World News

Sierra Leone: Reflections on the road to freedom as she turns 50

By  | 7 March 2011 at 05:53 | 486 views

Commentary

It’s as prudent as it is necessary as Sierra Leone turns 50, to take stock of her progress, and express her concerns in forging ahead. Among such concerns is what’s the way forward after an inglorious and bitter past?

On April 27 this year, Mother Sierra Leone celebrates her 50th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule. It was in April 1961 that the green, white and blue flag replaced the Union Jack, the British flag. This epochal milestone, saturated with innate pride, marked the genesis of a new voyage in our nation’s sovereignty and history.

As a kid growing up then, I could recall the cohesive unity, dignity and euphoria that harmoniously reigned, as political freedom was peacefully transferred to us. Sir Milton Margai, leader of Sierra Leone Peoples’ Party, the nation’s oldest political party, took over the gavel of leadership once held by Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom, becoming the nation’s first Prime Minister. But we remained within the Commonwealth of Nations with the Queen as head.

Siaka Stevens, a member of the delegation that negotiated independence, refused to sign the declaration of independence document arguing there should be general elections in the country before independence. He would break away from the SLPP to form his All Peoples’ Congress and later became the third Prime Minister and first executive president. Unlike the Margais coming from a political dynasty, Stevens emerged from a grassroots working class background. He was as shrewd as he was manipulative.

There’s nothing as powerful and inspiring as freedom - the power and free will to make our own decisions. It was time to bury the grenade of indignity and servitude, celebrating the birth of Salone’s psyche and the renaissance of nationalism.

Evaluate an American teenager who told her mom: “I can’t wait to turn 18 to move out.” But freedom comes with responsibility and innate discipline. It’s the dynamo necessary to make good choices and aspire to maturity. Our nation, as the 18 year-old, still toils with painful reality that bites with venom. Absence of a sense of direction and purpose isn’t a promising status. Our nation has weathered a checkered and staggered past during its decade long heinous war, coups, and counter coups, and a stigma of injustice as undemocratic and despotic regimes carried out executions without trials. That should have taught us enough lessons, and burnished the nation’s character toward maturity. Is Sierra Leone’s gold and diamonds worth more than the blood of its people?

She’s in a cocoon and economically and politically entangled in a web of colonial subterfuge, with a hangover of systemic and endemic dishonesty and complacency in remaining dependent. We need to be healed from the psychology and shackles of self centeredness, flawed thinking and painful retardation.

Recently, a maternity ward at Kenema hospital built by UNICEF was mysteriously burnt down. There was suspicion of arson, as large amounts of drugs provided by this body were reportedly stolen. Kenema town is a stronghold of the opposition party, where maternal and infant deaths are very high. Is this a ploy to hinder the progress made in healthcare for needy mothers? We are drinking from the Manor River of sensitization and catchy political slogans, and seemingly growing patriotic feathers for political leadership, rather than our elected government serving the people faithfully, the who voted it into office. Purging is good for the soul, if transformation and restoration should bear roots and flourish here again.

African Mining Company recently paid $10 million in expatriate taxes to the government for mining activities in SL. This is encouraging and uplifting news. As a nation endowed with huge deposits of gold, bauxite, rutile, iron ore, diamonds and oil, including its fertile soil for agricultural pursuit, our folks are hungry and among the poorest in the world, amid the enormous natural wealth. I refuse to be amused by this irony. It’s a shame when others ridicule us about how miserably poor our people have become. An American farmer told me that he would like to cultivate rice in Sierra Leone, the nation’s staple food. He knows something that others don’t. He stressed that we have fertile land suitable for growing rice that would take three months to mature and harvest, and could be grown all year round. This nation, once a net exporter of rice, is now a major importer.

Recently, police seized 250 bags of locally grown rice and a few gallons of palm oil, claiming the items were being smuggled to neighboring countries. Don’t we buy food items from Guinea and Liberia? This was a reaction to a loud outcry that local food items were scarce and prices very high for the average man to cope. What happened to the market forces of demand and supply?

