Ahmad Tejan Kabbah: the death of a flawed hero in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone’s revered former leader Ahmad Tejan Kabbah has died aged 82. His passing evokes memories of the brutal civil war that tore his country apart during the 1990s when the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), backed by Liberian warlord-president Charles Taylor, launched a massive offensive against successive governments.

Ahmad Tejan Kabbah (1932-2014)
Ahmad Tejan Kabbah (1932-2014)

Kabbah would eventually emerge as the senior anti-RUF figure, particularly after the rebels ousted him from the presidency in 1997. The help of British forces would eventually win the civil war for Kabbah in 2002. It was a conflict notable for its brutality; maiming, raping, looting and child-soldiering were commonplace. 

The hacking-off of limbs was a sad feature of Sierra Leone's civil war
The hacking-off of limbs was a sad feature of Sierra Leone’s civil war

The country could have crumbled into the dust after the peace was finally secured but through the efforts of Kabbah and his international supporters such an event was not allowed to happen. Uncharacteristic of regional leaders, Kabbah sought to entrench a stable democratic political and civic system.

His success to this end is reflected in Freedom House’s 2013 report, in which Sierra Leone was upgraded from a status of ‘fairly free’ to ‘free’, a rare feat for an African state. The report concludes:

Sierra Leone, 10 years after the end of a brutal civil war, successfully completed its own free and fair national elections, during which reformed electoral institutions operated with transparency and demonstrated the ability to function without undue influence from the international community.

Kabbah’s assured handling of the post-war reconstruction of the political climate has undoubtedly contributed to this success.

At the same time, however, Sierra Leone ranks at number 177 out of 187 on the UN’s Human Development Index. Increasing political stability and openness has not been accompanied by an alleviation of poverty or rising living standards. As Stephen Ellis notes:

Many officials in the new government…have murky pasts — including ties to a militia that committed atrocities during the war. They and their colleagues have shown little interest in making more than a rhetorical commitment to good governance. Many officials are also highly corrupt and have paid scant attention to the deep social problems (such as bad education and unemployment) that led to war in the first place. Government ministers and senior officials seldom venture outside the capital city, Freetown, where they drive around in luxury SUVs paid for with international aid money. Meanwhile, nothing has changed for the impoverished veterans of Sierra Leone’s vicious wars — or for their victims. (Ellis, 2005)

Slums are a common feature in most of Sierra Leone's settlements
Slums are a common feature in most of Sierra Leone’s settlements

For a man who worked for the UN Development Programme for 21 years, you would expect Kabbah to have done more for his country’s civilians. Whilst Sierra Leone was war-ravaged by 2002, international aid was provided and seemingly squandered on the privileged few in a case more typical of Africa in general.

Despite this potential pitfall in his legacy, Kabbah will rightfully be remembered as a man who brought peace and stability to his country. In that sense the people of Sierra Leone can be eternally grateful, even if the promises of a materially-better life still appear some way off.


Ellis S, ‘How to Rebuild Africa’, Foreign Affairs, (September/October, 2005)


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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