Sierra Leone Between Now and 2007: A Personal Reflection

4 October 2005 at 21:11 | 1141 views

Sierra Leone, as a country, has been a cause for concern for many decades but recent events have alarmed observers both foreign and local.In this personal evaluation, Zubairu Wai, a Sierra Leonean political scientist in Toronto, Canada, presents a searing and very disturbing image of his country after spending a couple of weeks in the capital and countryside.

By Zubairu Wai

Home coming is usually a moment of great joy and excitement. After all, the prospects for reunions with family, friends and loved ones are overwhelmingly thrilling. It was precisely with this thrill that I started my holiday in Freetown after a three year absence, living and studying abroad. For four weeks beginning September 2, I lived in Freetown, travelled the country-side, talked to people and observed the unfolding political, social and economic situation in the country. Barely a week after my arrival however, my excitement turned into frustration, anger and utter disgust at the mess which Freetown especially has become and the quagmire that is characteristic of the existence of the country as a whole.

Sierra Leone offers an interesting paradox to the observer: while the privileged few are making personal gains and individual progress, the country is either at a standstill or collectively retrogressing, a situation which has had adverse consequences and far reaching implications for the suffering and deprived masses. The dysfunctional state of affairs in the country has made most people lose faith in the government’s ability to improve their situations, and have therefore, accepted the responsibility of up-lifting themselves by any mean necessary instead of relying on the state and its dysfunctional institutions. Those, especially the governing elites and middle classes, who have access to the state’s resources, are busy milking the state dry with impunity through naked looting of the state, completely disregarding the wishes of the vast majority of the hapless citizenry who are being impoverished by such vulgar acts of corruption. Corruption is endemic and in some places institutionalised and it is becoming a real strategic danger, eating into every fabric of Sierra Leonean society like a maligned cancerous cell. Sadly, most Sierra Leoneans are complicit in its perpetration and reinforcement.

Nothing virtually seems to be working at present in the country. The leadership is not only very corrupt and dysfunctional, but also extremely complacent, and outrightly incompetent. The level of corruption is shockingly appalling, and so is poverty. These two ills reinforce each other in a deep complicit relationship that is holding the impoverished masses as pawns in a despicable game of political neglect and economic mismanagement. It is a sad and grotesquely pathetic spectacle. There is no electricity supply or even clean running water (My mum had to plead with me to start drinking bottled water after I had diarrhoea on three different occasions drinking tap water). Amidst national decay and filth, there are widespread social ills, high incidents of unemployment, and an upsurge in prostitution and petty crime like cell phone jerking. The governing elites are unapologetic about their shameful and despicable acts of looting the state, and are particularly notorious for being callously indifferent to the social ills affecting the suffering and dispossessed masses. The level of contempt and neglect with which these politicians treat the ordinary Sierra Leonean borders on criminality.

An illustration of this contempt could be seen in the recently concluded national convention of the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) held in Makeni in early September in which the party hierarchy clearly disregarded the wishes of the vast majority of the people yearning for positive socio-economic and political transformation and instead sheepishly chose ‘continuity’ over that of change. That a popular politician (Charles Margai) whose politics resonates with the yearnings of the vast majority of the people could be sidelined for the leadership and hence the presidential candidacy of the party in the much talked about 2007 presidential elections, in favour of an unpopular vice president (Solomon Berewa) regarded even within SLPP circles as a difficult-to-sell presidential material and widely perceived by many as incompetent and complacent and as part of the problem affecting the state, speaks to the contempt with which the people are treated. (One might not like the person or politics of Charles Margai, but at present without contestation, he is regarded by most Sierra Leoneans as the person who epitomises their yearnings for change and credible leadership both within the SLPP and Sierra Leone as a whole, and that should have been respected in Makeni). The only reason why the SLPP hierarchy rejected change in Makeni is because they take the average Sierra Leonean for a fool. They have this highly banal and erroneous belief that loyalty to the party is so strong that it cannot be affected by the type of leadership it has. The illiteracy of the people is constantly being manipulated in order to blur their vision, fragment their consciousness and keep them subjugated and cloaked by an outmoded politics that hold them as unimportant and therefore has no regard for their wishes. Or how else could one explain the contemptuous way in which their dreams were shattered in Makeni?

In choosing continuity over change, the SLPP has clearly demonstrated that it is not in tune with what the popular will of the citizenry is. It seems neither serious about correcting the social ills in Sierra Leone nor is it interested in uplifting the conditions of the impoverished masses. Giving the problems associated with Sierra Leone under SLPP leadership and the deplorable conditions in which their stewardship of the state has left the average Sierra Leonean, the important question to ask is ‘continuity of what’? Granted, a younger man in the person of Jacob Jusu Saffa (JJ Blood) has been elected General Secretary of the party. But one wonders what difference he could possibly make given his limited political experience and more importantly, given the fact that he is already compromised by the corrupt political establishment, in that, he won his position largely because of the support he received from the Berewa camp, which, we all know, is representative of the moribund political dispensation that has dominated this country for so long. This alliance betrays the trust that most young people had reposed in him during the run up to the SLPP convention when he was seen as a representative of a different generation of political ideology that broke clean with the moribund “politricks” of the past, rejecting elitist politics for one that represented positive social transformation sensitive to, and dictated by the wishes of the masses. JJ Blood’s recent pronouncements not only demonstrate his want of political experience but they also betray his compromised partisanship.

