United Nations’ employment. Kabbah was not the go-getter type of technocrat, and, therefore, hardly competed for political office. Every position he had held, moderate administrative positions as they were, had been served to him on a silver platter. In Shakespearean parlance, Kabbah has always had power thrust down his throat. A soft speaker and a dutiful page turner on any podium and keeping strictly to written speech, Kabbah is never as urgent as the occasions over which he presides. For instance, during the war, whether he was talking to Sierra Leoneans from exile in a place where the world was desperately fighting to return him to power, or whether he was celebrating his return to political power, Kabbah counted his words, hid his emotions, demystified his epithets, created no surprises, and presided over, with the same lethargy, a vulnerable system. Even before he became a president, Kabbah was never too sure whether his destiny was conducting under his own star or that of his wife, Patricia, a lawyer herself, who died some four years ago.

When finally Kabbah’s name was paraded to fill the vacuum of SLPP leadership, references to his wife’s southern background strongly helped market his image. Closely observing Kabbah in the years of the civil war, I noticed that his political deficiency became more apparent after the death of his wife. There is no doubt that while his wife was alive but ailing, many party stalwarts distanced themselves from his administration, but for the sake of the party, they remained silent about his blunders.

Among the party stalwarts with whom Kabbah struggled was his then vice president, Albert Joe Demby, who, like Kabbah, was a political misfit. Demby, who is said to have financially bought himself a ticket to the vice presidency, saw Kabbah more like a party ”outsider” who had only been privileged the presidential position in order to give several national identities to the party at a time it was being smeared with all kinds of ethnic accusations. Unfortunately, Kabbah had not quite achieved the national image for which he was elected. Demby, on the other hand, had been led by the party rightists into believing that he was the true-blooded DNA material for the party leadership and that he was more than a vice president-a president in waiting. Therefore, with Patricia Kabbah now dead, and the sentimental bridge between her husband and the rest of the party broken afterward, Demby had the right to request Kabbah’s position.

After it became apparent that Kabbah was not the messiah for which Sierra Leoneans were yearning, questions regarding who Ahmed Tejan Kabbah really was began popping up. Until then, Kabbah’s stint with the United Nations had been enough to buy him the hearts of Sierra Leoneans. Before Kabbah, Sierra Leoneans had been used to having presidential material with more brawn than brain. With the United Nations behind him and a legal background in his resume’, Kabbah was certainly going to map a fertile cause for the country. He was considered a new breed of politician, one who had no relationship with the failed leaders the country wanted to remember no more. The country perceived him as one whose history began from the time he came to Sierra Leone’s political limelight from the UN, where it was widely believed, he had perfected the true art and science of bailing out failed states like Sierra Leone. To paraphrase Kenneth Kettle, who writes about the Nigerian writer, Cyprian Ekwensi, as quoted in Eustace Palmer’s critical analysis of African novelists , if Kabbah was not repeating his political blunders, he was stumbling upon spectacular new ones. Thus failing the nation and disappointing every hopeful citizen, his detractors gathered the courage to revisit and rewrite the history of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah as he truly was.

A very disturbing past in Kabbah’s professional career was a 1967 Commission of Inquiry set to investigate an alleged fraud at the nation’s then only agricultural monitoring and producing body, the Sierra Leone Producing Marketing Board (SLPMB). The SLPMB, notorious for the corruption of its officials, suffered great financial losses and collapsed the nation’s dream of food self-sufficiency at the time Kabbah was working there. Although Kabbah had escaped detention and gone abroad while the inquiry was being conducted, the commission continued to investigate him and later found him culpable of the charges. The government seized his houses and any other assets he had made for himself while he was in Sierra Leone. As part of President Kabbah’s administration’s campaign to distort this truth, Sierra Leoneans who dared to broach the topic were pursued with treasonable vendetta. Paul Kamara, editor of For Di People newspaper and a fearless journalist, was sentenced to a four-year jail term for publishing excerpts of the commission’s report.


Below is a selection of Kabbah’s political resume. Note the stress on religion and ethnicity:

President Kabbah was born in Pendembu, Kailahun District, in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone, on 16 February 1932. His family, educational, and religious backgrounds reflect the diversity and high level of tolerance that generally characterize the people of his West African homeland.

