By Patrick Hassan-Morlai, London, UK.
Pursuant to powers vested in our Parliament and its Committee on Appointments and Public Service, Major(Rtd) Alfred Palo Conteh(pictured) is now Sierra Leone’s new Minister of Defence and National Security.
The combination of defence and national security is a novelty, as far as this writer can recall. In recent times, erstwhile President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah held the position of Minister of Defence throughout his tenure and at some point, Chief Hinga Norman, of blessed memory, deputised him.
But this piece is not a history discourse. It is a commentary on current political events taking place in Sierra Leone and, in particular, about one figure - the man who is the new boss of the defence and security apparatus in that country. Just before embarking on finding out who this man was, is and will likely be, it appears prudent to comment on one preliminary issue here, i.e. the choice of President Koroma’s ministers.
As his Excellency marshals his team of cabinet ministers, there are murmurs here and there that his team, so far, is made up largely of his fellow old boys of the Magburaka Government Secondary School for Boys and/or his colleagues in the insurance industry. Rightly or wrongly, the President has to have some point of reference for selecting his cabinet. This may be from past work, academic or other experiences appertaining to the would-be ministers. Ministerial appointments may also be based on outstanding professional or career achievements as well as one’s political loyalty to the party in power.
President Koroma needs a cabinet to advise him in the governance of the country. It is within his exclusive province to appoint ministers and deputy ministers from among suitably qualified Sierra Leoneans. He just cannot be faulted in his choice of ministers but it is hoped that when the President so exercises his power of appointment, he does so with a view to setting up a team that is capable of making immediate and positive change, which the ordinary Sierra Leoneans will sooner rather than later realise. It is also hoped that as His Excellency preaches national reconciliation and unity, his cabinet appointments should reflect this.
Major Palo Conteh now happens to be one of the President’s appointees. He, like his colleagues to be, is expected to help the president and his party deliver much needed development in Sierra Leone. Major Conteh, in particular, will give the President a hand to steer Sierra Leone to unremitting peace, security and national unity. But who is Retired Major Alfred Palo Conteh?
We first stumbled into each other in the east end of London in an academic setting in February 2006. The American educated Professor of human rights, Chandra Sriram, was teaching a postgraduate law course, War and Human Rights, at the University of East London. I was not sure whether there was going to be anyone from a war-torn country in the class to share their real life experience of war and human rights. So, I prepared thoroughly to give my experience to the conglomerate of students from as far away as India, the US, mainland Europe and other African countries. I was indeed satisfied with my presentation and saw nods of approval from Professor Sriram.
Just as I completed my presentation, the professor called for comments and other contributions on Sierra Leone. I then heard this eloquent and erudite contribution from a man who truly sounded like an insider. As my contribution was based on my few months behind rebel lines and refugee camps, academic research and journalistic analysis, this man’s account of war and human rights in Sierra Leone was truly from a man who was part of the system and it was first hand.
At coffee break, I learnt that that eloquent man is a retired Sierra Leonean army officer who attained the rank of major by 1990. Since that chance meeting, Major Conteh and I maintained regular contact.
In October 2006, a month before Major(Rtd) Conteh graduated with an LLM in human rights, we had another opportunity to meet and discuss Sierra Leone. This time, it was in the company of Special Court Appeals Judge Geoffrey Robertson.
Professor Sriram had invited the judge to deliver the inaugural public lecture of the newly established University of East London’s Centre on Human Rights in Conflict. After his lecture, we had an audience with Judge Robertson. As he learnt that we are Sierra Leooneans, the Judge then said “Sierra Leonean lawyers and law students abroad and in the UK in particular, should come home to participate in the new dawn of a Sierra Leone where the rule of law is firmly rooted.” (See Patriotic Vanguard: Special Court Judge Meets Law Students http://www.thepatrioticvanguard.com/article.php3?id_article=859 [29 Oct 2006]).
As if this was a personal and direct plea to him, Major Conteh took an active role in the recently concluded parliamentary and presidential elections in Sierra Leone. He in fact stayed in Sierra Leone for most of the elections period. But when Mr. Balogun Koroma in the Vice President’s office delivered the glad tidings of his nomination as Minister of Defence and National Security, the Retired Major confided in me that this was a surprise and huge challenge. He however, stated that this was another call to national service as he had done in the past: first as an army officer cadet in 1976 through to December 1992 when the National Provisional Ruling Council retired him from the army.
Perusing through his credentials and information gathered from reliable sources, I came to the conclusion that this is a man with the right training, adequate professional experience and enviable career exposure to run such a ministry. As I put my observations to him and being very modest, Major(Rtd) Conteh simply said his return to Sierra Leone was long overdue and added “but for my forced retirement from the army, I would have returned to Sierra Leone long before now or just after I was called to the Bar of England and Wales in 1992.” As fate may have it, our Minister of Defence stayed in the Queen’s realm, as a fellow at Inner Temple, practising law as a barrister.
Major(Rtd) Conteh’s professional career was not all law. Following his recruitment into the Sierra Leone army in 1976, he proceeded to the Egyptian War Academy where he pursued a two-year officer cadet training. On successful completion of that programme, Officer Conteh was commissioned Second Lieutenant in 1978 and posted as Platoon Commander in charge of training recruits at Benjuema Training Centre.
In 1981, officer Conteh was transferred to the Military Police Unit as Commanding Officer and with this position, he became the first Military Police Officer. He earned himself the reputation of a firm and fair disciplinarian. He earned his promotion to the rank of Captain in 1983. In 1986, he proceeded to the United Kingdom to study law and graduated with a University of London LLB (law) Honours degree in 1990.
After a year’s practice at the English Bar, Major(Rtd) Conteh sought a different spice in his career ascendancy. West London private law college, Holborn School of Law, offered the Retired Major the position of course coordinator. He tutored law students at this prestigious institution from 1993 to 1996.
As one who always yearns for challenges and higher heights because (as he put it) “these prepare me well for future leadership responsibility in Sierra Leone”, Palo Conteh accepted a job offer in Her Majesty’s Department for Work and Pensions as a team leader in the fraud prosecutions unit at the Benefits Agency Section. Between 1996 and 2007, Conteh conducted his prosecutorial duties with distinguished record and commitment. Within his busy schedule, he was able to successfully complete the LLM in Human Rights at the University of East London in November 2006.
Major(Rtd) Conteh tells me he is a proud and staunch APC party member. He chaired the APC-UK Branch from 1993 to 2001. Thereafter and until his nomination as minister, the Retired Major was APC-UK Branch party coordinator. Major(Rtd) Conteh was born at Wilberforce in Freetown. He is a keep fit fanatic who played handball and volleyball for the Sierra Leone army. During his career in the army, Major(Rtd) Conteh was 400m army national record holder and this record is believed to have remained unbroken for over 20 years. Conteh happens to believe that north London Tottenham Hotspurs is the best football club in the English premiership and as such he holds a club membership card and religiously attends all its home matches.
The retired army officer says, in politics and issues of national reconciliation, his role model is Nelson Mandela; and in the field of law, he gets inspiration from Michael Mansfield, QC.
Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Sierra Leoneans, I hereby present to you our all rounder Minister of Defence and National Security, Major(Rtd) Alfred Palo Conteh.