Kabbah, Ahmad Tejan 1932–

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Ahmad Tejan Kabbah 1932

President of Sierra Leone

Years of Unrest

A New Era


Ahmad Tejan Kabbah returned home to his native Sierra Leone to retire after a career with the United Nations as an economist, but was drafted into the countrys movement toward a multiparty democracy during the mid-1990s. In 1996, he was elected president in Sierra Leones first free elections since its independence. However, the ongoing civil strife that had plagued Sierra Leone in recent times did not end. After a 1997 coup, Kabbah was forced to flee the country for several months, but returned to its capital, Freetown, in 1998 to great fanfare. Many Sierra Leoneans place great store in Kabbah as the symbol for achieving a peaceful and prosperous future.

Sierra Leone is a strife-torn, but mineral-rich West African nation with an area of 28,000 square miles and a population of five million people. In 1999, it was estimated that almost half that number had been forced to flee to neighboring countries as a result of the civil war. Nearly all citizens are from one of thirteen tribes, with Temne and Mende the largest of them. The African captives on board the Amistad slave ship, who mutinied and attempted to return to Africa in the 1840s, but instead were tricked into U.S. waters and arrested, hailed from Sierra Leone.

Years of Unrest

Sierra Leone eventually became a colony for freed slaves under British protection, and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) became the dominant political party in the 1950s. The country achieved its independence in 1961. The dawn of independence also launched the start of 17 years of unrest, and Sierra Leone was declared a one-party state in 1978. General Joseph Momoh became president in 1985, and a movement to create a multi-party democracy gained momentum. A constitution was ratified in 1991 and elections scheduled, but a coup in April of 1992 led to a reinstatement of military rule. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels, led by Foday Sankoh, were instrumental in this event.

Kabbah was born in 1932 in the Kaliahun District. He attended St. Edwards School in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, then traveled to Great Britain for further education. After earning his degree from the University College of Wales, he was admitted to the Bar of Grays Inn in London. Returning to his homeland,

At a Glance

Born Alhaji Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, February 16, 1932, in Pendembu, Kaliahun District, Eastern Province, Sierra Leone; married; wifes name, Patricia Tucker. Education: Received degree from University College of Wales. Religion: Muslim. Politics: Sierra Leone Peoples Party.

Career: Called to the Bar (Grays Inn), London; district commander for Moyamba, Kono, Bombali and Kambia Districts in Sierra Leone; Ministry of Social Welfare, Freetown, Sierra Leone, deputy secretary; Ministry of Education, Freetown, permanent secretary; Ministry of Trade and Industry, Freetown, permanent secretary; joined staff of United Nations; served as UNDP representative in Lesotho, 1973, Tanzania and Uganda, 1976, and Zimbabwe, 1980; appointed head of Eastern and Southern Africa Division in the United Nations, 1979; served as deputy personnel director and director of the Division of Administration and Management, 1981. Elected president of Sierra Leone, 1996 and 1998; serves as minister of defense of Sierra Leone.

Addresses: Office Office of the President, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Kabbah served as commander for several districts in Sierra Leone before joining the countrys Ministry of Social Welfare as a deputy secretary. From there, he served as permanent secretary in the ministries of education and of trade and industry. In the early 1970s, Kabbah was hired by the United Nations and served as a developmental economist for a number of years.

After two decades with the United Nations, Kabbah retired and returned to Sierra Leone. He had been a member of the SLPP since 1954, and his long and distinguished career made him an attractive candidate for president. As Kabbah told reporter Angella Johnson from the Johannesburg, South Africa daily the Mail & Guardian about this second career, I dont regret it [becoming president] because I believed at the time that I had contributed to peace and stability in my country in the very short time that I was there, Kabbah said. I now feel that I have a moral duty to my people because maybe they were looking for someone like me to begin the process of economic development.

As the SLPP candidate, Kabbah was declared the victor in the countrys first multi-party elections in March of 1996. He refused to accept his salary, and did not even live in the presidential mansion, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Instead he remained in his own home, and lived on his United Nations pension. Restoring order to the country after several years of civil strife was his first duty as president. In November of 1996 he signed the Abidjan (Nigeria) Accord, which was also signed by rebel leader Sankoh. However, as Cameron Duodu explained in the Mail & Guardian, Kabbah did not want to implement the agreement. The reason is that the RUFs brand of terrorism-amputating the limbs of villagers to coerce them into supporting it- horrified a lot of the middle-class people on whom Kabbah depended for support.

There were also problems within the Sierra Leonean army, many of whom were supporters of the RUF. Many government soldiers welcomed RUF forces into Free-town when a coup ousted Kabbah from office in May of 1997. Another group, the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), was also instrumental in this military action. The rebels seized the diamond-mine regions of Sierra Leone after driving a Mercedes car into the gates of the countrys largest prison and freeing the inmates, many of whom were political detainees. Kabbah, a Muslim, was about to leave the house for morning prayers at the mosque that day in May, but fortunately kept in touch with the military through a special radio. He quickly learned that the rebels had seized control of the government, and was flown to safety in neighboring Guinea.

