By Mohamed Juma Jalloh
Since the name Lahai Lawrence Leema came into the political limelight in Sierra Leone, the country’s political landscape has never been the same again. To his avowed critics, he is a divisive figure bent on perpetrating retributive justice to his political arch rivals in the main opposition All People’s Congress (APC) Party that ruled the country from 17th September, 2007 to 3rd April, 2018 under the Koroma administration.
To his friends and SLPP supporters, he is touted as an achiever that popularized party policies and philosophies that culminated in the March, 2018 historic presidential runoff election that saw the SLPP presidential candidate emerging as the winner.
As the SLPP National Publicity Secretary, Lahai Lawrence Leema played a significant role in wrestling power from the APC, after 11 years of stoic opposition resistance.
Nightwatch focuses the radar on the Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs as an urgent subject of public scrutiny, whose name is nothing new to controversy. Immediately after the Pademba Road Correctional Centre attempted jail break, his name was mentioned in many fora, including social media audio messages. It was alleged, amongst other allegations, that he constituted the leading government response team that made an on-the-spot arrival at the maximum security detention.
Other notable security mavericks that were noticed on the scene were the substantive Minister of Internal Affairs, Hon Edward Soloku (now sacked) and the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Lt. Gen. Brima Sesay. Unquestionably, as the Deputy political head in charge of internal security, his imminent presence at the scene was a matter of necessity.
However, people keep raising concerns from various quarters as to whether his presence contributed to exacerbating or diffusing the simmering situation. The public and the international community still await the outcome of an independent and impartial inquiry into the Pademba Road Correctional Centre massacre. The clarion call for an open investigation is a demand by civil society groups, opposition parties and the United Nations Resident Mission in Sierra Leone.
The SLPP Government confirmed 11 fatalities resulting from the catastrophe. But muted public agitations have accused the government of under reporting the death toll. The Africanist Press has reported a diplomatic impasse between members of the diplomatic community and the SLPP Government with regards the scandalous human rights abuses nationwide.
LEEMA IN OPPOSITION
As in all transitional elections in Sierra Leone, the antecedents to the 2018 national elections were tense. Erstwhile President Dr Ernest Bai Koroma was nearing the end of his two terms of five years each as President of the Republic. At this juncture, it was a do or die battle. The APC as the incumbent was determined to hold on to power, whilst the SLPP was determined in its quest to wrestle power from the APC Government.
Hon Phillip Tetehmah Tondoneh was the acting Spokesman of the SLPP but a very tactical move was taken to replace him with the firebrand and relatively young Leema, who gladly and willingly took up the mantle of publicizing the values of the party and its presidential candidate to the electorate.
Leema’s sublime analysis on historical and contemporary issues won the admiration of many. Presumably in his early thirties, he was not afraid of pulling tantrums with members of the then incumbent APC. Leema proved to be the right man, in the right position and at the right time. He was unmatched by co-debaters because of his proven ability to outshine prolific orators like former Presidential Spokesman, Abdulai Bayraytay, former Deputy Minister of Information and Communications, Cornelius Deveaux, who was also the APC National Publicity Secretary, and a senior Communication Officer in the Information Ministry, Agibu Jalloh. They were all members of an elite media team of the then ruling APC. He was skillful in the art of lampooning the APC to the extent of irritating co-debaters.
Reports are that Leema was expunged from the military at the tender rank of Lieutenant due to his pro-SLPP tendencies. Given that Rtd. Major Alfred Palo Conteh was the Minister of Defence when Leema was discharged from the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF), it is only natural to nurture some bitterness directed against the APC strongman. For that reason, Leema maintained an intransigent attitude in informing the electorate about the corrupt practices, inefficiencies and anomalies of the former Koroma administration.
For Leema, no amount of studio time was enough to do the APC a thorough dressing down in the eyes of the voting public. He is media savvy, given his protracted response to questions posed by presenters and texters. He is clever in setting the historical background and the present context whenever responding to questions. Broadcast presenters normally reprimand him for going beyond the allocated time for programmes.
In the events leading to the 2018 national elections, the SLBC, which is the national broadcaster, was accused of bias media coverage. Leema took umbrage at the unfair apportioning of airtime to SLPP opposition activities, programmes, policies and philosophies. Desperately eager in granting an interview at the SLBC, Leema was accused of forcefully entering the studios and in the process assaulting a presenter called Ashmieu Bah. The politically motivated charges landed him at the Pademba Road Correctional Centre.
