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Blockbuster: Zainab Bangura Breaks Silence.

20 September 2005 at 13:04 | 632 views

This interview was first published in September 2005.We are re-publishing it to remind readers of the views and thought processes of Sierra Leone’s new Foreign Minister:

To most Sierra Leoneans, the individual known as Zainab Hawa Bangura hardly needs an introduction. As one of the foremost Sierra Leonean civil society and human rights activists of her generation, she has played a significant role in laying the foundations for the country’s present shaky but developing democracy.She was one of the female activists who joined their male counterparts in 1996 to force the recalcitrant Brigadier Maada Bio-led NPRC military junta to organize the elections that ushered in the Kabbah administration. As coordinator of the Campaign for Good Governance, she led one of the most vibrant civil society outfits in the country. She is currently Executive Director of the National Accountability Group (NAG) of Sierra Leone. In this marathon interview with Gibril Koroma, editor of The Patriotic Vanguard, Zainab dissects, with a razor-sharp mind, the numerous problems facing Sierra Leone from politics to the economy, human rights, corruption,FGM, and so on.This is vintage Zainab. Excerpts:

The Patriotic Vanguard: Why NAG? What motivated you to establish this organization?

Zainab Bangura:There is no civil society group or NGO working on issues of transparency, accountability and corruption exclusively in Sierra Leone. So there was an absolute need to set up an organization like NAG, especially when one takes into consideration that corruption was one of the causes of the war and that it has taken firm grip during the post- war reconstruction of Sierra Leone.

The motivation comes from realizing that the issue of corruption has to be addressed in Sierra Leone. Corruption is the underlying cause for most of our problems including poverty, misallocation and mismanagement of scare state resources, ineffective government regulations and our inability to attract serious foreign investment, and serious human rights violations.

While Coordinator for Campaign for Good Governance, I was also Sierra Leone’s contact person for Transparency International for a number of years. Unfortunately, CGG was not able to focus much attention on the issues of corruption, because it was overstretched and our focus was more on human rights. So even before I left CGG I initiated the formation of NAG, but was not able to be there when it was formally launched. I was only asked to take over when the chair was not willing and able to fulfill the main objectives. By this time the resources Transparency International had allocated to its operating budget was lost forcing me to begin fund-raising based on my old donor networks.

My long term vision for CGG was to extract human rights and corruption and facilitate the formation of specialized organizations that would focus on these two issues exclusively. Thereby, allowing CGG to transform itself into a think tank. I had also begun discussion with groups in Nigeria and Ghana to help us. I decided that once the grant cycle finished we would start on a different level, change the mission statement and objectives to reflect this new direction. Our field offices would be encouraged to become independent district offices and to maintain a partnership relationship with CGG. Within a period of one to two years twelve new NGOs would have emerged across the country, independently run by our former field monitors. Our responsibility would be limited to training and institutional building and fund-raising assistance. On occasion we would help secure their accounting books.

TPV: Since the restoration of the Kabbah government, civil society in the country,in our opinion, seems to have gone to sleep. Any comments on this?

ZB: I do not think it is right to say civil society has gone to sleep. I just think most people are failing to realize that every stage of a country’s development requires different level of skills to further the process. Sierra Leone in 2004-5 requires a new civil society. During the war, we needed vocal constituency-based organizations that could easily mobilize their members on to the street. That period is over now. As we move from war to peace, we need more specialized and professional groups to deal with the more substantive issues and capacity in policy formulation and analysis. This was reflected in the Local Government Act 2004 when it institutionalized the concept of transparency, accountability and participation. The Act envisages an active civil society that can input into policy formulation and monitoring of service delivery. Civil society therefore needs to be able to come up with alternative policies than just those suggested by the government in position. This is the new reality.

Unfortunately, in present-day Sierra Leone, there are few such groups who do this kind of work. Professional groups like the Bar Association, Medical and Dental Association, Accounting Institute and the Universities etc, should have taken the lead and played a prominent role in the development of Sierra Leone, but to date have taken a back seat. You only need to go into the internet these days to see the many journals, analysis documents and research materials that are written and produced on a weekly basis by Nigerian, Ghanaian and South African research centers and policy institutions on the environment, governance, the economy as well as many other sectors. Sierra Leone has not been able to benefit from this type of work. Most of our professional groups and university Departments which could really have done this kind of work have chosen not to. They have never been really involved in governance issues. Most of them believe these issues are too political.

Secondly, we do not really have think tanks, research institutes or policy centers that produce constructive analytical work. There is a serious lack of capacity within the country to produce such research or critical analyses. It is an indication of the failure of our educational system and a reflection of the failure of our University system.

