How President Bio should defuse the tensions in Sierra Leone

By Umaru Fofana

It would be disingenuous of anyone who said that they were happy with the way relationships are or have been among citizens of Sierra Leone in the last 11 years. In other words, it cannot be gainsaid that a significant section of the Sierra Leonean society is angry and feels marginalised. If relations were this frosty during the rebel war, the viciousness and carnage that characterised it would have paled into insignificance and come close to Rwanda proportions.

Agreed that some of the reasons for the grievances of northerners are based on paranoia emanating from certain political leaders deliberately poisoning their minds to fan the embers of hate, but some of them are based on reality and a genuine fear or concern. It is all about politics and the sharing of the national cake.

Truth be told, our politics – by extension our governance – doesn’t provide equal opportunities. Depending on which party is in power, a certain part of the country feels left out or treated less preferentially. People in the victim region then feel hard done by and consequently become angry. Tension mounts and becomes so palpable that the slightest opportunity sparks things off.

The events of 31 May at the headquarters of the opposition All People’s Congress party in Freetown could have been better handled. With dozens of party members and supporters still in detention awaiting trial, a presidential intervention is needed.

When in April 2009 SLPP members suffered similar indignities and barbarity at the hands of the police and APC supporters, I made a call for the then President Ernest Bai Koroma to visit the damaged SLPP party headquarters to help heal the wound. By coincidence or not – it doesn’t really matter – President Koroma went to the Unity House. It was an unannounced visit and he only called the SLPP leadership when he was close. In a famous telephone call to John O. Benjamin at the time the leader of the party, President Koroma asked: “Where are you? I have taken over your office”.

SLPP party supporters cheered the president regardless of the fact that their offices had just been torched and badly damaged. For the first time in a long time there were smiles on their faces. To a large extent that visit helped calm down the nerves and eased the inter-party dialogue that followed through the mediation of the United Nations family in the country.

Since the recent happenings at the APC headquarters President Julius Maada Bio has not said anything about it; at least not publicly. I think he should do so now. He can do so without necessarily appearing or sounding to be compromising the matter before the courts. He should even visit the party headquarters to show that he represents everyone’s interests. I am sure if those skirmishes had happened at the SLPP offices, regardless of the circumstances, the president would have visited.

President Bio does not have to make his own visit unannounced. He can work with the leadership of the APC to arrange for a date and time to visit. He can walk around the office and assuage the anger of the party faithful. He can even have lunch with the rank and file members of the party.

There is a fundamental difference between inviting the APC leadership to State House and talking to them in front of the ordinary members and supporters, especially in the aftermath of the events of 31 May.

In their latest pastoral letter, the Catholic Bishops of Sierra Leone write: “More than ever before there is the need for unity and national cohesion in our beloved nation… We should work together as one united national family to dispel hatred and division and promote harmony and tolerance.” They go on that there is the dire need for “a renewed and transformed Sierra Leone built on unity, justice and freedom”.  

At the very least, it is time for the bitter battles to be minimised to the very least. The President can follow up that visit to the party headquarters with a deliberate visit to various parts of the north and northwest of the country. The recent one by Vice President Juldeh Jalloh was a great move. But he is from the north. The misgivings many – perhaps most – northerners have is about President Bio. He should come down from the high horse however much of the president he is.

I don’t think anyone has since Siaka Stevens been as prepared to become president of Sierra Leone before becoming so, as Maada Bio. And more than Stevens, Bio had been a (military) head of state and deputy head of state before returning 22 years later. He has to show that by not relying too much on what some hawks within his inner circle may be telling him. Supremacist ideologues must have no place in our body politic!

As I have argued before, I don’t think there will ever be civil war in Sierra Leone in our lifetime. But every civil disturbance or unrest is one too discomforting for all of us and too suffocating to investment and growth. Imagine President Bio holding a town hall style meeting at the University of Makeni with students from other institutions invited. He should open himself up to questioning from the students. After all he was there during campaigning which was even more tense and volatile. Now he is President and has far less to fear or be concerned about his safety. He is safe. After all Makeni is a peaceful place.

Once the president faces those students he should have a clear plan for the north which he will articulate. Responding well to questions from students and lecturers can help dispel so many lies being peddled and defuse the tension in the country.

Some two years ago I travelled to Kamakwie in the Karena District. I was doing a documentary on maternal health for Comic Relief in the UK. One of our characters was a pregnant woman from a far flung area. Going there required crossing on a locally-made ferry. People in that part of the country are almost forgotten about. They suffer almost unnoticed. As we waited for the ferry, I joked with people from nearby villages who were busy with their illegal logging business that they should vote for me to become the next president so I would build a bridge for them.

“Our brother is going to be the next president and the only thing we have asked of him is to build a bridge here for us,” they told me. That brother was Dr Samura Kamara who had just been chosen as the presidential candidate of the then ruling APC party.

A visit by President Bio to Karena District, home of Dr Samura Kamara, will definitely ease tensions. Building that bridge will assuage the anger and indignation among the people. It will also save lives and ease the suffering of thousands of Sierra Leoneans who live in the area. It will even boost trade and boost the economy. President Bio should look into this and travel to the area and make the announcement and follow it through. It doesn’t matter who they voted for or will vote for, north and south are all parts of Sierra Leone. And the Bio that I know is not as bad as he is being made to appear. But he is not making much effort to prove his critics wrong however wrong they may be.  

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