The Perils of Prosecuting Ernest Bai Koroma: A Call for Prudent Consideration by Basita Michael

by Sierraeye

In a dramatic turn of events this week, former President Ernest Bai Koroma (EBK) found himself facing charges of treason, misprison of treason, and harbouring. As the legal proceedings unfold, it becomes imperative to scrutinize the inherent risks embedded in prosecuting a former head of state, especially in Sierra Leone’s delicate political landscape.

The Abolition of the Death Penalty Act 2023 amended Section 3 of the Treason and State Offences Act, 1963 and makes treason punishable by life imprisonment. This sets the stage for a high-stakes trial. The gravity of the charges has led prominent figures, such as BBC’s Umaru Fofana and defence lawyer Joseph Fitzgerald Kamara, to express concerns about uncharted territory and the potential establishment of a dangerous precedent.

As the nation grapples with the complexities of this legal crossroads, the pivotal question that arises is – Does indicting a former president for treason, hypothetically assuming there is evidence beyond a reasonable doubt (without confirming its existence), serves the paramount interests of peace and national security?

It is crucial to acknowledge that accountability knows no exceptions, even for former heads of state. However, the timing and context of such proceedings are paramount, particularly when public opinion and perception are shaped by the political affiliations of those involved. The decision to pursue prosecution, especially for charges as serious as treason, demands careful consideration.

Irrespective of the allegations against EBK, the public’s reception will undoubtedly be partisan. Opposition factions may perceive it as a politically motivated move, while government supporters may praise it. This division has the potential to exacerbate existing discontent in a country grappling with economic challenges and a pervasive drug epidemic. Moreover, the historical context adds complexity to the situation.

In the current climate of unprecedented institutional mistrust, the independence and credibility of Sierra Leone’s institutions, including the judiciary, the police and prosecutors, are under scrutiny. The perception that these entities may be used as political weapons deepens the public’s lack of trust in the criminal justice system. The presence of the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice in the cabinet adds another layer of concern, potentially compromising the perceived independence of the prosecutor.

The danger lies not only in the courtroom but also in the court of public opinion, which social media amplifies. The highly polarized environment may turn the trial into a spectacle, with accusations of political witch hunts dominating the narrative. In this scenario, social media becomes the de facto prosecutor, judge, and jury, contributing to the polarization of the nation.

Given the current lack of public confidence in institutions and lingering doubts in some quarters about the authenticity of the alleged coup attempt, the government’s priority should be to rebuild trust in the system. Only when confidence is restored can the government undertake high-profile trials without the shadow of political motivations.

Proceeding with the trial carries substantial costs for the government, businesses and the people as the country would be embroiled in a lengthy legal battle. Imagine blocking off central Freetown every week for months for a trial and appeals all the way up to the Supreme Court. This distraction from the government’s stated Big Five priority goals and the risk of further dividing the nation call for a measured approach that prioritizes unity and reconciliation.

The precedent set by prosecuting EBK could have far-reaching consequences, ushering in a cycle of political prosecutions and vengeance that may haunt Sierra Leone for decades. Drawing lessons from international examples, it becomes clear that cautious decision-making is essential to avoid triggering street protests and political turmoil.

Assuming evidence beyond a reasonable doubt exists, prosecution is not the only avenue to resolve the current political impasse. Alternative measures, such as self-imposed exile, as proposed by ECOWAS, may be a swifter, cost-effective, and less impactful. To ensure accountability could be followed by an independent impartial international investigation. Balancing the pursuit of justice with the potential costs and risks associated with prosecution is essential for fostering a thoughtful and prudent approach to this complex situation.

The perils of prosecuting EBK demand careful consideration of the broader implications for peace, unity, and national security. As the legal proceedings unfold, it is crucial for government to tread cautiously, prioritizing the rebuilding of public trust in institutions and seeking alternative avenues for accountability. Only through a thoughtful and measured approach can the nation hope to navigate these treacherous waters and emerge stronger on the other side.

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