Saidu Bangura, PhD: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 5 May 2022:
Sierra Leone has set one more world record. While revelations of the fake degree saga are unfolding and continue to be shocking to us all, given their overwhelmingly deep impact, another drama made news last week. “Blacker”, a mentally challenged Sierra Leonean roaming the streets of Freetown and in the provinces with his pet dog, was arrested, charged, arraigned before a magistrate court, and remanded at the Pademba Correctional Centre, the only Maximum-Security Prison in Freetown.
Who would have thought the Sierra Leone Police could have arrested, charged, and prosecuted “Blacker”, a well-known person struggling with mental health issues? Where have we ever seen a popularly known mentally challenged person arrested, charged, arraigned before a magistrate court, and remanded in a Maximum-Security Prison? My guess: only in Sierra Leone and in the twenty-first century, and on the eve of the 61st Independence Anniversary of Sierra Leone as a sovereign nation.
Only in Sierra Leone can a mentally challenged person be arrested, charged, and arraigned before a magistrate court and remanded in a Maximum-Security Prison. Only in Sierra Leone can a mentally challenged person be accused of insulting the president.
Only in Sierra Leone can a mentally challenged person be taken to prison, not to a mental health hospital, for allegedly insulting the president and for being a security threat. Only in Sierra Leone.
Yet, Sierra Leone, my country of birth, is blind to all the precedents set by supposedly sane people with fake degrees running the country and our state institutions.
These apparently sane people who are destroying our economy and depriving us of much-needed development are living affluently with ill-gotten wealth showing off with expensive vehicles and mansions; but these likely sane people are not threatening the security of our country; these are not an insult to our president and our collective decency as a people and nation; only “Blacker”, a publicly known mentally challenged person who was arraigned before a Magistrate Court for charges of insulting our president, who has a security detail and who cannot be easily reached by this mentally challenged person, can be accused of security threat to the president of Sierra Leone and be remanded in a Maximum-Security prison. Only in Sierra Leone.
Only in Sierra Leone do we have thieves and academic fraudsters running state institutions, and yet these are not a threat to the security of this man who heads the government of my country of birth – only “Blacker”, a popularly known mentally challenged person, can be a threat to him. Only in Sierra Leone.
We, the allegedly psychologically sane people, are a threat to our collective security and development; yet we are allowed our freedom. We, the purportedly mentally sane people, are the ones with fake degrees running the affairs of our country and yet we are the ones let loose to do whatever we please.
We, the professedly mentally sane people, are the ones siphoning off the resources of our country while most of our people live in squalor and poverty, and yet we are the ones that are not arrested, charged, and remanded for being a threat to our collective security and the security of the man heading our government and state.
We, the seemingly mentally sane people, call on the international community and organisations, especially the World Health Organisation, to help diagnose the outwardly mentally sane people of my country of birth. For it seems we are the truly insanely insane people of Sierra Leone. We are the only ones not doing what the mentally challenged people could have done had they had the mental capacity we have, as exemplified by the attempts made by “Blacker” to show us where we have failed as a nation, to arrest, charge, arraign and remand our collective thieves and academic fraudsters running the affairs of our country. Contrarily, we choose to arrest, charge, arraign and remand a mentally challenged person, “Blacker”, for our own failures! Only in Sierra Leone.
But there are “IFs” in this “Blacker” saga
If Sierra Leone is a democratic country and a country where the Rule of Law and where Freedom of Speech (should) obtain, let us join “Blacker”, a mentally challenged person, who was arrested, charged, and arraigned in a magistrate court in Freetown for his entertaining and interesting opinions in our young democracy, and who stood in the dock and told us freedom of speech is non-existent and not assured in Sierra Leone. Don’t get me wrong. “Blacker”, in his mental struggles and discourse dialectics, is one of the few Sierra Leoneans that constantly, if not the only one that, speak(s) truth to power.
Depending on his psychological tide, “Blacker” has called on both the APC and the SLPP (and their respective leaderships), the two political parties that have governed Sierra Leone for the best part of our 61 years as an independent nation, except for the few military leaders we have had, for their successes and failures in government.
If Freedom of Speech and Expression are constitutional rights of the individual and of a people, let us join “Blacker”, who was remanded in a Maximum-Security Prison in Freetown for expressing his opinions, irrespective of their conflicting currents, in a society where the freedom of people was guaranteed through the establishment of Freetown in 1787 commonly known as “the Province of Freedom” where our former enslaved people in England and the Americas were returned and others like them settled, and became free to own land and govern themselves.
