A short biography, by Ambrose Ganda, editor of Focus of Sierra Leone.
NO one should doubt the intellectual ability of Mr Solomon Ekummah Dominic Berewa, Sierra Leone’s redoubtable attorney-general and minister of justice, and chief government negotiator at 1999's Lomé Peace Conference. What he lacks in political judgement – a fact attested by his singularly dogmatic insistence on the rulebook (i.e. the Constitution) as opposed to the practical things that concern ordinary mortals - he makes up by his erudition and frequent bouts of unbridled self-righteous indignation. I do not know the linguistic derivation of his middle name 'Ekummah', but assuming it is Mende, which is his as well as my mother tongue, it would connote defiance, and in its literal translation means 'won't agree'.
He is the longest serving minister holding the same portfolio that he held at the start of the Kabbah presidency in March 1996. He was appointed Attorney General by President Kabbah following, and most probably because of, their close friendship formed between 1992 and 1996 when they shared membership of the National Advisory Council (NAC). The council was created by the illegal NPRC military government to advise on constitutional and political matters. In effect, however, the junta cleverly used it to deflect charges of unconstitutional and illegal behaviour. With Kabbah as chairman and Berewa one of its leading legal luminaries, the council ostensibly had immense clout with the NPRC junta. The irony has not been lost on the political opponents of both Kabbah and Berewa, especially on those who were prosecuted between1998 and 1999 for allegedly serving and collaborating with the AFRC military junta during its seven-month rule in 1997.
The NAC placed considerable reliance for, among other things, the redrafting of the Sierra Leone Constitution (a product that was later rejected by the soldiers boys), on Berewa and another fallen companion, the matter-of-fact barrister Mr George Banda-Thomas who was also appointed minister of information and broadcasting and, by the time of the AFRC coup, was the minister of trade and industry. Banda-Thomas, who is currently being touted as a potential challenger to Kabbah’s second-term presidential ambitions, parted company with the government during its exile in Guinea and settled in the Gambia, allegedly because of serious disagreements over aspects of some of the strategies that were being planned for the return of the exiled government.
Berewa, on the contrary, dutifully stayed on and loyally served his President. As the senior law officer, he was involved at every stage of the plans and allegedly, according to exiled residents in Conakry at the time, the vindictive programmes that were hatched for the restoration, return and rehabilitation of the overthrown government. He was the exiled government's principal negotiator at the meetings that were held, ostensibly, to give credibility to its publicly declared aim of engaging in peaceful dialogue to end the AFRC’s usurpation. But, in effect, these meetings were smokescreens for buying time because plans had in the meantime been laid and were well advanced for the restoration of the Kabbah government by military force. During those meetings he came across as a difficult, phlegmatic and, according to one diplomatic source, ‘characteristically opinionated and inflexible’ negotiator.
For his hard-line and seeming obduracy, Berewa has already paid a high price because, in today's Sierra Leone, he is faced with an array of implacable enemies, spoken and unspoken, who are wide-spread but firmly embedded among a core of kindred northern and eastern Sierra Leonean ethnic groups, especially Temnes, Limbas and Konos. This is not surprising for a man who has established a reputation for courting controversy and adversity. For example, he is credited with single-handedly, and single-mindedly, pulling out all the stops to secure the arrest and detention of thousands of his own countrymen and countrywomen for their alleged collaboration with RUF rebels and the illegal AFRC Junta of 1997. He prosecuted and successfully secured the conviction of scores of them for treason. The trials were based on some of the most perverse legal amendments ever in Sierra Leone's legal history, drafted and enacted purposefully, with retrospective provisions, to secure the conviction of the accused. Some of those convicted included 26 leading junta figures, including one female. The majority of those executed were of northern tribal origin, hence the depth of animosities towards him from this section of Sierra Leone’s politically fractious society. Others, mainly civilians, who were awaiting execution, such as the former Secretary to the President before the AFRC coup, Mr Sheku A T Bayoh (a Mende), or the internationally renowned and respected agriculturalist and gentleman Professor Willie Taylor, formerly of Njala University College – a Creole, were later set free under a general amnesty in late 1999.
Berewa is a self-made man from a simple and respectable background. Early in his life, with which I was closely associated from our primary schooldays, he showed glowing evidence of his brainpower. He was in a class of his own and easily the favourite student of my late father, Pa J T Ganda, the headmaster of the Sacred Heart RC Primary School, in Serabu, Bo District. As far as I know, to his dying day, Pa Ganda regarded Berewa as one of his two best and brightest students ever, in his long and memorable teaching career; the other being Mr Benedict Josie Morrison, who went on to become a lecturer in French in the Ivory Coast.
"Brer Solo", as we used to call him in those days, started school late and by the time he joined us at Serabu, from the infant school at Yengema village about 4 miles away, he must have been possibly 10 or 12 years old. I was then a tender child of so and so. Being much older than the rest of us, he had a very quick grasp of the rudiments of every subject that was introduced to us - Arithmetic, Geography, English Grammar, Composition, Civics, Nature Study, Religious Knowledge, Drawing, etc (as these subjects were known then), and the mandatory 'hot mental' which preceded every morning's start of class.
