Sierra Leone’s former Vice President Solomon Berewa – An appreciation

Dr. Lans Gberie: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 12 March 2020:

Former Vice President Solomon Ekuma Berewa, who has died aged 81, was not a great politician. Still less was he a particularly likable or charismatic public figure. Indeed, he was rather humourless, and was rather easily caricatured or misunderstood. But no one who met or dealt with him doubted his brilliance, his competence, his deep patriotism, and his supreme commitment to democratic principles and the rule of law.

His last significant political action – conceding defeat after the announcement of arguably fraudulent elections results and even making a point of showing public support for the beneficiary of those results – was easily the supreme sacrifice to consolidate our democracy in the post-war period.

If that were the only thing that Mr. Berewa did in his public life, he would have an assured and exalted place in our history books.

In fact, Mr. Berewa’s brief political life was far more consequential than that of most lifetime politicians. He was Sierra Leone’s chief negotiator at both Abidjan and Lomé, and was the prime author of the peace accord that ended our civil war.

As an extension of that influence, he was the chief architect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and to some extent the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). Mr. Berewa was certainly the most effective Attorney General and Minister of Justice, and probably the most powerful Vice President, since the return of democracy.

I first met him in the early 1990s at his law offices – Betts and Berewa – in an unpromising building that also housed retail shops on Goderich Street. I was taken aback.

Mr. Berewa and his law partner, the Oxford-educated Garvas Betts, were two of the most prominent legal practitioners in Freetown. The building and the great reputation did not seem to match. I quickly learnt that this was all in character: both men were – despite their obvious success – of understated and modest disposition. It was part of a cultivated charm that only closer contact could reveal – and which partly explains Mr. Berewa’s great success in politics though he was a most reluctant and awkward politician.

Mr. Berewa was Secretary of the National Advisory Council that the National Provisional Ruling Council had set up at the time I first met him; Ahmad Tejan Kabbah was Chairman of the Council. I was introduced to Mr. Berewa by Mr. Betts, who had earlier introduced me to Mr. Kabbah: Mr. Kabbah, impressed by Mr. Berewa’s courageous defence of Vice President Francis Misheck Minah during a treason trial in the 1980s, had retained Betts and Berewa upon his return to Sierra Leone in the early 1990s.

Mr. Berewa’s political trajectory was, one might say, set the moment Mr. Kabbah emerged as leader of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), an outcome Mr. Berewa worked to ensure – though he had briefly flirted with the National Unity Party (now defunct).

Upon winning the presidential election in 1996, Kabbah appointed Berewa leader of his transition team and, swiftly, Attorney General and Minister of Justice – his first cabinet choice. Mr. Berewa’s impact on that office was so profound that all his successors merely seem to walk in his shadow. No one can possibly hope to accomplish a fraction of what Mr. Berewa did – enacting major legislations, expanding the democratic space, trying and convicting Foday Saybanah Sankoh as well as dozens of others for treason, enacting the TRC and SCSL Acts, among many others – in his five years there.

I had a chance to observe the intimidating brilliance for which Mr. Berewa was reputed as a criminal lawyer during the peace talks in Yamoussoukro, Cote D’Ivoire, in 1996. Newly elected President Kabbah had sent a team led by veteran politician Sama Banya to observe the NPRC- led talks. At the plenary, the Revolutionary United Front Foday Sankoh segued from a rambling denunciation of the UN and the recent election to excoriate, with characteristic rudeness, Dr. Banya for being, in his view, an unsteady politician.

Once Kabbah was inaugurated President and fully took over the talks, he appointed Berewa to quietly replace Dr. Banya as leader of his negotiating team in Yamoussoukro. Foday Sankoh soon realised that he had now met more than his match. In sessions, Mr. Berewa would sit patiently listening to Sankoh’s rants, and then would finally interrupt to ask the rebel leader what from his incoherent blather might be taken as his negotiating position.

RUF warlord – Foday Sankoh

Visibly baffled, Sankoh would then fall silent, at least momentarily. For the rebel leader’s view of negotiation – as that of power – was of something to be determined by the sharp edge of a machete. He had nothing in his arsenal of invectives to hurl at Berewa, who he had not known.

Mr. Berewa had not been a public figure, never mind the plundering politician of Sankoh’s demonology. In private, he expressed his frustration with the formidable Mr. Berewa by sneering at him as ‘Big Trousers’ or ‘Belewa’ (in Mende).

The talks staggered on until the Abidjan Accord was signed in November 1996, only to implode in the coup of May 1997. Berewa, like President Kabbah, fled for his life to Guinea. The coupists, quickly joined by Sankoh’s rebels, wrought such devastation on the country that, upon the restoration of Kabbah, Mr. Berewa launched the most extensive treason trial in the history of Sierra Leone, charging several dozen people.

After several months, the trial concluded on 4 November 1998. Mr. Berewa’s mastery of criminal law and his forensic brilliance were on display throughout; and he succeeded in convicting 48 people. The court acquitted 12. No one reading the trial records, diligently kept, can fail to admire the prodigious labour and intelligence that Berewa invested in the trials.

All of those convicted were later freed, part of the negotiation process, also led by Mr. Berewa, that culminated in the Lomé Accord. The result of a surprising resurgence of the rebels and the destruction of large parts of Freetown, the negotiations represented a humiliating low point for the government.

But at Lomé Berewa demonstrated throughout an unflappable dignity, maintaining control of the process, and ensuring that Sierra Leone – rather than the international community – set the agenda, so that the integrity of the country’s constitutional order was never compromised. He rejected out of hand the demand to make Sankoh Vice President (Photo), insisting that Vice Presidents can only be elected and, instead contrived an ingenious formulation – ‘status of Vice President’. This satisfied the corrupt warlord.

