Fatima Bio, Interview Video & Complex Stereo: On Her Public Service

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First Lady of Sierra Leone, Madam Fatima Maada Bio

By Paul A. Conteh – Octopussian Corner

Over the weekend, the topic – Fatima Bio was trending on several public places and social media spaces. This latest episode came as a result of an interview she granted to renowned Gambian journalist, Omar Wally, on her recent stop in the smiling coast. The Sierra Leonean First Lady was in the country as special guest for the inaugural Heroes Awards.

This is the Gambian version of the AWOL Awards. Even though the interview latest for forty (40) minutes, nearly nine (9) minutes extract of the interview was shared widely around the country. The content of that extract has placed the First Lady in a difficult position – which has made it challenging for people to know the interview itself stretched beyond what was shared – and it was not all wrong.

The interview started with the First Lady providing clarity on her second marriage to President Julius Maada Bio. Later, Omar asked her about her coming to The Gambia for the Heroes Award. In her response, the former actress showered praises for the organizers of the event. She went on to further salute them for recognizing the contribution of Gambians in all aspects of life. As the interview progressed, Madam Fatima talked about the ‘Hands Off Our Girls’ campaign. She brilliantly tagged her recent sanitary pad drive in the conversation. She disclosed that her goal is to serve six hundred and thirty thousand (630,000) girls. But as things stand, her pilot phase will target thirty-five thousand (35,000) girls in Sierra Leone. The first lady spoke on women in development, early child marriage and the rape menace confronting women in Sierra Leone.

It was towards the mid part of the interview things got heated. Mr. Wally tried to connect the marriage ceremony of the Bios with the discomfort it caused for ordinary Sierra Leoneans. In her response, Fatima Bio lost it. She became defensive. And made controversial comments. This is the recent backdrop from a string of communication errors the First Lady has made. This further ignites a pattern of behaviour that is becoming a part of her identity.

Here are a few random thoughts from that entire episode:

First, there is a danger in a single story. Intellectuals and patriotic pundits should try to do their research before they take a position on trending topics. To be fair with the First Lady, her interview was not all wrong. The initial phase was a show of class, composure and competence. She articulated the initiatives and ideas she is working on. In that aspect, she carried herself as the true emblem of the artist people know her to be. Even though there were over thirty (30) minutes of information from that interview, the public only saw nine (9) minutes. Those nine (9) minutes are what has placed her in a difficult position.

Secondly, Madam Fatima Bio needs to have a communications team around her. A team that can help her get adjusted to this reality as First Lady of Sierra Leone. This is the latest in a string of communication blunders she has made. Just after the Presidential Inauguration Ceremony 2018, Mrs. Bio took to social media to register her dissatisfaction for the criticisms she received as lead planner for that event; she made a disturbing video during last year’s Holy Month of Ramadan; She occupied a controversial position on FGM at an interview with a foreign media outlet and she does Facebook Live on her page at events (which is something her team can help her do). Mrs. Bio is not an ordinary person.

She is married to the President of Sierra Leone. Her communication utterances matter to the citizens of the country. The communications apparatus around her can help navigate her emotional reaction to issues of national discourse. As you observed, she became defensive when the hard topic of her second marriage was shoved down her throat. In the process, she made controversial statements that might dent the political perception of her and her husband, especially to the people of Bo – which happen to be a strong base for the political party in power. On this point, a good communication team would have prepared her mentally on what to expect and how to remain calm during crucial questions.

Thirdly, the position of Madam Fatima Bio in the public policy space should be clarified by President Bio. The Office of the First Lady is ceremonial. It is not constitutionally empowered. The First Lady is a mere supportive partner to the President. The blunder started when President Bio made her head of the inauguration ceremony. President Bio did more damage by including her as a delegate for his first United Nations General Assembly in New York. From then on, she is confused about her actual place in the public policy sphere. Constitutionally, she is not in a position to provide clarity for Mr. Wally and viewers on the energy and economic situation of the country.

The professionals in those positions are the ones mandated to speak on them. Her knowledge base should be limited to the span of ideas and initiatives in her office. Due to the confused state of her position in public policy space, when her issues were connected to the public interest, she showed arrogance in her defence. If her position was clarified, she would not have fallen to the bait from Mr. Wally.

Finally, journalists should know when and how to approach sensitive topics. One school of thought might argue that Mr. Wally was only doing his job. But his questions have elements of toxic masculinity, bigotry and pettiness. This partially gave rise to the xenophobia that was unleashed by several commenters, as the interview was aired live on The Fatu Network Facebook page. Mr. Wally showed toxic masculinity by accusing the First Lady of ignoring the plight of men in the conversation around women empowerment. His bigotry was brought into focus when he mentioned Fatima, a Muslim, marrying Mr. Julius Maada Bio, a Catholic practising Christian.

In this sort of conversations, the journalist should have factored the context. It is no secret; women tend to be the ones left out of mainstream development programs. And for Fatima Bio, as First Lady, she is playing her part in changing that trajectory. Her approach might not be perfect, but she is showing some intention to put girls at the centre of her work. In the process, she has brought the male counterparts in the picture. In her campaigns, she encourages everyone to come, join the bandwagon.

Her marriage to Julius Maada Bio is based on LOVE. I do not think it was fair on the First Lady for Omar to factor religion. Even on religion, Sierra Leone has enjoyed a great deal of religious tolerance. Christians and Muslims have co-existed in peace for donkey years. There is nothing as beautiful as seeing the First Family demonstrate this positive pattern from a country known for negative news. The pettiness by Omar Wally contributed to making Madam Fatima Bio appear awkward in the interview.

Closing Statements:

People have the right to be disturbed with the statements of Fatima Bio. Some of her utterances were confusing, complicated and controversial. But the interview was not all bad. The First Lady needs to help herself by having a great communications team and knowing her place in the public policy sphere. Also, she might consider taking emotional and anger management classes. She is a reactionary figure when her emotions tend to be tested. Journalists need to consider weaving their questions towards context. It helps save the social cohesion paradigm of society.

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