Solomon Berewa: the Sage by Lans Gberie

Solomon Berewa: the Sage by Lans Gberie

On my last day in Freetown recently, I visited Solomon Berewa, Sierra Leone’s former Vice President and unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2007, at his Goderich home. He is now very old and retired, but his scheduled seemed to be busy. When I called him a week earlier, he was on his way to Bo; and he had attended the Sierra Leone Peoples’ Party national convention two days before that.  I was interested in his views on that. But I was more interested in his recollections relating to the Sierra Leone government’s negotiations with the Revolution United Front, which he had led both at Abidjan and at Lomé (the conversations relating to that are not published here). A day before I met him, he was interviewed by the AYV for its early morning political programme.

Mr. Berewa’s house, like all the houses in its vicinity, is in a gated compound, which is large and a bit grassy. It is a two-storey building, and the sitting room is on the elevated floor, with stairs leading to it. I thought that this might be challenging for an old man: though the area had the feel of a new development, I felt that Mr.Berewa had built the house when he was much younger.

An elderly woman told me that Mr. Berewa was resting in his room on that floor. A young man, probably part of Mr. Berewa’s security detail, showed me the sitting room. He was unhurried and somewhat vacant; he had taken some time to open the gate when I got there.

The sitting room was comfortably furnished, in an undecorated style: everything belonged. Without the framed photos of Mr. Berewa’s late wife and of several of his children, the place would be anonymous. It reflects Mr. Berewa’s personality. Despite his great success as a lawyer and later politician, Mr. Berewa remained a modest man with a preternaturally underwhelming presence: the description of him as “Solo the Bomba” during his run for president was part of the agreeable fabrication of politics. It might, though, be a good description of his brilliant legal mind, which, belying his diminished and exhausted frame – diminished and exhausted by age and latterly poor health – is alert and sharp and rigorously rational.

He still has that heavy resonant voice which he used, as state prosecutor, to cower defence lawyers. “Yes, SLPP is my party. I will never abandon it as an institution,” he said, apropos of a question about his predecessor, Dr. Demby, who had resigned from the party after being a member for decades. “I’ll be meeting Dr. Demby in Bo soon, and I’ll try and find out what got him to do so.”

I told him that Dr. Demby had written in his resignation letter that he felt insulted and driven from the party by its national executive’s failure to respond to his concerns over the conduct of lower level elections in 2016. “Well,” Mr. Berewa said, “it wasn’t the party that insulted him; it was a few people now in the executive. The SLPP is the oldest party in this country, older than many of those now in that executive. I am also disappointed by some of what is happening in the party now, but the institution will survive the depredations of individual members, however egregious.”

He added: “The SLPP has inbuilt strength. It survived years in the wilderness of one-party state and military coups. It might not have the same strength as it had in the 1960s and just after its revival in 1996. But it will survive, and it will continue as one of Sierra Leone’s most important institutions, rooted in the fond memory of many people and in the political culture of this country. It will not die. That’s my honest opinion.”

In that, Mr. Berewa would agree with the great French statesman Alexis de Tocqueville when he wrote: “political parties seldom change, and it is a phenomenon worth remarking that they are more inflexible, both in theory and practice, than the individuals who compose them.”

I did not want to bring up the issue of Mr. Berewa’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2007, and neither did Mr. Berewa want to re-litigate the issue. But he has claimed – with good reasons – that he won the runoff elections but was robbed off victory by the elections commissioner, the renegade former nun Christiana Thorpe, with the tacit support of former president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah. Mr. Berewa had written, in his very thoughtful and deeply felt account, A New Perspective on Governance, Leadership, Conflict and Nation-Building in Sierra Leone (2011) that had Thorpe not invalidate tens of thousands of votes in his stronghold, he would have won 968,705 votes to Bai Koroma’s 950,407. Thorpe got away with that travesty because Kabbah had in a national broadcast long before the election, abdicated his ‘solemn responsibility’ as the chief executive or magistrate, by declaring that he would be totally neutral, leaving the dishonest Thorpe to run riot on citizens rights. “As Fountain of Justice [Kabbah] was expected to act like a judge, and not to be neutral or blind to justice, but insistent on the observance of justice and fairness. This is impartiality not neutrality, and it was this that I, as SLPP candidate, was denied, and it cost me the election” (p.244).

Despite this, once the results were announced, Mr. Berewa – incurably the British-trained lawyer, a temperament long conditioned to respect law, order and constituted authority – accepted the results. Later, he became good friends with President Koroma, and has never shown any malice towards the All Peoples Party strongman…