By Andrew Keili
It would seem that the chicken is coming home to roost as ordinary Sierra Leoneans, fearful of the potential chaos that may ensue from the current political divisions in the country, have started speaking up. It is particularly troubling that the division is being played out in the midst of a pandemic, the severity of which none of us has witnessed in our lifetime.
Meanwhile those who have made it a vocation to be the voice of the voiceless have chosen to keep quiet. I am talking in particular about mainstream civil society. CSOs have been very dynamic and advocated for many issues pertinent to our national life especially since the end of the war.
Since the last political dispensation, we have seen CSOs split either along political lines or being cowed into submission by various nefarious means. We have seen how some CSOs became for hire to fight off others. We have witnessed heads of CSOs condemning government just for them to markedly shift their position on issues and be “compensated” with Government appointments even to the extent of becoming Ministers or Heads of MDAs. It is not however merely the venture into politics that is repulsive. It is when they become turncoats and sell out the very ideals on which their organisation was founded as a condition precedent for being “invited” to serve that it becomes repulsive.
We have also witnessed the inaction of many officially sanctioned Government institutions dealing with Human Rights and Good Governance keep quiet when we have a crisis. They often speak from both sides of the mouth.
This brings me to the matter of the recent riot at Pademba Road Correctional Centre. Surely there can be no greater story that this more recently-a story relating to a riot with loss of lives and the alleged threat to the country’s stability that has led to the palpable rise in political animosity between our two existing major political parties. Many supporters are threatening violence on either side and there is a general fear that we may be sliding into chaos.
Both sides in this current conflict which still simmers blame the other. The government’s claim that the APC is bent on destabilising the country, making it ungovernable is a familiar one, as is the current insinuation that the riot at the prisons was politically motivated. The opposition APC’s claim of not being offered political space and of the government carrying on a campaign of calumny to incarcerate important figures and make their party impotent has also been made.
Civil Society and our Governance and Human Rights institutions have remained silent throughout this and other recent conflicts. There are however some institutions, which may also by dint of the individuals heading them, have been bold enough to make pronouncements on the state of affairs.
Basita Michael when head of the Bar Association was bold enough to make the following personal statement at the Peace Commission conference at the Bintumani Conference Centre last year:
“You cannot preach peace and sack people from tenured jobs, you cannot preach peace and impose a speaker on Parliament against the wishes of the majority in parliament. You cannot preach peace and deny access to justice in political cases, including cases brought forward by the Bar Association…..We should not be shackled by the past. Bad stuff by the past administration should not justify bad stuff by the current administration. If we are not careful, we will be in a quagmire of an epic proportion”.
Her insistence in official Bar Association statements on “adherence to the rule of law, respect for the constitution and practising human rights” was mantra for her leadership period at the Bar Association.
Contrast this with the current spate of press releases from the Bar Association – I will leave the ones dealing with the Chief Justice/ Justice Browne Marke saga for later and hone in on the current press release on the Correctional center issue. The press release was so self-serving and concentrated on looking out for the “lawyerly” types:
“Our memories about jail breaks have never been pleasant. Evidence abound that whenever there is such an occurrence, judges, lawyers and judicial support staff are prime targets to criminals and other miscreants. The anarchy that ensues threaten our existence as a nation…… As an association, we breathe a sigh of relief as the incidence of April 29th supra did not degenerate to that level.”
A sigh of relief indeed. Having indicated that the worry was about how our “legal friends” would fare, and congratulated the military, police, correctional officers, Fire force and ONS, the release remembered it should call for a “full, thorough and impartial investigation”.
Perhaps the Bar Association needs to be reminded that there was also loss of life.
Notwithstanding the failings of other oganisations, there are others that have stood up to be counted.
The Renaissance Movement in a press release called for appointing “an independent and impartial panel to conduct thorough and timely investigations into the alleged “prison riots and attempted jailbreak”.
The release further warned the government and other political leaders to be mindful of their obligations:
“The Movement is deeply concerned by the incendiary responses from both the ruling and main opposition parties. We believe their respective releases were premature and likely to ignite tensions at a time when Sierra Leone needs level-headed calmness and a patriotic focus on the bigger COVID-19 fight. We note the arrest and detention of certain high-profile individuals for respective alleged offenses. The Movement reminds the GoSL of its obligation to continue to follow due process, respect press freedom and individual rights, including the rights to freedom of speech and protection from all abuses. The Movement will continue to closely monitor the situation. We ask all leaders and members of political parties and affected persons to remain law-abiding and to avoid any actions or utterances that could undermine our hard-earned peace in Sierra Leone.”
The 50/50 Group also expressed “concern about the recent spate of events, including the death of a number of persons during the Pademba Road disturbances, and in particular, the arrest of a number of high-profile women, including Madam Isata Saccoh, partner of Major (Rtd) Alfred Palo Conteh and Dr. Sylvia Blyden – former Minister of Social Welfare, Gender and Children Affairs.”
The release went on:
“At present, the reasons for these arrests have not been made clear….The arrests, and attendant speculation, accusations and counter accusations are taking attention away from this common enemy and undermining our fight against this disease.”
Then came warnings about COVID and advice to political parties and their supporters:
“We wish to remind all those responsible for their wellbeing to ensure that they are treated fairly, that their rights are not violated and that COVID-19 safety protocols are observed to safeguard their health….Finally, we urge the two main political parties to set aside partisanship and to refocus the attention back to our common battle against COVID-19.We also call on party supporters to refrain from using social media to incite and sow division. We call on party leaders to present a unified front, and to work together to eradicate a disease that has already claimed eight lives.”
Other political parties like the NGC and Unity Party have issued out similar press releases and had their leaders speak out on the need for cessation of these hostilities and for impartial investigations.
It is clear that CSOs are failing us by keeping quiet. The question of “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”-“Who will guard the guards themselves?” becomes more pertinent now than ever before.
But do not despair! There is hope! The “mumus” have started speaking. I have seen comments from Sierra Leoneans who have hitherto chosen to keep quiet. Now they are identifying themselves openly and speaking up. One friend of mine chose to come out of “mumu mode” and wrote on Facebook about the incident and inflammatory audios on social media by party supporters:
“Personally I don’t think we should be sharing these audios and write up, for the simple reason that it creates tension and also helps spark up fire. Make we try lek we sef en wok together. When dem foreigner turn back dem go meet different Salone en Sierra Leoneans. My two cents……Today people are concerned because Covid has become secondary and politics is our focus. Don’t you think we should all be embracing the fight against the spread of Covid as a nation?”
The tendency in this country to portray anyone who dares criticize government as a pro-opposition operative and pro-government supporter is not a new one and must be resisted if we are to develop as a nation. Criticism from certain quarters, if genuine can sometimes help keep the government on its toes to achieve great things. I encourage all “mumus” to speak up. Rise up, O men (and women) of courage! Speak up! Silence is not golden!
Edmund Burke has been quoted as noting: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” This country should not be left to the whims of political combatants alone. The “mumus” should start speaking up.
Ponder my thoughts.