Sierra Leone will never make a major economic or development break through without its professional and educational class providing the lead in policy direction. It just cannot be done. Countries like Singapore, Malaysia and most of the Asian Tiger countries successfully transformed their countries, by investing heavily in developing the educational skills of the population. There are very few good NGOs and civil society organizations that even understand the issues, and they are overstretched. They work in doing a bit of everything resulting in their inability inability to do anything well.

Again, if we take for example the labour movement in Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, the leaderships are mostly professional people like lawyers, master’s degree holders or very good first degree holders. Sierra Leone has not been able to benefit from both the repository of knowledge that civil society brings into the overall governance of a country as well as the ability to monitor government using their wide and diverse networks and skills. The people who claim to be the core of the activist civil society just do not have the capacity to do what is required of them and those who have the knowledge and skills are just not interested.

Post-war Sierra Leone needs a different level of civil society. Let us take for example when the PRSP was being prepared and discussed by government. I was expecting the civil society to 1) organize itself and its members or constituencies on thematic issues like health, education, agriculture, 2) conduct and develop research papers, and 3) provide alternative assessment on what needs to be done to reduce poverty. But this was not done. The Medical and Dental Association never met to make a contribution on the health sector. What about the Universities and the SLTU? Did they work together to contribute on the education sector? What was the role of the Farmers Associations other than being consulted at workshops and conferences and fighting to provide farmers with seeds and tools? Have they ever undertaken any research studies to explain why our farmers are so poor? Do they even realize that NEPAD has a comprehensive agriculture policy for Africa or if it fits , how that fit into our national agenda does? If not, how can we link the two? When parliament enacts laws have we ever heard from the Bar Association to give us an alternative view of these laws and the implications they will have on the country? A few of these laws, like the Local Government and the Anti-Corruptions Acts, are now being seriously reviewed because we have all come to realize, at this late stage of implementation that few things were left out and these have affected the realities on the ground.

Finally, we all know that the 1991 constitution was seriously watered down by President Momoh and his government. In addition, it was not well and genuinely debated as the country was still under a one-party political system. In the circumstances there is an absolute need to review it now that we have real opposition parties, a viable civil society, so many independent newspapers, and a lot of community radio stations right across the country. What has the Bar Association done about it? Have they ever challenged any of the controversial issues in the constitution?

When South Africa was being transformed from an Apartheid society to a multi- party democratic society, they wrote a transitional constitution to see them through the transitional period. After the first multi- party elections and people had regained their self -confidence and were in a better position to talk, the Constitution was reviewed and a more progressive document has been developed. Today South Africa has one of the best Constitutions in the world.

We had a wonderful opportunity to take a second look at our constitution during the peace process with the establishment of a constitutional review committee as part of the implementation of the Lome Peace Agreement. What happened to the Review Committee? It was established with a Chairman, Dr Bubuakai Jabbie and members from all walks of life. They met on a few occasions and then it died a natural death. Nobody has asked about it since then. Not civil society, not the opposition and not especially the Bar Association. In the government’s eyes it had served its function by being established and that was all that needed to happen. When CGG wanted to raise money through the Ford Foundation to fund the process, we were turned down, because the government was not interested. They had more serious things to do. Constitutional review was the least of their priorities.

I am sure most people will agree with me that our constitution is still a transitional constitution. It needs to be looked at in line with the new realities on the ground. We have opposition parties, no matter how weak. They are there. We have active and participating civil society groups. We have a very vocal media, both print and electronic. People are now in a better position to effectively and genuinely participate in any constitutional debate and to contribute, lobby, and negotiate for their group’s interest. Journalists can fight for an entrenched access to information as part of a broader bill of rights section, to protect their right to expression. Women’s groups can fight to make sure the rights they have acquired at the regional and international level are guaranteed at the national level and the harmonization of traditional, cultural and religious rights with modern democratic rights are addressed once and for all. Human Rights groups will fight for an entrenched bill of rights like in South Africa. The Bar Association will be able to fight for a separation of the office of Attorney General and Minister of Justice and an independent and strong judiciary that is control by the Chief Justice and not the Attorney General. All of these will be part of the process of consolidating democracy and need to happen for us to move forward as a nation. But will they happen? I do not see them happening.

TPV:What do you seek to achieve with NAG?

ZB: It is very simple. We need a corruption- free society. A society in which government can spend almost 100% of revenue allocated to respective sectors. Public servants can do their jobs without asking for extra payment in the form of bribes. Government can disclose what it earns, from where and how so they can be easily held accountable. Government officials both elected and appointed need to know that they are public servants and have an obligation to subject themselves to public scrutiny and must respond when scrutinized. Finally, those who are found wanting must be severely punished in respect of their position or connection in government.

