Abdulai Mansaray: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 25 January 2024:
The court of public opinion on Sierra Leone is in full swing, thanks to the recent political and judicial gymnastics surrounding the former President of Sierra Leone Dr Ernest Bai Koroma. There is no doubt that Sierra Leone is venturing into uncharted waters, thanks to a season of unprecedented occurrences.
We know that “precedents provide legal authority for an action precisely because it occurred before”. Is there a precedence for what’s happening in Sierra Leone today?
Notwithstanding, the courts of public opinion in various domains like WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, Thread etc are enjoying a bonanza of rumours in their respective courts. Some are in the initial stage, presenting their cases for the defence and prosecutors. Others have delivered verdicts, and the rest are deliberating the merits of the appeals.
A small number of the courts on social media now have their cases presided over by the High Courts of public opinion. Irrespective of who is involved or where this case is tried, please take cognisance of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Unfortunately, the court of public opinion has a dim view of this judicial dictum. Sierra Leone is experiencing a season of “firsts”.
This is the first time a former President has been charged with a treasonable offence, for allegedly engaging in a failed coup d’etat. Please forgive me if I have a corrupt version of our history. This is no attempt to be thrifty with the truth but might just be a generational ignorance.
Some find it plausibly coincidental, that if former chairman, former leader of a party and former President vied to remain as “chairman for life” of his political party, it is as obvious as night follows day that he/she will remain in active politics even after serving their term as Head of State. That is why some say that it is also the first time for a former President of Sierra Leone, having served his full term in office, refused to retire from active politics, and bask with glory in the legacy he bequeathed to his beloved country.
According to excerpts from thesierraleonetelegrapgh.com (13th April 2022), his office issued a statement after months of speculation that “it is now time for him to leave the political stage and continue serving Sierra Leone as a statesman. The statement continued, “he strongly believes that he has been privileged by God and his people, to serve as President of Sierra Leone for two terms; and as the Leader and Chairman of the APC, for even a much longer period.” He says President Koroma notes that he is looking forward to his continued contribution to the promotion of democracy, peace, security and stability in Africa and other parts of the world. The outgoing Chairman and Leader further notes that the APC, being the great institution it is, is capable of a smooth and successful transition which we have clearly demonstrated over the last four difficult years. He therefore appeals to membership to move on in unity with the great task ahead.”
While EBK’s supporters will argue that former President Koroma indeed relinquished power after his term in office, his critics would question why it took four years to officially vacate the political scene. After the APC lost power in March 2018, some would want to know why did EBK not officially “pull han pan politics” until April 2022 and only one year to the June 2023 elections?
Others would like to know why it took so long for EBK to realise and acknowledge that “it is now time for him to leave the political stage and continue serving Sierra Leone as a statesman? His critics would want to know why it took him four years to acknowledge “that he has been privileged by God and his people, to serve as President of Sierra Leone for two terms; and as the Leader and Chairman of the APC, for even a much longer period”? (the sierraleonetelegraph.com-13th April 2022).
Was it HUBRIS, the frightening ease with which we learn that we can never be gods after all, but that we can become something less than human? Was it the fallacy that afflicts the untrained minds to see our processes as valid for all men, and our trust in our own judgement as absolute truth? Some say that EBK bucked the trend of his predecessors like the late Tejan Kabba, J. S Momoh, Pop Shek and others.
So, EBK appeared in court on charges of treason. Notwithstanding the unprecedented nature of the case in our country, that picture is worth a thousand words. In my honest opinion, it gave me goosebumps. That photo of EBK in the dock, with hands clasped behind his back undoubtedly put President Bio’s government and our country under the spotlight.
Against the backdrop of the tripartite dialogue that is delicately sandwiched between the June elections and the failed coup, it was inevitable that the stakes had gone five notches higher. To describe the atmosphere as a powder keg would be an understatement, and to say that it was a political grenade would be a euphemism.
