Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 28 July 2020:
Much has been written and said about the recent riot in Makeni that resulted in such much mayhem and loss of valuable lives. Blame has been cast on all sides and comments from the politically inclined have tended to support the views held by their respective political leaders.
It is encouraging however to see that others who may have no dog in the fight have been more rational. They have, whilst condemning the riotous conduct of the youths, roundly condemned the high handedness of our security forces resulting in the needless death of five youths. There have also been concerns expressed about the poor consultation between members of the two main political parties – the APC and SLPP, resulting from lack of cooperation and possible nefarious motives in relation to this unfortunate issue.
I would like to hone in on a few issues. As someone who fully realises the importance of energy to this country’s development and the need to strengthen the management of our State Owned Enterprises, it surprises me that a 1.6 MW generator could cause so much mayhem in a country.
To put things in the right perspective, this could easily be the installed generating capacity of an Industry like the Sierra Leone Brewery or the American Embassy. But then again, I should not be surprised that we have set our sights so low in this country.
I will digress and talk about an experience I had some 20 years ago while attending a power sector privatisation training programme in Egypt. The instructor mentioned, when discussing a particular topic that countries with less than 100 MW installed capacity for powering their national grid have no business discussing the particular issue, as they in essence have no power sector to talk about. When he started asking some participants about the generating capacity in their countries that fed the national grid, my heart skipped a bit, as at that time, Sierra Leone had less than 15 MW. To save myself from embarrassment, I made the decision to go to the bathroom until the discussions were over.
But generating capacity apart, we have never got our establishments to carry out their mandated functions. Everything has been viewed through a political lens and it did not start today. We can cite incidences for which generators were moved from Bo to Kono and back to Bo during the tenure of the last government, which again required informing the citizens in those areas.
Basically we have come to acknowledge that these things cause mayhem as people read into the motives of the utility managers and the government. If EGTC as an institution cannot move equipment from one operating area to another without the government thinking it will hurt the sensitivities of those staying in those areas, then what is the utility in business for?
But then in Sierra Leone, there is good management and there is political reality. In our always politically charged atmosphere everything has been politicised, requiring government to inform the populace in such an event. Why? Because we are so far behind in our power provision that it is hurting our development. Why? Because our political atmosphere is always so charged that there are prophets of doom who twist the message and intent to give the impression the government is callous and uncaring for those in the opposition strongholds. There is so much mistrust in this country because of our acute political differences along mainly regional lines.
Enter poor unsuspecting youth who are fed on the fodder of fake news and you have trouble. Politicians have got much too sleek with their messaging and every party now has its own purveyors of fake news to make the other look bad. We are living in this era in which social media with self–styled broadcasters spew out pure venom in their fake news. This should be roundly condemned. Sure, the youths must be blamed for being so gullible to fake information to have the propensity of being violent. But then, you may ask yourself who is not gullible to fake news?
I recall several years ago during the tenure of the last government in which fairly educated people were arguing over the radio that Bumbuna was not operating and that the power from Freetown was from a “hidden” source. More recently we have seen attacks caused by fake news on perceived “5G telecommunications towers”. It is not surprising that there are many people in Sierra Leone who think CORVID is “advanced malaria”. We have seen even in advanced countries, people denying the existence of CORVID or believing fake conspiracy theories about Bill Gates’ involvement in its creation.
The problems of our youths are many and complex; and simply condemning them misses the point. Rather, the emphasis should be on education and consultation.
The instigators who propel such poor unsuspecting youths to this state should be roundly condemned and censored in the strongest way possible. These include partisan politicians who do it for their own good; those who fleece money meant for development programmes and many armchair critics who are comfortable and only pay lip service to the ills of society.
Let us ask ourselves how many people knew Makeni receives almost all year round power supply from Bumbuna. The government must be commended for its recent drive to bring electricity supply to several Provincial headquarter towns. Whatever is done, the issues may continue to be misrepresented by both opposition and government supporters.
Some supporters commenting on Social media on the generator remarked – ” Port Loko 1: Bombali 0, rubbing salt in Bombali’s wound and giving the impression it was good that Bombali was being “punished” to the benefit of Port Loko. It behoves the Energy Ministry to continue on its drive to inform and educate the public.
The killing of innocent citizens is quite another matter. We are in a country in which the unbridled use of lethal weapons to curb violent strikes has become much too commonplace. Within the space of a few months, there have been over 40 deaths of unarmed civilians in various episodes. All of these have made headlines in the international press and dented our image as a peaceful nation.
Undoubtedly this affects investments and our human rights credentials. Our security forces, who have gained plaudits in international peace missions cannot put down violent strikes without resorting to killing. This is absurd and the issue should not be politicised but roundly condemned.
I sense the government is embarrassed by this latest episode. It should however be applauded for sending a delegation headed by Political Affairs Minister Foday Yumkella to meet with communities in Bombali and assuage their fears.
Many reasons have been proffered for the current, frequent spate of violence – ostensibly from APC’s refusal to accept the SLPP as the legitimate government on the one hand and to SLPP’s bent to be authoritarian and its refusal to accept dissent. The truth may lie somewhere, but whatever the case, the buck stops with the government whose credentials are tarnished by these events.
It behoves the government therefore to speed up its many plans for national cohesion and put the Commission of Inquiry behind us. Where do we stand with these issues? What concerted plans have we got for addressing the myriad of problems facing our youths in all spheres of life in this country?
How do we allow those who are legitimately aggrieved to express their opinion? As one of my friends recently said – “Democracy is supposed to be our escape valve to allow dissent and a desire for change to channel in constructive and peaceful directions”.
The call for an independent, impartial inquiry is in place. The government has said it plans to send a team from The Office of National Security (ONS) to investigate the issues surrounding the riot and present a report. Under normal circumstances the ONS may be viewed as an impartial and astute observer. The ONS however has highlighted several issues of conflict in communities in the past and called the attention of successive governments to address these issues at the root source. However, the ONS has either not been made to carry out its mandate seriously or got politicised.
It is also strange that the recent riots have not really resulted in independent inquiries, as mainly government connected and appointed operatives have been asked to do the investigations. If government really wants to get to the root cause of these problems and address the situation, there is no substitute to credible and impartial investigations-otherwise we will only be spinning our wheels till the next disaster.
You undoubtedly now agree that this recent debacle is not just over a generator. It is over a generator and a lot more. The explanation for events is often far away from what is seen by the bystander. I know this quite well, and even in the midst of all this doom and gloom I can’t help but recall my encounter in Bo with a groundnut seller, as a pupil teacher. I was riding my bicycle when I ran into a groundnut seller on Bojon street. She dropped her tray and the groundnuts got scattered on the floor. A crowd gathered and despite the entreaties of the onlookers to just pay the girl for her groundnuts, I vehemently refused – “Pa dis na easy tok, just gi di gal in gratnat money”, they pleaded. ‘A nor go do am. E too careless. How you day cross road you nor day look”, I remarked.
The truth is that my protest was because I genuinely had no money in my pocket and it was getting embarrassing. Her carelessness was my weapon. Things don’t always seem the way they look.
And who by the way said the Makeni riot was about a generator? And who said riots will end because five Makeni Youths have been shot? And who said these will address the mistrust between our major political players and stop violence? And who says the same thing will not happen in another area with another government run by another party?
The Makeni riot is not just about a generator. We are running to stay in the same place! Ponder my thoughts