Those whose ears are clogged should remove the clog. Those whose eyes are specked should clear their sight. And those whose scalp is stony should put on a hat. Exactly three weeks ago, supporters of the governing All People’s Congress and the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party were at each other’s throat at the opposition’s headquarters in Freetown.
Exactly three weeks on, in the same place, opposition supporters were ecstatic and even chanted their rivals’ slogan “Owai! Osai!” This, to welcome to their party’s damaged headquarters President Ernest Bai Koroma who paid them a surprised and unannounced visit there on Saturday. His first to the office since the elections of 2007 that brought him to power.
The move was hair-raising and left me with pregnant eyes and asking myself as I stared at the president and the opposition leaders present, why anyone should fight the other especially over politics. The president’s visit no doubt was a powerful move that should reverberate across the country indicating an end to the long absence of political tolerance and the return of peace. This is a spectacular show of statesmanship by the president.
Like he told me as he walked down the stairs of the SLPP headquarters, his visit was to consolidate the peace as evidenced by the pact signed last week between the two parties. He said he wanted to show that he was president of “all political parties, all regions and all factions” in the country. No better way to put it! This is what is needed in a country battered by an internecine war that defied human horror and tragedy in all their forms. How soon must we allow ourselves to forget this!
With equanimity, President Koroma who was clad in short, t-shirt and designer crepes, told me that fixing the SLPP headquarters was of concern to his government referring to the damage done to it as “regrettable”. Asked whether he would help rehabilitate the building which has come under attack at least three times since the party lost power in September 2007, the president told me that he would use both his personal as well as the state’s resources to repair it. Anyone who damages the building thereafter would have done both the SLPP and the state a disservice.
The president’s demeanour told me he was genuinely remorseful for the vandalism done to the 4-storey opposition building. His eyes spoke of commitment and sincerity as he did not blink too fast as he spoke. Since it was a moving interview in that we spoke as we walked down the steps, even if he wanted to put a spin to the whole affair he did not have the comfort to think of such; meaning therefore that he meant what he said. He must be an Oscar winning actor to have been pretending. I believe his show of commitment. If this cannot assuage the opposition, then nothing else can.
Coming after this paper had suggested it and even suggested that the state undertake the repairs of the building in the spirit of statesmanship and national cohesion, this visit shows the president is listening to reasoning as opposed to some hardliners that are usually on the corridors of power. By this, he has exhibited an essential quality of good leadership.
The president’s visit followed that of his party’s secretary-general Victor Foh who, I understand, even chanted “One Country, One People” the slogan of the opposition party. Both visits come ahead of a reciprocal one to the APC party headquarters which I understand will this week play host to the opposition leader John Benjamin and his entourage where they will meet with President Koroma.
Fundamental to all this is the sustainability of the peace efforts. Peace is not an event rather it is a process. And should be hands-on goaded. It is early days to judge the thickness of the glue with which the peace has been enveloped. But the two parties must avoid any form of brinkmanship for whatever reason. At the moment, there is no contest. The APC will hold their convention next week in an all-APC thing just as it was an all-SLPP affair when they had theirs about a month ago. When it comes to the crunch and inter-party activities come up again, we should expect these two groups to show good leadership and always keep their irate supports under control.
We know President Koroma is loved, adored and even revered especially by his supporters but also by many of his critics. He is not the problem the latter say. We also know that the opposition leader Benjamin is liked, adored and revered by his supporters. Not sure how much his critics don’t mind him. So for two different reasons, both men have a task at hand when it comes to the crunch to not let the cookie crumble.
The message of peace should be taken across the country both individually and collectively with the parties sharing podium and encouraging their supporters to adopt that virtue of coexistence. And there must be no hypocrisy about it. There are more decent ways in which political parties can disagree with each other on issues without sounding bellicose or acting belligerent. A positive message passed on with militancy can be misconstrued by illiterate supporters. And a tough cracking criticism can pass off the ears and eyes of the illiterate with only the message sinking if it is done with civility and decency. But come to think of it, it must not always be disagreement. It is not a written rule that the opposition must always disagree with government whatever it does. Nor should government not accept a positive criticism against it by the opposition or anyone else at that.
The SLPP should take this in their stride and show appreciation both in word and in action to the president’s singular action. If this his brilliant and nationalistic move does not receive reciprocity from the opposition, his hardliners within his party would have won the argument and they will tell him “we told you so”. But like opposition leader John Benjamin said, it should be the start of decent politics for the country, and all we must seize the opportunity to cease anything with the tendency to scupper our peace and stability. Please let Sierra Leone win.
By Umaru Fofana