As if the stakes couldn’t go any higher, ECOWAS in its infinite wisdom had reportedly requested in a letter to the government for the evacuation of EBK to Nigeria. This was even before the courts had read EBK’s charges and rights in court. It will be disingenuous not to understand the outcry that followed what many saw as ECOWAS’ ill-timed, ill-advised, ill-thought-out and flame- throwing cannon shell.
Some viewed the request from ECOWAS as an attempt to subvert the course of justice. If he who breaks the law is not punished, he who obeys it will feel cheated. So, the request did not only throw a spanner in the works, but undoubtedly placed President Bio between a rock and a hard place. President Bio was now a damned man if he did (agree to the request), damned if didn’t (refused the request). What an unenviable position to be in.
Did the request mark start the of bidding process in this political auction? Did it open the floodgates of the political horse trading, as some would let you believe, that eventually saw EBK whisked to Nigeria last week? Hands up, all those who would have loved to be a fly on the wall behind the scenes.
Even before the former President Ernest Bai Koroma changed his post code last week, the headlines from various local, international, and online media outlets spewed out different viewpoints on the matter. Thesierraleonetelegraph.com had the following, “Court grants permission for former president to leave the country on medical grounds” (17/01/24), “President Bio finally gives in to ECOWAS demand for Koroma to leave Sierra Leone” (20/01/24).
The Cocorioko newspaper went with “Social media goes viral with anger and insults for Maada Bio while Ernest Koroma supporters celebrate his victory over his enemies” (18/01/24), “Hero’s welcome awaits former president Ernest Koroma in Abuja” (19/01/24). If such headlines were the barometers of public opinion and the thermometers of public consumption, acknowledging the need for deft handling was imperative. Some of the graphic satires’ relation to reality might have been skewed by fantasy and illusion.
Sadly, our country has become so polarized that political views are calibrated along the spectre of “you are either with us, or against us”. The status quo appears to have morphed into what many see as REVENGE POLITICS. Any attempt by the political party of the day to dispense justice, tackle corruption, etc is tagged as a witch hunt, vengeance, “turn det”, etc. When EBK was charged with treason and made to spend more time at home (not house arrest o), you could feel the inferno between those baying for his blood and those crying foul.
A voice clip that was purportedly sent by Fatmata J.S Momoh on social media summed up exactly, a common theme that has always eclipsed the lives of our former Heads of States. Ms Momoh questions why “the little few” Sierra Leoneans always wish, want, and seek to see our erstwhile leaders die in unpleasant and miserable circumstances. Why does “this little few” want them tarred, feathered, and hanged or end in disgrace? You wonder.
The standing room for neutrality on matters Sierra Leone is shrinking, as every day is a brand-new crisis. However, that should not deter anyone to try as humanly possible, to see the issues through the prism of Mama Salone.
Thanks to tribalism, regionalism and political persuasions, the tendency to be partisan or parochial continues to be an attractive option. Sierra Leone politics provides us a contemporary setting for the re-enactment of some of William Shakespeare’s plays, hence lends credence to their contemporaneous quality. President Bio was fully aware of the magnitude of the court’s decision to grant EBK passage to seek medical attention.
Although some see him as the quiet man, this “controversy” was enough to break a monk’s oath of silence. While some saw EBK’s change of post code as a jailbreak, others had this to say: “West African leaders past, and present had no choice than to stand up for one of their own who is unjustly maligned, slandered and defamed” (Cocorioko Newspaper,19/01/24).
President Bio said in his speech to the nation, that granting bail to allow EBK to leave the country for medical reasons was based “on the principle of separation of powers enshrined in our constitution…….and that it was “a matter entirely for the courts to determine”. (thesierraleonetelegraph.com-18/01/24).
Considering that ECOWAS had hitherto requested for EBK to leave the country, some see the bail condition to leave the country “on medical grounds” as an excuse of convenience. According to the United Nations’ projections, the current life expectancy for Sierra Leone in 2024 is 56.27 years, a 0.63 increase from 2023. Dr Ernest Koroma is 70 years old.
