imassaquoi's picture
Bottom Line: A Nation without conversation

There’s something we need to do urgently in this country. It’s really urgent. We need to significantly raise the quality of our national debate, make it substantial, open and clean – devoid of partisan rancour and cheap political sniping. With less than a year to the next presidential and general elections, Sierra Leone is more deeply divided today than it was in 2007. We have reached a stage where the colour of one’s clothes, one’s friends and one’s choice of even soft drink, marks you out as either APC or SLPP. Former TRC Chairman Bishop JC Humper recently told the BBC that in some cases “people are even afraid to speak their language.” Well, in certain situations, yes, but in general, we haven’t reached that stage yet. The clergyman perhaps wanted to emphasize a particular point and therefore tried to be as graphic as possible. Another undeniable fact is that Media people have gone into their trenches and are busy launching missiles at each other, ostensibly in defence of the national interest. I mean ostensibly. The point is, unless we decide once again that things have reached unacceptable limits of political polarisation and that we could easily push Sierra Leone over the precipice to land into the same situation as our Kenyan brothers and sisters did – that appalling political violence in 2007 that left more than 1,000 people dead and many others wounded and displaced and that we must do something about it – I am afraid things could go wrong in Sierra Leone soon. Here is what I think: Sierra Leoneans are not talking or even relating to people outside the comfort zones of their political parties and ethnic groupings. We have suddenly discovered that our best friends yesterday now hate us and are out to destroy us and our parties. As a nation we have come a long way through war, death on a massive scale, displacement and general hopelessness. And that is something for which we must thank God. Look at Sudan, Somalia and DR Congo, the state has virtually collapsed. At least we have gone through a horrendous war and have not splintered into lawless fiefdoms like Somalia has. We have however missed a few opportunities to advance nation-building for which we have had to pay a heavy price in life and property and the general reputation of our country. In 2007 we made a clear statement as a democratic country. We conducted a largely free and fair election that brought the opposition to power. There were sporadic acts of violence, no doubt, but certainly not on the scale of Nigeria or Ivory Coast. Ernest Bai Koroma, who was running for the second time, was the winner. That was a real high point for Sierra Leone. The immediate disappointment with losing such a keenly contested election, that could have gone anywhere, ought to have quickly given way to the realization that our democratic credentials as a nation were now well established. There is no doubt that the events that followed Koroma’s coming to power negatively affected a lot of people because they were thrown out of their jobs by the infamous Friday Matorma battle axe. Even very junior people were bullied out of jobs just because they were not red or not red enough. Alpha Kanu dismissed their cries on 98.1 FM in a manner I don’t want to repeat here. He has opened this government up to criticism more than any other minister has, owing to his many unhelpful political gaffes. Things improved after Koroma’s second year in office but those dismissals played right into the hands of an opposition looking for the opportunity to land a punch on the government. I am not going to mention the inconclusive Semega-Janneh Commission or the attempt to set up the Bambay Kamara Inquest which was seen by many as a witch-hunt. If Koroma was so convinced about these policy moves, why didn’t he go ahead with them? Outcry or not, leaders should have the courage of their conviction. It is not late. The SLPP elected Julius Maada Bio as leader from among a field of 19. This process tested Sierra Leone’s democratic gains once again. All aspirants were interviewed on national TV and the election itself was extensively covered by the “new” SLBC. The Party faithful and others interested in such matters stayed up all night, waiting for the result. The Sierra Leone Police was up to the job and barring little arguments here and there, the election, using that strange multiple box system, passed off peacefully. By all accounts this was another big step on the way to the country’s full democratic maturity. We should have celebrated this as a nation. But before the dust could settle, Victory Foh, the maverick ruling APC party Secretary General, went on air with incendiary cries of “a killer is in town” on paid-for prime time radio; the new party leader was attacked and wounded in Bo as uncontrolled violence marred a simple event that meant nothing more than Julius Bio waving to about 20,000 people in Bo town. The burning of houses and the killing and wounding of other people at the same event was unfortunate. So we took two steps forward and ten steps backwards. The official report on what happened is available for all to see and I feel the panel that investigated it did a good job under the circumstances. On a personal level, I think the police operation around that visit was at best mediocre. I was in Bo to present a paper at an Anti Corruption Commission-organized workshop for journalists on the eve of Bio’s visit to the city. Driving around that night, I counted five vigils in different parts of the city with hundreds of people in attendance. To me that was a signal to the fact that the police needed to increase their presence on the ground and monitor potential trouble-makers and flashpoints in a much more sophisticated way. But all that is now been looked at in the courts. There are cries of selective justice, but for now I am waiting for the court’s decision. The opposition SLPP are pursuing their bid for State House in a cunning way but it‘s easy to understand what is happening. First of all, why didn’t Maada Bio go to see the Head of State after his election as leader? He presented himself to diplomats and some influential bodies, but not to the Head of State. Imagine how much the political tension in Sierra Leone could have eased if Bio had appeared with Koroma on TV having lunch and talking about the need to focus on the fact that despite their political differences, they are all Sierra Leoneans and all their supporters should have that in mind at all times. I