Justice in Sierra Leone – What if president Koroma had arrested Bio for treason?

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 22 June 2020:

Recalling a major security incident that took place on Friday, 12th October 2012 – a month before elections were held in Sierra Leone, right in the heart of the business district of Freetown, involving the heavily armed motorcade of president Ernest Bai Koroma and the convoy of the then opposition SLPP presidential candidate – Retired Brigadier Julius Maada Bio, which could have led to catastrophic loss of life on both sides and another bloody civil war. It was a day few will ever forget.

President Ernest Bai Koroma’s motorcade, flanked by heavily armed soldiers and police officers were travelling along Goderich Street away from the capital. The Retired Brigadier Julius Maada Bio’s equally heavily armed convoy was approaching from the other end of the same Street.

Both convoys came to a halt, facing each other along what is a very narrow street, with a heavy morning traffic in a densely populated part of the city.

There was a dangerous standoff for a few minutes as the nation watched with disbelief at how State security and strategic communications could have gone so badly wrong for a nation of 7 million mostly poor, worrying each morning about where their next meal will come from.

There was about to be a bloodbath. Weapons, including machine guns, pistols and Kalashnikovs were on standby with every tensed second that flew by. The lives of both the president and opposition presidential candidate were hanging on a thread.

Also at stake were the badly bruised egos of both leaders. Who will blink first? For the thousands of onlookers – pedestrians and commuters watching the ugly carnage that was about to unfold in front of their eyes, that was the moment the world stood still.

At that moment, someone had to show strong leadership, think wisely and fast, about the consequences of making the wrong judgement based on suspicion, party political expediency or paranoia.

Thanks to the foresight, fortitude and cool-headedness of president Ernest Bai Koroma, and his quick decision to  avert a bloody and catastrophic shoot-out between the heavily armed State security personnel and Maada Bio’s personal guards, the police successfully negotiated the traffic, bringing the standoff to a satisfactory end without a single shot fired, nor was Maada Bio arrested.

How was such disaster allowed to happen in the first place? Was this a systemic institutional failure on both sides?

What if the State security had mistakenly assumed that the intention of Maada Bio and his heavily armed men was to assassinate the president by staging a traffic standoff?

What if, based on this suspicion president Koroma had ordered the arrest of Julius Maada Bio and his security personnel, and have them charged with treason?

What if – at worse, president Koroma had ordered the shooting of Julius Maada Bio and his security detail during that standoff on grounds of pre-emptive self-defence?

Could president Koroma have used that traffic standoff as an opportunity to eliminate the opposition SLPP’s chances of contesting the election, by planting trumped-up charges against Julius Maada Bio and the SLPP leadership?

What if president Koroma had used that incident to declare the SLPP party a terrorist organisation, would the SLPP have been allowed to contest the 2012 and 2018 elections?

Would president Bio be alive today, or spending life imprisonment at Pademba Road, had president Koroma made the wrong judgement in the name of retributive justice and political vindictiveness?

The answers to these questions, we may never know, simply because someone in authority – a leader, made the right judgement.

Fast forward to 19th March 2020. Retired Major Palo Conteh – a former minister of defence in the Koroma-led APC government that was unseated at the last elections, walked into State House with a shoulder bag containing his personal gun, licenced for his own protection.

Retired Major Palo Conteh had business being at State House on that fateful day. He was invited by president Bio to State House for a meeting to discuss how he could use his experience in managing the Ebola pandemic, to help Bio’s government draw up a strategy to tackle the coronavirus pandemic.

Palo Conteh (Photo) walked into State House with his shoulder bag carrying his gun, wrongfully bypassing the security scanner at the entrance, just as Maada Bio in 2012 wrongfully – and some may say foolishly, drove his convoy straight into the direction of the oncoming motorcade of the sitting president – Ernest Bai Koroma.

It is in moments like these that common sense, though usually in short supply, is desperately needed to avert catastrophe and wrong judgement being made that could lead to national disaster.

Was Maada Bio wrong in deciding to drive his heavily armed convoy into the oncoming motorcade of the president in 2012? Yes he was.

Maada Bio may have been able in 2012 to plead mitigating circumstances or ignorance of the president’s route of travel, but there is no doubt he made the wrong decision, just as Palo Conteh did on the 19th of March 2020 – carrying his gun into State House.

Realising his mistake, Palo Conteh immediately handed his gun to the State House security desk before anyone could ask him to do so. Despite the security personel telling him to take his bag to the meeting with the president, Palo Conteh refused.

Is this the action of a man intent on going to State House to kill the president, who was sitting upstairs protected by heavily armed presidential guards?

Was Maada Bio’s decision to drive his heavily armed convoy into the direction of president Koroma’s motorcade, thus causing a dangerous standoff – be construed as an attempt to kill president Koroma? Of course not, and president Koroma gave Maada Bio the benefit of doubt, and chose not to arrest Maada Bio for treason, or worse open fire on Maada’s convoy in pre-emptive self-defence.

Palo Conteh on the other hand is today in solitary confinement at Pademba Road prison, charged with treason. He is fighting in court for his life.

If found guilty by a justice system that is polarised by politics, he will face the gallows where he will be hanged until he draws his last breath – just for mistakenly and foolishly walking into State House with a gun which he handed over to security for safe keeping before his  meeting with president Julius Maada Bio on the second floor.

Just after the 2012 elections which Maada Bio as the opposition SLPP presidential candidate had lost, there were allegations of a cache of weapons found by security forces buried on a land belonging to Maada Bio. What became of those investigations? It is understood that president Ernest Bai Koroma called them off to avoid instability in the country. A wise decision by a leader who thinks beyond political expediency.

Also, in 2007, it was alleged that president Koroma himself was questioned by police who stopped and found a gun in his car. What became of those investigations? President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah (Photo) called them off to avoid instability in the country. That’s what good leaders do. They put the interest of the country first.

Will president Bio use the same fortitude and good leadership shown by his predecessors to ensure that the charges of treason brought against Palo Conteh are dropped in the name of justice – if not out of common sense?

The whole world is watching how the Palo Conteh trial is proceeding. Civil society groups in the country may be showing indifference to the case, the local media may be too timid to call out the justice system for what it is, the opposition parties may be feeling reluctant to collectively call out the unfolding injustice, but such silence must not be taken for granted or abused.

Mr president, today in your quiet contemplation, please think carefully of what could have been the consequences of your minor traffic violation in 2012, which led to a potentially deadly standoff between your motorcade and president Koroma’s convoy.

Without a single shot ordered to be fired or decision taken by president Koroma to have you arrested on treason charges, today you are the president of Sierra Leone.

It is very easy for a president to pick up the phone to sanction the arrest of any of his citizens, but let the weight and burden of truth tilt the scale of justice towards mercy.

Let commonsense prevail.

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