In all, I guess he spent not more than four years in primary school. In those days there were three terms and the school year ended at Christmas. The class stages were Class 1, Class 2, and Standards 1 to 6. He was, as we used to say colloquially, 'double promoted' (I believe) two times. He joined us in Class 2 and was promoted along with us to Standard 1, coming first in that year's exams. But after just two terms, he was promoted to Standard 2 to complete the third term, coming top of his class again. He moved on to Standard 3, still unbeaten and, as far as I can recall, again got promoted to Standard 4 before the end of that year. It was then that the late Pa Ganda took a gamble and decided that instead of waiting for Berewa to proceed to Standard 5, which was the norm, he would submit him that year for the selective common entrance examination for admission to secondary school. The late old man’s hunch was right. Solo excelled and scored one of the best results in the Southern Province that year, a feat that gave our already famous school more laurels to celebrate. The year was 1954. He was instantly enrolled by the newly founded Roman Catholic secondary school, Christ the King College (CKC), in Bo, among its very first intake of pupils. I followed him there three years later, where we were both boarders.
His classmates included Mr Gabriel Amara who later became principal of the school; Mr Aloysius B Momoh a respected senior civil servant who sadly died in March this year; the distinguished and experienced civil servant and career diplomat Mr Francis Karemo, tragically massacred along with his wife Lois, by marauding gangsters in the heady first days following the AFRC coup in 1997; the former senior laboratory technician at Njala University College the late Mr Leo Noni, and others. We all shared one thing in common, namely, a quiet reverence for Solo's awesome intellectual ability. He was studious, concentrated and unflappably focused like a beaver at work. He would keep his legs in a bucket of very cold water (I saw it!) just to keep awake while 'cogging' (swotting, to you) till daybreak.
In those days, CKC had one the strictest disciplinarians as its principal, the late Rev Father Michael Corbett, who was also its founder. He made no distinction between pupils - brilliant or not, sons of the famous or of the lowliest, senior or junior. He placed everybody under the same strict regime and tested their endurance, or lack of it, to its limits. Berewa, the bright lad, was one of those pushed to the upper limits.
This priest also had a habit of putting us through rigorous impromptu mental tests, which we very much detested. His usual routine was to shuffle his way into the study room where about 90 of us – boarders – would be doing our afternoon or evening study. He wore only soft shoes so we did not hear the sound of his approaching footsteps. He then randomly picked up an unsuspecting pupil's library book, making sure it was not one of the prescribed textbooks. After speed-reading through a few pages he would insert an improvised page marker - a ruler perhaps. Then picking up an abandoned chalk end, he would write out two or three paragraphs on the blackboard.
With the board covered up, he would do a half-turn on his toes to face the class. Clearing his throat intentionally for attention, which he got instantly, he would invite everyone, irrespective of grade or seniority, to write the passage down. "I want you all to memorise the passage on the board for tomorrow afternoon (Sunday)” he would say. It was one of his rare moments of grace. Sometimes, the set target time for such mental gymnastics would be limited to 30 minutes or even less, there and then. But when passages were much longer he gave till the next day. With that he would leave the room as quietly as he had come in.
On one particular occasion that I can vividly recall, judgement day arrived without fanfare. Fr Corbett strolled into the classroom unannounced, in his usual self-effacing manner, and picked up the book from which he had reproduced the test passage on the previous day.
"Put away your books,” he ordered in his usual squeaky tone. His right hand, armed with a ruler, left us in no doubt that he would readily deal a deadly blow on the anatomy of the would-be defaulter. Lifting his eyes away from the choice page, he looked around purposefully, sweeping them sideways across the length and breadth of the study room, and resting them briefly on one or other of the petrified faces in front of him. You could tell from the intensity of the look on his face, that the unlucky object, or rather the victim, of his deliberate random search had already been identified. Suddenly, his eyes assumed the configuration of a fixed gaze on that area at the back of the room occupied by the senior boys. The silence that followed was impenetrable and ethereal. You could hear the pin drop.
“Berewa, recite” came the barely distinct order, which was greeted by a clearly audible mass exhalation of relief from the rest of us. Solo stood to his feet unsteadily, at first, and then straightened up. We were confident that he would sail through easily. But to our eternal shock and surprise, the unexpected happened!
Like a gramophone needle that gets stuck in the groove of an old wax record, he went into staccato mode, in painful stutters. "May.. May… became… May became…May became [Long pause]…Maaaaaay… May… became… May became…"
Then followed an agonising long silence. The priest's patience seemed to be irreparably frayed.
"Remain standing, Berewa" he said tersely to him.
For the rest of us, the torment that followed was like the approach of creeping death, reminiscent of the torment of the twelve disciples when Jesus revealed that one of them would betray the Son of Man. "Is it I Lord?" they asked pleadingly, each to a man. We waited anxiously, each one of us in the full expectation of being the target of the now outstretched arm and ruler. It was decidedly pointed at my half-expectant face!
"Ambrose, stand up and recite."
