I find it increasingly incomprehensible and even ridiculous that civil society organisations in this country seem to have developed a knack for vilifying their governments in the face of the world just to endear themselves to donors. Their indiscretion becomes even accentuated when they issue press statements accusing the government of being undemocratic, non-transparent, unaccountable etc. with reckless abandon. For crying out loud, are they any better? Actually, it will be useful if from time to time some of these organizations play the devil’s advocate and aggregate public opinion on their usefulness. They will undoubtedly find that the people are asking questions. They want to know: whose interest civil society organisations are seeking? What they are actually doing for this country? Who checks their activities? How sincere and genuine they are? Answer these and you would have unraveled the greatest mystery of our nation.
It is apparent that for quite sometime now, civil society and non-governmental organisations have seemingly enjoyed so much immunity that they are virtually untouchable. No one seems interested in stirring a debate regarding their significance, performance and contribution to national development, for reasons I am still at pains to find out. I have deliberately decided to broach this complex subject and spice it with a bit of controversy, which I hope will open up a whole new Pandora’s box on the activities of civil society and non-governmental organizations in the country, and thus provoke a discourse that will resonate into the ensuing year.
Over the years, it is obvious that some civil society organisations and NGOs have used the desperation of the people and the inherent poverty in the country as the basis of their existence. They have ridden on the country’s abysmal placement on the human development index to solicit funds. Yet when the funds come, the bulk of it goes into private accounts and only a minuscule portion of it goes back to society, if any. Even that is just for the sake of justification of project implementation. In the end, the heads of these organisations ride around in four-wheel drives at the expense of this nation, then they get to attend a few conferences abroad where they would paint a blacker than black picture of the country, and back home, they will hold a few workshops here and there and then look for a few issues to publish derogatory press releases about, copies of which will definitely make the annual activity report to the donors. They, more than any other sector of this country, have exploited and failed this nation. And it is they, more than anyone else that needs to change their attitudes and practice what they preach.
Candidly, if we really want to quantify the performance of every civil society organisation in Sierra Leone, using just accountability and transparency as the yardstick, I bet you not more than 10% will make the grade. The number of civil society and non-governmental organizations in Sierra Leone is unbelievable. They come in all complexions and sizes, with finely coigned mission statements evincing a desire to promote good governance, transparency and accountability. But do they? This unchecked proliferation has made it very difficult for both government and the ordinary people to place close tabs on their activities. In the ideal world, having such a staggering number of activists and humanitarians would have been a good thing. But this being third world Sierra Leone, it is hard to say whether most of them have been up to any good. Unfortunately for this country, these organisations have been answerable to themselves. They are under no pressure, whatsoever, to perform. All they have to do is to write a report of their activities and send it to their donors. Admittedly, I can not agree with the civil society activist who said on CTN that there is no civil society in Sierra Leone.
Accordingly, I want to draw attention to a press statement on the ongoing mineral rights review process, published by the Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD) on the 23 of November instant. In the said press statement, the organisation expressed dissatisfaction over what it refers to as ‘non-transparent and non-participatory manner in which the process is being conducted, government’s lack of commitment to the process, its inability to follow simple channels of democracy, and its irresponsiveness to the feelings and aspirations of the people. Now this is a very serious verdict to pass on a government. If you say a government is not responsive to the problems of its people and cannot follow the basic principles of democracy, then you are saying it has no business representing the people. I am sure the electorates have the final say on this.
I understand and appreciate the need to keep the pressure on government so that it does not sit on its oars. But destructive criticisms such as the ones contained in the NMJD press statement will not only discredit the government in the eyes of its international partners, but it will also undermine every effort it has made to maximize the welfare of the people. This government is still grappling with the difficulty of carving out an economic path that will put our economy on the ascendancy. And to succeed in making any headway in that direction, it will have to rely heavily on donor support. Such support will not be forth coming if press statements like NMJD’s keep appearing on the web. NMJD is an organisation, by definition, that seeks to enhance justice and development in the country. Whilst its focus seems to be more or less skewed to mining related issues, I think Abu Brima, the Executive Director of NMJD, who is a key proponent of the mineral rights review process ought to realize that what is been meted out to the companies under review is gross injustice. They have been basically coerced into this review process. And their concession to it is goodwill enough. I have not seen their agreements, but I am sure there is no provision in them that states that government can review them as and when it feels like. Therefore, if government has done its best to get the process going, I think it should be appreciated rather than being vilified.
Public consultation is one of the basic ingredients of modern day governance but it has got a limit. I think it is very old fashioned to even think that government has to consult the people before it could make any decision. The world has moved beyond the direct democracy system a long time ago, which is why now we have our elected representatives to act on our behalf. It is in this same spirit that government decides to include Abu Brima and a few other civil society representatives in the review task force. It is their responsibility therefore, to articulate the views, concerns and aspirations of their constituents even as they deliberate. For his organisation to come out with a press statement decrying the process is tantamount to saying that he (Abu Brima) plus all the other civil society representives in the task force are guilty of all the charges their press statement leveled against government. Come to think of it, what more do they want government to do.? Have they ever thought about what the situation would have been like had the companies decided to question the legal basis of the review of their agreements?
What we have to acknowledge and understand is that we (Sierra Leone) are not in the position to dilly dally with investors. Without us subjecting them to strenuous and rigorous processes, credible investors are not attracted to our country, talk less of when they realize that the environment is not encouraging. Unfortunately, the current global financial crisis has just made matters worse for us, with investors investing only in those countries where their agreements will not be meddled with and the likelihood exists for them to achieve their objectives. All our efforts at the moment should be directed towards making our country as attractive as possible so that credible foreign investors will begin to look our way. But at the moment, the only investors we will attract are the fly-by-night ones that will only suck this country dry. No credible investor will gravitate to us, not with the continued deriding those already here are receiving from the civil society and NGOs alike. In my opinion, the best thing to do right now is to allow the process to continue unhindered. Any more statements like the one from NMJD will be an added repellant for credible investors. In addition to that, I think it is about time for government to start thinking about putting mechanisms in place to scrutinize some of these organizations and monitor their activities.