Monday Philips Ekpe writes that the trial of the former president of Sierra Leone can jeopardise the country’s stability and fortunes

“That you, Ernest Bai Koroma on diverse days between the 5th day of November 2023 and the 26th day of November 2023 in Sierra Leone prepared to overthrow the Government of Sierra Leone by unlawful means …. That on a date unknown between the 20th and the 25th day of November 2023, Ernest Bai Koroma, in preparedness to overthrow the Government of Sierra Leone by unlawful means, harboured Sorieba Mansaray… in his premises…”

The immediate past President of Sierra Leone, President Koroma, heard those cold words from the dock on January 3 in Freetown when he was arraigned for his alleged role in the violent attacks that took place in the country on November 26 last year. The government of President Julius Maada Bio, in a twist, later pronounced those incidents as attempts to oust it.

Let’s be clear. The orchestrated assaults were daring and grievous. And completely unacceptable. Media reports showed that a major armoury, two barracks, two prisons and two police stations were raided. Over 20 persons, mostly soldiers, were cut down in cold blood; in addition to freeing some 2000 prisoners. Those actions, by any stretch of imagination or the origins of their masterminding, were epic. No self-respecting government would simply fold its hands and watch.  Investigating, prosecuting and penalising the suspects or culprits should, as a matter of routine, be expected from the authorities. Besides, with the recent wave of coups especially in parts of West Africa, it would amount to dereliction of duty if President Bio hadn’t moved to unearth those dastardly acts. To that extent, he can’t be faulted.

The direction of the enquiries so far, however, is, put mildly, troubling. A huge moral question is developing in Sierra Leone which overshadows the legal processes that should ordinarily bring vindication to the innocent and pronouncement of guilt on the culpable. In the words of Joseph Kamara, Dr Koroma’s lawyer, “a dark cloud has shadowed our country (by) dragging a former head of state, who was democratically elected, on trumped up charges under a political vendetta.” As things stand, only the followers of Bio would disagree with that assertion. What did Koroma’s interrogation for over 40 hours produce? The fact that he knew the other suspects, something the former president didn’t deny. Surely, someone who led the country for one decade can’t seriously be accused of having things to do with the citizens, some of whom have served as his personal security detail. No evidence of any sort that could directly link him to the sad events being probed. Absolutely nothing incriminating! Well, as far as the initial questionings have gone, for, anything is possible in a murky political environment.

It’s on record that Koroma condemned the orchestrated military attacks in strong terms even before they were declared as acts of insurrection by the government. So, those who have identified his present predicament as a witch-hunt, a deliberate attempt to rubbish his reputation and undermine his capacity to present a credible alternative voice to what is generally perceived as Bio’s increasingly inept administration, don’t need to look far for proofs.

To start with, unlike Bio, Koroma parades unimpeachable democratic credentials. Twenty-eight years ago, the former, who was then a brigadier in the Sierra Leone Army and deputy head of the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) led by Captain Valentine Strasser, toppled his boss shortly before the country’s planned return to civil rule under late President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, and was granted asylum in the United States. Bio’s visit to Sierra Leone in 2005 was occasioned by Kabbah’s endorsement and assurances of his safety.  His contest for president in 2012 failed as he was beaten by Koroma who then ran for his own second term in office.

Had Koroma been vindictive, he simply could have dug up his opponent’s activities while in the military, including his involvement in the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), many of which were questionable, if not detestable. That he didn’t do so further authenticated his profile as a true statesman whose overriding interest and passion were the enthronement of peace, justice and egalitarianism in Sierra Leone, a nation that has experienced crippling existential and situational vicissitudes.

It’s quite ironic that Koroma may indeed have become a victim of his own magnanimity and sense of fairness. Much of Africa is still not a continent where standard democratic practices thrive, where the fidelity of the ballot is a given. Incumbent presidents do manipulate elections and their outcomes, many times brazenly, to their advantage. The more audacious ones among them even use their pliant parliaments to rig their countries’ constitutions so they can cling to power till they drop dead. But what did Koroma do in 2018, the year his tenure ended statutorily?

He presided over the transition period with disinterestedness, nationalism and candour. The stuff that genuine patriots are made of. That presidential poll didn’t yield the mandatory 55% lead, hence a rerun between the frontrunners – Bio of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and Dr Samura Kamara of the All People’s Congress (APC) – who were only separated by less than 15000 votes in the first round. Bio won the runoff with 51.8% of the votes, a very tempting situation that could have been used to perpetuate the ruling party’s dominance of Sierra Leone’s volatile political space. But Koroma gladly handed over to Bio who has now become his tormentor. As expected, some of APC’s stalwarts weren’t on the same page with their leader whose predominant concerns were his country’s tranquillity and entrenchment of democracy.

Koroma’s current tribulation could appear to be a fight for his own image and future but the ramifications extend beyond that. He has earned a respectable spot as a national, regional and continental icon, a status his rivals may have to live with for a long time. The country he met on assumption of office was still struggling with the consequences of the internecine war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of his compatriots and left the country bankrupt in every way imaginable. Of course, perfection can’t describe his two-term performance but he did face monstrous challenges like a highly demoralised citizenry, Ebola, anaemic economy and devastating, unprecedented earthquakes, with meagre resources and achieved remarkable results. Bio is believed by many watchers of the West African country to be acutely envious of and intimidated by those accomplishments. With the sustained domestic popularity of Koroma who has since retired from active local politics, and his rising profile as head of mission for the African Union (AU) and Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Bio urgently needs to become magnanimous, confident and transparent – attributes that are also on trial at the moment – without which his nation’s fate could find itself in the wind again. That would be tragic.

At any rate, time is running out. So much noise has been made about the effort of ECOWAS to get Koroma relocated to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital city, away from the dangerous moves going on in the country fondly called ‘Salone’ by its citizens. Call it safe-landing. Call it rescue from sharks and leviathans. Or a sincere step towards avoiding a very present possibility of Sierra Leone’s descent into anarchy. The regional body shouldn’t add this case to the embarrassing illustrations of its waning stature. Bio must be helped to act responsibly and presidentially.    

Dr Ekpe is a member of THISDAY Editorial Board

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