By Ansumana Kakpindi Vandi (email@example.com)
The months of March and April now appear to have special significance in Sierra Leone. On March 23, 1991, a rag-tag rebel group known as the Revolutionary United Front entered Bomaru, a border town in eastern Sierra Leone, and unleashed a reign of terror on the peaceful people of Sierra Leone. There was nothing revolutionary about the RUF, much as there was nothing they did to foster national unity. If anything, they were a front for a criminal enterprise that began in neighboring Liberia under the guise of a revolution. The parallel set of circumstances that misled the peoples of both countries to embrace what ultimately became their worst nightmares is an instruction in history.
In Liberia, the Americo-Liberian oligarchy (descendants of freed slaves from America) ruled the country with a detached mindset. They created a class system that saw more than 130 years of wasted opportunity. Though many of them were uneducated, they behaved as if they were better than the aborigines, the natives, country people, people who originally inhabited the land that eventually became Liberia. Instead of creating a unified country based on the collective aspirations of its people, the Americo-Liberian elite ruled the country like a fraternity, a club whose members controlled the wealth of the country and wielded enormous power and influence. They sent their children to American schools and they vacationed there. Then came April 12, 1980 when half-literate soldiers overthrew the oligarchy with a promise of change. In both instances, those promises of hope were shattered on the granite rocks of bigotry, greed and tribalism.
On April 27, 1961, Sierra Leone gained independence from Great Britain. The fanfare that greeted independence did not last. An apostate of the Sierra Leone People’s Party, the party that fought for independence, formed his own political party to foster his own ambition. Siaka Stevens’ All People Congress soon became the dominant force in Sierra Leone politics and has been for much of the country’s independence. Decades of human rights abuses and political repression by Siaka Stevens and the APC were sufficient reason that motivated a substantial majority of the population to embrace the RUF, never disapproving the devious characters of both RUF leader Foday Sankoh and his patron Charles Taylor. As it was in Liberia, so it was in Sierra Leone. The hope of change for social justice was betrayed when both Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh embarked on one of the most destructive criminal enterprises ever in West Africa.
On January 18, 2002 President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah officially declared the 11-year civil war over. His SLPP government embarked on rebuilding government institutions and affirming the rule of law. Slowly and painfully the people of Sierra Leone began to hope again. Children began to laugh again, and new schools were opened. After years of international intervention, led by ECOWAS, Sierra Leone emerged from the shameful distinction as a failed state to a renewed promise of hope. But that hopeful exuberance was betrayed when Ernest Bai Koroma and the APC returned to power. Instead of consolidating the peace and strengthening the foundations of the new democracy, Ernest Bai Koroma took the country back to the 1960s and 1970s; he put Siaka Stevens’ agenda of regional and tribal politics on steroids. Institutionalized corruption, mediocrity and moral decadence became commonplace. Indeed, Ernest Bai Koroma promised to run the country like he would run a business. He did worse than that, because any businessman who dares to run his business in the same manner Ernest Bai Koroma ran Sierra Leone for the past ten years will quickly find himself in bankruptcy. It will take a separate opinion piece, or even a book, to catalog the excesses of Ernest Bai Koroma. It suffices, for this piece, to state that the past ten years saw the erosion of confidence in government and government institutions; there was an increase in tribal animus caused by tribalization and regionalization of our politics; there were secret killings and the wholesale miscarriage of justice; Pademba Road Prison is stacked with emaciated youths, many of whom have been there for years without any criminal charges. Ernest Bai Koroma’s ten years in power can be summed up in a handful of unfanciful phrases like the infamous powers from above.
Prior to the elections, many people were uncertain that the SLPP would pull enough votes in the North and Western Areas to overcome perceived APC political leverage in those areas. In their estimation, the APC has always been the dominant political force in those parts of the country. It was perhaps the same calculation that Ernest Bai Koroma and the APC leadership banked on. They disregarded ten years of pain and suffering they imposed on the people of Sierra Leone, regardless of their tribe and region. And they did it all with arrogance and impunity. Remember the now infamous video in which Ernest Bai Koroma asserted in a rather braggadocios manner, to the applause of his supporters, that if he wanted a third term, nobody would stop him? Remember the insulting Mateus moment when Ernest Bai Koroma’s brother floated a bottle of Mateus in a drunken stupor, bragging about their highlife amid the unbearable suffering they had imposed on the people of Sierra Leone?
Times have changed. The availability of cheap Chinese-made cell phones with access to social media has broadened the collective horizon of the people. More than ever before, Sierra Leoneans now understand the power of their votes; and they are not unwilling to use it to demand accountability from their leaders. Who would have thought that Koinadugu, Falaba and other parts of the North would vote for the SLPP? Who would have predicted SLPP garnering nearly half the votes in the Western Areas? The message from the elections is this: Sierra Leoneans have realized the power and value of their votes, and they are not going to hesitate to use it to hold their leaders accountable.
In their strongholds in the South and East people voted SLPP primarily out of anger – anger at Ernest Bai Koroma and the APC for marginalizing Southeasterners in the past ten years. However, in the North and Western Areas, it was a protest vote against Ernest Bai Koroma and the APC. The embezzlement of Ebola funds; Hajjgate and Tollgate; the theft of contributions for mudslide victims and how they were mistreated; the sale of land to Chinese, the destruction of a church school that catered to Ebola orphans, and the last straw – the insult of seeing Chinese nationals openly campaigning for the APC. There are many readings from this election that the SLPP ought to pay keen attention to and not take the victory for granted.
The people of Sierra Leone voted for change, they expect nothing less. While it is important for the new SLPP government to bring discipline and accountability to governance, and even audit the APC government to recoup some of the money they misappropriated, priority should be given to the basic bread and butter concerns of the people – food, water and sanitation. In the medium and long term, as contained in the People’s Manifesto, focus should shift to food (rice) production, education, a functional national energy grid and communications network that will engender innovation and accelerate sustainable national development.
On April 27, 2018, Sierra Leoneans will celebrate 57 years of independence. This year’s celebration should not be superficial as it has been in previous years. Independence Day celebrations this year should be grounded firmly on the hope of positive change the people voted for. It should be a reassurance of the hopes and aspirations with which Sir Milton and his colleagues returned from Lancaster House. The SLPP should be mindful not to betray this new hope, because there is a price, a huge political price to pay.