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How many times can we say NEVER AGAIN? Op-ed

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Looking at the social media clips on Wednesday, August 10 this year, you cannot help but conjure the memories of the January 6th massacre, which left an indelible mark on the psyche and conscience of a great nation, Sierra Leone. What happened on this day has no doubt undergone several christening rituals. While some prefer to call it a demonstration, others described it as a riot, a protest, a demonstration, terrorism/insurrection, etc.

Sierra Leone’s constitution grants all citizens the right to PEACEFUL protest, assembly, and demonstration. We clamor to exercise this right but conveniently omit the qualifying adjective at our pleasure. What happened on Wednesday was anything but peaceful. Irrespective of your political persuasion, irrespective of your opinion of the overall saga, it is plausible to conclude that the majority of Sierra Leoneans agree that the destruction of property and the loss of lives was not the answer to any of the problems.

Thankfully, the dust is seemingly settling, and there can be no better time for moments of reflection. Interestingly, this moment of reflection has engendered the proverbial blame game, which many use as the antidote for the hearts and minds of the public. It is safe to say that the PR machines from the associated parties have gone into overdrive. The spin-doctors have moved into second gear, as they trade excuses and analysis of how we got here in the first place. The causes of this regrettable chapter in our history remain varied, from internal to external sources. One common denominator among these is the issue of “incitement”.

There is a general understanding or explanation, that those who engaged in the wanton destruction and deaths were “incited”. While it remains difficult and near impossible to deny this accusation, it leaves one wondering whether the participants were unwilling but weaponized conduits. The thrust of this piece is to reinforce the need to give peace a chance. However, any attempt to give peace a chance would not be complete if we do not take a collective look in the mirror. That comes with a sense of honesty as humanly possible, patriotism, and a genuine desire to live and let live.

Why?

While it is generally agreed that the debacle was in response to the current economic situation and the living crisis of ordinary Sierra Leoneans, other schools of thought and especially from government circles believe that this was a politically machinated exercise devised and executed with maximum precision to dislodge a democratically elected government. Others go as far as tie this sad event to a widely held notion and accusation that it is a segment of the opposition APC’s mission to make Sierra Leone ungovernable. For this piece, a quick look at President Maada Bio’s speech to the nation might just give us a point of departure here.

Sadly, and according to thesierraleonetelegraph.com newspaper, “Many are worried that President Bio’s emotionally charged response rather than a cool, level-headed speech will serve little purpose but risk driving thousands of youths underground to pose more threat and danger to the peace and stability of the nation”. In his speech, President Bio vowed to, “Crack down hard on violent insurrectionists, their collaborators, their sponsors, and their supporters. My Government will relentlessly fight those who would rather use terror and gruesome violence to achieve political goals,” (thesierraleonetelegraph.com, 13/08/22).

The military was one of the earliest casualties of the events on Wednesday when Bio shuffled the deck. According to President Bio, “Before August 10th, they had severally identified themselves on social media as APC Warriors, PPP, and persons who are determined to capture political power even at the cost of hundreds of lives. For some time now also, some politicians have been raising tensions with divisive language and threats to make this country ungovernable. Their known surrogates and associates have stated that they will continue to illegally use violence to unseat the democratically elected Government. The events of August 10 were a clear statement of their collective intent. (thesierraleonetelegraph.com, 13/08/22).

If the above statement is anything to go by, is it time to ask some questions here? Remember that these are just questions for the mirror. Firstly, was there a clear and present danger to Sierra Leone? Was there an imminent threat to the peace and security of the nation? If so, how seriously did the government take these threats? What did the government do about these threats? If “some politicians have been raising tensions with divisive language and threats to make this country ungovernable”, what did President Bio and his administration do about that? How prepared was the government, in mitigating and ameliorating such threats?

These are just some of the questions many are raising. Did President Bio take his eye off the ball? Did his administration underrate the threat? What were the risk assessments and risk management plans like, if any? Was there a sense of complacency? Was there a misplaced self-assurance? President Bio rightly named the hot spots, “Makeni, Binkolo, Magburaka, Kamakwie, Lungi, Western Rural, and Eastern Freetown”. These are widely regarded as the opposition APC strongholds, seemingly lending credence to the political backdrop of the ownership of the carnage. Some might question whether these are the only places that feel the economic pinch. Why not Kombayendeh or Regent?

In his speech, the President reported on the developmental strides his government has achieved in the last four years. He spoke about the efforts made to keep a lid on price hikes on fuel, the midwife of all the economic strife. He spoke about keeping businesses running, paying salaries regularly, social safety payments, cash transfers, and loan facilities to generate small businesses. He mentioned the efforts made to keep the free quality education and healthcare projects prioritized. These were all highlighted against the backdrop of global events including the Covid-19 pandemic and most recently the Ukraine-Russia crisis. It would be deceitful not to acknowledge the impact these events have had on the world’s economies, including Sierra Leone. However, did President Bio’s speech come too late, too little?

So, in the spirit of the blame game, who is to blame?

One of the perennial criticisms Bio has faced is the lack of communication from his team. Many accuse his government of being “too aloof and detached from the people”. It is interesting that president Bio prides himself as the “Talk & Do” leader. Many would subscribe to the “do” side of things. I wonder how many would do so for the “Talk” bit. We know that his administration is adept at giving reams of press releases. Nevertheless, there is a significant difference between paper releases and voiceprints.