TPV:What should be done about corruption in Sierra Leone?

ZB: You cannot address the issue of corruption if you do not address the problem of access to information. We need to get rid of the secrecy oath within the civil service. Get rid of the terrible libel and seditious laws from our laws books that incriminate journalists, proprietors, printers and vendors. They are too harsh and actually undermine the fight against corruption. We need laws to protect whistle -blowers. Government must publish all financial transactions in a very transparent way. Finally, there is a need to open, demystify and simplify the budget process, government expenditure and procurement processes. Some of these things have already been done but not in a very systematic way.

TPV:Some people say civil society in Sierra Leone is deeply fragmented, full of jealousy, hatred and so on among its members some of whom are said to be pro-government propagandists. What do you think of this assessment?

ZB: The richness in diversity is one of the unique things about civil society. We cannot have a homogenous civil society. Diversity by its self is wealth and power. Our challenge and where we have failed is managing that diversity. We all come from different backgrounds, work on different issues and run different institutions. However we have failed to agree on what is important to all of us and the fact that a solution cannot be found without input from everyone. We still do not know how or what to agree or disagree on. People need to understand that no matter how a government is unpopular, it still has supporters; our politics are based on patronage and clientism.

TPV:What are your views on the assault and subsequent death of For Di People Deputy Editor Yansaneh and the imprisonment of For Di People editor Paul Kamara?

ZB: It is simply a case of murder and I think the law should be allowed to take its full course. I think the case was initially badly handled, but it seems this has been rectified, thanks to the efforts of the media in Sierra Leone. They really fought to make sure justice prevailed. But no matter what everybody does he is dead. I wish it could have been avoided. You can not replace life. Even if the perpetrators are brought to justice that will not bring him back. His family will never been fully rewarded. It is a lesson to all of us that the rule of law is something that needs to be addressed.

There is too much lawlessness in this country. It is not only limited to so -called “big people”. Even the ordinary man in the street is lawless. People easily take the law into their hands. The country will have to take a serious look at the whole issue of law and order. People have become very violent and easily resort to violence at the least provocation. If you are a driver and you get involved in a road accident, accidentally kill somebody, your best option is to run away, because people around at the scene of the accident will pounce on you, destroy your car and most likely beat you to death. If you are a thief, when people see you stealing, you better run to the nearest police station, because when you are caught, you could be easily beaten to death. People build their houses everywhere, sell their goods everywhere and just do what they want. This is the society in which we now live. We lost control of society during the war and have not been very successful in our attempt to rebuild a very orderly society that respects basic rules and regulations. People in positions of power and authority on the other hand feel they can do anything and get away with it and this too applies to people who work for them.

Paul Kamara’s case is most unfortunate. I am sure Paul was not surprised and neither am I. The outcome was so very clear. Most developing countries, especially those in Africa, need to embark on Constitutional engineering. Our Constitutions give too much power and control to the Executive. We need to bring it at par with the level of both the Judiciary and the Legislature. This is one of the reasons why we absolutely need a constitutional review after ten years of multi-party democratic experience. It is well overdue.

TPV: Are you returning to politics in 2007? If not why not, and if yes, why?

ZB: No. I do not think Sierra Leone is ready for somebody like me, who talks straight, calls things by their real names, works on principles and has a very strong point of view and is very reluctant to compromise these views. For me power is about action, about doing things and making changes. It is about fighting corruption. It is about protecting the basic rights of people. Power to me is not about control and pageantry. Politics is about being able to provide every day basic services like education for children, basic healthcare, good roads, development, and food on the table for everybody. When holding a public office, I am making a tremendous sacrifice and giving up everything I have to be able to serve and help develop my country. Sierra Leoneans unfortunately have been so corrupted that they feel they are doing elected officers and your family a favor by voting for them. And therefore they insist on getting the most during elections without understanding the consequences of their action. When you have to literally buy the elections, the first thing you do when you come to power is to steal to recoup your money and try to get more for the next elections. It becomes a vicious cycle. They same people complain about you not focusing on addressing their problems. But how can you?.

The reality is that there was no social contract between you and them on anything. The contract you had was to pay, feed, and clothe them, and solve their problems, and in return they vote for you. So the contract actually ends when you win. You were not under any obligation to deliver anything, because you made no commitment to them. People join political parties not on the basis of ideology, but on regional, ethnic, family ties, and what they will get for themselves. Instead of making contributions to the party, they feel the parties must take care of their burden, feed them, and take care of their families and their problems. Political parties do not have functional secretariats.

