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Democracy and Rule of Law: The legacy of President Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabba

Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella shares his thoughts on Sierra Leone’s Peace Maker president, Alhaji Ahmed Tejan Kabba who passed away on Thursday, March 13, 2014 at the age of 82.

This week we lost a patriot – former President Alhaji Ahmed Tejan Kabba. I visited Pa Kabba and his wife Mrs. IJ Kabba in January this year thinking in my heart that it could be the last time I might get to see him. I told him about my speech at the Freetown Dinner Club two weeks earlier. He simply nodded and smiled a little. I told him that the nation did not fully understand why his focus on institution building was so critical for national development, and hence, could not fully appreciate his legacy. Again, he nodded and smiled.

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In the United Nations we say, “Without Peace there can be no development, without development peace cannot be secured, and both cannot be attained without a commitment to human rights and the rule of law”. In this one statement we capture the universality of four key principles: Peace and Security for All, Development and prosperity for All, Protection of Human Rights and Commitment to the Rule of Law.

When they assumed office in 1996, Ahmed Tejan Kabba, Pa Demby, Pa Berewa, and James Jonah, (Kabba and Jonah being true products of UN “structuralism”) recognized that if Sierra Leone was to avoid future conflicts and prosper, it was urgent to rebuild the institutions of governance and security, and quickly institutionalize democracy and the rule of law. It is noteworthy that for almost three decades, out of our 53 years history as an independent nation state, we were governed under one-party rule or Marshall Law.

The rule of law – Kabba’s Legacy

Thanks to President Tejan Kabba, we achieved peace after 11 years of war. That was not easy to achieve, it took statesmanship and bold leadership to forgive the rebels and sign the peace accord. If you think peace is cheap or easy, ask the people of South Sudan, ask the Columbians, or better still, read about the American Civil war. Thanks to that peace, three peaceful elections have been held. Thanks to that peace, President Ernest Bai Koroma and his team could focus on infrastructure, attracting foreign direct investment, and providing universal health care.

Once he and I reminisced about how some strong-men and women in the party were bent on revenge, and the majority of the cabinet, opposed the signing of the Lome Peace Accord (with threats of resignations others were gunning for vengeance). But he and Mr. Solomon Berewa took the decision to forgive Foday Sankoh, the RUF and all others for the sake of peace. Some parading today as leaders or claiming to be politicians were unknown until Pa. Kabba gave them a chance at national service. In fact, they would have been in jail had it not been for a forgiving President Kabba and Solomon Berewa as Attorney General both of whom refused to prosecute and instead asked the nation to forgive them their sins.

On another occasion, we reminisced about my trip to Sierra Leone on January 4, 1999 with Special Envoy, Ambassador Okelo to warn Pa Kabba about the impending advance of five rebel squads on Freetown. On December 25th 1999, the UN had evacuated non-essential staff and their families (and those of us on home-leave) to hotel Kamayane in Conakry. After an internal briefing by Ambassador Peter Penfold and Ambassador Okello to the UN Observer Mission and UN staff at the hotel, I volunteered to return with Okello on the helicopter to brief President Kabba. The rebels reached Freetown on January 6th and General Joshi organized another final evacuation. I was on the first airlift to Lungi that fateful day.

What did his government achieve?

So what are specific examples of Kabba’s legacy? Let me repeat part of my speech at the Freetown Dinner Club on December 22, 2013. A decade of war destroyed everything we held dear. Our sense of dignity was shaken, it uprooted and displaced almost half of our population and badly degraded key administrative and governance institutions (see Robert David Kaplan 1994, The Coming Anarchy, and Paul Collier, 2007, The Bottom Billion). So the Government at that time started almost from ground zero, rebuilding every institution one-by-one and brick-by-brick.

Through his leadership as President of the Republic, and supported by the clergy, civil society and the international community, his government asked us to forgive each other and even allowed the RUF to form a party, similar to Mandela forgiving the Afrikaners.

His government launched major reconstruction efforts which laid plans for major infrastructure projects. Institutions such as NASSIT were established (guaranteeing every worker in the public sector and the private sector a pension). Today, former ministers and former heads of state enjoy pensions and after service benefits because Pa. Kabba personally put a bill before parliament to that effect (and H.E. Ernest Bai Koroma graciously chose to uphold the law after he assumed the mantle of state). Several other institutions were created through acts of parliament proposed by the Kabba Administration e.g. the National Revenue Authority (NRA) was created (bringing some sanity to fiscal management), the Anti-Corruption Commission was formed (to deal with probity in governance), the privatization commission, and the roads authority was also strengthened.

His administration rebuilt local Councils which were dissolved in the 1970s devolving some authority back to the provinces and empowering local communities. The team institutionalized democracy with a functioning multi-party (as opposed to one party) parliament and free media. They were so successful that we have had three peaceful elections from 2002-2012, and the ruling party was defeated in an election as a hallmark of a strong democracy. Some in his party buried his legacy because they expected him to subvert the democracy he worked hard to recreate by reversing the results of the 2007 election. As one journalist said just before the end of the administration, they became “a mumu-government”. Some vilified him and claimed that he was ineffective and had destroyed their party (forgetting that the only time the party showed a national character with a landslide victory was in 2002 mainly because of Pa. Kabba’s Northern roots and national appeal, in elections declared to be free and fair by the international community).

Under his leadership, his administration rebuilt the Education & Health infrastructure – rebuilt schools destroyed during the war laying the foundation to increase school enrolment particularly for the girl child. Health centers or posts were also rebuilt in almost every chiefdom in the provinces staffed with qualified health care workers. The administration rebuilt the security apparatus with the support of DFID and IMAAT (revamped the police -remember IG Keith Biddle) and rebuilt an army that had been badly fragmented. The revival of popular music culture criticising the status quo was re-instated during his time as President; remember “Borbor Belleh” and “Two Foot Arata”, that popular discontent helped to bring President Koroma to power. Ah yes, his administration also left significant cash in the reserves.

How should we remember the former President?

He should be remembered as our own Abraham Lincoln. Ending a brutal war, re-establishing the rule of law, freedom of the press, and rebuilding democratic institutions were challenges he confronted for the good of Sierra Leone. As a nation, we should be humbled by his leadership and be inspired by his commitment to reconciliation – peace that we enjoy today. Could he have done more? Yes! Like any human being, he had his challenges, but he did what he could (under the circumstances of a war-torn and penniless country) to lay the foundation for a new nation to rise out of the ashes of 11 years of war. We have just lost a giant. May his soul rest in perfect peace.

About the author: Dr. Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella is Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations and the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Sustainable Energy for All and Chief Executive Officer of the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative. Previously, he was a two-term Director-General of the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

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