From the Editor’s Keyboard

The world of the Salone Thug

By  | 8 December 2010 at 05:40 | 832 views

What’s a thug? What do we mean when we talk about a thug in Sierra Leone politics and the Sierra Leone media?

A basic dictionary definition says a thug is a person who is a vicious criminal or ruffian.

The thug is always considered a male (the notion of a female thug just does not sound right to some people even though there ARE female thugs all over the world).

In Sierra Leone a female thug might be called a Raray Gial, a nomenclature that evokes unbridled sexuality and prostitution. Not a nice label for any woman, not like the male Raray Boy (which conjures images of recklessness, cruelty, danger, bravado and machismo).

Many people, including me, do not like the way some of our educated brothers and sisters talk about the Salone thug (which, to me, is just a disadvantaged person prone to violence).

Nobody is born a thug, as I discovered when I was growing up in the east end of Freetown, where you have a large number of such young men and women from poor homes with very little or no formal education with a penchant to strike back at society by doing things considered illegal or immoral, just to stay alive, or put food where their mouth is.

Sierra Leone’s comparatively tiny number of educated middle class and upper middle class supremos call them thugs or “Raray Boy en Raray Gial dem.” My parents, bless them, saved me from thugdom by sending me to some of the best schools the city could offer. I was lucky. But I have the utmost respect for the average “thug”, because I know it’s just a label from the mouths and hearts of the lucky and privileged chattering class of my country.

According to some statistics I have seen, 80 percent of Sierra Leoneans cannot read or write or understand English, the country’s official language ( a fact that defines or help to construct the world view of a lot of so-called educated Sierra Leoneans).

This lack of access to the English language and to formal education means most of the country’s population has no chance in hell of having a decent job in the private or public sectors. No chance at all. They are condemned to a life of hardship and penury.

Those who get into self-employment have to overcome gigantic hurdles to actually scramble out of the dark pit of poverty. Survival and “making it” is, for them, a very painful struggle, with enormous sweat, blood and tears, to paraphrase somebody, I think it’s Winston Churchill. Yes, to lack formal education is a horrible thing and in a place like Sierra Leone it’s just hell on earth. Welcome to the world of the Salone thug.

Most of Sierra Leone’s population is young, below 30. Out of this swirling mass, most of them are illiterate; they have to hustle and scramble in the big cities to have food to eat, a place to sleep and clothes to wear. Most of them are ready to do anything to stay alive. Anything.

During the war, a lot of them became rebels, civil militia or part of the government troops. Some were forcibly conscripted or gently cajoled into this combat life but a large number also enthusiastically became rebels, civil militia and government soldiers because they know somebody, usually an older and richer person, is going to take care of their food and clothing, at least. Or they will get the things they want through the barrel of the gun, as Chairman Mao once said.

I know Mao was talking about power, but what’s power? It’s, in my opinion, ability to get what you want. The ability to control people, the ability to tell them to jump and they jump, the ability to do anything to their bodies and their possessions. For the disadvantaged youth or thug, that’s heaven on earth. During the war, they thoroughly enjoyed it while it lasted. After the war, most of them became civilians again. Walking the streets with nothing to do. Waiting.

They sprang into action in the 2002 and 2007 elections and we know what they did. They “spoke” in Kono recently. You can find them in all the political parties although the opposition SLPP sometimes pretends they don’t actually have thugs in their ranks. Rubbish.

Look, the average thug does not consider himself a thug or even a violent person. I don’t know if it’s a psychological aberration, but if you really talk to them (most Sierra Leoneans don’t, they would rather avoid them) they will tell you the violent people are the educated folks, the politicians, professionals and so on.

“They come, they give us money , tell us what to do, and we do it,” one of them once told me in my journalism days in Freetown. I used to hang out with them and they always provide breaking news and new insights on life in the country. They know what’s happening in the country 24-7; their brothers and sisters and cousins who manage to get jobs are the office boys, cleaners, drivers and mistresses of the rich and powerful . They get the news, the juicy news, from them daily. Some of them spend hours everyday just sitting around in government offices. Listening. Observing. Waiting. They are extremely intelligent, very smart, very cunning. Here is one example of their smartness:

When the AFRC coup that chased President Kabbah and his friends happened in 1997, the “thugs” went into action , stealing, robbing, burning, raping and so on. For them it was not just a matter of getting material things or money, it was also an opportunity to assert themselves, to take control of a country of which they are in the majority, an opportunity to chase away all the “ book men and women” and take their places in the offices, throwing their weight around, as the educated folks used to do. Some of the thugs actually manned or occupied some government offices, giving orders to secretaries. Having a good time.

The leaders of the AFRC coup were like them too, hardly literate, so the thugs considered the junta their own government. But they were smart enough to know they will not be in power for long because the book men and women will surely come back one day, like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. So when the junta was removed, the thugs were ready.