As a party, the SLPP is, in my view, unfit to continue governing Sierra Leone. Any party that has no regard for the popular wishes of the majority of the people it wishes to continue governing, coupled with the fact that, despite being in power for almost ten years, it has been unable to even remotely address some of the most basic and perennial problems like electricity, clean and safe running water, and a reliable and effective means of collecting garbage that has made Freetown an eyesore, deserves to be punished at the polls. Ideally this is what should happen, but given the level of illiteracy in Sierra Leone, the gullibility of its people, their susceptibility to political machination which the political elites are very good at, couple with the manipulation of the fragmentary consciousness of especially the impoverished masses, and also the lack of credible alternatives to the governing party, defeating the SLPP at the 2007 polls remains a Herculean task, the accomplishment of which remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Sierra Leone tragedy continues to unfold.
The main opposition party, the All People’s Congress (APC) is in no way better than the SLPP. In fact both parties are made up of similar breed of politicians, different only in so far as one is governing and the other is in opposition. But they both lack the capability and genuine desire to overturn the sad state that they have brought the country. Apart from its unenvious historical baggage, and the breed of politicians (like Victor Foh, its recently elected General Secretary,) still calling the shots within its ranks, the APC cannot even settle an internal party dispute, thereby raising suspicions about its preparedness to govern this country should the opportunity arise. One couldn’t help but wonder what chances might a fragmented party have against an incumbent determined to cling on to power, with all the resources at its disposal. True, Ernest Bai Koroma, the leader of the APC is perceived by many Sierra Leoneans as a credible politician, untainted by the legacy of his party. But the APC itself is its own worst self-enemy; its historical baggage is a serious inhibiting factor to any real success at the polls, at least for the foreseeable future. Granted, the 2007 elections would be exactly 40 years since the APC’s historic victory over the then ruling SLPP in the 1967 elections, a possibility that, given the current political climate and widespread disillusionment with the ruling SLPP, many people fear would recur. However, given its history of setting in motion the process of national decay and the mess that Sierra Leone is at present grappling with, the APC is, in my view, for now incapable of repeating in 2007 the feat it achieved 40 years ago.

How then do we go beyond this impasse and conceptualise an alternative form of politics in which the aspirations of the masses are realised, and in which they become the dominant players instead of being used as pawns? A very simplistic answer would be found in the notion of an alternative mass political formation (a third force if you like) that is capable of building a political programme that counters the hegemony of the dominant political groups. This third force must be credible and capable of bringing all subordinate classes and social groups within a hegemonic national political formation under its own direction. It must be capable of concretely and organically welding all disaffected and marginalised groups - rural and urban poor, the unemployed, marginalised youths, the dispossessed etc - into a hegemonic mass movement, conceived of, effectuated and operationalised by them. The third force must (a) have a credible leadership, not dominated by recycled politicians and men with tarnished legacies; (b) have a clear and realistic vision for the country that the people identify with; (c) must avoid, and must be seen to avoid, all parochial self interest, that includes all forms of economistic and opportunistic politics. It should instead resolutely remain loyal to the people and their collective vision; and finally (d) must be innovatory and constantly striving for self improvement, adapting to the exigencies of its existence and the dictates of time.
The third force that I have in mind cannot therefore be an individual, nor should it be dominated by one. It can only be an organisation that represents, and in which the collective popular-national vision finds expression and fulfilment in concrete terms. Even by the nature of its internal politics, it should be, and must be seen to be, an exemplification of ethical, moral and ‘intellectual’ leadership. It must be able to demonstrate its ability to organise an alternative form of society in which (a) the negative practices of the past are retired to history, (b) politics comes to mean organising society so that the popular collective national vision and the good life is realised for the citizens regardless of sex, class, race, ethnicity, religion, social status, education, and family pedigree. In this collective project, which I call national rescue mission, the role of all radical progressives and organic intellectuals’ needs no extensive elaboration.

The consciousness of the suffering masses in Sierra Leone appears to be fragmentary. This is why, for example, Emerson’s diatribe against corruption, Borbor Bele, and Wan Pot Sojas’ pointed political statement in Ar Vex could become popular anthems because they speak directly to the Sierra Leonean condition and especially to the situation of the dispossessed masses. But when it comes to the crucial point of making a stand and changing the leadership of the country, these same masses, with whom the messages contained in the aforementioned songs resonate, become confused and show tendencies of hesitation as to whether in fact they want to change or not. Therefore, defragmenting this fragmentary consciousness must be the very first priority of the third force, and here, the role of the organic intellectuals (as opposed to the traditional intellectuals) becomes very crucial. One way of achieving this is through a sustained political education and extensive media campaign. Another means is to identify a “myth” (that is a “concrete phantasy” which guides the formation of a national-popular collective vision as a motivational force behind any mass movement) that the third force could be seen to represent and which could serve as a galvanising force for mass political action.

It is only through this means that our nation could be rescued from the claws of the corrupt political elites. Without this, we cannot even begin to conceptualise what type of alternative society we envision for Sierra Leone. Dispensing with the old and established political formations therefore is very crucial and it is, in my view, the responsibility of every well-meaning Sierra Leonean and Friends of Sierra Leone.

Zubairu (Zuba) Wai
PhD Candidate
Department of Political Science
York University

Photo: Wai and a friend.