If Freedom of Speech and Expression are guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), let us be humane enough to join “Blacker”, whose rights, human and political, are being threatened in Sierra Leone.
If the health of our health institutions in Sierra Leone were truly healthy, “Blacker” should be taken care of in a specialised hospital and cared for by specialised health care workers, and hence “Blacker” would recover from his psychological disturbances and would not be seen to threaten or insult anybody or any political institution.
If the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) is anything to go by (or if Sierra Leone is a signatory to that convention), the Republic of Sierra Leone owes “Blacker” a huge social and human responsibility and apology, given: (1) the psychosocial damage Sierra Leoneans have caused on his person by sharing videos of him on social media platforms; and (2) the damage his arrest, charge, prosecution and subsequent remand at Pademba Maximum-Security Prison in Freetown have caused his human dignity knowing he is mentally challenged.
If “Blacker”, a mentally challenged person’s Freedom of Speech and Expression are denied, what about you, who is publicly and visibly known to be sane and well?
And to say that “Blacker” was recently hospitalised at the central referral hospital in Freetown where we understood he underwent surgery and yet he was subdued to Police harassment, arrest, detention, and slept in inhumane conditions at the Pademba Maximum-Security Prison speaks volumes. And to say the Police Officer who arrested him did not know that “Blacker” is a mentally challenged person is paradoxical to the highest degree.
Most Sierra Leoneans, at home and abroad, have watched Blacker’s videos where he talks about the sociopolitical and socioeconomic situations affecting all Sierra Leoneans, his psychological condition notwithstanding. And to say that “Blacker” can be defended by a battery of 16 lawyers led by Lawyer Charles Pujeh is beyond imagination! But what if we say that this mentally challenged Sierra Leonean has won the hearts and admiration of many Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad? What if we say that “Blacker” is the symbol of freedom of speech and expression in Sierra Leone?
Why is “Blacker” the freedom of speech and expression icon in Sierra Leone?
At first sight, it would seem controversial to consider “Blacker” a champion of freedom of speech and expression in Sierra Leone. Irrespective of his mental struggles, “Blacker” should be seen as the personification of freedom of speech and expression in Sierra Leone.
Freedom of speech is the linchpin in modern democratic societies supported by both constitutional and international human rights law while at the same time an area of intense misinterpretation and disagreement. It becomes even more critical when a person with visible signs of mental disability is seen to be the advocate of such a fundamental right. How can we link “Blacker”, a mentally challenged person, to freedom of speech and expression in our political ecology?
The symbolic representation and interpretation of the photo of “Blacker” holding his lips in court expresses what we, presumably sane people, are unable to do: to study and understand our sociopolitical and socioeconomic milieu and interpret their dynamics and outcomes.
“Blacker” has shown awareness of the sociopolitical and socioeconomic climate of Sierra Leone and has presented a powerful image for us and to us, the probably sane ones, to conclude that freedom of speech and expression are not guaranteed and assured. This is further supported by a video doing the rounds in which we see “Blacker” wrapped in the colours of our national flag holding his lips again when asked about what obtained in court that fateful morning when bail was secured by his 16 lawyers.
By holding his lips in court and a few days later after he was granted bail awaiting trial seen draped in the colours of our flag still holding his lips, “Blacker” is helping Sierra Leoneans at home and abroad, and the world at large, make their minds about whether freedom of speech and expression are assured for anybody, assumably sane or evidently mentally challenged, in Sierra Leone.
We have been warned by the actions against no less a person than “Blacker”, a visibly mentally challenged person, who sometimes entertains us, and at some other times treats us with his rhetoric about the sociopolitical and socioeconomic realities in Sierra Leone, and who is sometimes beaten to the point of death by political thugs (and we have never seen any state institution criticising such inhuman acts to a person with disability), and still at some other times falsely pronounced dead, that freedom of speech and expression are pipe dreams in the “land that we love, our Sierra Leone”.
While many people are hiding their disabilities and are invisibly suffering, “Blacker” is visible and an agent of change in the sociopolitical and socioeconomic malaise that has crippled our country for decades since independence. “Blacker” openly assumes the role of a political and economic analyst.