Fr Corbett had a penchant for creating melodrama, sometimes bordering on mischief. It did not matter to him if it embarrassed anyone, regardless of seniority. It must have been the only reason why I, a junior, was selected, possibly to embarrass Brer Solo so he would push himself even harder in future. How cruel that such a task should fall on me, I thought!
I stood up and also started nervously but quickly managed to steady out with confidence. “May became June. [Long pause.] June drew to a rainless close. [Long pause.] The monsoons this year crossed the Arabian seas in fitful squalls; that sight in which Indian poets rejoice. The caravans, heavily laden, headed along once dusty tracts towards the towering Himalayan peaks in the distance…" etc., etc.
I sailed through my rendition alright. I had spent the good part of the night memorising the stuff. As for Brer Solo, he was afterwards asked by the Principal to “go up to my room” which was a euphemism for being sent to his office for punishment. It was the routine fate from which nobody was spared.
This regime worked. Berewa and his classmates worked doubly hard. They gained fantastic results for CKC, in the school's first attempt at the West African School Certificate (GCE) examinations. Both he and the late Aloysius Bapoto Momoh scored solid Grade 2s. For Brer Solo personally, the result was disappointing. He had aimed for, and was expected to attain, a Grade 1 and missed it by just a couple of points. But he and his colleagues effectively put CKC in contention with established schools such as the Bo Government School. They set the standard for the school's future scholarly achievements.
Berewa went on to Fourah Bay College and gained a BA Honours degree and a Diploma in Education. He taught for a few years before coming to England to study at the Inns of Court School of Law (the practising barristers' main training school) here in London. He did this in record time, winning the Law of Trust prize. He was admired and respected by his colleagues. Some of them used to gather around him, or visit his home in the evenings, at revision time for his help because of his good grasp of some of the legal conundrums. He was always prepared to share his knowledge.
He is contemptuous of many of his professional colleagues and has described them variously as intellectually vacuous. Never a man to be put off by criticism, and totally convinced of his own judgement and intellect, this gloriously irreverent man is not one ever to show the slightest remorse or self doubt (at least in public). He marches on regardless, like a kamikaze pilot on a mission to self-destruct. But his still clever brain appears unable to function outside a laboured logic that, at times, threatens the normality and ordinariness of the life buzzing around him. He once conveyed high promise of becoming a Catholic priest but dropped the idea later in his life. He is well settled family man. He is, though, a practising (some say) devout Roman Catholic, who has chaired his local parish council and often serves as the representative of the Catholic Mission in Sierra Leone on several councils of state and religion.
I have always been very fond of Berewa, whom I look upon as an elder brother. One of my first ports of call during my infrequent visits to Sierra Leone was to his home, or to his chambers, where he had a prolific legal practice with his very close buddy Garvas Betts, a brilliant lawyer and Oxford graduate, who died in1999 after a long illness. Their partnership outshone most in Sierra Leone, and stood as living proof that a countryman and a Creole could work closely together to achieve the highest standards in their profession.
However, since his political debut Brer Solo has managed to dent my once unquestioned admiration for his intellect. The problem is that he is a technocrat who is trying too hard to play the role of a politician. The experiment has evidently not worked. This is not to question his undoubted ability to handle his portfolio, especially as Attorney General. But I have to say I have been rudely shocked by his obsessive pursuit of revenge and retribution – his idea of justice - using the law as his weapon. He has made many mistakes and too many foes in the process. He has dug himself into a corner from which he will need the wisdom of his namesake, King Solomon, to extricate himself.
I have heard him being variously described as bloodthirsty, vengeful and unforgiving. But paradoxically, he is not all that this partial public image of him appears to portray. He is a very friendly man when you get to know him, extremely helpful, quiet (when he is not in court), and close to his family and friends. He has a huge sense of humour, enjoys a good laugh and is a most compelling raconteur. But, these days, 'compassionate' or 'forgiving' are not terms that people readily apply to him.
As for modesty, he has more than once been forced to eat his words, as when, prior to the Lomé Agreement, he savaged with ritualistic relish the suggestion that his government might involve rebels in Cabinet. Berewa pleaded the Constitution, as a bar, to make his point. Only then for him, as chief government negotiator, to conclude a deal which did exactly that! See here for my report of his admission and explanation at a meeting in London in July 1999, with President Kabbah in attendance, following the signing of the Lomé Agreement. For once, Berewa was forced to face reality and was man enough to accept it. It should be a signal lesson for him.
I am firmly convinced that Sierra Leone can still benefit from this man's undeniable gift and huge intellect. But Brer Solo needs to cool down and find time to reflect, then decide what he wants to become from this moment onwards. Whether he wants to establish himself as a cult figure for hate or as a catalyst for positive change in a tolerant new Sierra Leone, free of the prejudices of the past, which understands and appreciates that human beings are different and endowed with qualities that vary from person to person. That being clever and learned is not all that matters in the end, and is most certainly not co-terminus with being prudent. Berewa is a clever man but he has not proved to be a wise man. Clever people live to learn and acquire wisdom. Brer Solo still has time to do so. And the lessons of life won’t stop there because, as they say, even the wise live to learn.