Sierra Leone One Year On: Politics as Usual

26 June 2006 at 07:14 | 3070 views

“In any society the dominant groups are the ones with the most to hide about the way society works. Very often therefore truthful analyses are bound to have a critical ring, to seem like exposures rather than objective statements ...”

By Zubairu Wai (Toronto)

“You bastard have come back without telling us about your arrival. You have been writing all sorts of nasty and dirty articles about the government; and we know that as soon as you leave, you’ll continue your nastiness against us,” was the message that greeted me at Paddy’s Beach Bar on the evening of my arrival in Freetown in May.

I had flown in from Accra earlier in the day on 19 May, and later in the evening some of my friends took me out. At Paddy’s, I ran into, among others, a former college mate, who was apparently both unimpressed and offended by the contents of some of my articles, especially those decrying the rottenness in Sierra Leone under the stewardship of the current government. Though I was shocked at this attack, for this was neither the place nor the angle that I expected it to come from, I was somehow prepared for it. Such attacks are not uncommon and it therefore wasn’t totally unexpected. My retort was swift and sharp: “I don’t know what you mean by dirty articles, but you probably have an eye for dirt because you are a dirty person yourself; look here Mr., I am a citizen of this country and I do not believe I owe anybody an explanation for my actions.”

With my response, he probably realised that I wouldn’t be intimidated. He tried to make it look funny by pretending that he was only joking with me. Shortly afterwards, he disappeared. Moments later, I was confronted yet again by another group of former college mates who were also unimpressed by my politics. The verbal attacks continued.

What a way of welcoming someone in town! Throughout my stay in Freetown, some people remained suspicious of my intentions and wanted to know why I was there, and which “mischief” I was up to this time. But as was the case with my original attacker, they too discovered the foolishness in their attempt to try and intimidate me.
Why would anybody feel threatened by what I have to say and seek to intimidate me into silence? I am, after all, only a small fry and an obscure person as far as the politics of Sierra Leone is concerned. Surely, I could be ignored, if not anything else.

In my search for answers, I stumbled on Barrington Moore. Writing about the Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Moore reminds us that:

“In any society the dominant groups are the ones with the most to hide about the way society works. Very often therefore truthful analyses are bound to have a critical ring, to seem like exposures rather than objective statements ...”

For Moore therefore, any student interested in the condition of human society must, as an essential safeguard against reproducing the dominant discourses and mythologies, sympathise with the victims of historical processes, (who in this case are the impoverished masses of Sierra Leone), and be sceptical about the claims of the dominant groups, (in this case the corrupt political class and governing elites).

In fact, as Moore suggests, those of us who choose to ask questions, especially critical ones, should be mindful that we run the risk of being dismissed and labelled as mere trouble makers and, here I extend Moore’s arguments, needlessly targeted, because society has the “strong tendency to assume that mild-mannered statements in favour of the status quo are “objective” and that anything else [especially critical insights] is a form of “rhetoric.”

This may help to explain the attacks against not only me, but also those who are known to be critical of the government and about what is going on in Sierra Leone. Surely, the governing elites in Sierra Leone would prefer the ordinary person to remain completely ignorant about what is really happening in the country. And those of us, who have refused to join in the programme of promoting ignorance, are being castigated as partisan and biased; dismissed as mere trouble makers; and designated as targets for attacks, ridicule and insults.

I am known to be critical of the dominant discourse about political practice and purpose in Sierra Leone, and have sought to sympathise with victims of the moribund, self-serving, corrupt and exploitative system in that country. My passion, like many others, has been powered by a single concern: the search for alternative spaces and practices for the construction of social transformative politics, and with it, human emancipation and the uplifting of the conditions of the suffering masses in Sierra Leone.

With this concern, I have sought to ask some very difficult, and sometimes unpleasant, questions, engaging the very nature of the socio-political ills in Sierra Leone; the poverty of its political, ruling and elite classes; their corrupt practices and self-centred tendencies, their complicity in reproducing and fuelling the cycle of poverty, hardship and lack of opportunities for self-advancement of the vast majority of the citizens of the country and the disregard for their wishes. Surely, this is bound to raise some eyebrows, make some people feel very uncomfortable and in the process, make me a target.

Everything in Sierra Leone is now interpreted as, and punctuated by politics. There are no longer honest and frank discussions or factual statements about anything in Sierra Leone. Statements, even if made with the best of intentions are regarded as politically motivated. People’s utterances and actions now come to be accepted as valid, or dismissed as invalid, depending on their location within the political equation. True, politics, which is the medium through which every social relation is mediated, is about struggles for power and contestations over political ideals, purpose, practices and spaces. But it is also about dialogue, negotiations and consensus seeking within that very political realm. We can disagree and still avoid destructive conflicts and divisions; after all, most people in Sierra Leone, for example, agree that we need some form of social transformation.

