Sunday August 3, 2003
Ex-President Joseph Saidu Momoh, who died in Conakry, Guinea today of complications from hypertension, was one of the most promising Sierra Leoneans at Independence in 1961.
Though little was known about him then, he was a brilliant and loyal officer , a member of the old brigade of thoroughbred military men whose professionalism was redolent of the chivalries of the archetypal disciplined soldier .
By Independence, the young officer had already served his country in the West African Frontier Force, the colonial-era army and he saw action in the then turbulent Congo Kinshasa , along with the late Brigadier John Bangura , who was then a Lt. Colonel. Momoh, the typical Limba boy who became a soldier , attended the St.Edwards Secondary School in Freetown and played for both Old Edwardians and Blackpool .
Momoh distinguished himself in the military and quickly rose through the ranks.He will be remembered for his loyalty to the state.
When one looks back now and considers how soldiers and politicians who took power in Sierra Leone abused it and enslaved and agonised their people, we can now say for sure that Momoh’s faithfulness to President Siaka Stevens and his loyalty to the state in not staging a military coup when things went haywire under the APC, though he had all the means and the opportunity and many anti-government people wanted him to do so, was a blessing in disguise to the nation . And for this singular act of statesmanship, Momoh deserves copious commendation. He was one military man devoid of the power-consciousness and megalomania so legendary of African soldiers and this helped to keep our unstable nation in one piece.
But his mild manners played unfavourably against him.When soldiers under the command of Brigadier Bangura overthrew the APC Government briefly in 1970, Momoh was one of the senior army officers blamed by dissidents for not joining the coup and for “betraying” John Bangura. It was this grudge within the army that put him at loggerheads with the likes of the late rebel leader, Foday Sankoh,then a Corporal , who never forgave him for allegedly joining other officers to crush the coup, which action delivered Bangura to the wrath of the APC who executed him at the Pademba Road Prisons after a Court Martial, along with other top military brass like Major S.E Momoh, Major F.L.M.Jawara , Lt. Kolugbonda and others. Sankoh himself went to a long -term imprisonment at the same Pademba Road Prisons because of the same coup, which the government crushed the same day , after Bangura made a nation-wide broadcast proclaiming a military takeover .
It was part of this bitter animousity that would later force Sankoh to take up arms against the Momoh government in 1991.Sankoh had the opportunity to get at Momoh in 2000, when the former President was delivered to the rebel Chief in Makeni , after Sankoh became Vice-President and went to the rebel-held town to convince his fighters to co-operate with the disarmament program.
Momoh , who had been sprung by the RUF, during their 1999 invasion of Freetown ,from the Pademba Road Prisons , where he was serving a 15 year -imprisonment for alleged complicity with the AFRC/RUF Junta , was brought before Sankoh as he adresseed a big crowd at the Makeni Wusum Stadium. Sankoh was said to have humiliated Momoh to extremes , shouting at him : “Come out here let the people see how useless you have become ! ! ! . Look at the way you look now ! ! ! Come out let the people see you ! ! ! Come out let them see your uselessness ! ! !”.
However, despite Sankoh’s grudge and anger at Momoh, Sierra Leoneans would be honest to admit today that Momoh’s apparent lack of ambition for power gave Sierra Leone many breaks from further turbulence. Momoh still had a good backing in the army when he was overthrown by the NPRC in 1992, and with their support and the help of mercenaries , he could have counter-attacked on Valentine Strasser and his horde of power-thirsty putschists .Infact, a suggetion was made to him to attempt a counter-coup, with the help of Guinea, but Momoh turned down the gesture. If he had been a power-conscious man, he could have emulated President Tejan Kabbah in bringing mercenaries and foreign troops to blast , bombard and level the city to restore him.
Momoh was a man that never had the inclination for power.Unlike most of our leaders who really fought for power, Momoh was one man who had power thrust upon him,when President Siaka Stevens chose him as the heir and turned over power to him on October 1, 1985 after retiring . In fact, Momoh who had the call of God in his life to preach the gospel, was minded to retire from the army and become a Reverend. But he accepted President Stevens’ offer to become a President , though he was too weak to address the mountains of problems Stevens had left him. And that, to me, was one of the errors he made in life. After a magnificient service as a soldier, Momoh should have known that he was not cut out to be a President , especially of a country like Sierra Leone, whose economy had been destroyed and the nation reduced to socio-economic and political ground zero . As a matter of fact, he was too mild-mannered, too soft, casual and too liberal to occupy the hot seat which required some draconian measures and harsh reprisals against troublemakers to rebuild the economy and the other institutions .
However, though he presided over one of the most corrupt and lethargic governments ever in Sierra Leone , Momoh did make some impressive strides that should stand as a testimony of his patriotism. In 1987, he declared an Economic State of Emergency to halt the massive fraud and rampant corruption. Under him, the Sierra Leone press and media enjoyed their best run ever as newspapers printed whatever they liked, without being hounded by the government. When I read some of the headlines and stories in the newspapers, I could not help but gasp that if journalists wrote the same way in neigbouring Liberia where I was living, they would not have lived to tell the story.
In October 1990, President Momoh set up a constitutional Review Commission to review the 1978 one-party constitution he had inherited from Siaka Stevens .His goals which were to broaden the existing political process , guarantee human rights ,reinstitute the Rule of Law and re-introduce multi-party democracy went down well with the nation.The constitution was approved by Parliament in July 1991 and ratified by the same legislative body in September ofthe same year.
Political parties had been formed and Sierra Leone was well on the way to a genuine evolution of multi-party politics when greedy and avaricious soldiers seized power on April 29, 1992.In taking over the government illegally and overturning the constitution, Strasser, Maada Bio, S.A.J Musa and others destroyed the birth of genuine multi-party pluralism in Sierra Leone. The coup was unnecessary and ill-conceived.
However, Momoh was not made for the dirty and pseudo politics in Sierra Leone. A man not known for any iota of vindictiveness , Momoh was not suited for the cut-throat and backstabbing politics of Sierra Leone. No wonder he failed as a poltical leader.
When President Kabbah’s government sentenced him to 15 years jail for Treason in 1999, Momoh said : “I am a victim of circumstances .As author and signatory of the 1991 constitution ( which the current government is using, I cannot see myself conspiring or endeavouring to usurp executive powers.”
Momoh had more things about him to be admired amf his bitterest critics would admit that he was a good man who found himself on the wrong side of life.
MAY HIS SOUL REST IN PEACE