BEIRUT: President Michel Sleiman told Lebanese expatriates in Ghana over the weekend that the Lebanese Army needed to be strengthened and reiterated his call on politicians to work toward a national defense strategy.
During his stay in Ghana, the president also said it was important for Lebanon to uphold its dissociation policy toward developments in the region and reiterated his opposition to holding the elections under the controversial Orthodox Gathering Law.
“The plan by the Cabinet to bolster the Army’s capabilities that was sent to Parliament was an important one,” Sleiman, referring to the September 2012 proposal approved by the government to allocate $1.6 billion to arm the Lebanese military, told expatriates at the Lebanese Embassy in Ghana.
“The Army symbolizes national unity and has been able to maintain its integrity at the most difficult of times. Therefore the [military] needs to be bolstered,” he added.
Sleiman, who is on an official visit to African states, also reiterated that Lebanon needed a national defense strategy that would pave the way for the military being able to fulfill its “national duty.”
“A defense strategy that capitalizes on the resistance’s [Hezbollah’s] capabilities needs to be put in place to benefit the military until the time when it has enough equipment to carry out on its own its national duty,” he said.
Sleiman arrived in Accra Saturday and was welcomed at Kotoka International Airport by Ghanaian officials, including Foreign Minister Hannah Tetteh, Lebanon’s ambassador to the West African country, Ali al-Halabi, and members of the Lebanese community in Ghana.
Canons fired 21 rounds in Sleiman’s honor at the airport after an honorary guard ceremony and the playing of both national anthems, according to the National News Agency.
Later at a joint news conference with President John Dramani Mahama, Sleiman praised the “warm ties” between Lebanon and Ghana, particularly in terms of its participation in the United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL).
“I would like to express my gratitude for the warm ties between Lebanon and Ghana at the political level that is translated in terms of the backing of joint issues at international forums and primarily, in relation to Lebanon, the keenness on implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701,” he said.
“I praised the central role that Ghana still plays in terms of its missions in safeguarding peace in the world,” he said.
“One of its prominent officers headed UNIFIL in south Lebanon in the early days of its creation in 1978,” Sleiman said, adding: “Particular [praise] goes to [Ghana’s] assistance in UNIFIL, with 873 officers, soldiers and civilian personnel devoted to the mission.”
At the Lebanese Embassy reception, Sleiman called for a moment of silence to honor the 36 members of the Ghanaian contingent in UNIFIL who died while serving in the peacekeeping force in south Lebanon.
He told the members of the Lebanese community that he understood their fears over Lebanon and the region and said the country’s constitution, the Taif Accord, needed to be safeguarded.
“I know that you have concerns over Lebanon, the events taking place in the country and around it. You have every right to be and the reason for your departure from Lebanon was due to the problems in and around Lebanon,” he said.
“Whatever happens around us, the problems should not be brought to us,” he added.
While urging Lebanon remain distant from regional conflicts, the president also said democracy in the Middle East region could strengthen Lebanon’s own political structure.
“We paid a heavy price for our democracy and we hope countries around us will adopt democracy without there being violence and outside intervention,” he said, adding: “When there is democracy around us, Lebanon’s democracy will be strengthened.”
Sleiman said Lebanon had taken steps to safeguard the country from repercussions of developments in the region.
“The National Dialogue Committee adopted what we called the “Baabda Declaration” and neutrality toward the problems of others.” he said.
“All we want is a stable and secure Lebanon ... but having tension in Lebanon does not benefit [countries] surrounding us,” he added.
Answering reporters’ questions following the joint news conference, Mahama expressed concern about the situation in Syria, saying it threatened world peace.
He said any conflict in any country needed the attention of the world because it could impact other states.
The Ghanaian leader also said there was a need to combat terrorism and that those seeking to fulfill the “needs of our countries need to create conditions that are not conducive for groups that are involved in terrorism that use the Palestinian cause as a pretext to justify their actions.”
“For this reason we will continue our work in Lebanon through the United Nations and the peacekeeping force to see how we can secure permanent peace in the Middle East,” he added.
During their stay in Ghana, the Lebanese delegation, accompanied by Sleiman, inked a number of bilateral cooperation agreements.
Sleiman praised the bilateral agreements, which he said were in the fields of health, agriculture, tourism, transportation, defense, trade, industry, finance and oil and gas.
The Ghanaian president, for his part, said his government would set policies and strategies to allow for the implementation of the bilateral agreements.
Asked about the elections in Lebanon and reports that the United States wanted the polls to be held under the 1960 law, Sleiman said:
“With regards to the elections, this is an internal affair ... I don’t know whether the Americans did in fact say this but if they did say this then this would mean interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs,” he said, adding: “I personally did not hear such talks directly and I have only seen this in the papers and some statements in the media.”
“But in the end, there should be efforts inside Lebanon toward a modern, democratic law that is in line with the Taif Accord and the National Pact,” he said.
In his speech at the Lebanese Embassy, Sleiman reiterated his call on expats not to cast their ballot in the polls in what he described as a ”sectarian voting system,” in an apparent reference to the Orthodox Gathering proposal, be adopted.
“The law has an article allowing expats to vote but if we want to manufacture a sectarian law then I will urge either that expats not vote or that we give them MPs’ seats that are not voted on a sectarian basis,” he said.
The Orthodox Gathering proposal, which is backed the main Christian political parties as well as Hezbollah and Amal, mandates each sect elect their own MPs under a system of proportional representation with Lebanon as a single electoral district. It is opposed by Sleiman, the prime minster, the Future Movement, the Progressive Socialist Party and several independent Christian politicians.
He also reiterated that the voting age should be lowered to 18 and there be a quota for women.
“In light of the advances in science and the phenomena of globalization the Taif Accord needs to be bolstered with an elections law that provides it continuity in order to protect Lebanon’s unique identity which is now a necessity,” he said.
He added that balanced development in Akkar and Hermel, as stipulated by the Taif Accord, was essential and “this is embodied by approving the administrative decentralization law soon.”