By Sorie Fofana
After he retired from office as Head of State in 1985, the late President Dr. Siaka Stevens became a very lonely man. He was hardly visited by even the few loyal friends that he had left in the ruling APC party. In short, he became a very isolated man.
Some few friends who visited him at Kabasa Lodge at Juba Hill were thrilled by the new habit he had developed to reading books, journals and newspapers.
In office, Siaka Stevens was accustomed to reading the few newspapers that existed at the time. He had some very good friends in the media including but not limited to Hon. Alhaji I.B. Kargbo and Hon. Frank Kposowa.
A retired journalist who once visited Siaka Stevens at Kabasa Lodge in retirement, recounted how he found a very lonely man, seated in the back garden of his home, reading the “West Africa Magazine” then edited by Kaye Whiteman.
He said he asked the former President whether he regretted any decision he may have taken during his Presidency. “President Stevens said to me that he regretted two major decisions that he took during his Presidency…He said he regretted the decision of having to scrap the railway and his decision to handpick a successor instead of leaving the decision of electing his successor to be decided by the party…Those were the mistakes he said he would take to his grave”, recalled my retired journalist friend who is now resident in Surrey, United Kingdom.
After he retired from office in 2007, President Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah felt very lonely. He had very few loyal friends left in the country.
I met one of President Kabbah’s closest advisers along Siaka Stevens Street in August 2008 and asked him why he had stopped visiting the President since he left office. He retorted, “I don’t want the new government to see me around President Kabbah…They would sack me”. As God would have it, he was sacked a month later. Even after he was sacked, he never visited President Kabbah at his private residence at Juba. Unfortunately, he died before President Kabbah passed away in March 2014.
I was a regular visitor at Kabaya (Kabbah’s private residence) at Juba Hill. And I enjoyed the privilege of having to travel with the former President outside Sierra Leone on private visits.
When we arrived in South Africa on June 8, 2010 for the FIFA World Cup tournament, I had the opportunity to talk extensively and exclusively to President Kabbah on a number of issues. Even though he was busy reading the manuscript of his memoir, President Kabbah found time to respond to, many of my questions and enquires.
He told me that the Office of President is a very difficult office to run. “I never left that office without the permission, of my head of security…He virtually controlled all my movements…Can you imagine as Head of State, I had to seek permission from the CSO (Chief Security Officer) before leaving my house to visit some of my relatives and friends in the East end of Freetown?”.
I asked President Kabbah whether he regretted having to support Mr. Solomon Berewa to succeed him. His answer was ambiguous. “I was the one who decided that Solo should succeed me…He was my confidant…He is a very skillful negotiator and a very resolute man…He was very loyal to me and I trusted his judgment on legal matters… But along the way, things went bad…I had to manage the relationship until we both retired in 2007…I voted for him in the elections in 2007 but he lost…He was not destined to become President…The rest is now history”.
I was very impressed that, even though I was taken notes during our conversation, he never stopped me. I realized from that point that he wanted me to record our conversation.
He said that his greatest regret was when his plan to construct a bridge linking Tagrin with Government Wharf was thwarted by the AFRC coup of May 1997. “The 1997 coup frustrated me to an extent that, I almost gave up on my plan to return to public office again…I felt completely devastated when I lost my wife in London and when my best friend, President Sani Abacha died in Nigeria”, President Kabbah said.
He later told me that he took one major decision that he later regretted. “I would take that to my grave,” he said.
President Kabbah said that, based on his experience as a former President, if he ever came back as President, he would prefer to surround himself with people who would tell him what he needed to hear not what he wanted to hear. He repeated that statement on many occasions, especially when he spoke to me in confidence.
When a local newspaper published a screaming headline that President Kabbah had died, he telephoned me in the morning and said jokingly that, I was talking to a ghost. We both laughed over it.
Later that evening, I spotted him around Lumley Beach being chauffeur-driven and his vehicle being chased by some of his admirers singing, “The Pa nor die…Pa Kabbah, leh God gee you long life”. President Kabbah was a great leader who put the interest of the country above his personal interests.
May his soul rest in perfect peace!