Sierra Leone definitely needs more trade and not more aid. Some investors visiting SL shop for deals on gold and diamond, seeking rock bottom prices from questionable sources. The US ambassador in Freetown confirmed that some Americans were ripped off about $ 300,000 because they chose street deals run by hustlers and dubious men posing as business men, not from the official sources. But who is fooling who? SL is open for business, attracting investors around the world. Honest partners must abide by the ethics of fair international trade.

Shock waves overwhelmed Sierra Leoneans at home and in the Diaspora of a scandal about the golden jubilee anniversary committee appointed by President Ernest Bai Koroma. He had given them a mandate to organize national events for the 50th anniversary. Folks in the Diaspora are admired, but some love to hate them. It is alleged that some leaders misappropriated tens of thousands of dollars from the allocated funds. The contributions came from international donors in addition to state funds. The suspects are the president’s friends and local heavyweights, believed to be highly educated patriots of integrity and convincing moral character. But greed tainted and eroded their public image. A new committee has been appointed to replace them. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) is probing into this bombshell.

Resources siphoned by corruption could be profitably used in other productive areas of need. When little boys who should be in school scavenge through garbage searching for food and scrap metals to sell for food because their parents cannot provide them with food or school supplies, then something is wrong with the system. The ACC was set up by ex-President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who was previously an official at the UN before his transition into politics. The ACC is the watchdog investigating and prosecuting evidence of corruption. High profile officials got a free pass escaping the radar of its scrutiny. Cleaners, messengers and poorly paid junior government employees were indicted by the ACC. But officials crafted methods to loot the country’s treasury with impunity. The editor of Standard Times in Freetown was incarcerated for publishing a story about Libyan leader Kaddafi’s gifts to the people of Sierra Leone that was partially disclosed. Another editor told me how he escaped the jaws of death for publishing critical editorials about Kabbah’s government. The same thugs hired to silence him helped him to escape in a canoe to neighboring Guinea, from where he flew to the West.

The truth is as bold as it is cold. Kabbah’s relationship with the press was a turbulent one. He imprisoned the editor of ‘For Di People,’ Paul Kamara,now a government minister, for 2 years, for merely publishing the Beoku Betts Commission Report which says Kabbah is a criminal that should not be allowed to occupy any high position in Sierra Leone. The former president had looted state funds to study abroad in the 60s. He invoked the ancient criminal libel sedition law in revenge. The deputy editor Harry Yansaneh was severely assaulted by one interest group. He died as a result of his injuries. Other newsmen got into trouble for publishing stories that told the inconvenient truth.

Koroma’s APC had been in political wilderness for about 15 years. He came to power with a mandate of goodwill to fix the wreckage left by his predecessors. He would overhaul the ACC, giving it more teeth to sting as a cobra. He promised to run the nation as a business, and asked to be held to a higher standard of accountability and responsibility by the electorate. He warned that no sacred cow would be spared in his crusade to minimize corruption, if not discourage it completely. Two of his ministers were indicted and sacked for corruption or poor job performance or both. Several indictments and investigations are in progress around the country.

But corruption here is as stubborn as New York City bed bugs, hiding in obscure places, only to surface and feed on victims. It is fleshy, juicy and mutates despite a no nonsense approach from the ACC. But punishment should fit the crime. Those indicted and convicted for corruption should pay restitution. Paying meager fines not commensurate with the crime sends the wrong message to other offenders. Prison term should be part of the punishment, because those indicted could easily pay the fine without showing remorse and change in attitude. Sentencing offenders to prison for state financial malfeasance is a deterrent to offenders.

Celebrating Sierra Leone’s 50th birthday is a time for reflection, motivation and inspiration, aspiring for the sky. Only homegrown sons and daughters could nurture her to greatness. She has awesome potentials for greatness, prosperity like splend,stepping into the shoes of noble patriots like Bai Bureh, John Akar, Wallace Johnson and Madam Yoko to build on their pioneering foundation and legacy. Slavery lasted many years, but freedom lasts forever. There’s no place like home.

Roland Bankole Marke © 2011

Visit his website: www.rolandmarke.com

Photos: The Koromas and the Obamas in Washington, DC, USA.

Comments