May 5, 2016
Coming Back From the Brink in Sierra Leone, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah

A review

This book, completed by the ex-President in 2010, three years after he left office and four years before his death, starts with a brief sketch of his birth and early years up to his graduation from the UK with a Bachelor's degree in economics in 1959. He returns to Sierra Leone shortly before Independence and finds ample opportunity for qualified young African administrators in the Sierra Leone Civil Service as the white colonialists take their leave. He rises quickly through the ranks from Administrative Officer to District Commissioner and eventually Permanent Secretary in 1967.  Mr Kabbah is not shy of praising himself in his writing (one did not notice this in his public utterances), as when he describes how he caught the attention of the Prime Minister:

"As an administrator I was able to tackle the nascent civil unrests of the day with dauntless courage, bravery and exemplary initiative and this earned me a great deal of respect and admiration from my colleagues and superiors including Governor Sir Maurice Dorman and Prime Minister Sir Milton Margai. Perhaps by design, it was in Kambia as District Commissioner that I performed my most admirable feat....Prime Minister Sir Milton Margai seemed highly impressed with my exemplary display of administrative acumen and he desired to thank me personally..."

Mr Kabbah goes into great detail over an incident in his early administrative career that was to dog him throughout his life. Following the 1967 elections/coup/counter-coup that eventually brought Siaka Stevens to power various commissions of inquiry were instituted by the new APC government, resulting in probes into the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board, which had fallen under Mr Kabbah's administrative purview as deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Trade and Industry in 1964. Mr Kabbah's property was seized as a result of these probes, but he insists in his recounting that this was actually a case of mistaken identity - his boss,  in the same ministry was called A. (Abayomi) Tejan, and exonerations in the testimony to the commissions of him, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, according to the ex-President's account, were credited to A. Tejan, his boss, the Permanent Secretary. Siaka Stevens, Mr Kabbah claims, was determined to punish supporters of the SLPP, such as him, and the seizure of his properties were as a result of a Cabinet decision rather than judicial findings. President Kabbah's detailed recounting of these incidents is made somewhat less credible by his acknowledgment that he owed a debt of Le7,200 (at the time in excess of US$ 7,200) to a businessman who was at the time involved in negotiations over a large contract with the SLPMB, the very parastatal his ministry was supervising. The ex-President offers no explanation or acknowledgment of this apparent serious conflict of interest.

Once the issue of the seized property (returned to him by President Momoh in 1988) is out of the way, Mr Kabbah moves speedily to the main substance of the book - events associated with his Presidency of Sierra Leone. He flees the APC of Siaka Stevens, graduates with a law degree in the United Kingdom and spends the next twenty two years working for the United Nations where he rises to the position of Divisional Director at the UNDP.

Upon retirement in 1992 Mr Kabbah and wife Patricia return to find a much bleaker Sierra Leone than the one they had left. This might have been a good point in the book for Mr Kabbah to delve into what went wrong, to give us an insightful analysis of the reasons for Sierra Leone's decline. Instead he amply recites the litany of woes,

"Public administration was weak and law and order, justce and accountability, donor support and investor confidence were practically dead. Ethnicity, nepotism and high-level corruption were the order of the day. Politial dissent and civil society activity had been ruthlessly curtailed and violence systematically used to curb real and imagined opponents. Social service delivery systems had collapsed...The buoyant economy, which the country enjoyed at independence together with the bright prospects of a prosperous nation held out to the people had disappeared to the point that Sierra Leone was classified as one of the poorest nations on earth"

and then resorts to perfunctory simplifications to explain them,

"These things did not happen by accident. Long years of authoritarian single party rule interspersed by military regimes had undermined democracy, destabilized the country and increased poverty.

Instead of the well-deserved rest that he and Mrs Kabbah had been looking forward to, Mr Kabbah is persuaded to run for the Presidency on the ticket of the Sierra Leone People's Party. Quite unexpectedly, just four years after his return from a 22-year sojourn abroad during which he had been well out of the public eye and had shown little or no political ambition, Mr Kabbah wins the election and becomes President.

