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As former president Ernest Bai Koroma faces treason charges, is democracy on trial in Sierra Leone?

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Deus Valentine Rweyemamu is chief executive of the Center for Strategic Litigation and co-convener of the Africa Drive for Democracy Conference. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the position of the institutions and initiatives he leads.

The charges against Koroma are, to say the least, extraordinary and no serious government would bring such charges unless it had absolutely no other tool up its sleeve.

I was saddened to wake up to the news of the prosecution of former Sierra Leonean president Ernest Bai Koroma in November 2023. I was first made aware of growing tension within the country as early as July 2022 when colleagues and myself invited his excellency to Arusha, Tanzania, to grace the opening of the inaugural Africa Drive for Democracy conference. 

I was quite intrigued by the ease with which the president had carried himself since my first encounter with his team. Unlike most high-profile contacts I have interacted with, he took no time to review his diary before his team reached out. They indicated he would be travelling to Zambia just before the date of the invitation. Instead of declining our invitation, he offered to join us, travelling from Lusaka to Arusha to avoid the long flight back to Freetown before he could join us. 

That meant a few extra days with him when we would get to hang out and gain some wise counsel from his experience and leadership. His extended presence also meant that several people in Arusha would get to interact with him in rather unplanned circumstances. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Fears of violence in Sierra Leone as former president Koroma faces treason charge

As fate would have it, a group of young people based at the Westerwelle Haus got to see him first hand and chatted to him over coffee. There was the man in the flesh, opening about his difficult youth in war-torn Sierra Leone. His was a story of resilience during which he built both his business acumen and wealth working in insurance. His affable smile and soft but firm tone painted a picture of a candid man who is selective with his words but not selfish with his wisdom. 

In his inaugural speech at the Drive for Democracy conference, he spoke about his indomitable belief in open government and democracy as inevitable recipes for Africa’s progress. He noted how democracy thrives in mutual toleration and gave the example of how he embraced the opposition when he was the incumbent, to the extent that he included them in his official trips abroad, to the surprise of his foreign hosts. He told us about how he immediately reached out to the erstwhile opposition candidate who had won the presidential vote as he was leaving office in 2018, to set the tone for an amicable transfer of power between the two parties. Perhaps to the surprise of some even in his own party he threw his total support behind his successor, going so far as publishing handover notes and committing to his collaboration with him notwithstanding the difficulties experienced during the electioneering season.

It came therefore as a surprise when I first learnt of his ongoing persecution for charges of misappropriation and graft. That the man we all once knew as the poster child of both the fight against Ebola and of open government was facing widely publicised charges of plundering public funds, was a sore sight. As I followed the proceedings of the prosecution, however, I grew increasingly concerned about the motives behind them. More so, I was concerned about what the prosecution of a leader viewed by many of us as the hallmark of democratic governance meant for his country’s democratic trajectory. 

The proceedings before the special commission set up with respect to the charges raised questions about commitment to the highest standards of the rule of law and the need to promote peaceful transitions. A core part of the latter rests in how those who voluntarily leave office are treated. This is important because at the end of the day we do not want to create the conditions in Africa that give incumbents incentives to reconsider their departure. It would not be surprising to learn that Koroma had received some not-so-wise counsel from his peers in the region to go for a third to make up for lost time owing to the Ebola pandemic. Several of his compatriots with whom he served have either stayed on or been toppled through military action. The price of resisting that very enticing temptation to “offer service to the people until they need it no more” could not be facing prosecution on charges that hardly hold water. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: Another military coup in Sierra Leone may be inevitable following botched elections, growing discontent

The news of Koroma’s prosecution for high treason rocked many of us who consider him an important ally in fighting anti-democratic forces in the region. The charges are, to say the least, extraordinary and no serious government would bring such charges unless it had absolutely no other tool up its sleeve. The risk such prosecution brings is indeed significant because a leader of Koroma’s profile commands a following in as much as they command international attention. Many of us are following the events in Sierra Leone, concerned not only about the high stakes but also their long-term implications for a region fraught with democratic decline. That the former president now has to live in exile because Sierra Leonean authorities consider him a man capable of such a gross crime as treason is reason to worry. 

In Zambia, President Frederick Chiluba locked up his predecessor on charges of corruption and we all know where it ended. The question President Julius Maada Bio and his administration must ask themselves is: Does the prosecution of Koroma help to heal the wounds created by the 2023 elections and create a pathway for national healing and reconciliation? If it does not, then it may not be worth the time and effort because it is likely to trigger a spate of vengeance, further hamper national unity and leave him in a precarious position unless he is not planning on stepping down at the end of his mandate. The efforts that were already under way by the AU/Ecowas would most likely have produced a pathway that would have allowed Sierra Leonean democracy to emerge stronger. That this disruption was necessary may only be proven in the fullness of time. 

I am therefore hoping that some wisdom will prevail over Sierra Leone and a more amicable settlement in the current stalemate is found. While the charges against Koroma may keep him away from the political fray in the country, they do not necessarily translate to growing popularity or acceptance for Bio’s administration. I have no doubt that Koroma is a devoted democrat and I do not wish to state or reaffirm his saintly credentials, since saints do not usually run for political office. I know for sure that he is perhaps as fallible as the rest of us and he may have occasionally erred from time to time, as humans often do. I am confident, however, that despite these present travails, Sierra Leonean democracy will emerge victorious because Africa and west Africa desperately need that. DM

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