Sierra Leone national cohesion – Jonah swallowed the whale?

Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 22 May 2019:

Our leaders were divided on the eve of independence in 1961. Since then, every change in government has been accompanied by accusations by the new government that it inherited a broken country and economy.

President Kabbah accused the NPRC of emptying the country’s coffers. President Koroma levied the same accusation against President Kabbah’s government. Enter President Bio-ditto.

Accusations apart, what has become apparent over the past 11 years has been the division of the country along party lines and the government sharing the spoils to party supporters in a country where parties are roughly aligned along regional and tribal lines.

The winning party would kick most heads of institutions out and in some cases, clear out whole institutions of senior staff and install their own supporters.

The respected scholar Yusuf Bangura wrote in an article a few years ago that “this bifurcation in the party system and voting behavior has led to two relatively antagonistic publics that have the potential to disturb the peace and make it harder to use development agenda”.

The onset of social media has shed light on the bad aspects of the political transition process. Pictures and graphic details of happenings, real time news reporting, social media bloggers and self-styled audio and video gurus on WhatsApp groups spew out venom, with red meat being thrown to their party base.

Whoever is at fault does not really matter. One could argue that the country has never been more divided. Recent happenings bear this out.

Ruling party supporters justify the removal of people from positions even where due process is not observed, because APC did the same.

Parliament is split right down the middle and it seems they move from one crisis to another. The Leader of Government business, recently asserted on radio he would not approve travelling expenses of MPs who were supposed to attend an international Parliamentary conference because APC Parliamentarians walked out when President Bio was delivering his address at the state opening on Parliament.

Each government has started its tenure with Commissions of Inquiry into the financial activities of the previous government, viewed by the opposition as an inquisition bordering on a witch hunt.

The new government would claim it is to ensure accountability.

Even a national event like Independence Day which should be a rallying cause for us as a nation has become divisive. The government insists it does not want to have lavish celebrations in times of dire economic circumstances not of its own making and will only do so when some economic benchmark is met.

Meanwhile the first lady takes up the challenge by having the JMB women’s wing lead a celebration of sorts with their own self-generated funds. This becomes a lightning rod for the opposition who ask, ”Where did she get the money from? Why does an obviously partisan group head the independence celebration? Is this not creating more disunity?”

Civil society, the watchdog also gets divided. Some hitherto prominent vociferous civil society leaders have had their mute buttons permanently pressed. Others who have decided to get vocal about the division get targeted in vitriolic fashion in social media groups. The situation gives credence to the maxim, “He that is not for us is against us.”

Meanwhile the election appeals season rears its ugly head again. The opposition claims the government wants to use the courts to unfairly oust its members from Parliament and replace them with their own party members to tilt the balance in parliament.

Government supporters cite the case of the now famous Lawyer Ansu Lansana who had over 80 percent of the votes in constituency 5 but through a tortured judgment by Justice Showers, who has never explained her logic of justifying why someone with 20% of the votes would be declared a winner without any bye elections.

Poor Ansu Lansana, the SLPP poster boy should be roundly compensated by this government, whose supporters incessantly cite his case. An innocuous position in the IMC is not just compensation for the poster boy who happens to be one of the most brilliant yet unassuming lawyers in this country.

As if the divisions were not enough, the government with Chinese help and self-generated funds builds a bridge in an important area to ease the traffic problems. Good cause?  Yes, but there was one small problem.

The bridge was named the Sengbe Pieh Memorial Bridge. The opposition cries foul as the bridge already has a name. We learn later that the name applies only to half the bridge! Truly gives meaning to the saying “half a bridge is better than none”-or is it “half a loaf”?

I am confused. History buffs go into overdrive to tout the virtues of Sengbe Pieh and Wallace Johnson. I hope they do not fight from beyond the veil! The arguments start getting tribal…. and then the fight started.

I nearly forgot – Bye elections kick in and in Tonko Limba there are accusations of favouritism and outright bending of rules by the NEC commissioner. The APC and NGC call for his scalp. Meanwhile they abstain from all elections until he is removed. He stays solidly in place.

Even elections of Village headmen are now postponed as they are portrayed as being aligned along political party lines, and become prone to violence. Market women are not exempt from the party division syndrome as their heads have to be of the right political stripe for them to be foisted to head their Association.

