By Dr Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, Senior Lecturer in Media and Politics, Northumbria University, UK.
I have endorsed Retired Brigadier Julius Maada Bio for the SLPP Presidential ticket in the March 7 2018 elections because I strongly believe in his project and ability to succeed as our next President if given the opportunity. Perhaps I need to provide some context as to how, when and why I took this decision.
Maada Bio is the second Presidential candidate I have ever endorsed in Sierra Leone. The first was late president Tejan Kabbah during the campaigns in the 1996 general elections, which he won. I was then publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Expo Times, which won the best-selling newspaper award from the National Vendors Association that year. At the time, my newspaper was the largest circulation and most widely read newspaper in the country and my nearest competitors were For Di People and Concord Times. When the presidential election campaigns became heated and the battle lines were clearly drawn with the three front-runners, Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP, Karefa-Smart of the UNPP, and Thaimu Bangura of PDP (SORBEH), For Di People declared for and endorsed Karefa-Smart and the UNPP while Concord Times declared for and endorsed Thaimu Bangura and the PDP. Dr Prince Harding and Banda-Thomas then approached me to endorse and help Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP, who was then the clear frontrunner according to Opinion polls, to win the elections.
Why Tejan Kabbah, and not Karefa-Smart and Thaimu Bangura
It was a very difficult decision to make at the time, not least because my newspaper had gained the trust of majority of people as the most fearless independent newspaper in the country. Another challenge was that my editorial team was split along the three main front- runners; most favoured Karefa-Smart while others favoured Thaimu Bangura, and only my deputy editor Lans Gberie and I clearly favoured Tejan Kabbah for the presidency. Probably because of the fact that I was born and raised in Kenema, a very strong hold of the SLPP, I was inclined to support Tejan Kabbah and his SLPP project. Moreover, I was convinced that he was having the best campaign in terms of his vision for the country, especially in pushing through the on-going 1996 Abidjan Peace Accord, which was initiated by the NPRC junta then led by Maada Bio. I was particularly convinced that Tejan Kabbah would push through the Abidjan peace process because he was, before running for the presidency, the Chairman of the Advisory Committee of the NPRC, which initiated it in the first place. As most of those who were following developments in the country would remember, my newspaper was in the forefront of those calling for a peaceful resolution of the Sierra Leone civil war, which was only benefiting the rebels and those selling weapons to them and the government troops. I clearly saw Tejan Kabbah and the SLPP representing my vision to push for peace and development in the country. Because of all this, I threw my weight and that of my newspaper behind Tejan Kabbah. However, I made one promise to Dr Prince Harding and Banda Thomas: that I was going to do my best to use my newspaper to defend the case for Kabbah’s bid for the presidency and mobilise support for him among our readers on one condition that if Kabbah won the election we would celebrate together and give his government six months of breathing space after which we would go back to our editorial independence. After all, as is the case even in developed democracies, it is normal for a newspaper to take a position during national elections and then revert to its neutral position after the settling of the political dust; and so we were not acting out of tune with our responsibilities as journalists. Therefore, this was how and why I decided to use my newspaper to endorse Tejan Kabbah and help him and the SLPP in the campaign to win the 1996 elections. After the elections, I remember that things initially went very well between my newspaper and the government. I was even given a VIP invitation by Banda Thomas to attend the SLPP victory dinner and dance at Cape Sierra Hotel and Dr Prince Harding following his appointment as Minister of Mines regularly visited me in my office at Short street.
Things Fall Apart!
However, things started to go bad between my newspaper and the Kabbah government when, after its first six months in power, we conducted a street vox pop about its performance, especially in the area of pushing the peaceful negotiations of the country’s conflict inherited from the NPRC government, in which the overall opinion was below average. The government appeared to be a bit sluggish in pushing the Abidjan Peace Accord and this made the RUF rebels to renew their offensive and cause havoc in many parts of the country. It was like the democracy, which we had hoped would create the atmosphere needed to deliver the peace, was failing us. Within a very short time, since the coming to power of the Tejan Kabbah government, I suffered persecution twice. The first involving a court matter with an American businessman who was then supported by some top government ministers, which led to my deputy editor and I spending a week end in Pademba road prisons because Magistrate Naomi Tunis who was to sign our bail papers left her office earlier than expected on a Friday. The second involving Inspector General of the Police Saffa sending police to raid my office in search of what they called a computer stolen from Sierra Rutile. Both cases came to nothing; the first, which was a libel, was kicked out of court because there was no case to answer while the second was simply dismissed for lack of evidence. It turned out that the idea was just to harass me to stop exposing the weaknesses of the Kabbah government, especially in pushing the peace process. I suffered the worst persecution in the hands of the Kabbah government when my two assistant editors Gibril Gbanabome Koroma(now editor and publisher of the Canada-based online newspaper, Patriotic Vanguard) and Charles Roberts and I were arrested and put in Pademba Road prison for almost a month in 1997. We were charged with seditious libel and spying for the enemy (the first and only time journalists were charged with such treasonable offence) for publishing an opinion article written by the former criticising the arrest of RUF rebel leader Foday Sankoh by the then Nigerian military leader Sani Abacha and spelling out how this would undermine the on-going Abidjan Peace Accord. We were refused bail five times during our detention and we were only released on bail after we went on hunger strike for three days and following international pressure. This was too much and we certainly did not deserve all these treatments from Kabbah’s SLPP government given the role that my newspaper played in their election victory. But the worst was yet to come. Following the AFRC junta coup in May 1997, which forced the Kabbah government into exile in Guinea Conakry, which put on hold our ongoing trial while on bail, I was branded collaborator of the junta, which was not true. When the AFRC junta was removed by ECOMOG and Kabbah’s government reinstalled in 1998, I was forced into exile because my name was on a death list of so-called junta collaborators circulated by vigilantes and militias of the newly reinstalled Kabbah government.
