Letter to editor

A Reaction to Mohamed Konneh’s Article on Berewa

10 October 2006 at 19:53 | 744 views

Dear Editor,

Conventional wisdom dictates that public figures should not respond to personal attacks in the media masquerading as serious journalism. As the thinking goes, any direct response ultimately gives undeserved attention to what, at the end of the day, will likely be recognized for what it is - journalistic bias, at best, and outright fabrication, at worst.

However, as anyone who is familiar with the tragic life of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, would agree, one cannot underestimate the power (and aggression) of the print media when it comes to influencing public opinion about national figures, particularly those in the political class. Much like the unscrupulous pamphleteers that vilified Marie Antoinette to no end in the 1700s, a contemptuous and accusatory cadre has arisen in the modern-day media that has no qualms about distorting facts to discredit politicians or institutions it has decided to “go after”.

This brings me to the article by Mohamed Konneh (“Solo B in New York”, September 26), which discusses Vice President Solomon E. Berewa’s appearance at a Sierra Leonean-hosted event during his recent trip to New York to address the United Nations. While I am loath to respond to what I suspect some of your other readers also recognize as an obvious attempt to disparage Solomon Berewa and his presidential aspirations, Mr. Konneh’s essay is replete with absurd assertions that cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. However, because time and space will not permit me to address each and every one of those assertions I will focus on the fundamental problem with the essay: not only is the essay disingenuous, its principal arguments are flawed.

Broadly speaking, Mr. Konneh advances two main arguments - that Mr. Berewa does not deserve to be the SLPP presidential nominee for the 2007 presidential election, and that he is a less formidable candidate than his two presumed opponents in that election. But rather than providing credible evidence for these bold claims, Mr. Konneh merely strings together a series of generally incoherent sentences, punctuated by often contradictory conclusions. For example, in a painfully tortured explanation (over 200 words by my unofficial count) as to why he did not find Mr. Berewa, in his words, to be “competitively presentable” or “personally appealing ... publicly” (whatever that means), Mr. Konneh declares that the Vice President was “low-key and dignitarily under dressed [sic] when he attended the event in New York; however, nary a word is said about what the Vice President actually did wear. It is easy to understand why. From reading Konneh’s account you would think the Vice President sauntered into the auditorium in a pair of jeans or his bedroom slippers. Hardly; By remaining silent on the issue, Mr. Konneh conveniently sidesteps any talk about what Mr. Berewa did wear, thereby avoiding the irrefutable counterpoint by anyone (like myself) who attended the event, that Mr. Berewa was indeed more than appropriately dressed.

And if anyone at this point still harbors any doubts that Mr. Konneh has failed the sincerity test (and, for that matter, the logic test) in his unashamededly crude critique of Mr. Berewa’s appearance, I suggest that close attention be paid to Konneh’s final sentence on the topic, where he states glibly “I just wished my VP was more personally imposing without being impressive”. Leaving aside the seeming self-contradiction of that bizarre statement, I would be hard-pressed to imagine a clearer example of pure sophistry.

Remarkably, Konneh’s chicanery does not end there. In a muddled argument that is as subtle as a triple shot of espresso, Mr. Konneh engages in some fierce verbal acrobatics in an attempt to belittle the remarks made by Mr. Berewa at the New York event. Don’t get me wrong. Public figures and the statements they make are, and should be, subject to criticism - even more so than private citizens - but they are also entitled to fair, if critical, treatment. And this is where Mr. Konneh goes all wrong and is betrayed by his feeble diatribe.

Mr. Konneh begins his assault by declaring “oratorical excellence” to be “the basic ingredient of every politician (I always thought it was a combination of gravitas, competence and integrity.), leaving it to the readers to determine what exactly he meant by that. And the little help we do get from Konneh, as he harps on about “speakers with heavy voices ... being verbally convincing”, only confirms what the readers probably know already: it is no accident that Konneh seems to confuse style with substance.

Then, in a display of unadulterated hubris, given the poor quality of his own essay, Konneh goes on to say that the Vice President’s remarks were “neither articulate nor coherent politically. He bounced around from one topic to another.” (Ironic how that sort of describes Konneh’s own essay.) In any event, Konneh’s claim could not be any further from the truth. From my vantage point in the auditorium, the Vice President delivered with effortless ease a wide-ranging, off-the-cuff speech that touched on most, if not all, of the burning issues for Sierra Leoneans in the Diaspora; and as far as I can recall, the Vice President did not as much as stumble; not even once.