If Parliamentary, council, village head and even market women’s elections cannot be resolved through people exercising their franchise, without manipulation, rancour or outright violence, where are we heading?

One would have thought that if there is one thing we should all support, it should be education. We all agree that educational standards have dropped. But alas come the exam cheats to engender division.

Cheating students go on the rampage when caught and some get so bold as to go on air (where else but over WhatsApp) and vent their frustrations. One dared ask: “Maada Bio wan tell we say way e bin day Bo school e nor one day spy-small one sef?”

Lord now lettest thy servant depart in peace! How some politically motivated people have turned the table and portrayed the menace by these imbeciles of long standing stupidity as a referendum on the current government’s educational policy, beats my imagination.

As if we haven’t seen enough of political divisions, the Lands Minister decides to bring what he terms “sanity” to the land issue and in real Trumpian fashion, stakes his claim and decides to seize various lands that some long established families claim as theirs over several generations.

What he claims to be a law and order issue actually becomes a law and order issue when the Bar Association claims he is not following due process. Meanwhile aggrieved parties swear to fight the perceived injustice to the bitter end.

The land issue then gets construed/misconstrued as a tribal thing. The Krios are up in arms and threaten fire and brimstone. They meet the Commander in Chief and some truce of sorts is arrived at. We are indeed living in interesting times.

But wait a minute there must be a solution to this incessant division in our country – a National Conference on Peace and reconciliation. In the President’s own words: “In the last ten years, the building blocks of national cohesion and the feeling of belonging of all citizens have gravely crumbled. The recent governance strategy has been characterized by tribalism, divisiveness, exclusion and the weakening and subversion of state governing institutions.” How true.

The Mandate of the Proposed Commission is: “To enhance tolerance, understanding and acceptance of diversity in all aspects of national life, develop procedures and institutions at national level to facilitate dialogue among political parties, communities, organizations and other groups, in order to prevent conflicts and disputes arising, in the future ; receive and consider complaints from the public and to take such action in regard to the complaints as it considers appropriate; Co-ordinate and supervise the work of the Regional and District Peace Councils or Agencies.” What a laudable mandate.

But we will see who will come to the conference and what comes out of it. “Not I” says former VP Sam Sumana, who was slated to chair one of the sessions. “Probably Not us” says APC. Civil society initially speaks from both sides of the mouth but decides to attend as “half a bridge is better than none”.

One however wished we did not have so much division going into such a conference. If some of the findings can already be predicted, the sceptic could argue that whoever is at fault with this incessant national division, shifting positions a little to accommodate and understand the other party will help. No point arguing over who to blame.

The opposition will argue that they are being victimized by the government which is throwing due process out the window to stifle the opposition. The government would argue APC did worse and cite several anomalies during their reign. They would state that the opposition APC, including the Former President do not want to accept that they should allow the legitimate government to govern in an unfettered fashion.

This brings me to the case of Jonah in the Bible who was swallowed by a whale. An avid Sunday school teacher (rumoured to have attended Bo school-certainly not Dr Sama Banya as he is a Methodist Lay Preacher) taught his students that Jonah swallowed the whale.

A bright student in the front told him it was the reverse-the whale swallowed Jonah. The confused teacher still influenced by his heavy Saturday night drinking retorted: “Whether Jonah swallowed the whale or the whale swallowed Jonah is not important. What is important is that some swallowing was done”.

Whether APC is causing the division or SLPP is doing it is not important as we are all being affected.

What is true is that there is some deep division in this country needing serious national reconciliation to make this country cohesive and governable. And the government in power should be in the avant garde of reversing this trend.

National Peace and Reconciliation conference or not, posterity will always ask: “But who was at the helm? What did they do to put out the fire? It behooves the government to be resolute, in spite of any distractions to fix our chronic ethno-regional problems, create a level field in the electoral process and seriously address our constitutional issues.

A report by the Office of National Security a few years ago states thus: “Strong national leadership is predicated on the ability to take decisive action on critical national development issues such as actions that are devoid of political patronage, tribalism, regionalism, and self-aggrandizement.”

The conference is upon us. The Green Paper will ultimately become a White Paper and the Commission will be set up. One only hopes that with such a tenuous and shaky start, the commission will not become a white elephant, which cannot be swallowed even by a whale. And who says we cannot learn from the Jonah story.

Ponder my thoughts.

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