How and Why I Embraced the APC?
I only returned from exile in 2007 following the change of government with APC’s president Koroma coming to power. Because I was clearly bitter with the SLPP government after all the harsh treatment my colleagues and I suffered in their hands I decided to turn my back on them and embrace the new APC government which gave me hope and allowed me to once again return to my country. I even went to the extent of registering with the APC party and became the Bristol branch publicity secretary for about a year.
Enter Maada Bio!
However, the turning point came when three years ago, following a series of meetings I was approached by Maada Bio to join his PAOPA project core team in preparation for the next general elections. It was a very difficult situation, after considering all the harassment and persecution I suffered in the hands of the SLPP, which I clearly did not deserve, given all what I did for the party to get to power in 1996. Yet, I must say, it was really difficult to resist Maada Bio’s very warm, comforting, and reconciliatory words while trying to kindly and calmly ask me to put the past behind me and work with him to implement our dreams for a more peaceful and better Sierra Leone. Moreover, when I looked at Maada Bio’s track record as the NPRC junta leader who actually initiated the 1996 Abidjan Peace Accord, which my newspaper openly endorsed and defended, albeit at a prize of many rounds of persecution, and the fact that he openly demonstrated his love for a peaceful and developed Sierra Leone by accepting democracy before peace in line with the wishes of the people expressed in the historic Bintumani conference even when he and his NPRC junta clearly favoured the later, I quickly realised that I actually shared his vision for a peaceful and developed Sierra Leone. I must say that I was really impressed by Maada Bio’s patriotism and democratic credentials when he accepted the wishes of the people to hand over power after serving just three months as leader of the NPRC junta following the palace coup against Captain Strasser. I also admired his courage and determination by working hard to add value to himself by pursuing further education to the level of Masters in the USA and most recently a PhD programme in the UK. His position is further strengthened by the experience he gained in his first shot at the presidency in the last elections in 2012, where he did very well by polling about 38% of the overall votes, coming against a then still relatively popular incumbent President Koroma. In contrast to what some critics have been saying about Maada Bio’s determination to still run for the SLPP flagbearer for the country’s top job, I believe that is a strength rather than a weakness. I think that he stands a better chance than all the other candidates do because he already has a political base and all he really needs to do, if given the opportunity, is to build on that to cross the finishing line in the next elections. All this put together has convinced me that Maada has prepared himself very well and is more than ready to serve our country once again, this time in a much better and stronger position. After accepting to support and work with him three years ago I straight way registered as a member of the SLPP and I have since been working hard with others in the UK and elsewhere to provide support and advice where necessary. I also like the way he has handled the tensions and egos within the SLPP leading to the recent very successful SLPP party convention in Kenema. I strongly believe that Maada is capable of replicating this magnanimity if given the opportunity to lead Sierra Leone. I also commend the newly elected SLPP Chairman, Dr Prince Harding, and the rest of the new SLPP executive for working so hard to reach out to everybody in the party, including those who lost the election and their supporters, since the Kenema convention. What the party needs most at this crucial time is unity and so I would encourage the new NEC to expand their outreach efforts to include even those who have left the party because of differences in opinions and approaches, and those who are still in the party but not completely engaged with the ongoing processes and activities of the party moving forward. It is normal in politics for people to disagree on issues and approaches but it is always better to find ways and means of resolving these differences from within rather than from without in the interest of the unity of the party which is needed to put up a good show in the next elections. It is in this spirit that I raise my hat to all the other SLPP presidential flagbearers who have decided to weather the storm and stay in the contest, as well as those who have withdrawn from the race for personal reasons but are still strongly in the party. I commend their efforts for putting the unity and overall interest of the SLPP above their personal interests.