Born of Moslem parentage and a devout Moslem himself, President Kabbah received his secondary education at St. Edward’s, the oldest Catholic secondary school in the country. President Kabbah also married a Catholic, the late Patricia Kabbah, nee Tucker, who hailed from the Southern Province.

Up until Kabbah’s arrival at the nation’s political platform, an islamic background was not a viable ticket to the Sierra Leone presidency. The farthest any Sierra Leonean with an islamic background had gone was the vice presidency. That record was established by Sorie I. Koroma of the APC under the presidency of Siaka Stevens, who was followed by A.B. Kamara of the same party under the presidency of Joseph Saidu Momoh. Despite the current statistics that shows Muslims in the country at 60%, indigenous beliefs 30% and Christians 10%, statistics that to a large extent echo previous ones, the political reality is that while Sierra Leoneans who maintain an islamic faith are in the majority in the country, the mantle of leadership is largely in the circle of Sierra Leoneans who maintain a Christian faith. While Kabbah’s political emergence is a religious shuttle in the Christian crypt, his Islamic orientation is not likely to matter when he vacates power. The current leadership of the APC and the SLPP are Christian dominated.

Does religion play a major role in the politics of Sierra Leone? Certainly, the arrival of an Islamic president in the person of Kabbah in 1996 bought Sierra Leone a new round of excited friends from Libya, Iran, Egypt, and Nigeria, (the latter a multi-religious state with a strong Moslem leadership headed by Sani Abacha, which practically saved the presidency of Kabbah.)

Politics in Sierra Leone since independence has tended to be Anglo-Saxon in nature, deriving much of its tradition from Britain’s Downing Street tradition. We need not be reminded that Sierra Leone was colonized by the British. Before that and beginning with slavery, the two countries have shared many intellectual and cultural values. Even with Islam consuming 60% of the population and Christianity just 10%, the social institutions in the country overwhelmingly have a Western Christian outlook. This kind of political contract has its roots in what Mazrui (1990) considers “a fusion of religion with sovereignty in this treaty as the religion of the prince was deemed to be the religion of the principality, the king’s faith was the faith of the kingdom” (p.19) Mazrui further points out that in such a contract, (p.19) “the decision to equate the religion of the king with the religion of the kingdom was a principle of no interference in the different princes’ internal religious affairs.” This statement was especially true of the APC presidency in the 1970s and 1980s. Islam maintained the cultural power while Christianity maintained the political power. At the center of this arrangement was the not-so hierarchically organized indigenous religion, which at one time was very popular because politically minded Moslems and Christians alike consulted it to conjure themselves to political leadership.

Although Sierra Leoneans generally tend to look upon themselves as religiously tolerant, the reality is that the official face of Sierra Leone has continued to be predominantly Christian. While the circumstances surrounding Kabbah’s presidency cannot be primarily explained in the context of Islam, it must be noted that Islam played a subtle role in Kabbah’s prominence in the 1996 elections. After Kabbah had dutifully served the military government of the NPRC, the SLPP, which by then had established a very good relationship with the junta, inherited the lawyer from the junta for its future struggle. However, Kabbah was not a prince in the eyes of the SLPP; instead, he was more like a consultant on whom the SLPP banked to save the party from any legal mess in the event that the constitution finds it wanting. About this time, the SLPP was then a little relaxed on its fear of an APC comeback because most of that party’s henchmen were either in junta lockup or in exile.

Later as the pressure on the military junta piled up to vacate power, the need for party consolidation became a necessity. If the junta were going to be chased out of power, it certainly could fuse into one of the political parties: the SLPP came in handy. For a starter, SLPP and the NPRC had a mutual friend in Kabbah. Although Kabbah still had the SLPMB stigma in his historical cupboard, not many people were aware of it. All that anyone knew about him then was that he had helped the NPRC draft the nation’s constitution(wich was later discarded).Again, it should be clear as to why Kabbah’s criminal past did not automatically surface -he had never had a political struggle for office, or any cutting-edge past anyone can remember. Even at the international level, the name of Ahmed Kabbah never racked up any memory of political or leadership envy compared to John Karefa-Smart and Abass Bundu, international figures of worth, and members of other political parties, who put them up against the presidential bid of Kabbah in the 1996 elections.