This role makes him the authority that both seemingly physically and mentally sane people and obviously people with other disabilities must listen to. And while we may not want to agree with him, he has exposed our disabled police, health, and legal institutions; institutions which have all failed to recognise Sierra Leoneans, as represented symbolically by “Blacker”, going through mental disturbances and who are constantly struggling to make their voices heard.
“Blacker”, as a mentally challenged Sierra Leonean, epitomises the struggle that both visibly and invisibly people with disabilities go through in our society. “Blacker” also personifies those who are deprived of their freedom of speech and expression in our democracy. Hence, in “Blacker” we see both an embodiment of the deprivation of mental patients and the struggles sane people face in a country where freedom of speech and expression are denied.
Therefore, visibly sane people make videos of “Blacker”, a mentally challenged person, to speak for them; thus, giving him their constitutional rights to act and speak on their behalf. “Blacker”, therefore, becomes the voice of both the visibly sane people and people with disabilities in Sierra Leone.
Another symbolic representation which “Blacker” makes is that Sierra Leone is not ready to meet the Leave No One Behind objective of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals Agenda of the United Nations. Persons with disabilities, whether visible or invisible, are neither catered for nor considered within whatever goals Sierra Leone is working on or towards.
Here is “Balcker” whose rights have been constantly violated and no law enforcement, legal or health institutions have ever come to his aid, but he was arrested, charged, arraigned and remanded in a Maximum-Security Prison for allegedly insulting the president of Sierra Leone. Lawyer Charles Pujeh and his 15 colleagues who came together and provided legal services to “Blacker” will stand beside our freedom of speech and expression icon, “Blacker”, irrespective of the fact that he is battling with mental health, since they have decided to go according to paragraph 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) declaration:
“As we embark on this great collective journey, we pledge that no one will be left behind. Recognizing that the dignity of the human person is fundamental, we wish to see the Goals and targets met for all nations and peoples and for all segments of society. And we will endeavour to reach the furthest behind first.” (https://sdgs.un.org/2030agenda)
Lawyer Charles Pujeh and his colleagues have recognised the dignity of “Blacker” as a human person. Furthermore, Lawyer Charles Pujeh and his 15 colleagues have materialised the Leave No One Behind objective of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in defending “Blacker”. They went “furthest behind” and defended a left behind “Blacker” by our political and state institutions and the public, who have all ignored Gola 3, “Good Health and Wellbeing” (see paragraph 26 of the Sustainable Development Goals declaration which opens thus: “To promote physical and mental health and well-being”), of the Sustainable Development Goals. They brought “Blacker” to the forefront disregarding their busy schedules and removed him from remand where both his physical and mental health could have deteriorated more.
Lawyer Charles Pujeh and his colleagues have told us: mental health is real, and we must all help those affected by defending their rights and support them recover their mental wellbeing. We appreciate the 16 lawyers who have provided him with legal services to defend his human dignity which he has lost in the hands of institutions which could have protected and defended his rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities should our constitution not accord him such rights.
We now hope the mental health department of our Ministry of Health will take up the case of “Blacker” and other neglected cases of mentally challenged people and help in restoring their mental wellbeing.
Whether or not the current fake degree saga and the recent “Blacker” incident are championed and orchestrated to dissuade Sierra Leoneans from the real socioeconomic challenges faced by most, if not all Sierra Leoneans, one fact remains clear as crystal: “Blacker”, a mentally challenged human being, is not a piece of wood. He needs medical care and attention; he needs our love; and most importantly, he needs the State of the Republic of Sierra Leone to defend his rights as a Sierra Leonean enshrined in our constitution and other international instruments for the protection of people with disabilities.
Being mentally challenged does not mean “Blacker” has lost his rights and humanity. It equally does not mean that “Blacker” has lost his dignity as a human person and as a member of the Sierra Leonean wider community. “Blacker”, therefore, represents the perfect symbol of mental health struggles and the lack of freedom of speech in Sierra Leone.
While “Blacker” has come out in the open showing his struggles with mental health, many more Sierra Leoneans are invisibly suffering mental disability, and some others the silencing of their freedom of speech in the “land that we love, our Sierra Leone”. These are the people “Blacker” represents in this new drama.
Mohamed Mansaray, popularly known as “Blacker”. I deliberately use his nickname throughout this text as he is popularly known, and not his real name.