Executive Outcomes, a private security company that took much of credit for the stability in Sierra Leone before the coup, had warned Kabbah of the potential for such an insurgency. They asked for a large sum of money for a protection deal, which would have provided Kabbah and his most senior Cabinet members with a paramilitary anti-riot force of about 500 men and a twoman intelligence unit (staffed by South Africans) who would have been based at military headquarters to give early warning of any coup plots, explained Mail & Guardian journalists Khareen Pech and Yusuf Hassan.

Kabbah instead chose another alternative: protection by a West African peacekeeping force called ECOMOG (Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group). Its parent organization, ECOWAS (West African Economic Community), is a 16-nation consortium of West African nations. As African Businesss Dexter Jerome Smith remarked, Kabbahs decision was a difficult but timely one, for it hailed a significant if somewhat surprising turn of events on the African continent: Africans sorting out African problems; the region policing itself rather than being policed from outside.

In October of 1997, the AFRC and RUF finally agreed to leave and to return rightful power to Kabbah. How-ever, the mood within Sierra Leone remained tense. A spokesperson for the rebel government, Lt. Col. Gibril Massaquri, said only that same month that Kabbah was a criminal You do not understand, the Christian Science Monitor quoted Massaquri as stating. Kabbah is irrelevant. We will kill him if he comes back. I hate him. The people hate him. The citizens of Sierra Leone realized that they had few alternatives. Unless Kabbah comes back, there will be no peace, a Freetown resident told reporter Carl A. Prine of the Christian Science Monitor. Economic sanctions had brought hard-ship to Sierra Leoneans, and basic necessities were becoming increasingly scarce. Electricity and telephone services had been shut down while the AFRC/RUF junta remained in power.

A New Era

Neighboring Nigeria footed much of the bill for the military action in Sierra Leone that finally ousted the AFRC and RUF from power. Kabbah endured criticism that he was becoming a tool of a foreign power, a leader who was under the thumb of Nigerian head of state General Sani Abacha. Kabbah returned to Sierra Leone in March of 1998, followed by an official announcement from United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan heralding the event as a positive step for the future of Sierra Leone and the stability of West Africa. In Freetown, throngs of people lined the route of Kabbahs motorcade, wearing traditional tribal costumes, banging drums and singing songs written for the occasion, reported CNN. Residents cleaned up the streets, and flags, streamers and banners decorated the city.

Only one month prior to Kabbahs return, retreating AFRC and RUF forces had laid waste to Freetown, setting fire to buildings and automobiles. In the country-side, they waged a campaign against the return of the elected government that was code-named No Living Thing. As New York Times reporter Barbara Crossette explained, some victims have been turned into messengers of death, disfigured then sent away bearing letters warning President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and the African peacekeeping troops who restored him to office in March that armed resistance, led by remnants of a former military junta, will continue and that no one is safe.

Meanwhile, Sankoh had been captured by ECOMOG, and there was talk that the rebel leader would become Kabbahs deputy in an attempt to forge a new, pluralistic era for the country. Sankoh was returned to Sierra Leone, where he spoke out against the atrocities committed by the rebels. However, the peace accord fell apart when the AFRC and RUF objected to demands that they disarm. In mid-1998, Sierra Leoneans who collaborated with the AFRC/RUF forces were tried for treason. Later that year, Kabbah heeded warnings from his military advisers and ordered the execution of 24 collaborators.

Early in 1999, Kabbah asked the United Nations to help forge a peace agreement between his government and the AFRC/RUF. Weeks of negotiation resulted in another peace accord, signed by both Kabbah and Sankoh, in July of 1999. The agreement granted amnesty to many of the rebels, and offered a power-sharing role for the RUF, giving them four posts in the cabinet. Sankoh was made the equivalent of vice president and head of a task force on national reconstruction. Both leaders furiously studied their documents until just moments before the signing as they sat next to one another on a raised stage, reported the New York Times about the ceremony in Lome, Togo. At Kabbahs side was a young girl whose arm had been amputated during the civil war. I shall sign it as president of Sierra Leone, but more importantly I shall sign it for the thousands of children of Sierra Leone, the president was reported as saying by the New York Times.



African Business, April 1998.

Christian Science Monitor, October 31, 1997.

Mail & Guardian (Johannesburg, South Africa), May 30, 1997; November 7, 1997; January 15, 1999.

New African, April 1998; July 1998; March 1999.

New York Times, July 30, 1998, p. A1; July 7, 1999; July 8, 1999.

Sydney Morning Herald, January 8, 1999.

UN Chronicle, Summer 1998, p. 57.


Additional information for this profile was provided by a Cable News Network (CNN) report dated March 10, 1998, at http://www.cnn.com.

Carol Brennan