By Dr. Cecil Blake
It was a very hazy day in Freetown and the harmattan was doing justice to its name. It was hard to distinguish between the dry sands from the Sahara and the huge amount of dust rising into the atmosphere from road construction sites all over the west end and central parts of the city. People were milling around the overcrowded and lawless Lumley/Regent Road roundabout and junction respectively, crawling through occasional cracks among the mass of humanity in the street market spread all over the place. Traffic was at a virtual standstill. Then I heard someone made a comment about EBK and Lokomassama. I was not sure what it was all about. The traffic started moving and I gladly found my way to downtown Freetown. The next mention about Lokomassama was in a press release from the Special Assistant to the President, Mr. Oswald Hanciles that read in part:
“At dusk of Wednesday, 8th February, 2012, in the court barrie of Lokomassama, Port Loko District, in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone, dozens of former SLPP leaders and partisans of the chiefdom publicly took off their green SLPP T-shirts (some, with campaign T-shirts of the 2007 SLPP presidential candidate, Solomon Berewa) and put on red T-shirts of the governing APC – in the presence of the APC Leader and Chairman, H.E. President Ernest Bai Koroma. There was loud cheering from the crowd inside and outside the court barrie. Bedlam broke when dozens more former SLPP partisans surged forward to get their own APC T-shirts. The green SLPP T-shirts were then publicly burned by the former SLPP partisans now turned APC.”
It was a disturbing read. From the excerpt above, it appears that the burning took place “in the presence of” the president. It was not clear whether the ”bedlam” mentioned above was seen by the president. Furthermore, I wondered why an apparently well-staged event would have T-Shirt burning as part of its agenda. Even if it was not, I wondered how a crowd could spontaneously engage in what appeared to be a mass burning of opposition T-Shirts, as evidence of their commitment to abandon the SLPP and declare for the APC. I also wondered whether there was any proof that the people wearing the opposition T-Shirts burnt publicly were indeed members of the SLPP. I pondered over the issue and wondered why a less incendiary act such as tearing up membership cards of the SLPP would not have also provided an even more credible evidence that those who wore the SLPP T-Shirts were indeed members of the party. It is a common practice in Sierra Leone for the same people to wear different party colors as the given ‘party” event requires. I was in Freetown during the final week of the campaign of 2007. I recall vividly seeing the same people with party colors of the day (of the rally for a given party) dancing in huge street rallies staged by the respective contenders. Standers-by pointed out groups of people in party colors who were seen, for example, the previous day dancing with a different party color behind leaders of a contesting party. Under such circumstances, T-Shirts could not be used as evidence for party membership let alone to perform such a dangerous act as public burning of them as a manifestation of a renunciation of their previous allegiance.
The Lokomassama event was obviously staged and well-orchestrated. Staged events are common in party politics. This is the nature of party politics. What is indeed extremely bothersome is that President Koroma did not make a statement condemning incendiarism as a campaign tactic. In fact his silence wittingly or unwittingly endorses the dangerous tactic. Not only would others possibly replicate the practice during the campaign, the act could lead to unnecessary loss of life and property of innocent people. When I read the press release on the event, it brought to mind vividly a ploy that was suggested by a body guard of a candidate for elections, in Chinua Achebe’s MAN OF THE PEOPLE. The main character in the novel, Odili was the candidate challenging the incumbent. His body guard cum thug, asked Odili for extra funds. When questioned why he needed extra money, the body guard, Boniface, replied that it was to be used for setting the car of the incumbent on fire. Odili refused to endorse incendiarism as a tactic. He was just running for a seat in Parliament. Mr. Koroma is our president. He should not be quiet on such a dangerous tactic during an event staged for him. Even if he left before or when “bedlam” took place, he should have issued a statement welcoming new members to the party, but discouraging or even condemning incendiarism as a tactic during political events. The event in Lokomassama might not have been described as a campaign event, but it was a political event with campaign implications. There are other ‘incendiary’ activities that have been perpetrated and continue to be the case ranging from the use of fecal waste, to vituperative language, innuendo and attempted ridicule against people perceived to be the ‘opposition’, for example, by Mr. Oswald Hanciles, the Special Assistant to the President (Media Outreach). I call the preceding activities “incendiary” because they could lead to conflagration. The Office of the President should not, through his appointees be seen to endorse any form of incendiarism as a tactic.
A press release on the incident, therefore, should have contained comments by President Koroma discouraging people from using incendiarism as a tactic. He should not be associated with the use of such a tactic by people who claim to support him and wish him success. The spectacle portrayed in the press release is really untidy and now deeply etched in the catalogue of tactics seemingly endorsed, if not condemned by the president, as a lawful and acceptable political tactic. I doubt if His Excellency would want to be associated with the use of arson as a means of communicating ‘good’ intentions, to improve upon the politics of numbers. I hope our President would do us a big favour by condemning the act perpetrated by the new cross-overs, and declare unacceptable, incendiarism as part of the political culture as we move towards the general and presidential elections in November this year.
Mr. Koroma has the huge advantage of incumbency, notwithstanding some scandals that have marked his administration to date. I am yet to read about an administration that is scandal free. The challenge is how to manage and rectify damages that emanate from such scandals. He still has the upper hand simply because he can defend his tenure from an advantageous position: he is a sitting president with a lot of time to cure/manage maladies, defend his policies and make a case for a second term without encouraging and even endorsing by being silent, a very dangerous tactic such as incendiarism.
I therefore, as a citizen of Sierra Leone concerned for the well-being and protection from fire for all, most respectfully appeal to President Ernest B. Koroma to come out with a statement discouraging the use of incendiarism as a political tactic by ALL political parties.