Analysis

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah’s Legacy (Part 1)

30 July 2006 at 22:27 | 510 views

"Although the creation of the Anti-Corruption Commission was greeted with great fanfare and optimism, most observers think it is still to live up to its task of fighting to eliminate or minimise corruption and promote good governance. There is no shortage of evidence pointing to an overwhelming interference of the other arms of government in the running of this commission."

Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, EXPO TIMES, Bristol

I know it is difficult for me to properly evaluate the performance of Tejan Kabbah as president of Sierra Leone after being (physically) out of the country for almost eight years. But thanks to the Internet for making our planet in the words of Marshall McLuhan ‘a global village’ and with my online newspaper (www.expotimes.net) coming for special mention, I have been able to keep in touch with developments in my country in such a way that renders my evaluation from a distance less problematic.

Another problem may well be to what extent can my experience working as a journalist who survived loads of political persecution under various regimes, including Kabbah’s, leading to my fleeing into exile, factor in my evaluation of his rule? It is indeed a tall order to give your appraisal of a regime under which you suffered indignation in the practice of your profession without letting that experience influence you. This is exactly what I have elected to achieve in this article which will run in series; I will try as best as possible to keep my distance from this experience so as to make my assessment stand the test of time. This article will examine Kabbah’s legacy along the following themes: Democracy, Human Rights, National unity, Peace and stability, Economic Growth and Development

Democracy

Kabbah’s second and final term ends in less than a year, and for all we know he looks poised to call it quits, if for nothing else but to keep to his word of not staying a day beyond his constitutional two terms. Kabbah’s second mandate ends in May 2007 but going by recent pronouncements by Speaker of Parliament Justice Cowan regarding the possible closure of parliament around this time and going strictly by the constitution, it should not come as a surprise if the goal posts for the transition are moved to a later date.

At least the president demonstrated good will when he bade farewell to MPs on June 23, emotionally recapping what he called the achievements of his government. He did add that he will be meeting them for a final farewell but did not go into details. While wild clouds still hang over the exact date that Kabbah will be taking his exit, I salute his courage and steadfastness in standing out as one of the few African leaders in living memory who willingly chose to respect the constitutional mandate of two presidential terms. This is good for democracy, especially in a country where people are still trying to come to terms with the idea of holding politicians accountable for their actions. But for a man who served the UN as a civil servant for over 15 years, he would have been foolhardy to have opted to do otherwise.

For a country just emerging from a protracted political crisis climaxing into an almost eleven year devastating civil war, Kabbah should be credited for what has been achieved so far in making democracy hold in Sierra Leone. At least we have some visible democratic structures such as the House of Parliament, the Ombudsman, the Law Courts, Local Government Councils, the National Electoral Commission, the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Media Complaints Commission to name a few. While recognising some fundamental shortcomings in the day-to-day operations of these structures, we must appreciate that at least they are up and running, and in a way helping to promote a sense of civic culture among the people of Sierra Leone which they need to hold their leaders to account.

The fact that Parliament is largely dominated by the ruling SLPP party is not very helpful for democracy as most government policies would pass parliamentary screening even if they are not in the public interest, and even if the opposition thinks otherwise. But that is the case even in many well established democracies in the West. This will only change when this domination of parliament by the ruling party is reduced to the level where the opposition would be in a position to block laws that are deemed to be inimical to the country’s progress.

That partly explains why the opposition parties need to put their acts together to give the ruling party a run for their money in the countdown to 2007. At least there is no evidence of any law, or laws, forced on the people of Sierra Leone by a presidential decree, without first meeting parliamentary approval. For all we know attempts have so far been made to strictly adhere to the constitution to the extent that even where amendments were made, for example the postponement of the last General Elections from 2001 to 2002 to make room for lost time caused by the civil crisis, and the setting up of the Special Court, attempts were made to seek parliamentary approval. For this we must credit Tejan Kabbah.

Much is yet to be heard about the upbeat role of the Ombudsman whose duty is to investigate complaints against public officials. We are yet to see substantial evidence of top government officials brought to book because of complaints lodged against them by members of the public. Be that as it may, one good thing about having the Ombudsman as an institution in our democratic polity is that his mere presence is enough to send a strong message to public officials to be careful in carrying out their functions.

There is evidence to suggest that thanks to assistance from the British Overseas development agency DFID (Department for International Development), successful structural and capacity building reforms were carried out in the judiciary, including the refurbishment of the Law Courts. Yet the handling of recent corruption cases, in most of which fingers were pointed at manipulation from above, has raised questions about the independence of the judiciary.

The empowering of local authorities largely made possible by the election of local councillors is no doubt a legacy that would long be associated with the Tejan Kabbah presidency. The local elections, in which the opposition APC party fared better than in the 2002 General Elections by capturing majority of the seats in the Western area, were conducted with little or no evidence of foul play. So far local councillors are busy formulating laws that directly affect their communities while they are at the same time serving as links between the central government and their people, and in this way making participatory democracy easier to realise.

The National Electoral Commission has conducted two General Elections and one Local Government Elections that are to a very large extent judged by local and international observers as free and fair. At least there is no evidence of deliberate interference by the Executive arm of government to influence the outcome of these elections. People are slowly getting used to the routine of voting into government people they think can deliver, and in a way seeing the electoral process as the only viable way of effecting a change of these people should they fall short of expectations. And so again as far as voting is concerned democracy seems to be on course.

Although the creation of the Anti-Corruption Commission was greeted with great fanfare and optimism, most observers think it is still to live up to its task of fighting to eliminate or minimise corruption and promote good governance. There is no shortage of evidence pointing to an overwhelming interference of the other arms of government in the running of this commission.

At least the case of former deputy finance minister Momoh Pujeh readily comes to mind. This commission is also yet to prove that it is different from many others we see in other parts of Africa where the choice of those who are to be investigated for alleged graft is dictated more by score settling desires directed at perceived political opponents than by fair play. There is so far no evidence of a zero tolerance approach by the commission to bring corruption suspects to book, and what is more, its working relations with the police, judiciary and the media are not good enough to warrant any hope that things might get better. Little wonder therefore that few people have confidence in this commission. While I, like many people, think that the idea of having the commission is a noble one, it is clear that the Kabbah presidency is not as pro-active as one would have expected to make it stand the test of time.

The idea of the Media Complaints Commission is a good one in as much as protecting the public is concerned although fears still persist that the bottom line of its existence is to curtail the watch-dog role of the local media. Government is yet to heed calls from press freedom advocacy groups such as the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists to make this commission as autonomous of government influence as possible so as to render it acceptable to journalists.

In the next instalment of this series, I will look at Tejan Kabbah’s legacy in the area of Human Rights where I will take a closer look, among other things, at his performance in the area of press freedom.

Photo: President Kabbah (centre) and national police chief Brima Acha Kamara (first from left).

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