may have missed it but I am not sure I heard any press release from the other parties congratulating Bio - this is not part of Sierra Leone’s political culture. One of my best friends is sitting by me as I write this piece. He has just told me this is “gesture politics”. My reply to him is that such gestures are powerful instruments to keep this fragile state intact. The other thing the SLPP is doing is keeping its base in the southern and eastern provinces angry all the time about every little thing. So if you travel through eastern and southern Sierra Leone you meet a lot of extremely angry people – angry at the undeniable lack of development; angry that their areas are being “deliberately marginalized”, angry that nobody is listening to them. In the second half of last year, I travelled by road to Liberia to present a paper at a workshop on the media and money-laundering and drug-trafficking organised by ECOWAS’s body that deals with such a matter called GIABA. As the rickety Peugeot vehicle turned towards the Liberian border from Malema Junction, one of the passengers at the back said something to the effect that the four-hour ordeal on one of the worst roads in the most-neglected part of the country was over. As if on cue, the other seven passengers with whom I was cramped in a car fit only for the scrap yard, joined in. For them the only solution was to remove Ernest Koroma from power this year. I probably underestimated the strength of feeling around this belief, so that when I suggested elections do not always produce the desired results both in terms of candidates or social service delivery once people are in office they jumped at me like a hungry lion would at a prey. I prayed for the journey to end soon but the last thirty kilometres appeared to last forever under verbal artillery. As we approached Jendema one of them cautioned his fellow Executioners that they could be dealing with some big government operative who could cause trouble for them once we got to Jendema. He spoke in Vai. I speak a fair a bit of the language which is predominant in Liberia’s Cape Mount County and as a native of Sorogbema, the chiefdom just across the border in Sierra Leone, I know that marriage and trade have brought those migrant communities over to Sierra Leone. So we learn the languages in daily interactions. Anyway, the conversation continued in Vai till we reached the police post in Jendema. They kept their distance from me. I am sure they were really shaken when a police officer friend of mine since primary school days in Brookfields took me into his office and processed my documents quickly. As I left the station, I turned to the most talkative of them all to say good bye. He looked away. I still said good bye in Vai. He was extremely surprised. He managed to force a smile and moved over to the other Kongosa bunch (or gossips) to tell them the news. As I drove on the excellent road from Bo Waterside to the heart of Monrovia, I felt sorry for the people I have made uncomfortable by attempting a rational debate about such issues, when a simplistic narrative was available to them. How else can I explain this? The road from Jendama to Bandajuma was paid for by foreign bodies as part of the trans-West African road long before the war. The Liberians built their side of the road. We did something else with our money, Sierra Leone was soon thrown into war and the contractors Philip Holzman pulled out of the country. Now it takes an hour and a half to reach Monrovia from the border. It takes five hours to reach Bo in Southern Sierra Leone from Jendama. That’s the real issue. My problem though was their abiding belief that Koroma was responsible and that removing him would end the problem. May be they should blame him - he was Charles Margai’s ally. Charles had gone there and told the people that Kabbah and his SLPP had failed them, so they should vote for the PMDC. For the first time, Mannah Kpaka’s constituency went to another party in a multi-party democratic election. The SLPP have since retaken it in a bye election. But the councillor of a ward in the area is APC. Charles Margai is now disillusioned and the people are suffering. So when I speak about an angry electorate; this is what I am talking about. There is no rational debate taking place and the SLPP wants to stop this concerted APC drive into the area. The ruling party is desperate to avoid the uncertainties of a run-off election towards the end of this year. The SLPP has designed simplistic messages, packaged them and sent out to the people. So sometimes when I hear of boycotts of Parliament and other state functions, like the just concluded national conference on transformation and development, I understand them from the point of view of them wanting to keep their people angry and waiting for the day of rage, November 17. Great short-term election manoeuvre but we have no idea what else could happen. The people of this nation should start a decent conversation about national issues and from the look of things; I am beginning to wonder if our media is the vehicle for this kind of conversation. I might repeat myself if I started looking back at what is expected of the media going into the elections. The media have hammered home this so-called south-east north-west divide to the extent that we now think this is the way to go. To the media everything is either black or white. Life’s usual grey is not even countenanced. When SLPP wins a bye-election, the headlines go: SLPP 1 APC 0. The same applies if the APC wins. It is a dramatic headline and it boosts visibility and sales. The media, instead of promoting dialogue and a free exchange of views, so fundamental to their mission, are busy closing down democratic debate using bullying and scare tactics. The immediate outcome is that people we would normally consider as the conscience of the nation – the Desmond Luke’s of this world – have pulled back leaving the ground clear for political party hacks and hawks to roam free, pen and microphone in hand, tearing reputations to shreds as the intemperate language of partisan politics takes hold in Mama Sa.lone. Media scholars have reiterated Karl Popper’s thesis that “truth is not manifest”, i.e.: truth does not exist in a pure, unquestionable form. Instead, it is socially constructed through discussion, debate, negotiation and consensus building. These media functions assist in securing tolerance, a critical prerequisite for social stability in modern multi-ethnic societies. I urge you to believe the scholars.