It was in 1996; the country was returning to a fragile state of stability, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC) had been kicked out of power through the concerted effort of the West African Economic Monitoring Group (ECOMOG). The late President Tejan Kabbah’s democratically elected government was restored to power. The nine -month exiled leader came home with a battered and bruised ego. The judiciary was in limbo, the economy was in tatters and the legislature was non-existent. Tejan Kabbah had numerous problems to handle after he returned to the country. To be seen as a national hero, the late President Kabbah (of blessed memory) proposed the idea of disbursing allowance and other remunerations to the late Joseph Saidu Momoh (of blessed memory). According to president Kabbah, being a former leader deserves integrity and respect through state disbursements. There was a hue and cry from the state, including students from the University of Sierra Leone. Students from the University (including me) gathered at the Parade Grounds to protest against the gesture. From our own point, it was unconstitutional and it would send a bad message to some leaders who may use other means to gain power. President Kabbah was magnanimous towards ex-president Momoh and his intention was from an honest perspective. The proposal was turned down as the national cry against the move was overwhelming.
Is honest politics possible? Yes. President J.S Momoh was a soldier who ascended the presidency as a result of a handpicked succession by the late Siaka Stevens. His reign marked the introduction of the 1991 multi-party constitution on which the country currently thrives. As a human being, he erred and some of his policies were not working for the people. There was inflation and other social vices. Notwithstanding these failures, he famously addressed the nation and he admitted failing the nation. His religious belief and moral compass dictated honesty, by admitting a vice that is absent in most politicians. The rest is history. May their souls rest in peace and not in pieces.
But what is honesty or dishonesty in a politician? Is it possible for a politician to be honest at all? Jean-Jacques Rousseau once said,” Those who desire to treat politics and morals separately will never understand anything of either.” The practice of politics not only can but must be reconciled with the imperatives of honesty. Some of our Sierra Leonean politicians are dishonest to themselves, as some even present fake degrees and pretend to have genuine certificates to enter our parliament. This question goes to the heart of our democracy. When voters write off politicians as dishonest, anti democratic movements thrive. Yet all politicians know that ambiguity and compromise tend to prevail over universal truths. Sometimes, one must choose the lesser evil.
It is understandably true that our ordinary standards of decency and righteousness cannot always be applied- but not because cynicism and hypocrisy are all that matter in politics. The leaders must be in the position to utter the truth so posterity will judge them in future.
Consider the Whatsapp revolution that gripped the internet when the former vice president, Alhaji Sam Sumana paid a visit to the former president, Ernest Koroma in Makeni. To the die-hard APCers, it marked the beginning of the revolution to State House in 2023. The APC forums were jam-packed with congratulatory messages and compliments. For a die-hard APC stalwart at King Jimmy in Philadelphia, Kebbie Turay, he said, it is the New Year’s message from the party. This camaraderie gesture between the president and his erstwhile vice president will be a soothing music to the ears of millions of the party faithful. Some may say the party has started implementing some of the recommendations of the offshoot National Reformation Movement of the APC. Is this another way to inform the millions of APC supporters that Ernest Koroma still has the mojo to bring all factions of the party back to the drawing board? If Ernest was once called a Messi and not Messy, then this free kick goal was well deserved. A leader who brings the lot together after an election is worth to be remembered.
But wait, wait, was this not the same vice president who was derided, lambasted and castigated by some echelons of the APC party when he defected to form his own party? So was he expelled from the party or suspended? Was his religion not questioned and membership of the party that catapulted him into the second highest position in the land not put in doubt?
Political dishonesty takes different forms in Sierra Leone. A leader who promises a bridge where there is no river is a mark of dishonesty. Political gamblers put competence to bad use. They are skilled but ruthless, lack humility and eschew reflection. The supporters in the country can also be dishonest; as some are blinded by the conviction that they are absolutely right in all cases. Most supporters of the major parties are ‘fanatics’, who are inflexible and inertial, and can be ready to flatten everything in their way. At the other end is a naïve, utopian, and moralistic stance that is equally dishonest. Their acolytes deplore the grit and relativism of politics and issue futile appeals for moral revivals. Paradoxically, if all people were honest, politics would become redundant.
This does not mean that we cannot identify honest politicians when we see them. There are hundreds of moral politicians who reject cynical pragmatism but do not succumb to naïve moralizing. An honest politician is someone who regards politics as a tool for achieving the common good. He is not naïve, and knows patience, compromise, and a policy of small steps that are often needed. Yet in pursuing partial goals he/she will not lose sight of higher objectives.
Sierra Leone may not have many honest politicians but let there be few honest ones who will pursue pragmatism, built on principles, and have the courage to say unpleasant things; but always with a constructive attitude. Indeed, irresponsible criticism; the eagerness to expose and publicize a problem, unmatched by the willingness to propose feasible solutions are perhaps the most common form of dishonesty in politics.
This is why actual governance is so often the best test of political honesty. Rousseau further stated that,” if politicians who are critical of others while in opposition prove to be ineffective when in government, voters can- and often do punish their dishonesty at the ballot box.” As Sierra Leone enters into a crucial stage, an honest politician is someone who defends an idea that is unpopular but right for the people. Not many people pass such tests, particularly when elections are always around the corner. However, only the dishonest politician equates politics exclusively with popularity.
Sierra Leone will face tough times in the coming weeks; the commission of inquiry is about to kick off, the homecoming of Sam Sumana and the stuttering economy are all challenges facing the country. A moral politician never succeeds single-handedly in ensuring the common good. Only when politicians support one another’s decency can they be confident that in critical moments for the state, they can rise above their political divisions. Sierra Leone has risen above party politics to, defeat the RUF, the Ebola scourge and other calamities and I am pretty sure that the few beautiful ones will rise and defend the motherland.
May God bless Sierra Leone and her children.