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Criminalising SLPP to stifle the debate

By James Tamba Lebbie

Give the dog a bad name and hang it!  In the last five to six years, this is what has come to characterise the day-to-day governance of the state of Sierra Leone and to a very large extent, everyday life in the country. Agents and sycophants are truly and actively at work!

From the desire of ordinary workers to have their grievances on working conditions addressed, to the conduct of elections for leaders of associations, organisations and unions, those perceived to be not with the establishment are dubbed "opposition" supporters.

In some instances, they would say specifically that they are members of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). And sections of the media have also become victim of this campaign of calumny. Journalists deemed not to be toeing the official line and preferring to stand for the people have been classified as "pro-SLPP journalists." Interestingly, I have never heard them saying pro-APC journalists even though their news and comments are slanted and skewed towards that end.

The consequence: Those perceived pro-opposition journalists are either denied the opportunity for their grievances to be heard or they are deprived of their chances to win any election. In some instances, some people have lost their jobs – either because they were fired or they were suppressed until they had to resign – simply because they were perceived to be associated with the opposition. And while the list of instances of people and groups having been associated with the opposition SLPP is too long to detail here, I will point at specific instances of this retrograde practice.

To begin with, the former vice chancellor and principal of the University of Sierra Leone, Prof. Aiah Gbakima was deprived of serving a second term in office because he was perceived to be an "active member" of the SLPP. He was appointed in 2005 by then President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to serve in that position with a four-year mandate which could be renewed as stipulated in the Universities Act. No sooner had the APC come to power in 2007 than it became obvious that he would not be allowed to serve a second term because it became public knowledge that there was no love lost between him and the Minister of Education. And while no official reason was given for not renewing his mandate, it was apparent that his overt association with the SLPP cost him his job.

A year later, in the same institution, a female student, Frances Marke ran to become students’ union president at Fourah Bay College. She was tipped by many as the frontrunner. She was deprived of winning the election for obvious partisan accusations. The proprietor of the Awareness Times newspaper, Sylvia Olayinka Blyden can perhaps give credence to this assertion because she was one of her strong backers who as one of the "pro-SLPP" journalists at the time, wrote extensively on the issue in support of Frances. Fingers were pointed at State House for interfering with the election at FBC on the grounds that Frances was a candidate of the opposition SLPP.

Fast forward, in 2011 when the Academic Staff Associations of Fourah Bay College and Njala University went on an industrial action for better conditions of service, instead of the minister of education engaging the lecturers to find an amicable solution, he referred to the striking lecturers as SLPP lecturers, an unfair characterization that exacerbated the strike leading to the disruption of the academic calendar.

In January 2012, a section of the clergy of the Catholic Diocese of Makeni incited the lay faithful to rebel against the appointment of Rev. Father Henry Aruna as Bishop of Makeni. Among the reasons outlined by the rebel priests were that the Diocese had several qualified priests that could be appointed bishop and that the Vatican did not take geo-political realities into consideration in making the appointment. But talking to my friends and colleagues in Makeni (by the way, I did my secondary schooling in Makeni and also worked there as pupil teacher for three years), I could deduce that the ostensible reason for rejecting Bishop Aruna was on the basis of his regional background (he is from the southern) and by extension, a perceived supporter of SLPP. And given the sensitivity of the timing of his appointment (it came on the eve of the 2012 presidential and parliamentary elections) there were rumours in Makeni that Fr. Aruna was a cousin of the man who would later become presidential candidate of the SLPP, Brig (Rtd.) Julius Maada Bio. Up to the time of writing this piece, there is no solution to the Episcopal stalemate in Makeni.

But those are just the tip of the iceberg. In 2013, the Sweizzy Jewellers’ Association had their election postponed at least twice apparently at the dictate of elements of the establishment on the grounds the frontrunner, Alphonso Charles Blake was an SLPP member and candidate. And when it became clear that the candidate would win the election no matter how many times it was postponed, he was apparently forced to declare his support for the ruling APC party, which he did.

In addition, the shameful outcome of that sham and facade called the Sierra Leone Football Association (SLFA) Congress in July was because of political motivations. Officially, the reasons given for the disqualification of three candidates leaving the fourth to go unopposed range from being in association with a football betting company to not fulfilling the requirement of a permanent stay in the country. Behind the scenes though, some senior people close to the SLFA made remarks that they would not allow supporters of the SLPP to run the football association. In fact, the press attaché in the Sierra Leone embassy in Belgium went as far as posting on his Facebook page that the government would not allow opposition people to run the football association. At the end of the day, the congress produced a president for the FA that was blatantly supported by the establishment. No election was conducted! Case closed!

As I put finger to keyboard, workers at the bio-energy company, Addax have raised concerns about their poor working conditions, including the discrimination they allegedly face on a daily basis. Instead of addressing their grievances, their union leaders have been accused of belonging to the opposition SLPP.

And now to the media industry where I belong and a profession I cherish so much. Some senior officials including the journalist-turned-politician and Special Executive Assistant to President Koroma have described sections of the media as pro-SLPP. They are doing it as a tactic to silence critical voices just as they have almost succeeded in silencing debates and conversation by branding people with opposition tags just because they are critical and conscionable. And for some of these newspaper outlets, their only crime is that they are critical of the establishment in addition to expressing divergent views and opinions.

The interesting irony, or rather paradox in all this drama is that the SEA seems to be leading a campaign to tag independent journalists as pro-SLPP. But just as recently as in 2011, Sylvia Olayinka Blyden was harassing her colleagues including those at the Independent Media Commission for what she perceived as support for the APC, especially when Vice President Sam-Sumana ordered the IMC to close those political radio stations. In fact, she is also on record for making a rude caricature of President Koroma with horns on his head and publishing the photo upside-down. She didn't stop there. She even wrote about the colour of the president's underwear in a very disparaging manner. Today, she is a cheerleader of that same president whose name and image she has brought to disrepute. Sometimes, I wonder how President Koroma must be feeling working with her. But we live in a world where anything is possible.

I am making all these references for people to understand what this country has degenerated into – Politically motivated name-calling. Gradually and implicitly, it has come to mean that an association with the opposition SLPP is a crime and even a sin. In fact, like a very senior public servant told me a couple of weeks ago, had it not been for the constitution that makes provision for a multi-party democracy, it would have been a crime punishable by law to belong to the SLPP.  And with the government being the biggest employer, people are afraid of being associated with the opposition either because they don't want to lose their jobs or because they want a contract from the government. When you are perceptibly partisan in support of the APC and you are a civil servant or even a soldier, there is no problem. There is only a problem when such a perceived association is with the opposition. The consequence of this practice for our society is the absence of a debate and lack of fairness.

© Politico 05/09/13