On a Friday, court sittings were cancelled across the Freetown jurisdiction based on frivolous excuses devised to deny Leema bail and keep him in detention throughout the weekend.
LEEMA IN GOVERNANCE
The importance of Leema to the SLPP should not be underestimated. In Sierra Leone, many politicians were incarcerated before they came to political limelight and graduated into political gurus.
After 4thApril 2018, when President Bio was declared winner of the 31st March, 2018 presidential runoff election, his efforts did not go unnoticed. In recognition of his indefatigable publicity role, he was included in the Government Transition Team (GTT) that took stock of the activities of the erstwhile APC Government. His role was instrumental in managing the volatile transitional period and was useful in helping the SLPP Government get a grip on key security institutions of the state.
The discovery of large cache of weapons at the President Lodge set Leema on a collision course with Rtd. Major Alfred Palo Conteh. It was unclear to ascertain whether the accusation was motivated by evidence or vengeance.
Over the media, Leema publicly accused the former Minister of Defence of leading an orchestrated plot to get the newly elected President assassinated by weapons, including a General Purpose Machine Gun (GPMG).
In an interview on FM 98.1D, the Chief of Defence Staff(CDS) was left in bewilderment.
“How can a GPMG be used to eliminate a single individual?” Lt. Gen Brima Sesay asked. He explained that a GPMG is a far more sophisticated weapon used in neutralizing enemy positions or deactivating enemy bunker positions.
When Palo Conteh was interviewed, among his words were “Una warn Leema make e lef,” meaning you have to warn Leema to desist from what he is doing. In the end, implicating Palo proved very difficult. Rather, a young Captain that made the security details of former President Koroma was court marshaled for the allegations. The young man however escaped whilst in detention. It was alleged that his escape was facilitated by some military officers that deemed the charges as politically motivated.
Unlike the APC, the SLPP Government is generally renowned for putting square pegs in square holes. As a result of his military background and a platoon commander whose security experience was enriched when patrolling the porous borders of Sierra Leone, Leema’s appointment in the enviable Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is in charge of maintaining domestic security, was a calculated move by President Bio.
Leema is not an armchair minister. As Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, he is charged with the responsibility of providing political leadership regarding national security alongside the substantive head.
As early as 2018, he was out and about in the field and conducted an assessment tour aimed at bringing out firsthand information about security challenges in the border areas. The report clearly exposed the huge security challenges plaguing the country in terms of policing the country’s borders with neighbouring Guinea and Liberia.
The threat posed by the porous borders has a toll on the country’s economy, especially from the taxation front. Sierra Leone’s wide and geographically extensive borders have helped in fueling crime, including smuggling, proliferation of small arms and ammunition.
In its recommendation, the report states that the police and the army should deploy adequate security personnel to beef up manpower to effectively secure the borders of Sierra Leone. It furthered that the energetic youths must be incorporated and be provided with better accommodation and communication gadgets to boost their morale and timely sharing of information.
Leema has never lost sight of the overall internal security programmes since his appointment. The development of a proposal for the relocation of the Pademba Road Correctional Centre from Freetown to Waterloo was endorsed for the improvement of human rights conditions in prisons.
Under the reign of former President Koroma, the internal security role performed by Musa Tarawally as Minister of Internal Affairs was abused as a result of the spate of violence that occurred across the country.
A Shears Moses Commission of Inquiry recommended the banning of Musa Tarawally from holding public office. Home security positions are very powerful and influential appointments in
any cabinet. Such positions can be used to eliminate political opponents with ferocious brutality. Internal party opponents can be easily framed up in a bid to dent their political careers. Sadaam Hussein, the late former Iraqi President, for instance, used his position in the internal security architecture to climb the ranks in the Baath Party. He cleverly consolidated his position until he became the leader of the Baath Party and eventually the President of Iraq.
Leema is virtually in the same position; the emotional and overzealous attitude displayed during the electioneering period must be replaced with an in- temperamental foresighted responsibility of statesmanship. Such balance of responsibility could save his seemingly protracted political career, considering his relatively young age.