By Foday Moriba Conteh
Last week, a significant turn of events saw former President Ernest Bai Koroma facing charges of treason, misprision of treason, and harbouring. In the midst of these legal maneuvers, Basita Michael, an esteemed figure in Sierra Leone’s legal realm and a former President of Sierra Leone Bar Association, penned a compelling piece. Her commentary focuses on the risks associated with prosecuting a former head of state, especially in the country’s intricate political landscape.
The recent amendment of the Treason and State Offences Act, 1963, through the Abolition of the Death Penalty Act 2023, has raised the stakes, with treason now carrying a life imprisonment sentence. This shift has prompted concerns from notable figures like BBC’s Umaru Fofana and defense lawyer Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara, who highlight the uncharted territory and the potential creation of a perilous legal precedent.
Amidst these complexities, Basita Michael’s piece raises a crucial query: does the hypothetical indictment of a former president for treason, assuming incontrovertible evidence (without confirming its existence), truly serve the paramount interests of peace and national security?
While emphasizing the importance of accountability regardless of one’s status, Michael underscores the critical timing and context of such proceedings, especially when public opinion may be swayed by political affiliations. The decision to pursue prosecution, particularly for grave charges like treason, requires meticulous deliberation.
Beyond the allegations against Koroma, Michael acknowledges the inevitably partisan reception, potentially exacerbating existing societal divisions amidst economic challenges and a drug epidemic. The piece scrutinizes institutional trust and questions the independence of Sierra Leone’s institutions involved in the case, casting doubt on their credibility in the public eye.
Moreover, Michael articulates the danger of a highly polarized environment, where social media amplifies divisive narratives, potentially undermining the trial’s integrity and exacerbating national rifts.
Michael advocates for cautious decision-making, prioritizing unity and reconciliation over a potentially lengthy and divisive trial that might disrupt national goals. Alternatives, including self-imposed exile as suggested by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), are presented as viable options for resolution.
Ultimately, Michael urges a thoughtful and measured approach, considering the broader implications for peace, unity, and national security. She emphasizes the need for the government to rebuild public trust in institutions and explore alternative paths to accountability.
In a landscape fraught with political sensitivities and legal complexities, Michael’s piece serves as a poignant call for prudent and meticulous consideration, advocating for a course of action that steers Sierra Leone toward a stronger and more unified future.