Salone News

A Sign Of Things to Come

22 November 2005 at 20:04 | 523 views

By Zubairu Wai

I was on the phone, frantically trying to get hold of anyone I could lay my hands on: old friends, acquaintances, or family living in Bo, the Southern Sierra Leone city where I grew up.

I had just received troubling reports that there was rioting in the city and that the police was using teargas and shooting live bullets in the air to disperse thousands of supporters of Charles Margai, the leader of the yet unregistered Peoples’ Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC). There had been a stand-off on Friday 18th November between Mr. Margai’s PMDC supporters, who had come to Christ the King College (CKC) to see him, and the entourage of the vice president, Solomon Berewa, leader and presidential candidate of the ruling SLPP. Both men were in the city to attend CKC’s (my former school and the alma mater of both men) annual speech day and prize giving ceremony at the school’s compound. The crowd, according to eye-witness accounts had subjected the Vice president to a long and sustained booing. Reports say that Mr. Margai who was there, quickly left the scene in order to prevent a show down. However, the vice president, felt insulted and humiliated by the booing and blamed Mr. Margai for it.

Rumours then quickly spread throughout the city Friday evening that Mr. Margai was going to be arrested on the orders of the Vice President because of what had happened. Things got to a head Saturday 19th November when the police attempted to arrest Mr. Margai for what they termed unlawful assemblage and disorderly behaviour, a situation which further infuriated his supporters who had gathered to prevent such an arrest from taking place. To diffuse the situation, Mr. Margai voluntarily gave himself up to the police, while at the same time questioning the rationale for his arrest and seeking an explanation from the head of police for such an action. The Local Unit Commander (LUC) of Bo, Karrow Kamara, reportedly told Mr. Margai that he was acting on “orders from above,” a claim that has been confirmed by the Inspector General of Police, Mr. Brima Acha Kamara, who claims to have given such orders. As the news of Mr. Margai’s arrest spread throughout the city, crowds of his supporters started gathering to storm the police station in order to secure his release, hence the clash between them and the police. A number of people were injured and arrests were made. To diffuse the situation, Mr. Margai was quickly released but not before he had been charged with unlawful assemblage, public misconduct and disorderly behaviour. This allowed him to calm his supporters by addressing them on Kiss 104 FM in Bo before heading to Freetown.

What is the significance of this event? How do we interpret it and which lessons do we learn from it? Surely depending on one’s political sympathies, such an event is capable of producing radically different interpretations. For example, Mr. Margai and his supporters have claimed that this was a carefully orchestrated ploy intended to get him arrested, jailed and prevented from registering his party. For him, it is all about the fear of the ruling party of his popularity and the threat that his movement is perceived to pose to the SLPP. On the government’s side, as articulated by the Inspector General of Police, the only senior government official to have made any statement about what happened in Bo so far, the stand-off developed because of Mr. Margai’s intransigence and ’hatred’ (such a strong word) for the Vice president and his intentions of embarrassing and humiliating him in Bo. In an interview with Awareness Times, the IG claims that Mr. Margai’s “men surrounded the Vice President’s convoy, ambushed it to a halt and then proceeded to hurl stones, broken bottles and other missiles at the vehicles in the convoy.” Asked why the police couldn’t do anything about it initially, he maintained that “The policemen in the convoy were outnumbered and taken by surprise and because school children were around, they minimised their reaction to the challenge by concentrating on protecting the VP and the dignitaries until reinforcement could come in and free the Vice President.”

These two versions of what happened definitely make interesting contrasts and leave many questions unanswered than provide answers. For example, in insisting that it was a stage-managed situation, Mr. Margai, for example fails to provide an explanation as to why the booing of the VP took place in the first place. Was the booing in response to something he, the VP, members of his entourage or the police might have done or said? Did the VP know that Mr. Margai would be at CKC at that very moment and plan to arrive there just so that there would be a standoff for which the latter would be blamed? Was the booing provoked or was it a spontaneous reaction by a people who clearly do not like Solomon Berewa? These questions keep coming to my mind as I reflect on this issue. Similarly, by blaming Mr. Margai for what happened, is the IG suggesting that Mr. Margai instigated his supporters to humiliate the VP and disrupt an on-going prize giving ceremony that Mr. Margai had come to Bo to attend as Keynote Speaker? This is very unlikely given Mr. Margai’s love for CKC and his long relationship with the school. But assuming the answer is yes, are there conclusive proofs to back up the IG’s claims? If no, would it mean that the IG is trying to hold an innocent man responsible for a crowd action, that he didn’t have either prior knowledge of, or have control over? The IG’s claims are very disturbing when one considers for instance that it was the same line of logic that was used to fraudulently convict and wrongfully execute Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria in 1995. The real reason why Ken Wiwa was convicted and executed was because he was the face of the Ogoni movement, and the Abacha regime felt threatened by his politics. By accusing Mr. Margai of being directly responsible for what happened in Bo, isn’t the IG, taking sides, without fully establishing the facts of what happened and also isn’t he implying that Mr. Margai instigated his followers and therefore he should be jailed? (In this case unlike that of Ken Wiwa, the crime that Mr. Margai has been charged with does not carry the capital punishment, though, if a crooked system wants to commit a travesty of justice, the act of “attacking” the VP as the IG puts it, could be interpreted as treason, which carries the death penalty in Sierra Leone).

