By Sallieu T. Kamara
Once considered a powerhouse in political and diplomatic circles in Sierra Leone and abroad, Dr Chernor Abass Bundu is today an embattled man, fighting desperately to save his skin. The recent re-opening of the passport case against him by the Government of Sierra Leone may have come as a very unpleasant surprise to him. But there is a fundamental lesson Abass Bundu and everyone else should learn from the unfolding drama – in politics, do not take anything for granted. I agree that the matter is now in court for which I will not be judgmental.
To Abass Bundu and his political allies, the passport case with the state of Sierra Leone had long been closed and consigned to the dustbin of history. Now, 13 years down the line, Abass Bundu seems to be being slowly, but surely, led to the political guillotine for the same case.
But perhaps, what makes the whole thing more interesting are the bundles of lies, half truths, inconsistencies, blackmail and the hasty verdicts of the court of public opinion, which this issue has generated in so short a time. A rich cocktail of some sorts, isn’t it?
Docta Bassie Bundu, as he is fondly known and called by his kith and kin in Dibia, was charged to court in 1997 by the Sierra Leone People’s Party government of Ahmad Tejan Kabba for allegedly defrauding the state. Back then, the SLPP government used every ounce of their muscle to rubbish any suggestion that the matter was politically-motivated.
Today, it is these very people that are shouting on the rooftops that the re-opening of the case by the APC government has only one motive – to spite on Abass Bundu because he is a strong pillar of support and inspiration for the SLPP presidential flag bearer, Julius Maada Bio. We have come back to square one. What goes around, they say, comes around.
Now, let us quickly traverse memory lane to get a better insight into the genesis of Abass Bundu’s political dilemma. Abass Bundu served as Minister of Foreign Affairs under the National Provisional Ruling Council. This position made him to have direct dealings in the national passport scheme whose initial aim was to raise money to strengthen the nation’s arsenal to prosecute the rebel war, which had just started.
Abass Bundu contested the 1996 elections as the presidential flag bearer of the People’s Progressive Party (PPP), a party he personally founded and funded. In the ensuing elections he lost woefully. Whilst late Thaimu Bangura joined Tejan Kabbah’s SLPP, Abass Bundu teamed up with John Karefa Smart’s United National People’s Party (UNPP) for the run-off.
The run-off saw the SLPP win the elections. But it was the general view that it was the UNPP that actually won the elections and not the SLPP. And here is that school of thought exists: The then chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission, Dr James Jonah, was accused by a broad spectrum of the populace of having attempted to manipulate the election results in favour of his former colleague at the United Nations, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah of the SLPP. Karefa-Smart petitioned the moves of INEC to announce Ahmad Tejan Kabbah as the winner and demanded a recount in all places where fraud was highly suspected. Abass Bundu was very much in this with Karefa-Smart.
Meanwhile, Julius Maada Bio and his colleagues in the NPRC who were literally forced by the PEOPLE to hold elections were gearing up to take advantage of the ensuing impasse and justify their continued stay in power. Karefa-Smart was then faced with a fundamental decision to make – one that would change the face of politics in Sierra Leone for many years to come. Should he have insisted on his demand for a recount, the army, then led by Julius Maada Bio as Commander-in-Chief, could have quickly moved in and quashed the entire elections and continued their stay in power against the will of the people. Since Dr Karefa-Smart apparently hated the army more than the SLPP, probably, he conceded defeat and recognised Ahmad Tejan Kabbah as the winner.
Adamant Abass Bundu
Abass Bundu was adamantly opposed to Karefa-Smart conceding defeat to Kabbah. This incurred him the wrath of the SLPP, who wasted little time in digging up files that were related to his alleged involvement in the sale of Sierra Leonean passports in Hong Kong immediately after they assumed office. The then Attorney-General and Minister of Justice, Solomon Berewa, with lightening speed, preferred charges against Abass Bundu for allegedly defrauding the state to the sum of Us$210,000 of proceeds from the sale of Sierra Leonean passports in Hong Kong. Yes, it seemed then that Abass Bundu must be taught a lesson he would never forget in a hurry for merely standing on the way of the SLPP to State House!
This rationale for this action by the SLPP government generated heated debates across the country. Public opinion was completely and conspicuously divided along the lines of the SLPP acting in bad faith on the one hand and on the other, acting in the national interest. But every indication and every move by the SLPP then suggested that Abass Bundu was just an unfortunate victim of unfortunate circumstances of political intolerance and political high-handedness by the SLPP government.
I am not an admirer of Abass Bundu’s chameleonic type of politics (tiday u dae ya, tumara u dae yanda…). No, count me out! But I was one of the very few people that stood firmly by him because we believed that the case against him was politically-motivated. And I will still do, if I have the opportunity, because, like the SLPP then, I consider the re-opening of the case by the APC as politically-motivated. I am not arguing the innocence of Abass Bundu, but, rather, the circumstances leading to his arraignment then and now.
