Sierra Leone’s opposition leader – Charles Margai released on bail

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 15 May 2013:

When a king decides to disrobe the king-maker, there are bound to be alarm bells ringing as rumours of treachery and betrayal make their rounds. But, was the unceremonious disrobing of the king-maker a mere act of showing who is in charge of running Sierra Leone?

The leader of Sierra Leone’s opposition People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) – Charles Margai (Photo), was publicly humiliated by president Koroma last Friday, when he was arrested by heavily armed security officers at his home in Freetown.

He was locked up in the country’s notorious CID headquarters at Pademba Road, where he was denied access to his medication, before he was yesterday released on bail, set at Le100 million.

He is accused by the police of making subversive statements, which they say are inimical to the security of the state. Such crimes are rare in Sierra Leone and have not been heard of, since the presidency of former APC leader and dictator – Siaka Stevens.

Sierra Leone is still recovering from a brutal civil war, which took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Hence those in power say that they have a duty to ensure that statements deemed by the authorities as “careless talk”, can lead to an arrest – reminiscent of the APC of old.

Many in Sierra Leone believe that the flagrant abuse of state power, impunity and curtailing of civil liberty and freedom of expression were partly responsible for the civil war.

The right to criticise those in power and express dissent was trampled upon by previous APC governments, and there are fears of anti-freedom fervours and rhetoric returning.

But then Mr. Margai is no ordinary opposition leader in Sierra Leone. He was the ‘king maker’ responsible for president Koroma’s victory at the polls in 2007, after he audaciously formed a political alliance with Koroma’s APC, in what was described as a close run race with the incumbent Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP).

Critics of Margai say that he has burned his candle on both ends, and is now paying a very heavy political and personal price for his ‘unholy alliance’ with president Koroma.

Tipped to be elected as the opposition SLPP presidential candidate for the 2007 elections, Margai failed to secure the majority vote of delegates at the party’s convention in 2005.

His defeat led to a very bitter and acrimonious divorce from the SLPP.

Margai then went on to establish the PMDC party, as a platform to garner and mobilise support for his 2007 campaign in the southern districts of the country and the capital Freetown. And with close to 12% of the popular votes in his control, Margai dealt a severe blow to SLPP’s chances of staying in power for another term.

The results of the 2007 first round ballot were too close to call, and a second round voting was inevitable. Margai saw this as an opportunity to further drive his sword into the wounds of his estranged SLPP party, instead of using his newly found political capital to renegotiate his leadership role within the SLPP.

This miscalculation was to cost him dearly. On the eve of the 2007 elections, Margai joined the campaign trail of Ernest Koroma. He  organised public rallies deep in the southern-heartland of the SLPP in support of Ernest Koroma.

He proclaimed Koroma the “saviour” of Sierra Leone and “the leader to be trusted”. Not surprisingly, the incumbent SLPP lost the 2007 second round ballot by a narrow margin – thanks to Charles Margai’s endorsement and alliance with the APC.

But someone forgot to read the script to Charles Margai, about the ephemeral nature of APC’s loyalty to former enemies. Perhaps what really came as a shock to many in Sierra Leone was Margai’s apparent lack of political ambition. Such irony is unheard of in Africa, for a political leader who has destroyed his own ancestral political party, only to give power to the opposition.

The general expectation in the country was that Margai will demand the position of vice-president or attorney-general, in the newly appointed first cabinet of president Koroma. He did not. He was quite satisfied to see eight of his senior party chiefs and financial backers  appointed to ministerial positions, whilst he enjoyed free and open access to State House, including the eyes and ears of president Koroma.

“In the first six months of Koroma’s presidency, Charles was like a god to Ernest. He was a close confidante and adviser. But the president quickly realised that Margai cannot be trusted”, an SLPP veteran politician told the Sierra Leone Telegraph today.

The strength of Margai’s power and authority in Koroma’s government was tested a few years later, when president Koroma decided to reshuffle his cabinet.

In less than three years of acting as king maker, Margai had lost almost all of his PMDC appointed ministers in the Koroma government.

Many of his appointees were kicked out of office by president Koroma, in order to make way for members and supporters of the APC party. Some were even accused of abuse of office and corruption.

So what went wrong so quickly? How can a king maker be publicly humiliated and disrobed by the king?

Speaking to the Sierra Leone Telegraph today, a source close to State House said that; “Margai is being destroyed by greed. Rather than ensure that his political values and principles which brought him into alliance with Ernest, guide and direct his actions, he has allowed personal greed and selfishness to get the better half of him.”

Critics are now saying that Margai’s decision to pitch tent with Koroma in 2007 had nothing to do with political ambition, other than vindictiveness and treachery, and that today he has been repaid for what he did to the SLPP party.

The fact is that Margai’s arrest last Friday, was precipitated by a long drawn and fierce legal battle he has been fighting with the wife of the president, regarding a piece of land at Aberdeen, Freetown, which according to Margai – belongs to him.

The president’s wife – Sia Koroma had at one time unconstitutionally engaged the country’s attorney-general, who not surprisingly, concluded that the land belongs to the wife of the president. But then, such abuse of public office is nothing new in Sierra Leone.

What is quite disturbing about this case is that when Margai wrote a letter to ‘his friend’ – the president in 2010, to use his ‘good office’ to informally resolve the land dispute with his wife, the president failed to publicly denounce Margai’s claim to the property.

Instead, president Koroma ordered his vice president to seek an amicable resolution to the dispute between the first lady and Charles Margai.

And last week, a new twist to this land grabbing case, which is said to have driven Margai to the edge of despair and desperation, took a nasty turn. The minister of lands – Tarawallie issued a press statement, claiming that the disputed land belongs to the state. Margai was furious.

What is not clear is: Notwithstanding the veracity and legality of the minister’s statement, is the wife of the president entitled to continue claiming ownership of the disputed land?

In reaction to the minister’s statement, which some in Sierra Leone saw as red rag to a wounded bull, Margai lost his temper and faith in Koroma’s justice. He went live on air to request the arrest of the president’s wife for land grabbing. He called upon the state to guarantee his right to his property.

But, when he said that he has 20,000 supporters who would be willing to help secure his property against the wife of the president, he was judged to have gone too far by the state.

According to the government, he is guilty of “careless talk”. Charles Margai was arrested by heavily armed officers and taken to the CID for questioning last Friday, where he spent several nights, before he was released on bail on Monday, 13 May.

Bail was set at Le100 million. Margai has to report to the police three days a week, while investigations into allegation of subversion continue.

Are the seeds of a one party state being planted, and is Sierra Leone slowly returning to a despotic and authoritarian state?

In 2007 at the height of election campaigning in Freetown, APC opposition leader – Ernest Koroma, could have been arrested and charged with “careless talk” by the SLPP government, when he unleashed mob riot in the streets of the capital, after publicly accusing the Kabbah SLPP government of stealing several tons of rice donated to Sierra Leone by Libya. This accusation of course was false.

Rice is the food of life in Sierra Leone and any rumours of rice corruption, has the potential of destabilising the country. But no one accused or arrested Ernest Koroma on charges of  “careless talk” or subversion. His civil liberty was guaranteed by the SLPP.

As they say: Politics in Sierra Leone is a funny old business.

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