Is it not plausibly conceivable that at his age, he would have medical conditions impacting on his life like many of us? It will be cruel to doubt the veracity of his medical conditions. With that said, would anyone with a pulse have denied the request to leave on medical grounds, if they were presiding over this case? If the answer is yes, what would have been the reason or rationale for denying the request? If the answer is no, then I’m hopeful that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.
It’s true that justice denied anywhere is justice denied everywhere (MLK). But in crying out for justice, do we only demand justice at another man’s expense? This brings us to the paradoxical love affair between JUSTICE and MERCY. One big difference is that mercy is never obligatory and “the quality of mercy is not strained”. As “an attribute of God himself”, when mercy is unreservedly dispensed, it becomes “the throned monarch better than the crown” (Shakespeare). If wrong doers must do something to merit mercy, then it is not mercy.
When the courts granted EBK passage to Abuja, he was reportedly accompanied by the Minister of Foreign Affairs & international Cooperation, Timothy Kabba, the Chief Defence staff, Lieutenant General peter Lavahun, the Inspector General of Police, William Fayia Sellu and his lead attorney, Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara.
The symbolism of the entourage should not be lost on anyone. While his critics have been calling President Bio a coward, weak and spineless, his admirers see him as a statesman. Some see this as a victory of some sorts for EBK, while others see Bio’s gesture to accompany him with such “dignity” as honourable.
Let us remember that like any case, EBK is presumed innocent until proven guilty. The opportunity to prove his guilt has been put on hold, while he seeks medical attention. His bail conditions grant him a maximum period of 90 days, after which he’s required to return and defend himself against charges of treason in Sierra Leone. Some wonder whether EBK will return to Sierra Leone. While others have summarily concluded that EBK has gone on exile with a get-out of jail card, and that he will not return to face charges, it would be prudent to note that the rules of engagement might have changed. He’s still innocent until proven guilty.
For discussion sake, what happens if EBK doesn’t return? Would he still be considered innocent until proven guilty? Does that not make it imperative for EBK to return and clear his name? Even before you say that he might not return for fear of not getting a fair trial, some would want to know whether it was the same courts that granted him bail in the first place, he might fear. That would be a hard sell Jaray.
Foday Sankoh wreaked untold destruction in Sierra Leone, but the late Ahmed Tejan Kabba still welcomed him into his government, albeit temporarily. Why? It was a painfully prudent and expedient price to pay in exchange for peace in our country.
Under President Bio’s government, if EBK can be allowed to get medical attention while facing charges of treason, it won’t be far-fetched to assume that with a dose of mercy, it was expedient to do so for the sake of peace in the country. In case you forgot, the opposition APC Parliamentary leader Abdul Kargbo and other parliamentary members paid a courtesy call on President Bio on the 16th of January 2024.
While others described it as a “sham”, Mr Kargbo described the meeting as a “fruitful discussion”. Apparently, the meeting emanated “from concerns APC MPs raised in Parliament about the high and dangerous level of animosity between the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and the APC, how it was affecting every facet of life in the country and the dire need for the Government to do something towards defusing the tension in the nation” (Cocorioko.net 16/01/24). Has the penny just dropped?
Is it any surprise that the APC distanced itself from a widely publicised week of “big chaos in the city” last week? Are our leaders finally waking up to the fact that we cannot shake hands with clenched fists? Do they now realise that chaos, unrest or civil disobedience will benefit no one? Is it time to realise that principles can sometimes be sacrificed to expediency? Does this mean that President Bio got the balance right? Is it time to give peace a chance? Without peace, every day will be a brand-new crisis in Sierra Leone. Le Allah tanka we. As for those seeking revenge politics, “una go blow”.
While EBK is learning how to speak Yoruba, can President Bio turn to the little matter of addressing the spate of revelations and allegations of corruption in his back yard?
Don’t forget to turn the lights out when you leave the room.