Inasmuch as I still maintain my earlier stance on the matter, I deeply believe that the SLPP do not stand on any solid moral ground to tear the APC apart for the reawakening of Abass Bundu’s case on the grounds that it is politically-orchestrated. If anything, it is the SLPP who set the stage for the embarrassment that Abass Bundu is facing today. It appears that the SLPP did all what they did at the time without thinking for a split second that there would be a tomorrow. Now, that tomorrow, which they never thought of, is here to haunt Abass Bundu; at a time he’s become a faithful disciple of that very SLPP. Lesson Number Two: It is bad to set bad precedence.
However, I consider the recent events as an opportunity for Abass Bundu to either clear his name of any wrong-doing or face the full force of the law. Therefore, he must be prepared this time around to deal with this case once and for all. It is no longer an issue of engaging in behind-the-scenes out-of-court settlement. Nor an issue of pleading with president Yayah Jammeh of The Gambia to talk to his brother president in Sierra Leone to drop the case. No. This time around, the people of Sierra Leone need nothing less than a comprehensive explanation from Abass Bundu of his involvement in the passport deal and the US$210,000 he allegedly stole from his suffering compatriots. It is also an opportunity for Dr Bundu to clear his name and remove the albatross forever from around his neck.
He has to convince this nation beyond all reasonable doubts that he is indeed a victim of political circumstances. His failure to do so will mean they are right and we are wrong. What makes the issue incredibly complicated is the fact that instead of arguing out his innocence, Abass Bundu went ahead and entered an out-of court settlement with the SLPP at the time, and, in fact, made an initial payment of half of the amount involved.
But if the government has taken great interest in following-up on Abass Bundu’s case, why is it that they apparently have no interest in the case of Lilian Lisk of Okeky Fishing Company? And the opposition SLPP never bothered to bring this issue up as they used to do. The two cases are not entirely the same, though, but they have a very fundamental common goal, which is to retrieve monies that were allegedly stolen from the state.
Whilst the case of Abass Bundu was investigated and hurriedly prosecuted by the SLPP government, the Lilian Lisk case was investigated by the local media (For di People Newspaper) and reluctantly prosecuted by the SLPP government. Both cases happened almost about the same time. The case of Lilian Lisk was about alleged systemic tax evasion in the country’s fishing industry and other related economic crimes that caused the state of Sierra Leone to lose colossal sums of money in hard currencies.
Like Abass Bundu, Lilian Lisk was charged to court by the then Attorney-General Solomon Berewa. But unlike Abass Bundu, who requested for an out-of-court settlement, Lilian Lisk pleaded not guilty and the court granted her bail. The next thing we heard was that Lilian Lisk had fled to Ghana, even though her travelling documents were supposed to be in the custody of the Attorney-General’s Office. We never heard of the case since then.
Now that, like Abass Bundu, Lilian Lisk has returned to the country, is it not plausibly and morally right for the government to follow up on her case as well, particularly when the APC government has deemed it necessary to reopen the files on Abass Bundu’s case? If anything, the amount of money that was allegedly involved in Lilian Lisk’s case was twenty times more than what was involved in Abass Bundu’s.
We don’t want to pass a verdict on Lilian Lisk, but in the interest of accountable governance, the nation must be made to know the outcome of the case between her and the State. Was she found guilty of the crimes she was charged with? What were the ensuing penalties? Did she opt for an out-of-court settlement? How much did she pay? Was the State not able to prove its case against Lilian Lisk? When was the case concluded? Who presided over it? These and many more are some of the questions the people of this country need answers for from the government.
But may I hasten to say that it is highly likely that the APC government will not reopen the case of Lilian Lisk, no matter what, and the opposition SLPP will never push for it. This is because Lilian Lisk is the darling of both the APC and SLPP, a luxury that Docta Bassie Bundu does not enjoy. When FDP started publishing stories of alleged large-scale corruption in the operations of the Okeky Fishing Company, both members of the then opposition APC and then ruling SLPP parties were all head on heels in defence of Lilian Lisk. Some of them are holding very senior ministerial and administrative positions today in the APC government.
In the same vein, Lilian Lisk allegedly took great care of most of the Sierra Leoneans, including top APC and SLPP politicians, who sought refuge in Ghana during the war in Sierra Leone apparently spending huge sums of money to alleviate their suffering. She is also supposed to have extended this gesture to Guinea where we had the largest concentration of exiled Sierra Leonean politicians and where the SLPP had set up a government in exile.
I strongly believe that the law is no respecter of persons but of principles and standards – legal principles. If the government has deemed it necessary to revisit Abass Bundu’s case, then, they must have the moral courage to do likewise to Lilian Lisk’s. What is good for the goose must also be good for the gander.
(C): Politico Newspaper