There is therefore a contradiction on the definition of politics; power and political party rule between myself and the bulk of the population. These are all clear indications of how our political system has been badly corrupted and how it needs to change. In addition Sierra Leoneans are entrenched in the politics of ethnicity and patronage. Sierra Leoneans will always criticize any government that comes to power after few years. They will never have a good government. They will always criticize which ever government comes to power. Because their criteria for electing people in office are not based on performance, experience and capacity. A government is like the information that comes out of a computer. If you put junk in, you get junk out. If you vote for the wrong people, you get the wrong things done. I am however very sure that as the population gets more educated, the middle class increases and becomes more professional, we will get governments to be voted in based on performance and experience, like in countries like Ghana. People will then make independent informed decisions and choices.

TPV: What are your views on Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and the Bondo Society?

ZB: I was one of those people who had a very bad experience which has psychologically affected me. I hate to call it FGM. I still call it the Bondo Society. The operation is just one aspect of it. To be a member of the Bondo Society, you have to undergo the operation. So the operation is a precondition of the Bondo Society. I think the whole society has lost its essence in Sierra Leone and has been seriously diluted and made into a political issue. The initial focus was not just the operation. My mother spent a year in it, having joined when she was over 15 before she got married. I became a member after High School at the age of 17 and spent a month in it. It helped me to understand my people, their culture and gave me an opportunity to spend time with them. Now children as young as five years are subjected to the process and they take less than two weeks. The whole thing has been commercialized and has become a money -making venture for most people. I think we need to re-examine the whole issue. But there has been too much confusion from both groups campaigning for and against.

Those who are against it tend to generalize things too much. It should be dealt with on a country by country basis, because it is practised separately and it plays a very unique role in bringing women together and providing sanctuary for them. The way it is practised in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, where women are stitched up is not the same as in Sierra Leone. Secondly, in Sierra Leone it transcends ethnicity, region and class. Women are the same everywhere. It creates a special bond amongst women. You can not find this sort of thing amongst men in Sierra Leone. They do not share this same common bond across ethnic lines. Also the entire life of women including marriage, child- bearing and their social life is centered on the Bondo Society.

My mother would spend hours walking to villages with her paraffin lamp to attend the ceremony which includes a lot of singing and dancing for days normally occurring after the harvest season. She talks with such pleasure and glee about her year in the bush. And in a culture like mine, where women have no rights, that forest, where the operation takes places is absolutely forbidden to men. Only women are allowed there. It is the only place in the village where they have control and power and they just love it. To take that out of the life of the village women in Sierra Leone is really difficult. You need to replace it with something. The people who are campaigning against it are focusing the campaign on the operation and that creates a whole lot of misunderstanding. The challenge is how to take what is good and remove what is bad. This will take time, a very serious and detailed dialogue process.

This brings me to those who are campaigning for it. They are taking advantage of the things I just mentioned above and manipulating the women, making them feel very vulnerable and threatened. They are not doing it because they support it. They are doing it because it gives them a hold over the lives of these women, by giving the impression that they are the ones defending the women. I was assaulted in places like Kenema during the elections campaign of 2002, because the Chairman of the Ruling Party at the time and members of the party themselves spread the rumor across the country that I was going to legally ban it if I was voted in. Unfortunately, it has turned into a political issue in this country and is being used as a political weapon, which is most unfortunate. It is a health, social and economic issue. And it can only be addressed from that perspective.

TPV: What inspired you to go into human or civil rights work?

ZB: My father was an Islamic scholar, a very respectable one, and extremely religious. He did not believe in sending girls to school. He never sent my sisters to school and wanted to marry me off at the age of 12, when he thought I had reached puberty. He had a lot of pressure from family, friends and his congregation because he had pressured them to marry their daughters off very early. My mother on the other hand came from a very traditional society that believed women are part of their family’s properties before marriage and part of their husband’s properties after marriage. She was not allowed to go to school because she was a girl and because I was an only girl, she was determined that I get educated. This seriously angered my father, who threw us both out and took a second wife to bear him boys. My mother and I went back home to her village and we became the best of friends and went through a lot of difficulties to get me through school.

She did everything a woman could do to pay for my education. It was extremely difficult. I was thrown out of school so many times because she could not pay the fees that the Principal, Ms Alice Kamara, made a special case for me to be given a Sierra Leone government scholarship to enable me finish my final year in High school. Those were the good old days. It was this scholarship that got me through. My mother was an exceptional woman and taught me what it meant to be strong. It was a hard life but it strengthened me and prepared me for later challenges in life. I experienced discrimination at a very early stage in life and felt there was too much injustice in the world. I had to fight for everything I am today. I was not born with a silver spoon. And I am grateful for that.

