By Bian Elkhatib and Meggie Morris
Almost 5,000 miles away from his home in Chicago, Sierra Leonean Alie Kabba awaits trial in Freetown.
He is charged with bigamy, but his supporters say the contrived charge is because he is running for President of his homeland.
Since arriving in the U.S. from Sierra Leone in 1991, Kabba has become a prominent community leader in the Chicago area. He is executive director of the United African Organization (UAO) and was the first African board president of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).
“Africans were hardly recognized” before Kabba’s work, said Nancy Asirifi-Otchere, a program coordinator at UAO. She said his leadership skills helped establish a voice for Africans within the larger immigrant community, as well as within the black community.
In November 2014, Kabba turned his attention to his homeland, and announced his intention to run for president in the 2017/18 election. He returned to the west African nation a year later to campaign nation-wide for the presidential nomination of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), said Kobe Williams, Kabba’s Chicago-area regional campaign manager.
However, according to Williams, Kabba has spent more time in Freetown’s Pademba Road Prison than he has on the campaign trail. Within days of arriving in Sierra Leone, Kabba was arrested in the capital.
In the 30 days since his first arrest, he has been detained three times.
While Kabba was originally granted bail, he was arrested again on New Year’s Eve, and detained until Jan. 5, when he was released from prison on the condition he surrender all travel documents, including his U.S. passport, Williams said. Fifteen days later, however, Kabba was arrested and denied bail once more.
The uncertainties surrounding his arrest, exemplified by the court’s wavering bail decisions, have generated numerous accusations, one of which is Williams’ fear the episode will end with the presidential hopeful’s assassination.
Given the history of political corruption and censorship in Sierra Leone, a political assassination wouldn’t completely surprise him, said Jimmy Kandeh, a professor of political science specializing in African politics at the University of Richmond.
Although Kabba is not a frontrunner for SLPP leadership, Kandeh said, his outspoken criticism of the government has drawn attention to him.
“Because he’s been out of the country for so long, it’s very difficult to go back and run for president. There are other people who will be given a chance,” Kandeh said. “The difference between Alie and other SLPP candidates is that he calls out incumbents.”
Kabba’s ex-wife, Diana Konomanyi, who first raised the bigamy accusations, is the Sierra Leone Minister of Local Government and Rural Development. Amid alleged incidents of political intimidation, violence and collusion, Kabba’s supporters say his arrest was politically motivated.
“He is so outspoken on so many situations from this current regime … issues with corruption, issues with disregarding the constitution,” Williams said. “He gets his message across to the people and so the current government wants to silence him.”
A few days after arriving in his homeland, Kabba appeared on Sierra Leonean radio station Radio Democracy, accusing the President of nepotism and corruption. After hearing the interview online, a friend of Kabba’s who lives in Pennsylvania called him.
Kabba’s friend wishes to remain anonymous because he fears his family still in Sierra Leone will be identified and politically persecuted.
“The morning of the interview I called Alie and told him he was going to be arrested,” he said. “Alie said, ‘I know they’ll arrest me, because what I’m saying is not what the government wants people to hear.’”
Kabba’s colleagues in Chicago have been following the story closely, said Asifiri-Otchere, who has worked with Kabba for six years at UAO.
“We are all aware of it and support him completely,” she said.
After the UAO reached out to inform other Chicago-based community organizations of his arrest, the U.S. Palestinian Community Network (USPCN) developed a global action alert to advocate for Kabba’s release.
Supporters also started a petition on Change.org, a website that allows users from around the world to advocate for various causes. Kabba’s petition currently has almost 1,500 supporters.
Hatem Abudayyeh, who sits on the USPCN’s National Coordinating Committee and worked with Kabba in his capacity as executive director of the Arab American Action Network, said Kabba’s progressive political ideology and interest in social justice issues extending from immigrant advocacy to the experiences of people of color, made him a leading Chicago figure.
Williams said Kabba’s vision appeals to all Africans living at home and abroad. Originally from Ghana, Williams said he immediately jumped on board as Kabba’s Chicago campaign manager when he found out about his presidential ambition. In June 2015, Sierra Leone’s National Electoral Commission announced its intention to register citizens living abroad as voters for the upcoming presidential election.
“He [Kabba] believes in transparent government, government for the people,” said Williams. “He believes in the fight to uplift the persecuted, and to unite Africa.”
Williams said his attempts to contact the U.S. Government have so far fallen on deaf ears, but he is continuing to reach out for assistance.
“The embassy claims it’s monitoring what’s going on, but we don’t need monitoring, we need action,” Asirifi-Otchere said.
After multiple attempts to contact the embassy, representatives could not be reached for comment.
November 2014: Alie Kabba tells friends and colleagues in the U.S. about his intentions to run for president of Sierra Leone. In late November, he makes those intentions official by launching his campaign online.
Jan. 30, 2015: Diana Konomanyi — Kabba’s wife at the time — petitions the court to nullify her marriage to Kabba. In early 2015, after his official announcement, Konomanyi lodges a complaint alleging Kabba had not divorced his previous wife before they wed in 2013.
October 2015: After Sierra Leone’s election commission announces its intention to allow citizens abroad to vote, The Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) holds a convention in Houston, Texas. Candidates who are interested in running for president on behalf of the party pitch their ideas for the future of Sierra Leone. Kabba attends the conference and gives a speech.
Dec. 16, 2015: Kabba arrives in Sierra Leone to campaign for the SLPP presidential nomination.
Dec. 21, 2015: Kabba receives a notice from the Criminal Investigations Department, asking him to appear at their Freetown headquarters.
Dec. 23, 2015: Kabba goes to the Freetown headquarters. He is charged with bigamy and arrested. Immediately after his initial release, Kabba is again detained and held overnight.
Dec. 31, 2015: Kabba is arrested for the second time. He is denied bail, and is detained in Pademba Road Prison over new year’s.
Jan. 3, 2016: After the United African Organization in Chicago reaches out to the U.S. Palestinian Community Network, USPCN issues a global action alert demanding Kabba’s release.
Jan. 5, 2016: After pressure from politicians, petitions, and a global action alert, Kabba is released on bail. The conditions of his bail include the surrender of all his travel documents, passport and return ticket to the U.S., as well as a gag order prohibiting him from holding any press conferences.
Jan. 5-Jan. 20: Kabba’s trial is continually postponed as he appears before a judge multiple times as part of the preliminary investigation against him.
Jan. 20, 2016: Kabba appears in court for the fourth time. He is detained and sent back to Pademba Road Prison.
Jan. 22, 2016: Kabba is released and remains on bail.
Nov. 2017-Feb. 2018: Presidential elections are scheduled for Sierra Leone.