For any practicing lawyer, professional codes of conduct and canons of ethics dictate that compliance with the law – at all times and under every circumstance – is not a matter of choice. Any member of the legal profession who conscientiously fails to heed not only to the letter, but the spirit of the law violates this basic tenet, whether or not he is regarded as forthright, reliable, eloquent or cunning in the discharge of his duties. This – in my opinion – is exactly what a veteran lawyer in Sierra Leone, opposition politician, Charles Margai, has done in the course of an apparent land dispute with Sia Koroma, wife of the country’s President.
Specifically, Mr. Margai, a seasoned and respected member of the bench, has engaged in conduct that completely disparages the rule of law, to wit, threatening to mobilize over a thousand kamajors, members of a now disbanded civil defense militia, he claims are at his disposal, to defend him and protect the property at the heart of the dispute with the First Lady should the need arise.
The kamajors were local hunters who banded together at the beginning of the civil war to protect defenseless villages and towns in the countryside that were being brutally attacked by the ruthless Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels and renegade soldiers of the government known assobels. During the course of their efforts in that campaign, the group also engaged in conducts against perceived enemies as well as civilians deemed to be gross human rights violations. These included summaryexecutions, making them as equally feared as the RUF. The group was disbanded following the end of the war in 2002.
Leaving aside the undeniable departure from the professional conduct and probity demanded of all legal practitioners, Mr. Margai’s statement is exceedingly reckless and inflammatory at best and liable to instigate violence at the worst. Given the known excesses of the kamajors during the civil war and the unspeakable brutality and horrors visited upon Sierra Leoneans by all sides to the conflict, it is difficult to imagine that Mr. Margai did not appreciate that his comments would cause nervousness in a war-scarred population still in the process of healing; nor can one fathom how an erudite lawyer such as Mr. Margai did not recognize such comments could undermine state security.
This article is not concerned with the question of who owns the disputed land. And while it is fair to ask questions about the involvement of the First Lady in this particular row, both Mr. Margai and Mrs. Koroma are citizens of Sierra Leone with equal rights under the law, including the right to own property.
According to Mr. Margai, as a consequence of the ongoing land dispute, he has lost confidence in the legal system to protect his right to the property he claims ownership to and to defend him, should that need arise. This he claims is the reason he may need to resort to the kamajors. However, Mr. Margai is himself an active member of the bar and frequently appears in courts of the law to represent clients. Such participation in the legal system would tend to suggest some level of faith in its efficacy and the dispensation of justice.
The justice that Mr. Margai seeks via the kamajor route clearly represents gross recklessness, anarchy and lawlessness, and is liable to enflame partisans. Indeed, it has resulted in equally untenable reactions from some who are opposed to Mr. Margai’s stance. In some quarters, it has generated arguments seeking to tie the main opposition party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) to Mr. Margai’s attitude and conduct. Of course, his position has nothing to do with the SLPP. After all, he is considered the kingmaker of the APC government, having virtually assured their victory in the 2007 elections by breaking away from the incumbent SLPP.
Given the brutal nature of the civil war in Sierra Leone, there is little doubt Mr. Margai’s comments have brought back painful memories and caused uneasiness in the minds of those who survived the dark period of the 1990s.
If anything, Mr. Margai’s cavalier statement leads to the question: is there an organized kamajor presence still in the country? This is something the nation deserves to know.
Even with the obvious challenge of securing a judgment in his favor in a court of law, against the spouse of the President, there is no reason for a learned and senior lawyer to eschew the rule of law and resort to what amounts to “bush justice. Moreover, in an era of increasing globalization, there are also legitimate sources at one’s disposal to seek justice outside the one’s own country. Kamajor justice, unfortunately, is not one of them.
It is now up to the laws of the land to determine whether Mr. Margai’s utterances are punishable crimes. However, it was appropriate for the police to arrest and detain him because the authorities themselves would be grossly irresponsible if they had remained silent in the face of Margai’s statement. But the authorities also must ensure that the ongoing land dispute that gave rise to this episode is properly addressed, particularly given the involvement of the First Lady. This it must do in a transparent manner without interference or threat of punishment or reprisal. Accordingly, the rights of the true owner of the property in dispute must be protected by the court in its determination so that justice is done and seen to be done, especially because of the high visibility of the case.
Aroun Rashid Deen is a freelance journalist in New York.
This article is entirely the opinion of the writer. It does not represent th