PRESIDENT KABBAH, THE SKELETON IN THE CUPBOARD AND FREEDOM OF THE PRESS
PLAYING HARDBALL WITH KABS KANU, Esq
Sunday October 12, 2003
When in 1995 the one -time UN Official, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah set his sights on the highest office in the land–the Presidency– and won it, only the foolish optimist did not foresee that time and again, Kabbah’s ordeal at the Beoku-Betts Commission of Inquiry would always come back to haunt him.
We all have moments in our lives that we would rather forget and his saga with the Beoku-Betts Commission in 1967-68 is the one moment in the life of President Kabbah that he would always want to forget.
It was an era that represented the lowest and the most dishonourable point in the lives of members of the 1964-67 SLPP government, headed then by the late Sir Albert Margai.
Following the March 23, 1967 military coup that overthrew the SLPP and brought to power Sierra Leone’s first -ever military junta, the National Reformation Council (NRC), Commissions of Inquiry were set up by the soldiers to probe the financial and political activities of officials of the government.
The Forster, Beoku-Betts and Dove-Edwin Commissions of Inquiry found SLPP officials guilty of a wide-ranging list of crimes, from embezzlement of state funds, misappropriation of the country’s resources, acquiring wealth by corrupt means , sacking of the national treasury , siphoning of state funds illegally into foreign banks , shady deals to serious elections irregularities and abuse of public office.In the case of Kabbah, he was found culpable of financial irregularities at the SLPMB when he served as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Trade and Industry. He was banned from ever holding public office.
President Kabbah was however granted indemnity by the late President Joseph Saidu Momoh long before he even suspected he would ever be the leader of Sierra Leone.
Despite this indemnity, it should be expected that once in a while, reference would be made to the unpleasant events of 1967-68. One wonders how mention of these events amount to Seditious Libel, as the Editor of FOR DI PEOPLE, Paul Kamara is being charged by the government, for doing same. Unless Kamara made unwarranted, ill-motivated and disparaging statements against the President that were capable of reducing him to public scorn, ridicule and contempt ( other than reporting the facts ), one cannot understand the overreaction of the government .
How many times does the government want to be told that in a democracy, the press deserves to enjoy unfettered and unhindered freedom ? The constant harassment and persecution of journalists in Sierra Leone is unacceptable and it is incongruent with manifestations and representations often made by the Kabbah government that it is democratic. No government deserves to call itself democratic if it cannot allow the media to express the truth. Is it because government officials have skeletons in their cupboard that they are so edgy with the press?
The government is ruining its credibility, acceptability and democratic credentials with the international community and other stakeholders in the destiny of the country, by its frequent violations of the tenets of press freedom.
Only about eight months ago, the same Paul Kamara was the subject of much-condemned reprisals taken against him, that landed him in jail for six months, because he allegedly committed Criminal Libel against High Court Judge and President of the Sierra Leone Football Association, Justice Tola Thompson. At that time, newspapers and foreign humanitarian organizations called for the repeal of seemingly very harsh libel laws prevailing in the country.Though the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists ( SLAJ) itself promised to work towards a repeal of these draconian press laws, nothing has been done and once again, they are back to focus. These libel laws in Sierra Leone are a huge setback to the development of the press in the country .They were enacted during the darker days of Sierra Leone’s history when pressmen walked around with their tails between their legs. Today, Sierra Leone is in a new dispensation , with the democratic wind of change in the world blowing in our direction.
The government need not have overreacted to Paul Kamara’s revelations of Kabbah’s ill-fortune with the Beoku-Betts Commission of Inquiry. After all, where the truth is concerned , Kabbah has trashed the veracity of the recommendations of that Commission by proving to be more financially prudent and scrupulous in power . One can fault Kabbah with a multitude of other abberations but personally, financial indiscretion is not one of them. Though he presides over a chronically corrupt government ( and the SLPP government is really corrupt) , hard evidence has yet to emerge that Kabbah himself is taking part in corruption. At least, he is a better leader when it comes to financial accountability than the other Presidents we have had in the past, with the outstanding exception of the NRC Chairman, the late Brigadier A.T. Juxon-Smith.
Unless there is evidence of Kabbah’s personal culpability in corruption, reharshing his past at this time is counter-productive and will detract from the more pressing concerns faced by the country at the moment, viz : national healing, national reconciliation and national reconstruction. Kabbah should have been forgiven by now for what happened when he served as Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Industry. Inspite of all his mistakes, he has redeemed himself by many of the good things he has done for the nation , like helping to bring peace and opening up the country to extensive economic assistance from the international Community. God has forgiven him long ago and if God forgives, who is man to keep reharping another person’s past errors ?
. Let us judge the President by the present and not the past. Unless ofcourse he has also dipped his hands gratitiously into the national kitty and a para llel needs to be drawn between his past and the present, there is no more need to dwell on the Beoku-Betts’ Commission’s report on the President. Let bygones be bygones.
It is to be also hoped that President Kabbah would act personally to have all charges dropped against the FOR DE PEOPLE Editor, Paul Kamara. The charges are ridiculous and the 60 million leones fine is ludicrous. We have to stop making a mockery of democracy in Sierra Leone, for the world is watching us and some of these events are inimical to the acquisition of moral and financial assistance from the international community.