I can assure you, having listened to a great number of political speeches, that sort of effort would have sapped the energy of a much younger man, and certainly that of Mr. Berewa’s presumed opponents in 2007. Perhaps, this fact may have somehow escaped Mr. Konneh’s attention: as most people know, Mr. Berewa had been one of the country’s most successful lawyers before he started his political career; someone who obviously had mastered his brief then, and has done so in this, his latest challenge, judging by the facility with which he was able to address all the major issues relevant to Sierra Leoneans today, while putting across a vision that will serve as a foundation for future policy.

Then finally, for his magnum opus, and I suppose what would pass for an attempt at objective criticism of Mr. Berewa’s speech, Mr. Konneh complains of “distortions ... about things the SLPP has done and intend to do”. As he puts it, “there was more of what the SLPP ‘hope’ to do than what the SLPP ‘has’ done in [Berewa’s] speech”. And the smoking gun for this stinging indictment? According to Mr. Konneh (wait for the drum roll!):

“I was especially discouraged when [Berewa] said there is money only ‘now waiting’ to do the Masiaka to Bo Road. I thought to myself that, if in the year 2006 all the SLPP has done about the Bo Road (hence the Kenema Road as well), is that money is only lying in wait to be done, then God have mercy on that road artery in that country. Wouldn’t we all agree that there is more industrial, agricultural and commercial traffic on the Freetown to Kenema Road than any other road in that country? Someone please provide a contradicting statistic to that assertion because I am not absolute about that statement”.

Well, if this delectable gem is the best argument Mr. Konneh can offer against Mr. Berewa’s speech, he would do well to steer clear of providing political commentary in the future. Failing that, I would suggest he immediately work on enhancing his sketchy understanding of policy and project implementation by familiarizing himself with words like “feasibility studies”, “earmark”, “pipeline” and “commence”. In any case, in the speech that I heard, Mr. Berewa clearly articulated where Sierra Leone has been in the past (including the mistakes we have made), where we are today and where we are headed, under the leadership of the SLPP. This sober assessment echoes the speech that the Vice President delivered at the 61st session of the UN General Assembly the following day, as he discussed the challenges faced by our nation, noting that, “ [w]e must rectify accumulated errors of past policies, we must repair the damages and ... chart an appropriate path as we pursue the longer-term agenda for sustainable development”.

Thankfully, from what I have gathered, Mr. Berewa has an instinctive understanding of the awesome responsibilities thrust upon the leadership of our nation at this critical juncture, and is not, as Mr. Konneh appears to be, fixated on appearance. As a crucial member of the current administration and a presidential aspirant, clearly Mr. Berewa recognizes that the challenges that he outlined at the UN and at various other fora in New York require well-defined policies, not sound bites or photo ops. Again, don’t get me wrong; I am not suggesting that spin and image play no part in politics; they often do, but they only matter when there is no substance. Fortunately for him, from what I have observed, that is not a dilemma Solomon Berewa has to contend with.

Moreover, and perhaps, most importantly, unlike Mr. Konneh, Mr. Berewa has, in my mind, demonstrated his awareness of the increasing sophistication of the electorate in Sierra Leone. As he implicitly is aware, gone are the days when politicians that Mr. Konneh surely would describe as charismatic or, in his words, “personally imposing ... publicly”, merely turned up in their constituencies as elections approached, and expected to be elected. Tellingly, Mr Konneh concludes by saying that, “[i]f the elections were based largely on the performance of the candidates alone [and I am certain you know what type of performance Konneh is talking about], Berewa occupies, in my view, the third place of the three candidates”. Fortunately for us, the electorate know the difference between competence on the one hand, and image, on the other. I strongly believe that the electorate would agree with me when I say this: Based on my objective comparison of the presumed candidates for the presidency, I would rather have a Solomon Berewa as my leader than a Laurence Olivier. After all, what I want in a leader is someone who can get things done, not someone who can look the part or read a script.

Ishmael Taylor-Kamara
New York, New York
Ishmael Taylor-Kamara is Secretary General of Concerned Sierra Leoneans in North America, a New York-based Diapora pro-democracy organization.

Photo: Vice President Solomon Berewa

Editor’s Note: Mohamed Konneh is not a member of the Patriotic Vanguard’s editorial team. He is a member of the public who was just expressing his opinions/observations.