Not long ago I asked Mr. Berewa in his home at Goderich how he managed to pull this off. He told me: “I knew Sankoh was a very greedy man, and that diamonds were often on his mind. In fact, at Lomé my room was next door to him, and every other day and night I would see foreign diamond people going in and out of Sankoh’s room. I joked with him about it. In the end, he only agreed to sign the accord when I privately told him that he will in effect be in charge of diamond mining…” That led to the creation of a Commission for the Management of Strategic Resources, National Reconstruction and Development, with Sankoh as Chair – with putative Vice Presidential status.

In fact, Berewa inserted a clause in the Accord preserving the supervisory power of the Minister of Mineral Resources over mining and dealing of diamonds and gold, constraining Sankoh and denying him any sense of executive authority.

The Lomé process was an extraordinary accomplishment for a government that had been brought to its knees, one without an army and facing a barbarous rebel force. And Mr. Berewa must be given the primary credit for it. He had made sure, as he wrote in his insightful book A New Perspective on Governance, Leadership, Conflict and Nation-Building in Sierra Leone (2011), that the final Accord did not “fundamentally offend against the constitution of Sierra Leone, a concern which some members of the international community did not seem to appreciate fully, and an issue for which” his delegation “took umbrage”.

The achievement was such that President Kabbah chose Berewa as his running mate for his re-election campaign in 2002: he garnered over 70% of the votes. There is little doubt that for most of that second term, Mr. Berewa ran the show. President Kabbah, exhausted after the traumatic loss of his wife and the repeated experience of unprecedented political turmoil, allowed his Vice President to exercise almost all executive authority. I met both President Kabbah and Vice President Berewa several times during this period; Kabbah made clear throughout that he was grooming Berewa to succeed him.

It was this process of succession, however, that undid their much-admired partnership. Kabbah ensured Berewa’s selection as the Sierra Leone Peoples Party’s standard bearer. But after that, their relationship soured because Berewa complained that Kabbah wouldn’t let him run his own campaign by himself. He had a point: Kabbah insisted on choosing Berewa’s running mate, and Berewa was unhappy about this.

But it was also an odd complaint: Kabbah was clearly a far better politician, and Berewa’s awkward running of his own campaign clearly risked defeat. Charles Margai’s insurgent campaign embodied that risk.

In the presidential election held on 11 August 2007, Berewa polled 704,012 or 38% of the votes to the All Peoples Congress Ernest Bai Koroma’s 815,523 or 44%. Margai came third with 255,499 or 14% of the votes, almost entire votes that might have gone to Berewa.

This result, though not decisive, sealed Berewa’s political fate. In the runoff vote, Margai backed Koroma, who – after controversy-wracked vote-counting – now polled 950,407 (54.62%) to Berewa’s 789,651 (45.38%), representing a difference of 160,756 votes – a clear win for Koroma, since, unlike the first round, the run-off is won by a simple majority. (Photo: Charles Margai and Ernest Bai Koroma).

The problem was that to achieve this, Christiana Thorpe, the APC electoral commissioner, had to invalidate votes from 477 mainly Berewa voting polling stations.

Mr. Berewa later wrote, plausibly, that had Thorpe not invalidated tens of thousands of votes in his stronghold, he would have won 968,705 votes to Bai Koroma’s 950,407. He claimed that Thorpe got away with that travesty because Kabbah had in a national broadcast long before the election abdicated his ‘solemn responsibility’ as the chief executive or magistrate, by declaring that he would be totally neutral, leaving the dishonest Thorpe to run riot on citizens’ rights.

Berewa wrote: “As Fountain of Justice [Kabbah] was expected to act like a judge, and not to be neutral or blind to justice, but insistent on the observance of justice and fairness. This is impartiality, not neutrality, and it was this that I, as SLPP candidate, was denied, and it cost me the election”.

This is correctly stated in a legal sense, yet this retrospective acuity does little justice to the complex choice that President Kabbah faced. Mr. Berewa’s loss in the first round meant that he had lost the momentum; against all predictions, Koroma had now become the presumptive winner. This was a very important political consideration in a fragile democracy: incumbents or frontrunners cannot afford to be overtaken by the underdog.

Despite his deep resentment, Berewa, once the results were announced – his highly developed sense of constitutional decorum never affected by his righteous sense of grievance – accepted the results. Later, he became good friends with President Koroma, and never showed any malice towards the All Peoples Congress party strongman.

But his relationship with Kabbah collapsed, and the two never really spoke to each other again. Berewa was a man who never left a perceived betrayal of trust go unpunished: he sadly did not have the largeness of heart to match his obvious competence and brilliance of mind.

Perhaps, given his enormous achievement, and given our massive debt to him, this last sin is venial – as a fellow Catholic Mr. Berewa would have understood my point. His exalted legacy is assured. May his soul rest in peace.

About the author

Dr. Lansana Gberie, is Sierra Leone’s Ambassador to Switzerland and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other international organisations.

2 Comments

  1. If God almighty is to punish people for our sins and betrayal of trust,not a single person would have been exonerated in Sierra Leone.Our dear families were murdered or lynched during civil war in Sierra Leone.About 70,000 were killed brutally and perpetrators where never brought to book. APC And SLPP greed,self-imposed blindless and cynical politicians would be held to account by God openly.

  2. Wow, well written and very informative article touching on a variety of cogent historical events masterminded and contributed by the great patriot Mr. Solo B. Our nation has indeed lost a fallen hero, a man albeit his imperfections, personifies what it truly means to be a citizen of a nation. May the late man’s gentle soul rest in perfect peace.

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