And since there is no conclusive evidence yet of Mr. Margai’s direct orchestration, or instigation of the stand-off, could he be right in claiming that the entire situation was actually staged -managed in order to trap him? My intention in asking these questions is not to decide which version of the event is correct or who is right or wrong but to point out how fluid the situation is and how it could be manipulated by either side to their advantage. What I seek to do in this analysis is to understand the overall implications that the event holds, with regards to the 2007 elections, for both Sierra Leone as a country in general, and the SLPP, as a party and government in particular.

Bo has always been an opinion leader in Sierra Leone. Politically, they have been very steadfast and have never been half-hearted about anything they do: they are either for something or against it; and in either way, it has always been with a passion. Bo is not only fearless; it is also very stubborn and very difficult to appease or pacify. For this reason, Siaka Stevens used to refer to it as Katanga (in apparent reference and comparison to Katanga - Shabba Province - in the former Zaire, now the D. R. Congo). True, Sierra Leone did become a one party state in 1978, and like everywhere else, Bo became APC too, but throughout the period of its reign, the APC never really felt comfortable in Bo. It had to take a period of sustained reprisals, intimidations and violence against the inhabitants of the city, before they could even be tenuously pacified. For example, the 1977 elections were very violent in Bo simply because of the city’s opposition to the APC’s plans to impose a one party system.

Similarly, Bo was among the very first cities to call for the restoration of the multi party system in Sierra Leone in 1990. I still remember Musa Gendemeh’s threats to the people of Bo just when the demands for multi-partism started in 1990. At the Bo Town Hall, Gendemeh vowed to kill anybody who talked about multi-party politics in Sierra Leone. I was in school at CKC back then. One would have expected that such threats would be taken seriously given the APC’s history of violence, and that the people would have been cowed into submission. It didn’t. Instead, Gendemeh’s threats just attracted contempt and defiance and further emboldened the people in their demand for multi-party system. On my way to school the following day after the Gendemeh meeting, there were SLPP posters posted everywhere in the city, including even at the police station and at the APC party office. This was clearly in defiance of Gendemeh and the APC! Similarly, Bo largely remained insulated from rebel attacks throughout the period of the civil war and had it not been for the AFRC who invited the RUF to town, no rebels would have ever made it to Bo. In 1994 for instance, an RUF attack was repelled by the residents of the city with stones, clubs, sticks, machetes etc. They literally chased the rebels out of town simply because of their opposition to the RUF’s methods, politics and ideology. This is the Bo that I remember growing up in.

There is also another character of Bo that needs to be stated here. It has always been a traditional stronghold of the SLPP. When in 1995 Charles Margai decided to leave the SLPP for the NUP (National Unity Party) for example, the people of Bo told him categorically that they wouldn’t support him and they didn’t. In fact, Mr. Margai on several occasions was ridiculed and sometimes even booed whenever he tried to campaign for the NUP in Bo. The people were mad at him for leaving the SLPP. NUP was ridiculed in Bo as Nuu Wuu Pee (roughly translated as “throw people’s head away”). This was in apparent reference to the suspected relationship between the NPRC (NUP was its party) and the notorious RUF. At the elections, NUP performed dismally in Bo. In fact the people of Bo so overwhelmingly voted for the SLPP in that election that, as wrong as it was, it bothered on fraud and vote rigging, to the point that James Jonah, the Chief Electoral Commissioner then, to appease John Karefa-Smart, subtracted about seventy thousand of the votes cast for the SLPP. This is the Bo that I know and it is this character of steadfastness that perhaps sets it apart from every other major city in Sierra Leone.