John Karefa-Smart, an octogenarian politician, is said to have been the man whose obstinacy opened the door of political leadership for Ahmed Kabbah. Given that Karefa-Smart, who had served almost every government in Sierra Leone since independence, and who, was attached to the founding of the SLPP, was tapped for the leadership after the SLPP realized that if it did not need to move beyond its ethnic and geographical quarters in order to attract to its top leadership people of other groups, by any stretch of the imagination, the race might not be in their favor. The last nightmare the SLPP was going to experience again was APC’s return to power. The SLPP had almost crumbled into oblivion in the twenty something year reign of the APC. It had seen its many strong members prostituted for political office. The few hardliners the APC did not crack suffered under the weight of its power. Nevertheless, an argument may be made that the SLPP was then paying the price of its own evil intentions. Under the leadership of Albert Margai, for instance, the party indulged in a politics of territorial bifurcation. Although the spirit of nationalism had indiscriminately brought under the wings of the party “patriots” from every ethnic group, very soon, the southeasterners began laying the strongest claim to the party, and with Albert Margai pushing the country to a single party system, politics became polarized forever!

Although Albert Margai showed a stronger political leadership than did his brother, Milton Margai, whom he succeeded, Albert, sowed the gelatinous seeds of political infertility that dictators like Siaka Stevens sailed on throughout his tumultuous leadership. Therefore, by 1967, the SLPP was no longer a truly national political party. It had become a party of the Mende ethnic group. By this time, the northerners and their political leaders were struggling to identify themselves with a party of their own. They had been late to wake up to the reality that the SLPP, a party born in the north, was already the sole property of the southeasterners and their political leaders. When the Krios and the northerners founded the APC, rumor has it that many of those present urged Siaka Stevens and other important figures to name the party SLAPC, meaning Sierra Leone All People’s Congress, as long as it competed with the SLPP in order to have a national outlook in name even if not in character.

By then, the political drama was very tense with the British colonialists edging out of the country’s economic arena they still wanted to be in. However, the Krios and some northerners had successfully undermined the British, the British, in turn, plotted against every one of their detractors who thought of inheriting their position. The contest eventually cleared a path for the SLPP, which by now was an entrenched southeastern political voice. Milton Margai was later called to Britain to walk on a red carpet. He returned home with the blessings of the queen to take the reins of power from the British. The silver platter power the British handed to Milton Margai did not wait long to reveal its ugly face, and as Gordon writes,

"The transfer of power to African decision makers was expected to end political repression and allow the perceived wealth of the former colony, siphoned off to Europe, to bring quick relief and instant economic progress to African professionals, businesspeople, artisans, and the huge ranks of the poor."

Perhaps the SLPP was too excited about the leadership of the country to foresee the risks involved in receiving power from a colonial master who still had an eye on the riches in the colony. The British left behind what Gordon calls landlocked geographical units. The SLPP had the duty of introducing true democracy to a colony that never knew democracy under the British, and these “were essentially alien structures hastily superimposed over the deeply ingrained political legacies of imperial rule.” The northern and Krio political detractors did not make it any easier for the SLPP. Legend has it that the northerners were surreptitiously slaughtering domestic animals, creating every possible horrible sight in public places, and blaming the act on the SLPP’s desire to sacrifice human flesh for political answers to the country’s mounting problems. The SLPP was torn between the proverbial rock and hard place. The British continued to scavenge for resources and for the promotion of their culture. I have written elsewhere that

"Sir Milton Margai, Sierra Leone’s first Prime Minister, and a rural man who inherited the British legacy, had only to think British and act British. Any attempt by Margai to modify the game, in consideration of our values, would have shattered the foundation of his political authority."

When finally the northerners, with the support of the Krios, had succeeded in forming a formidable opposition in the name of the APC, they sabotaged the developmental programs of the SLPP by convincing the voters to look upon the draconian rule of the SLPP as imperial as that of the British. Many had not forgotten how they suffered under the British. Therefore, in the 1967 elections,the APC swept the mandate, and for the next twenty something years, the SLPP was rendered only unconsciously alive, surviving on the feeding tube of the APC.


