Sierra Leone: Beware of the Ghost of Rwanda!

By A.K. Vandi

On the night of April 6, 1994, the Presidents of Rwanda (Juvénal Habyarimana) and Burundi (Cyprien Ntaryamira) were killed when the plane carrying them was brought down by unknown forces as it approached the runway at the airport in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda. Both men were Hutus.

Hutus and Tutsis live in both countries and speak the same languages. Majority are Christians, mostly Catholics. Prior to 1994, Tutsis had greater wealth and a higher social status than Hutus who were mostly traditional farmers. This came about because Belgian colonial masters considered Tutsis to be more intelligent and favored them with opportunities for education and eventually wealth creation. By the time Belgium granted Rwanda independence in 1962, the socioeconomic disparities could not be more glaring. As the Belgians left, the majority Hutus took their place of power.

In 1994, there were an estimated 5.9 million Hutus in Rwanda compared to about 1 million Tutsis. They had lived side by side, harmoniously, for generations, intermarrying and sharing identical cultures. Then Europeans arrived and, as they say, the rest is history. It is a history, at least the circumstances of it, that is eerily similar to what is happening in Sierra Leone.

What has happened in Sierra Leone in the past ten years, and especially what is transpiring now during this election season, should be a cause of anxiety for every patriotic Sierra Leonean, leaders of the West African sub region and the larger international community.

Because the prevailing chant of tribalism, if left unchecked, has the propensity to become a conflagration that could reverse the gains of peace that have been achieved in the wake of recent conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and The Ivory Coast.

Like Rwanda, the seeds of tribal conflict in Sierra Leone were planted long ago when in 1960 Siaka Stevens of the Limba tribe broke away from the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) and formed the All People’s Congress (APC). Initially, Siaka Stevens formed the APC in protest. He wanted elections before independence, while Sir Milton Margai and the rest of the original founders of the SLPP opted for independence before elections.

Gradually, Siaka Stevens transformed the APC into a party that comprises mostly of Northerners with a predominantly Temne membership and a Limba leadership.

Temnes are the largest tribe in the north of Sierra Leone. The SLPP membership, on the other hand, is dominated by Mendes from the southeast. Though Mendes are generally more educated, the majority are poor due to years of marginalization by successive APC governments. The SLPP gained independence for Sierra Leone, but it is the APC that has ruled the country longer than any other party.

In the past ten years, most development projects have been concentrated in the north. Better hospitals, better secondary schools and universities, reliable electricity, and road construction have been concentrated mostly in the north.

In the past ten years, a privileged class of Sierra Leoneans has been created. They drive brand new vehicles that cost an average of fifty thousand United States Dollars; they live in gated mansions that most could not have afforded without government jobs; they send their children to European and American schools while the once-reputed education system in the country crumbles; they send their women abroad to deliver their babies while the country suffers high maternal and infant mortality deaths.

All of this is happening in a country where the average citizen lives on less than $1.50 a day; where children wake up at 3am to fetch water before they go to school; where more than seventy-five percent of the youths are idle because they have little or no education and no jobs.

Like Rwanda in 1994, the majority of young people in Sierra Leone are either semi-literate, without skills or without jobs. They are gradually becoming instruments of terror as they are easily influenced with handouts, alcohol and drugs to unjustifiably attack their own friends and neighbors all in the name politics.

The APC, particularly, has created a militant youth wing that has been provided illegal paramilitary uniforms, knives and other crude instruments of violence that can be used at the ready. This is frightfully akin to the Interahamwe, the murderous Hutu paramilitary youth organization that was unleashed in 1994 by the Hutu government when the plane carrying the two Presidents was brought down.

In the first round of the elections on March 7th, more than half of the country voted for change. This was expressed in the nearly sixty percent of combined votes cast for opposition parties. It was a scathing indictment of the APC government by the majority of Sierra Leoneans that they are not satisfied with the status-quo, and therefore need change.

Prior to March 7th, there were muffled accusations of tribalism that came primarily from the ruling APC. APC operatives have consistently labeled the SLPP as a ‘Mende Party,’ while the SLPP has countered that the APC is a northern party.

The verbal tit-for-tat propaganda itself may not be enough to cause alarm but should not be dismissed because it is objectionable. However, reports of senior government officials, retired and active members of the security services, actively inciting violence against members of the SLPP, and particularly against the Mende tribe, is troubling.

In Makeni, home of President Ernest Bai Koroma, there are reports of attacks on Temnes, Fullahs, Mandingos and Susus who are suspected to have voted for the SLPP and the National Grand Coalition party of erstwhile UN executive, Dr. Kandeh Yumkella; there are also reports of attacks against Mende people in Makeni – market stalls that supposedly belong to Mendes have been reportedly destroyed. Social media is awash with stories and graphics of people throwing excrement at the homes of suspected Mendes or SLPP sympathizers; there are threats of arson against SLPP supporters if they vote for their party on March 27th, the day of the run-off election.

In the Eastern Kailahun District, the stronghold of the SLPP, in the town of Gbalahun, there have been reports of retaliatory burning of houses between APC and SLPP supporters.

The spate of sporadic violence, mostly instigated by senior APC government ministers and perpetrated by APC supporters, has reached an alarming upsurge enough to claim the attention of diplomatic missions and heads of international organizations working in the country.

In 1994, the Patriotic Front of Rwanda, that comprised mostly Tutsis, was fighting to overthrow the Hutu-led government of President Juvénal Habyarimana.

The President had become unpopular due to the unbearable suffering of the people caused by unfavorable economic conditions. The government became so ostracized that moderate Hutus aligned with the Tutsi-led Patriotic Front to overthrow it.

Likewise, in Sierra Leone, unbearable socioeconomic conditions have compelled ordinary citizens to dislike the APC government to the point where moderate Temnes and other northerners voted against their presidential candidate.

In Koinadugu, Kambia and Kono Districts, previous strongholds of the APC, opposition parties gained multiple parliamentary seats and made significant inroads.

The inner core of the APC has been rattled by this and they have resorted to playing the tribal card, perhaps hoping that the consequent unrest will be a justification for declaring a state of emergency and prolonging their stay in power. This will be a miscalculation.

During the civil war many people from the Districts moved to the Freetown and its environs seeking relative safety from the fighting. Majority of them have remained in the city more than twenty years after the war, making Freetown a cosmopolitan enclave.

Further, unlike Rwanda, majority of Sierra Leoneans lack any distinctive physical features that can be associated with any particular tribe. Those who are beating the drums of tribal war must also realize that despite the regional concentration of tribes, inter-tribal marriages and internal migration of people have exposed all tribes to the horrible vulnerabilities of a full scale tribal war. That is why every Sierra Leonean, regardless of party affiliation, should reject with utter disgust this ignoble drumbeat of tribal war.

ECOWAS and the larger international community must begin to identify those who are fomenting tribal war in Sierra Leone and collect evidence for their eventual prosecution at the International Criminal Court.

All of us should be reminded of the abdication that led to the Rwanda genocide, when an unpopular government was left unimpeded to unleash inconceivable death and destruction on an entire nation.

ECOWAS leaders, especially, must make an unequivocal statement to those who are instigating tribal war in Sierra Leone that they will not find safe haven in any West African country.

Lastly, the people of Sierra Leone, regardless of tribal or party affiliation, should resist the urge to be used by unprincipled and unpatriotic politicians. We should never forget the horrors of the civil war that was visited upon us by men who pretended to be saviors but, in reality, were crooks and criminals. We must forever be mindful of the ghost of Rwanda that is hovering over our country so menacingly.

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