That this city, the traditional stronghold of the SLPP, could behave the way they did to the vice president of an SLPP administration and one who also happens to be the leader of the SLPP and their flag bearer in the 2007 elections at the same time, definitely does point to bigger problems for the SLPP than is usually admitted or acknowledged. Bo has never been two-faced and what happened over the weekend was not an isolated incident involving a few Margai supporters. The crowds were huge, measured in thousands. Everybody I have managed to contact in Bo so far tells me that the incident represents the mood of the people in the city generally. VP Berewa, they say, is not welcome in Bo, and it was a clear message they were sending to him. Everywhere in Bo people were jubilating that they dealt a severe blow to the ego of both Solomon Berewa and the SLPP. The BBC stringer in the city, Richard Margao reported that SLPP officials were even prevented from entering their party offices in Bo. Though this is a disturbing development, it is definitely unheard of in the history of the SLPP in Bo, and this is why the incident represents far more than what meets the ordinary eye.

When in early October I wrote my personal reflections on what I thought was happening in Sierra Leone, shortly after I returned from Freetown, a certain Gbondima Gbondo, who works for the SLPP newspaper Unity, accused me of ignorance and of making fictitious claims about the popularity of Charles Margai. Apart from trying to defend the defenceless and despicable acts of looting taking place in Sierra Leone, and the decadence in the country under SLPP stewardship, he also denied that there was widespread dissatisfaction with what happened in Makeni at the SLPP convention.

In that piece, I just wrote what I observed and what people had told me, concluding with my personal thoughts. I wasn’t embellishing, neither was I exaggerating. I tried to be as objective as possible, focusing on the interests of Sierra Leone in general. It has only been a little over 6 weeks since I wrote that piece and we have started seeing the implications of my analysis. Most analysts, who have dealt with the 2007 elections, seem to be concluding that despite the splits in its ranks, the SLPP will likely emerge victorious in the elections. Whatever reasons lead to such conclusions, I cannot say, but I doubt whether that is not giving too much credit to the SLPP or downplaying the extent of the dissatisfaction with its rule and especially with people’s dislike for VP Berewa. What happened in Bo just demonstrates how the people feel about VP Berewa and the SLPP.

The party is no longer ‘untouchable’ even in its traditional strongholds and that is what Bo demonstrated. And it could just be the beginning of what is really to come. The South and the East, (except perhaps for Kono) have never really been divided or equivocal in their support for the SLPP. That it has happened in Bo means that it would happen elsewhere, and this is not wishful thinking. Anybody vaguely familiar with events in Sierra Leone knows that when Bo sneezes, the rest of Southern and Eastern and perhaps the whole of Sierra Leone catch the flu. The feeling in most places in the South and East of the country is one of betrayal. The Kamajoh (Hinga Norman, of Alieu Kondewa and of Moinina Fofanah) factor is definitely a very huge factor in the forthcoming elections, and no matter how hard one tries to deny it, these issues would affect the performance of the SLPP in its traditional strongholds in the forthcoming elections. VP Berewa is the person accused (rightfully or wrongfully, I don’t know) of responsibility for the incarceration of the Kamajoh leadership and he, as leader and presidential candidate of the SLPP, will have to pay for it.

But the incident in Bo is important for another reason. It points to the cloud of violence hanging over the 2007 elections. Historically, every year ending with 7 in post-independence Sierra Leone has been accompanied by political crisis: 1967 was the year of the first military intervention; ’77, nation-wide protests led by students against the APC; ’87, the GMT Kaikai failed coup attempt and the reprisals that followed; ’97 the AFRC/RUF violent usurpation of power; 2007 ...? Given this history and the fact that we just emerged from a very brutal civil conflict, our politicians should be very mindful of their actions and the implications it could hold for the stability of the country. They should be careful not to provoke any situation that might lead to violence and shatter the fragile peace we have in the country. Unlike previously, we now have lots of people in our midst with experience in using firearms; with experience in taking other people’s lives; with experience in a wide range of violent acts and atrocities: ex-rebels, ex-sobels, ex-military, and to some extent the ex-Kamajoh etc. The situation therefore in Sierra Leone is very delicate and this is why what happened in Bo is important and holds far reaching implications for the future stability of the country.

In conclusion, let me say that Bo has demonstrated that any attempt at imposing an unpopular person on the people, through fraudulent means would prove counter-productive: it would be resisted and the end product may be ugly. Every political party and politician eyeing the 2007 elections therefore should realise that the country’s interest should be paramount and that should be placed ahead of any parochial narrow self-interest. People should be allowed to decide who should govern them. It is only by this means that we could avoid making 2007 another year ending in 7 accompanied by political crisis.

Photo: Wai