During the war, no one had the privilege of knowing what the Kabbah administration policy was on anything. It did not matter how lengthy or how long radio programs were in the country, never was anyone going to hear any of the position taken by the Kabbah administration regarding the war, security, the economy, the unruly military, the uncontrolled militia, and the deadly conflict because there was nothing the SLPP government could offer the people of Sierra Leone. As it was, the Kabbah administration had its ears to the international radios, waiting to know what the UN Security Council, the, Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the British Government, or the U.S. Government had decided about Sierra Leone. The news afterward, instantly reached Sierra Leoneans via international radios. It was only then that the government radio, with its anachronistic rendition of the national anthem, cleared the path for the president to inform the nation what was going to happen in Sierra Leone. The SLPP government had become a laughingstock. Didn’t Mazrui remind us that “...those who capture the state will discover that they are captured by it”?

Even among his friends, hardly anyone has shown enthusiasm for President Kabbah’s administration. The problem these friends and indeed most citizens have with Kabbah is not so much about what he didn’t achieve, but what he didn’t do right. With his most recent detractor, Emmanuel Grant, a former ally and Minister of Energy and Power who dared to paint a very poor image of both President Kabbah and the SLPP, the list of cronies who have vacated the president continues to pile. Among them is James Jonah, who had been Kabbah’s ally since their days in the UN. He had rallied to Kabbah’s call when the prospect of the latter became apparent that he was going to run as candidate for the SLPP. It would not be a surprise that Jonah might have been talked into accepting the leadership of the electioneering wheel by their boss, UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, who remains the only friend not to abandon Kabbah, even when it is apparent to him that Kabbah is a failed president. As for Jonah, he threw off the unbearable gauntlet of the Kabbah incompetence and bade Kabbah and his administration goodbye.

It is important to turn back the wheel of time to see what a few other people think of Kabbah. Ghana, the second most West African ally of Kabbah during the Sierra Leone civil conflict, poured not only a lot of money, human, and technical resources to ensure stability for Kabbah’s administration but also from time to time Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings dispatched his officials to visit Sierra Leone to help Kabbah with policy matters regarding the prosecution of the war. Fed-up with the ineptitude of President Kabbah, the Ghanaian leader at some point let the world to know, via the BBC, that he didn’t think highly of Kabbah and his administration. This statement came at the height of a military blunder caused by Chief Hinga Norman, who was the deputy minister of defense and who doubles as the head of the kamajor militia.

Norman’s divided attention led to a broken national army. Kabbah, who was the Grand Chief Commander of the military forces, stood by as Norman made it difficult for the military to prosecute the war. Ghanaian soldiers, like their Nigerian counterparts, became trapped in the quagmire in which a national army had become second fiddle to a local militia. Norman’s greed and military blunders greatly affected Kabbah, who did not know how to address the situation. The Ghanaian leader was greatly disturbed by the indiscriminate killings of his soldiers; he drastically reduced the number of his soldiers in Sierra Leone and redefined the presence of those left there in non-combative positions.

Perhaps the most troubling desertion was that of Charles Margai, a formerly important voice in the SLPP and the son of the party’s former leader, Albert Margai. Although Charles Margai’s breakaway from the SLPP does not in any way increase his chances of clinching the presidency of Sierra Leone in 2007, it will significantly sink the national promise of a rather hopeful incumbent. The circumstances that led Margai and Ambassador John Leigh, the latter (who later made amends with the party) a less threatening, but vocal SLPP member, to break away were blown out of proportion. The failure of the leadership of the SLPP to frustrate Margai from pursuing his plans of establishing his own political party showed the level of decay that had eaten into the fabric of the party. No sooner had Margai established his party, than members began slipping off the SLPP to join him. It is not only embarrassing to see a party in power losing its members to a new party, but also this desertion underscores that Kabbah is heading a disgruntled bunch of people, many of who are not only leaving the party but also would turn around and talk about the seismic future of the SLPP.


In running his government, Kabbah exhibits the hopefulness of V. S. Naipaul’s fictional character, Mahesh in A Bend in the River. Like Mahesh, Kabbah is a photographer, committed to turning his political camera to the West, where he continues to look for workable policies as well as money to run his government. Naipaul’s description of Mahesh is apt for Kabbah:

"The cameras were one of Mahesh’s ideas that had gone wrong. Mahesh was like that, always looking for the good business idea, and full of little ideas he quickly gave up. He had thought that the tourist trade was about to start again, with our town being the base for the game parks... But the tourist trade existed only in the posters printed in Europe..."

