By Ian Hughes, British High Commissioner to Sierra Leone.
Thursday 17 March was a rainy day in Athens’ Panathinaiko Stadium as the Olympic Torch passed from the people of Greece to the British organisers of the 2012 London Olympic Games.
That afternoon the President of Greece and HRH the Princess Royal represented their respective countries on the very spot in Athens where the Olympic Games were first revived in 1896 after slumbering forgotten for over two millennia.
Behind them, sports personalities, politicians, journalists and athletes and fans looked on as children sang, dancers retraced rituals imagined from Mount Olympus three thousand or more years ago and athletes ran around the oval track holding high the Olympic Torch. Practically and symbolically the Olympic Flame in was leaving its storied Greek home to make its way across one thousand five hundred miles of Europe to a distant, but probably still rainy London.
I watched the ceremony on television at Roberts Airport in Monrovia. The lush, green and tropical world outside could not have been more different to the cool, damp cityscape in Athens. But we assorted travellers felt the pride, shared the excitement and wished we were there in person.
The South African Ambassador and I talked about how the Olympic ideals bring people together, reduce barriers and open minds. He said that his country had been incredibly proud of its successful hosting of the World Cup. He hoped that one day Pretoria would do even better while showcasing Africa’s organisational, sporting and entertainment skills by hosting an Olympiad. I wished him and his compatriots well when that day came, as come it will.
As I boarded my plane back to Freetown I mused that Thursday was also an important day for Sierra Leone. Not a day of national celebration, of great international awareness or even one that many would immediately notice. But it marked the ticking of another of life’s clocks counting down the days to a momentous event: there were now precisely six months until the country’s Presidential and Parliamentary elections.
Preparations are well under way. The BHC website has chronicled our travels around the country looking on as over 2 million Sierra Leoneans registered. Now the democratic institutions are preparing for the next step of that process, the exhibition stage.
They have company as they get ready - Civil society, too, is on the move. National Election Watch and others are training election observers, for example. I am arranging for British election observers to come over in November to support the work of criss-cross the country to see the elections in action. But Sierra Leoneans will take the lead and outsiders will stay in the background as the country decides who is to govern for the next five years. And that’s the way it should be.
Political parties are busy too. I see them every day, directly through meetings and indirectly through the media, formulating the policies on which to build their campaigns, shaping the manifestos that would energise their hopes of victory. These will decide not just each party’s success but also to the development of Sierra Leone. The choices Sierra Leoneans make - which party to support, which candidate to vote for – will decide the future of their country. So those choices will need very careful thought.
So while Thursday 17 May was not a day to be marked by history, it carried hidden significance for all of us. There will be other important but unsung days other important but hardly noticed steps forward. But 17 November is the day that matters. Will you be ready? Will you be there? I hope so – let’s see what the people decide!