Political violence in Sierra Leone: Is the red flag up again?

17 April 2009 at 06:52 | 1105 views

By Joseph Cabineh Howard, Indianapolis, USA.

It was all history - for a good reason though - when in the 2007 elections the incumbent Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) conducted an election in Sierra Leone, and peacefully transferred power to the opposition All Peoples Congress (APC), albeit, with some murmur.

In a continent where political transitions are too often visited by traumatizing violence and eventual collapse of the state, the Kabbah government deserves high marks for its exercise of political tolerance, balance and compromise.

Three years from now Sierra Leoneans will be heading to the polls again. And from all indications from the March 13 political violence engendered by some members of the ruling APC party against the opposition SLPP, the country is once again sitting on a powder keg and that the atmosphere surrounding the elections will be anything but safe. How free and fair the elections themselves will be is a million dollar question.

On that fateful day what started off as a celebration of a newly renovated East-End Police Station branch in Freetown ended up in wanton destruction and disaster at the number 15 Wallace Johnson St headquarters of the SLPP. Scores of people were wounded and the rights and privacy of others severely violated. The party office was vandalized, amounting to enormous property damage, including the vehicle belonging to the Secretary -General of the party, JJ Saffa, which was destroyed beyond repair. It seems like the politics of fear and intimidation is once again rearing its ugly head in Sierra Leone.

But here let me throw in some caveats! Sierra Leone is not yet a democracy, but a democracy in transition- struggling to put down roots after throwing off the slough of dictatorships, misgovernance and a brutal civil war. The fundamental infrastructures of democracy are either missing, weak and ineffective or are perhaps amateurish and need time to develop. The public institutions of state, especially the judiciary system and the law enforcement agencies are still very fragile and susceptible to compromise on the altar of partisan politics. The civil society is yet to become vibrant to provide effective counterweight to the excesses of power.

There is no de facto separation of powers for effective checks and balances. There is no robust private sector economy that usually provides safe haven for individual liberties to flourish - paramount among them freedom of expression, assembly and association. The wisdom and habits that a democracy usually demands of its people - POLITICAL TOLERANCE, PATIENCE, TRUST, COLLABORATION and COMPROMISE, are yet to develop and be eternalized into the political culture. In the power game, these fundamental values may take many years of education, practice, political experience and the right leadership, before the citizens can cultivate them. And of course in a multi-ethnic society like Sierra Leone we still have a long way to go, and if the right measures are not taken in time to avoid colossal reversals our baby democracy will fall vulnerable to infant mortality - at the very next election.

What then are some of the safety valves? It is important for United Nations officials to be reminded that the internal security system in the country especially the police seems weak, with a predilection to compromise. Also, with a lot of guns still out there, the peace in Sierra Leone can easily fall back into pieces before given time to put down roots. Moreover, the traditional strongholds of the two main rival parties - the APC and the SLPP - rooted in the North and South-Eastern parts of the country respectively, make the likelihood for ethnic conflagration in the event of any fierce political competition very obvious. The experience in the Kenyan elections is still fresh in our memories.

The recent outbursts in Sierra Leone are a wake up call that underscores the importance of a proactive planning, perhaps a UNAMSIL Phase 2, before history awfully repeats itself. Too often the international community fails to recognize the red flag. By the time they wake up from their slumber central authority has already collapsed, many lives lost and lots of property destroyed. Let us approach 20th century problems with 21st century solutions - this time around.

It is also important that the international community put pressure on the APC administration to uphold and promote democratic governance, and to ensure that the elections themselves conform to international standards. With Sierra Leone’s economy currently surviving on a life-support system, donors - among them the UN, European Union, World Bank/IMF and the diplomatic community - can exercise substantial leverage in the affairs of that country. Afterwards as the proverbial wisdom goes - he who pays the piper commands the tune.

The elite in the different political parties carry no small responsibility in this matter. Their primary role should be to counsel caution, and to educate their supporters that violence will only lead to more violence - that peace is in the best interest of everyone. NGOs and Civil Society organizations, among them, religious groups, labor unions, student leaders and other professional organizations must collaborate their efforts, focusing on peace education, and to provide a forum for promoting dialogue and understanding among party functionaries. And the media! As always expected - must engage in a balanced and objective presentation of facts, with the view to inform and educate - to avoid the Rwanda experience.

If these caveats are not taken seriously especially by the international community before the eve of the next elections, it is highly likely that Sierra Leoneans will once again hit world headlines and make another history - only this time around for exactly the wrong reasons. As of now, the red flag is hoisted right up!