Barring his admitted inability to recall dates, numbers and names, one does not need to be an admirer of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to agree that his performance on Friday at the UN-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone was sterling.
In testifying as a defence witness in the trial of the former interim leader of the rebel Revolutionary United Front, the man who had almost always sounded boring to me – may be because of his long-standing years as a diplomat – was substantially awake. I think he passed, with distinction, the test to his nerves. Hardly will any high-profile witness, not least a former president, take to the witness stand without being nerve-racked. He sounded measured, not sleepy was typical of him as president. Even if he digressed at times, he nevertheless remained sharp and focused.
Before I get to the crux of this piece just a word on international justice jurisprudence. Why is it that when it comes to (former) African leaders the rules are different? The International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia wanted the British and US leaders, Tony Blair and George Bush, to testify in the trial of the now late former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, not even a cock crowed. And I bet that even if the two Serb fugitives, Radovan Karadzic and Malcolm Ladic were arrested in next February, the former British premier and the then former US president will not be obliged to testify in their trial even if they were subpoenaed. And there will be no fuss like there was here during the delays in Mr Kabbah appearing before the court.
I am happy that the former president has got this off his neck and he must be feeling relieved and proud of his performance. But I honestly feel that the court should have made him do so in video. If this is not Western double standards which Africans get caught up in as pawns (by working with and for them), I wonder what it is.
In fact, their reference to the former president in court on Friday made no difference to the way they would have referred to any other witness, including a former killer rebel. You don’t need to like your former president to request that he be given the basic respect befitting his (former) status. Even though it is unthinkable, let us for a minute assume that a former American, British or French leader was in the witness stand. There would be far more courtesy accorded him than that accorded PRESIDENT Kabbah. You would bet your life they would still refer to him as if he were a sitting president or premier.
Anyway! Towards the end of the first part of his testimony, former president Kabbah took a swipe at some sections of the media. Even though, I think, his apparent frustration made him hit some undeserving target such as generalising about the media some of whom have been top notch, and the Special Court Media Unit which is not responsible for how media houses editorialise what is sent out to them, I think Mr Kabbah made some points which we as journalists, especially certain of us, should consider.
He lamented the hyper-euphoric manner in which some sections of the press had been reporting on his pending testimony in court, to the extent that in some of them, postulations and untruths beclouded reasoning. Surely if we do not revere a president that stuck to his term limit in the Africa that we know, and generally guaranteed our basic freedoms, we certainly must not denigrate him.
One of the reasons many African leaders cling on to power is the uncertainty that their retirement behoves, both from their successors and from the public. For a president who ruled with an iron fist or like Satan’s representative on earth, may be yes. But that is definitely not what Kabbah was. And this is one area I think President Ernest Bai Koroma performs with distinction, second, perhaps, only to the provision of electricity to Freetown.
President Koroma has not disguised his respect and admiration for his predecessor. He has not only said so, but has also manifested so. Attending the former president’s wedding when his [Kabbah’s] own anointed successor as party leader, Solomon Berewa was conspicuously absent, was a national service by the president.
It is very uncommon in Africa, not least in Sierra Leone, to see a former head of state relinquish power to the opposition. Not only that, stay in the country and be allowed to stay with dignity and respect. I am not a great admirer of his presidency because I think we had squandered opportunities because he allowed a lot of his appointees to misbehave and pillage the nation’s resources without prompting action from him, and did not show leadership in addressing the apparent killing of journalist Harry Yansanneh, but I feel he generally had some democratic credentials none before him had exuded.
It is therefore unfair that we should tear him apart by discussing issues that are too personal and unsubstantiated, and do not bother on state interest by a miniscule. For example, listing, in a newspaper, the names of women alleged to have been his girlfriends is most unfair to a former head of state.
To watch all of this happen is a fertile disincentive to the current president or even future ones, who will be spending more time thinking of how their exclusively private life with no bearing whatsoever on their presidency will come to hound them in the future. I am not saying that if such relationships compromised the (former) president’s office they should be swept under the carpet. No! In that case, it borders on public interest. But bringing them out merely to embarrass them is grossly unfair.
The way we deal with former president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah will set the stage for a play in which the personae will be former heads of state. Let us leave them to perform a comedy and not a tragedy. So that more and more will look forward to taking to the stage. Let us prove Malcolm Forbes wrong when he said, “Retirement kills more people than hard work ever did”.
But with this I leave you:
“Oh Winter! Ruler of the inverted year, …
I crown thee king of intimate delights,
Fireside enjoyments, home-born happiness,
And all the comfort that the lowly roof Of undisturb’d Retirement,
and the hours Of long uninterrupted evening, know.
William Cowper (1731 – 1800).
Good luck Manchester United as Wednesday approaches. Never mind the Arsenal fans who have suddenly become pro-Chelsea. See you on Friday.
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Awoko Publications has exclusive property right over “Think Tank”. Any reproduction thereof requires the expressed permission of the publisher. By Umaru Fofana