As soon as the overthrown government returned the same thugs that were causing the mayhem were the same people going from house to house with ECOMOG troops identifying, stabbing, skinning alive, gunning down and burning alive with petrol Kabbah’s political opponents and critics. It was something to watch, this sudden transformation of the so-called stupid thug in places like Freetown, Bo, Kenema, Makeni , Koidu and other cities.

The politicians, the ones that returned to power, of course loved it, so did some local and international observers. They were completely fooled by the uneducated thug, the one they have so much contempt for. They called the thugs that welcomed them (the same people they had threatened with extinction when the junta was in power) “pro-democrats” and “civil defence forces” amidst much singing and dancing. And the thugs were laughing and singing along with them. They (thugs) would then return to their “ghetto” and dance to Bob Marley, chanting and drowsily singing about about “Boll heads.” To them "bald" is "boll." Who cares for the niceties of English? Not the Salone thug.

But here is a conundrum for you: Despite the utter contempt for the thug displayed by most of Sierra Leone’s educated elites, they (educated elites) have always turned to them (the thugs) to help them capture political power.
During the war the thugs were used by both the government and rebel forces as we have illustrated above. When there is no war they are used by ALL the political parties to carry out a multitude of tasks. The Salone thug is consequently the most exploited and manipulated human being in that country.

And he (it’s always a he) KNOWS it. But the thug is usually smarter and more intelligent than the average educated Joe or Jane that has known nothing but a sheltered life, who has never felt the pangs of hunger or slept under a leaking roof or put on “junks” (used clothing). The thug, who experiences all of the above day in and day out has to be smart or he will soon die. Extreme poverty forces you to be smart, to grow up quickly.

So when the thug meets the educated person or “boll head”, the thug always wins because of the severe lessons life had taught him. The thug knows how to get money from the boll head, how to shift blame for all atrocities committed to the boll head.

The thug always knows, in an election, which party is stronger, has more financial resources, is more organized, and is more likely to seek his interests. And he almost always gravitates towards that party.

In the 2002 election, Kabbah’s SLPP had more financial resources, was more organized and was ready to throw money on thugs. Ernest Koroma’s APC was at that time highly disorganized and did not have a lot of money. So the thugs campaigned, did things and voted for Kabbah. They “chopped” the little money Ernest Koroma had and wished him better luck next time. So Kabbah won.

In the 2007 elections, the tables turned. Ernest Koroma’s APC was more organized,more popular, had more financial resources to handle the thugs. Solomon Berewa and his SLPP on the other hand, had lost the financial goodwill of the international money bags. So the so-called thugs, the same people that had been voting for the SLPP gravitated towards Ernest Koroma’s APC. But they (the thugs) decided to also “chop” Berewa’s money. They quickly lined up at his house in a quiet residential part of Freetown, in their rags and jeans, asking for SLPP t-shirts and…money. Which Berewa gave them in big, fat bundles. At the end of the day Ernest won. Berewa’s SLPP did not get a single seat in Freetown, the capital. Some people called the thugs that mounted that operation on Berewa, “Watermelon” supporters, green outside, red inside. For those who don’t know, Green is the SLPP colour and red is the APC colour.

The thug is always smarter. As the late president Siaka Stevens once put it, Na sense mek book, norto book mek sense (book learning does not confer common sense). Siaka Stevens, Sierra Leone’s first executive president, was a foster child, from a poor home in the interior who found himself in a reasonably well to do family in Freetown where he used to do all the dirty work. He knew and understood the common man, the common woman, and… the thug.

It should be noted, however, that the Salone thug does not always ask for money from politicians or political parties or individual candidates. Sometimes they can do anything for a candidate or party that seeks their interests, respects them and speaks their language.

Also, not all young people from poor homes in the country end up as thugs but the vast majority do, through no fault of theirs. I have to make this distinction because although this is obvious to most people, you have some who may not get it.

Conclusion: It is time for some Sierra Leonean intellectuals and leaders (and their foreign cronies) to have some respect for Sierra Leone’s so-called thugs, who are not just in the majority, but are also the main voters, willing to stand out there, rain or shine, to cast their ballot and obey the commands of the politicians…for a fee.

They are the real power brokers; nobody wins an election in that country without their support. They are a double edged sword; they can be good, they can be bad.

This is not a glorification of the Salone thug (his counterpart can be found all over Africa and the developing world) but a wake up call, a summons to reality. The thug is capable of doing a lot of good things in that country; but he can also destroy it. See what he did during the war. Nobody is however born a thug, I must repeat. Society creates the thug. Sociology 101.

One way to make the thug stay on the good path is to help them get an education. Help them get decent jobs or decent businesses they can run profitably. Give them the tools to succeed. Keep them out of trouble. Stop insulting them. Stop trying to use and manipulate them. Respect them. If you don’t respect them how do you expect them to respect you?