There is a bonus in creating that human touch between the governors and the governed. It goes a long way to see a face behind a voice. Spin-doctors, information attaches, press secretaries, and self-appointed jellabas can only do so much. You can’t put a price on the impact of seeing your president on television, telling you that he feels your pain, he understands where you are coming from, but most importantly, he is working very hard to address the situation. Would you find that refreshingly reassuring? I do not know about you, but I would.

Considering what we know, “For some time now also, some politicians have been raising tensions with divisive language and threats to make this country ungovernable. Their known surrogates and associates have stated that they will continue to illegally use violence to unseat the democratically elected Government”, what would have happened if President Bio had delivered a similar address to the nation a week or so ago? Would that have stopped the riots? Should Bio engage his people more in the big conversation? Should he listen in action? To all intents and purposes, could such a speech have demonstrated empathy and strengthened the human connection with the electorate nationwide, in these desperate times? Nevertheless, in a separate interview with the BBC Focus on Africa program, President Bio was honest to acknowledge unemployment of the youth and hardship as contributory.

Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. That is not to suggest a lack of it in this case. We know that power usually comes from our awareness of our cultural strengths and our boundless capacity to empathize with our brothers and sisters. Former British politician David Miliband once said,” Good politics starts with empathy, proceeds to analysis, then sets values and establishes the vision, before getting to the nitty-gritty of policy solutions”. We do have well-meaning politicians in our midst. Are they in the majority? Your guess is as good as mine is. This brings us to the role of the opposition APC party in the unfortunate saga.

As the finger pointing goes, the APC-leaning Mayor Aki-Sawyer has reportedly come under attack from certain sections of the administration, which allegedly accuse her of inciting the violence. She vehemently denied the accusation and believes that as part of a long-running attempt to remove her from office, she has become a scapegoat for convenience (the sierraleoneneantelegraph.com). As a member of the APC, does she represent the apparent widely held conviction that the APC party was the architect of this debacle? In response, the APC party released a statement in the immediate aftermath of the bloodshed.

The party “unreservedly condemns violence in every form”. It reminded “all stakeholders that citizens have a constitutional right to engage in peaceful protests, done within the confines of and with respect for the law”. It reaffirmed that “as a party, we continue reaffirming and reinforcing our commitment to sustainable peace and national cohesion. More than ever, our democratic institutions and processes must live up to the constitutional tenets and respect the rule of law” (thesierraleonetelegraph.com-11/08/22).

So, where did we hear this before? Many are wondering why the APC party does not make such declarations when self-appointed individuals were issuing threats in the name of the party. There are many social media video clips showing individuals draped in APC party colors, masquerading as mouthpieces for the party. So, many are wondering why did the APC party not publically condemn or disowned these individuals at the time. Why did the party not distance itself from them? How beautiful can it be to remain silent when someone expects you to be enraged? Is this another “too late, and too little” political balm? “For evil to prosper, it takes the good to do nothing” (E. Burke). Where does that leave the APC party in this saga?

So, where does that leave our youths in all this?

It is no surprise that many see our youths as cannon fodder for political intrigues. We see them as victims of elaborate schemes to channel our political ambitions. It is no wonder that the youths can be used, abused, misused, and later refused on several fronts. They form the bedrock of our perennial unemployment statistics. Throughout our history, there has been very little to write home about our youths. Lest we forget, our youths personify the painful reminders of our decade-long war. The majority were born, bred, and breastfed during the ravages of our war. It is one thing to disarm the youths of weapons, but it is an entirely different proposition to detoxify them from their trauma.

This is no attempt to provide a convenient excuse for their behavior. Nor is it an attempt to absolve them of any responsibility in this saga. However, we must remember that these youths, the majority of whom are young adults today were child soldiers yesterday. They could pass for a bye product of our senseless war. It was gut-wrenching to see them beating an already dead police officer to death. It takes an enormous amount of humankind’s capacity for savagery, brutality, and lack of empathy, and compassion to mete out such behaviors. It is obvious that the war provided such acquired capacity for violence, and that is not an excuse.

Our politicians cannot deny knowledge of this. Therefore, why do our politicians weaponize our children’s psychological trauma? Why do they use and misuse them as political missiles against their opposition? With what happened on Wednesday, does that give credence to Wole Soyinka’s quote that “only in Africa will thieves be regrouping to loot again and the youths whose future is being stolen will be celebrating”? If the youths of today are the leaders of tomorrow, what kind of world, are we bequeathing to them? What would be our legacy for them? Do the events of Wednesday 10th demonstrate our penchant to attract chaos or just being tragedy thirsty?

Do our political parties know that dimming the other person’s light does not make yours shine brighter? Why have we lost the ability to see the good in others? With all the recriminations, finger pointing, accusations, and fallouts are our politicians shutting the barn door when the horse had already bolted? Was this an avoidable episode in our checked recent history? How many times do we have to say “NEVER AGAIN?

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter (MLK). With partisan politics replacing the integrity of journalism in our country, where does that leave our FIFTH ESTATE?

Don’t forget to turn the lights out when you leave the room.

By Abdulai Mansaray

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