Much of the book is taken up by a recounting of the unceasing stream of violent events that dominated Mr Kabbah's first term in office: from the coup against him in 1997 to the restoration of power in 1998, the continuation of the war subsequently, endless fruitless negotiations with rebel leader Foday Sankoh and his lieutenants, the rebel invasion of Freetown in 1999, another near-invasion in 2000 and the subsequent huge popular demonstration that forced Foday Sankoh, at the time poised very near to the helm of government in Freetown, to flee.

Mr Kabbah relies heavily on transcripts of old speeches, statements and official communications from himself and from foreign governments and leaders to tell his story. There is little soul-searching and he rarely, if ever, acknowledges blame for the various disasters. For instance scant explanation is offered for the catastrophic Jan 6, 1999, invasion, when rebels marched into, and torched much of Freetown, only days after the Government had assured the citizens that they were secure:

"They (the AFRC/RUF rebels) had used women and children as human shields and were able to pass ECOMOG checkpoints with little detection. Apparently, they also used weapons they had hidden in several parts of the city including cemeteries during their joint AFRC/RUF illegal regime."

Another ignominious flight for safety is described, but Mr Kabbah blames no one, least of all himself, for this disastrous security and intelligence failure.

With little real analysis or insight, one might have perhaps hoped for personal detail, little vignettes that demonstrate the workings of his government and appointees. Here, too, Mr Kabbah disappoints. He gives away little detail about the numerous personalities that served in his administration, other than that he thought highly of Solomon Berewa, vice-President during his second term, which we might already have guessed. Towards the end of the book, he unusually lambasts the deputy director of the Anti Corruption Commission, a British appointee, and DFID, the British department that was then funding the commission.

Of his second, much more peaceful term, Mr Kabbah in the main goes through a multitude of government departments and agencies one by one and lists accomplishments in each. A book of this nature would perhaps be more useful as a national reference if state actors commented on what was not accomplished that really, really should have been accomplished, and why it was not accomplished. Sierra Leone politicians, however, often feel a need to justify their tenure and spend much time reciting a familiar and long list of accomplishments:

"We launched 'Operation Feed The Nation' (OFTN) to implement a progressively widening range of actions as part of the national efforts to achieve food security... Rice yields increased from 422,065 tons in 2002 to over 758,000 metric tons in 2005. This means that by 2005 the country had attained 85 percent rice self-sufficiency...Over 1000 km of roads were constructed or upgraded...we capacitated farmers by establishing 500 Agricultural Business Units (ABUs) in addition to the Farmer Field Schools...Secondary school enrolment and the number of schools also increased dramatically, by over 100 percent...All these interventions led to a 300 percent increase in girls accessing junior secondary education...we built health clinics all over the country, rehabilitated or rebuilt District hospitals...about 800 Peripheral Health Units (PHUs) were providing medical services to many rural people, a phenomenal increase from 350 in 2002...the Youth Employment Scheme, which we launched in 2006...In Vision 2025 we identified six main areas...Building a well-educated and enlightened society...Becoming a science and technology-driven nation..."

Fast forward a few years and this could almost be current President Ernest Koroma speaking. All leaders of Sierra Leone have claimed great progress during their tenure. Somehow, the end product continues to disappoint.

This book tells us much about what went wrong in Sierra Leone.  What it fails to do is give us real answers about why it went wrong and why it perhaps, depending on one's point of view, still continues to go wrong. Having grown up under the British colonialists, then served with the first indigenous Government of Sierra Leone, having worked extensively abroad in the UN system in different countries and then returned to take up the leadership of the nation, having, as he emphasizes, roots in all four provinces of the country, Mr Kabbah was well placed to provide a serious analysis of the nation. Perhaps, though, like many of his generation, his very closeness to the dramatic transition of 1961 and the success it brought to young African professionals blinded him to its failings and rendered him incapable of correcting the systemic flaws of the nation he had helped to create.

Paul Conton

(Coming Back From The Brink In Sierra Leone by Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, 2010, ISBN 978-9988-0-7768-6, EPP Books Services, Ghana)