The Sierra Leone Web


Interview with President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah

Peter C. Andersen
28 June 2001
Sierra Leone Web

An announcement is expected to come within ten days on the release of at least some imprisoned members of Sierra Leone's rebel Revolutionary United Front, President Kabbah said on Thursday. In an interview at the presidential lodge, Kabbah said RUF detainees were currently being screened, and that those found to have committed "very, very serious crimes against humanity" would face the proposed Special Court, mandated by the United Nations last year to try those deemed most responsible for serious violations of humanitarian law committed in Sierra Leone since November 1996, the date of the ill-fated Abidjan Peace Accord.

"Now there are others as well against whom we may not have any evidence of a very serious crime, and just that they probably went with the crowd and belong to the RUF," Kabbah said. "And then we’re thinking that people like those we shall, perhaps in the interest of peace because, let’s face it, I think the RUF leadership, they have demonstrated their willingness to cooperate with the peace process, and so we thought that in order to keep that momentum that there will be some gesture of releasing those that may not have committed grave crimes." 

Among the more than one hundred RUF commanders and political leaders detained under the country's emergency regulations following the breakdown of the peace process in May 2000 was the rebel group's leader, Foday Sankoh. And while RUF leaders have often called for him to be freed, Kabbah maintained that Sankoh still had questions to answer. "Certainly I believe he will face that court," he said. "And before that, and because of his record, I doubt whether anybody would be in a hurry to release him. So up to that point certainly he’ll have to be kept in custody. And after that, the question as to whether he’s released or not, then that will depend on the decision of the court."

The whereabouts of Foday Sankoh is a closely-guarded secret, with the authorities generally willing to say no more than that he is alive and that he is being held within the borders of Sierra Leone. Kabbah said he himself did not know where the rebel leader was being detained. "I don’t want to know where he is," he said. "As long as he’s safe and he’s out of the way, doesn’t disturb people, I’m fine." But Kabbah said he was certain Sankoh was in good condition. "He’s alive – that I can tell you. He’s well -- that I know, because they regularly provide a doctor to see him and the doctors prepare medical reports which I see occasionally. So I think he’s all right."

Earlier this year, parliament approved a six-month extension in the life of the government after the National Electoral Commission concluded that financial constraints and the still-precarious security situation in the country would make it impracticable to conduct elections on time. The Commission proposed instead that presidential and parliamentary elections be held in December. But even as opposition parties have begun to gear up for the contest, while RUF commanders rush to disarm their troops and transform their rebel movement into a political party, Kabbah acknowledged that "a more realistic date" for the elections would probably be February. The president downplayed comments expressed by some rebel commanders, several of whom have issued veiled warnings against any further delay in conducting the polls. "There is some amount of discipline within the ranks of the RUF, and their commanders...appear to be serious about the peace process," he said. "(The commanders) are realistic enough to accept that the end of the year will not be the right thing."

The RUF, together with some opposition leaders and a number of civil society groups, has called for the formation of an interim government to rule the country through the elections. But Kabbah said this was not an option. "There is no provision for an interim government in our constitution," he said. "There is, however, provision in our constitution that if we cannot organize an election we can extend the life of the government and parliament for six months at a time, maximum."

Kabbah, who was elected president in 1996 under the banner of the Sierra Leone People's Party, insisted he had not yet made a decision on whether he will seek re-election, saying he had been too deeply engaged in the peace process and in working to develop the country to have an opportunity to reflect on his future. "I have not had the time yet to really study looking to my own situation, which involves my health," he said. "In February I’ll be 70 years of age. And so will I be really fit enough to continue under severe pressure?" Kabbah said that when the time came he would hand over power willingly, and he pointed out that when he returned to Sierra Leone in 1992, it was to retire. "The way I look at it is that (being president) is a service I’m providing for my country," he said. "And I believe that I am making some contribution to bringing about stability. The moment that really somebody comes forward, is prepared to go through what I’m going through, then I think we should share that responsibility."

Looking back on a decade of often-brutal civil conflict in his country, Kabbah said that the war was finally over. But he acknowledged that obstacles still lay ahead. "We’re going through the disarmament process, and this means taking the guns from (the combatants)," he said. "There is a more difficult exercise we have to go through, and that is the reconciliation part of it." Some RUF fighters, he said, were reluctant to return to their communities for fear they would not be accepted. "I’ve been visiting various parts of the country, trying to explain to people that it is difficult, but if some of these guys come back to you and apologise and ask for forgiveness, please receive them and help to have them reintegrated in the communities," he said. Kabbah also expressed concern about the potential for instability when traditional chiefs return to their homes, possibly displacing local leaders appointed by the rebels. "What I suspect will happen is that there may be some panic in the sense that the RUF-appointed chiefs may want to move out with their members of their families, and this will also lead to some form of mass exodus and creation of refugees, and that may result in some instability as well there," he said. "So while we are carrying on with the disarmament, we are also trying to convey a message of peace, but also working on the whole question of as to avoid the situation which I’m afraid of."

Kabbah also warned that unless the problem of corruption could be brought under control, the same conditions which gave rise to Sierra Leone's civil war in 1991 could again plunge the country into chaos. "I can see even right now that people’s behaviour patterns, if we do not work hard enough for people to change their attitudes, will get back to that same situation," he said. "There is a tendency for people in authority to think that they are above the law, and there is the tendency for, because of the bad governance structure that existed and the unacceptable ways of handling public funds and other things, for people to feel that public funds belonged to them, to the exclusion of the majority of the people -- particularly poor people. And this trend, I’m afraid, is still there." Kabbah pointed to the work of the Anti-Corruption Commission as key to maintaining future stability in the country. "We are also using the television and radio very effectively in conveying the message as to how (corruption) will lead not only to further poverty, but also that it may lead to another rebel war," he said.

Also key to ending the conflict, Kabbah stressed, is the re-establishment of government authority in areas until recently occupied by the rebels, and he pointed to the role of the local district councils in laying the groundwork for deployment of police and security forces in those areas. "We’re very much aware of the fact that we have to really coordinate this very effectively and quickly, because if there is a vacuum then of course you may have the anarchy continuing in the area," he said. "And if people get used to that, then that will create its own problem as well."