In reality, the camera has been a valuable instrument not only for development but also for conflict control. Kabbah has never relied on his “little ideas:” instead, he gave up quickly on those in favor of the “touristic” ones from Europe. The danger was that whenever he wanted them to be real, they failed him. Europe and the outside world were never actually interested in what Kabbah wanted. They cared only about what they saw as a necessary promoter of their own agenda. Kabbah has always told Sierra Leoneans how much he relied on his international friends to help him help Sierra Leone develop. Kabbah doesn’t seem to know that international friends must not always be brought to the same room at the same time. While Kabbah had the right to choose his friends, he certainly also has the responsibilities to be not only discreet but also discerning. For instance, Kabbah’s continued association with Libya’s Gaddafi has raised a few eyebrows in the West. Whatever the size and economic deficiency of Sierra Leone, its diamonds buried underneath are notorious for being bloody and supportive of Islamic fundamental terrorism. The West thinks of Sierra Leone as a soft sport for terrorism because of its diamonds. Paradoxically speaking, because of our country’s chronic persistent poverty, and the leaders’ insatiable greed and corrupt tendencies, our diamonds are considered nuclear weapons of mass destruction. By 2001, the West began believing that Al Jazeera and Hezbollah had infested Sierra Leone with their terrorist tendencies. Hezbollah actually does have a following in Sierra Leone. The following paragraph appears in the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin:

"The fact that most Lebanese merchants have close family and business connections in Syrian-occupied Lebanon makes them extremely vulnerable to Hezbollah threats. "There’s a lot of social pressure and extortionate pressure brought to bear: ’You had better support our cause, or we’ll visit your people back home,’" explains Larry Andre, the deputy chief of mission for the US Embassy in Sierra Leone. "They’re asking for contributions . . . Will they use threats? Sure," says Joseph Melrose, one of Andre’s predecessors. Because so much of the trade is illegal, victims of Hezbollah extortion are reluctant to seek protection from the authorities."

A glimpse into the scale of Hezbollah profits from the diamond trade came in December 2003, when a Union des Transports Africains (UTA) airliner loaded with Lebanese passengers crashed off the coast of Benin - on board, according to news reports and Western diplomats in Sierra Leone, was a Hezbollah courier carrying $2 million.

Whereas Hezbollah derives revenue in Sierra Leone primarily through extortion of Lebanese merchants, in the Congo, which has been wracked by civil war since 1998, Hezbollah operatives "muscled their way into the business" and began purchasing diamonds directly from miners and local middlemen at a fraction of their market value. The highest quality stones are sold in the Belgian diamond marketing hub of Antwerp, while the bulk are sold in emerging diamond markets where the organization can operate more freely, such as Bombay and Dubai.

How does the president of a neutral country convince its many international friends that the Sierra Leone government does not support or condone any terrorist behavior? While the Lebanese prate about their citizenry in Sierra Leone, they are forever tied to the biological concerns of Lebanon. Therefore, they have become a threat to Sierra Leone’s development. When an immigrant force, like the Lebanese who maintain the jingoistic patriotism of the first home country, controls the economy of the second home country, the interest of the second home country is only as important as long as it can be milked to support the interest of the first home country. The biggest weapons these Sierra Leonean-Lebanese use to fund the various fighters in Lebanon are the Sierra Leone diamonds. A diamond rich neutralist country like Sierra Leone can easily find itself in international terrorism mix-up after the events of September 11, 2001.


After five years of absence from Sierra Leone, I returned to conduct a writer’s workshop in July of 2006 and did not help noticing that the provision of electrical power had become the individual private enterprise of the citizens. There were two large corporations the people could turn to: The duty was divided between two leaders. By day, God provided the electricity of sunlight, and by night, small Honda generators from Asia, with a brand name known as “Tiger” with unbearable noise pollution, provided light for them. My suspicion is that someone who wanted to associate generator pollution and other regularly occurring fatal accidents to a national breakdown and state failure, found a way of linking the problem to the leadership crisis of the Kabbah government. An appropriate antithetical name chosen to ridicule the lackluster Kabbah administration was, Kabbah Tiger!

About the author:
Gbanabom Hallowell(photo) received the 1996 Young Global Leadership Award from World Economic Forum. Author of Tears of the Sweet Peninsula: May 25, 1997 & the Sierra Leone Civil Conflict, Hallowell is on the English faculties of Prince George’s & Howard Community colleges in Maryland, USA.