TPV:You have been very quiet lately. Why?

ZB: The world is like a stage: you come in, play your part and go out. Is that not what Shakespeare said? I came in, played my part and I think I must go out to give opportunity to younger people. I have succeeded in institutionalizing the whole concept of civil society participation in Sierra Leone. That has given me great pleasure. Now we have thousands of groups all over the country, despite the limited capacity. This will eventually change and improve with time. The important thing is that people can organize and speak openly, engage government and the international donors. I am still active from the background, providing support and helping to keep focus on the issues. I am just not on the front line anymore. This has given me an opportunity to engage in other areas and in other countries.

Secondly, if I had taken a more aggressive position against government people would have interpreted it to mean that I was bitter because I had lost the elections. After the elections, I said in a BBC interview that corruption was Sierra Leone’s main challenge and that government is not doing much to address it. I was attacked by the “Vision” newspaper and told to shut up, or they would show me the “color of my pants". The President himself called me to apologize realizing that the paper had gone too far and that people were accusing him of supporting the paper. When my husband decided to sue, the Editor was immediately given a job in our High Commission in London. I bear no grudge against the President for that. I know he is very thin- skinned, and does bear grudges against people. I am happy I made that statement, because today I have been exonerated

We were left out of the 14 countries that benefited from the first debt relief granted by the G8 countries and the Consultative Group (CG) meeting scheduled to take place in Paris June 2005 was cancelled because no donor was ready to put in new money for Sierra Leone until the issue of corruption was properly addressed. The nine- point benchmarks given to the government to be addressed before the next CG meeting in November 2005 are mostly centered on addressing the corruption problem.

Finally, I am just tired and exhausted. I put in quite a lot into building CGG. I am much older; do not have as much energy to spare as before. I also need to focus on my health, the needs of my family and my son, who is 19 and very soon will leave home. I was never there for him when he was growing up. But within the last three years we have become closer, talk more and spending more time together. And we are both enjoying it. The same applies to my husband, who is not getting younger. Family life is much more important to me now, than trying to kill myself in solving unsolvable problems. I still give time to Sierra Leone, but my priorities have changed. I am one of 4.9 million Sierra Leoneans. I can only do that much.

TPV: Some of your colleagues in the civil rights movement like Shirley Gbujama are in government.Would you accept a government appointment at this time if called upon? If yes, why? If no, why not?

ZB: I do not see anything wrong with civil society people taking government positions, provided they are able to bring into government very specific values and principles. The best example has been South Africa, with the special relationship between the ANC and COSATU and various other civil society groups. The Secretary General of COSATU Cyril Rhamaphosa was also Secretary General of the ANC and head of their Negotiation team with the National Party negotiating the South African transition. In the U.S everybody knows that the labor unions are always supporting the Democratic Party. The same applies in England, between the Labour party and the Unions.

The notion of civil society not supporting politics is a mis-conception. Civil society after series of years in activism builds a reservoir of expertise that is sometimes essential and desperately needed to build a country. Aunty Shirley however was never a civil society activist. It does not mean that because she chaired the Bintumani One and Two that she was a civil society activist. She spent all her years working for government at the Central Bank and as Ambassador for Sierra Leone.

I would definitely not accept a job from government, because we disagree on so many things, it would just not work. And I am sure I would be the last person the government will like to make an offer to. In politics people come together because they believe in the same things. I do not have anything against the government or the President, I just do not like the way they do things. And I have a right to my opinion. It is their government and they have a right to run it the way they strongly believe and feel is right for the country. That does not mean it is the best. It also does not mean that my views and opinion are the best. So the best thing for us both is to stay apart.

TPV: What, in your opinion, should be done to uplift the Sierra Leonean woman?

ZB: It is very simple.Ratify and domesticate most of the regional and international instruments and conventions and make them part of our national laws. Get more girls to school on a free education agenda for all girls and make it a crime not to send them to school. Get a minimum age for marriage, make it criminal to impregnate a school girl and enact a legislation that carries a very long jail sentence for teachers who have sexual relationship with their students. Make sexual harassment a crime, especially in institutions of learning and offices. Provide economic support package for women tying it up with adult literacy. Finally create an affirmative action plan for women across all sectors especially in politics, government institutions, public service, for a specific number of years to enable women to break all the barriers of discriminations.

What is your assessment of the Kabbah administration so far?

ZB: This question can only be properly answered when his term of office is over and one can clearly assess his whole performance. For now I leave it to the journalists to do their job.

Photo: Zainab Bangura addressing delegates at a conference in South Africa.

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