The real difference has been on questions of how to realise such a project, under what conditions and whose stewardship. So why are critics of the current political dispensation, who are pointing out the failings of the current leadership of the country, regarded with such hostility? If the current government is not doing enough, or is squandering the opportunities for, or mismanaging that transformation process, it should be pointed out.

It is regrettable that in Sierra Leone society today, (and this is true for the Sierra Leone diaspora as well), the desire to win the political prize by whatever available means, has skewed our perceptions of each other to the point that even when a genuine critique is levied, or a statement is made with the best intentions, they are misread, taken off context, misrepresented and dismissed off hand as detractive and negative. Instead of engaging with them, critics are either too harshly dismissed as bitter, noise causers, or singled out and needlessly targeted.

In the haze of power struggles, “objectivity” has become both a victim and a victimizer; a captive and a captor. It is being (mis)appropriated, used and abused, depending on how it suits people’s political inclinations, and supports their location within the unfolding political drama in Sierra Leone. The word “objective” has become, perhaps, the most misused word in discourses about politics in Sierra Leone today; and its invocation, to support or reject claims and statements, (factual or otherwise), has made it too banal and common placed to be accepted as any valid yardstick for judging actions and utterances in the ongoing struggles for power in that country.

I won’t therefore claim to be “objective,” in fact, nobody can. We all have our biases and interests; but more importantly, we all come from specific subject positions; those biases and subjectivities are implicated in our actions, perceptions, utterances, actions, analyses, and politics. I have already stated what my concerns are and how they inform my politics and actions. I cannot therefore pretend to be objective when those concerns are implicated, instinctively or otherwise, in my every action. This however does not mean that I cannot make, or I am incapable of making, factual statements and “truth” claims about the material conditions and lived social realities of life in Sierra Leone.

When I wrote my reflections on Sierra Leone about a year ago, I only stated, like any well meaning Sierra Leonean, my frustration with the current state of affairs in the country. I wasn’t trying to be destructively political by promoting one political party over another; my only concern was describing the Sierra Leone condition, and suggesting means of charting an alternative way forward. It however offended some people, especially those in and around the corridors of power, who saw it as a negative propaganda piece geared towards discrediting the government and tarnishing its good name.

I was attacked for what was seen by some as a needless fabrication and unnecessary exaggeration; surely it was the handiwork of the political opposition, (as if I had told anybody that I belonged to a political party; or I needed to belong to a party in order to write politics; or that I wouldn’t write if I didn’t belong to a party; or I looked like the type of person who would be ashamed or afraid to say I belonged to a political party if indeed I was a member of any). In that piece, I made certain observations which could be summarised as follows: (a) that life was a constant struggle for the ordinary Sierra Leoneans as they negotiate poverty, disease, ignorance and hardship;

(b) that amidst rising poverty and hardship was the vulgar display of wealth by a few people who are highly connected to and well strung in the system;

(c), that the government was corrupt, inept, complacent and insensitive to the wishes of the people;

(d) that electricity was a major problem and that the national capital Freetown was almost permanently in blackouts;

(e) that there was a problem of availability and access to clean pipe borne water;

(f) that there was a problem of piling garbage in the streets of Freetown, which has made Freetown an eyesore;

(g) that the dominant political formations were either unwilling or incapable of initiating programmes of social transformation in Sierra Leone. I concluded by identifying what I believed was a way for constructing an alternative political project that would move the country forward; and I placed my faith in an alternative political formation, that could be regarded as a third force.

Almost a year on, there is still no sign that any of these problems would disappear any time soon. What has been happening in Sierra Leone is that these problems, some of which are very basic, are in fact worsening: poverty and hardship are rising; the streets are still filled with huge piles of rubbish; the problem of electricity, clean pipe-borne water, poor roads, corruption, and contempt of the political and governing elites for the ordinary person, (exemplified, for instance, in John Leigh’s letter to me some time back, published by the Sierra Leone press on the internet), are increasing. Similarly, there is rising environmental distress, and social problems like prostitution and petty crime etc.

Though some of these problems predated and could not be attributed to the current government, they (the government) have been in power long enough to have been able to do something about them. Since they have failed in addressing most of these concerns, and in fact have been as much responsible for perpetuating this evil system as their predecessors, they should be held responsible for them, and voted out of office. For the same reasons I gave about a year ago, I doubt whether there would be any meaningful change and progress in Sierra Leone under the stewardship of this present generation of SLPP leaders. The SLPP have had their chance to improve the conditions of the people of Sierra Leone and move the country forward; they have squandered that opportunity. Perhaps being booted out confined to the political wilderness in opposition for some years might help them sort out their problems and develop a clearer programme and vision for the country.

Photo: A pile of rubbish in front of the Youyi building in Freetown, close to the offices of government ministers. June 2006.