Sierra Leone has just successfully hosted its highest-profile heads of state meeting since the war ended nearly seven years ago. No doubt it has been a learning process for a country whose infrastructure is still creeping mainly due to a devastating civil war. Thanks to the gulf state of Kuwait that donated twelve limousines, otherwise the nightmare would have been dreaming about purgatory in hell.
In fairness to them, senior government officials gave the organisation of the summit their best shot, especially Foreign Minister Zainab Bangura. At some point on the day of the summit and the ministerial meeting that preceded it, I saw her serving as minister, usherette, et al, just to make things happen.
That said, a learning process it was; especially in the area of media relations. That was very poor. The consideration for journalists, or the lack of it, was at rock bottom. Preference was given to foreign media correspondents and a few other local ones that I could count on my right fingers without exhausting them. I was shocked at the fewness of media representatives at the summit. When I bothered to call up some colleagues, they said they were not given an invite. And with the recent experience of journalists around State House so fresh in memory, who would have attempted to go there without an accreditation.
Besides, the few of us that were present had to resist attempts aimed at making us even more irrelevant. Five chairs that had been identified to me as accommodation for the few invited journalists were later identified as “for the diplomatic community”. We had to resist this further relegation. And this was a summit the public was expected to be informed about. This was a summit that would come up with a communiqué that was to be communicated to those outside the hall. How could that happen when journalists are treated as such!
But now to the substance of the summit itself. The 35-year-old Mano River Union has been moribund for more than half its lifespan. It would seem the overthrow of Liberia’s William Tolbert and the subsequent death of Guinea’s Sekou Toure and the handover of power by Sierra Leone’s president Siaka Stevens served as the catalyst. Or may be not! The Union, and one would be forgiven for thinking so, evolved around the personal relationship between its founding leaders rather than hinging on the integration of their peoples. The core values of the MRU treaty did not hold. The only free movement of goods that ever happened was of monkey meat into Liberia.
The other thing, by no wish of the nice people of Liberia, was a war that engulfed Liberia and Sierra Leone – and by extension Guinea – and lay bare the disunity within the union. The leaders in the sub-region were as disinterested as they were indecisive in dealing with the situation first before it escalated within and subsequently outside of Liberia. One cannot help but notice that same ambivalence that was manifested at the Freetown summit and here is why.
The five-page communiqué signed by the four member states (including new entrant Cote D’Ivoire), made no reference to the situation in the disputed border town of Yenga. And the chairman of the MRU, Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, said it had not been a part of the summit. Agreed that the chairman had taken some action in the past aimed at resolving the situation, it should in no way have precluded the matter being discussed at this summit. If Cote D’Ivoire was not a member of the MRU, it would be safe to say that Yenga posed the biggest threat to peace in the basin.
Talking about Cote D’Ivoire makes me think that the name of the union should be revisited because the river does not run there. But more importantly, the question persists as to why that country was not discussed at the summit as admitted to by the chairman. It is a country on tenterhooks, where combatants are yet to be disarmed and elections have been postponed at least four times. Hear what President Johnson-Sirleaf had told me in an interview preceding the close-door meeting when asked whether they would discuss the situation in Cote D’Ivoire: “No we are not discussing that. That is not on our agenda. We just do whatever our colleague [President Laurent Gbagbo] thinks we can do to be helpful to him.” And at the post-close door meeting she defended the country not having been on their agenda; saying that was an internal matter. This is shocking! For the MRU to convene a heads of state summit just days after the presidential election in that country had been postponed again and not discuss the new entrant, leaves one confused.
Having said that, the fact that a non-traditional member of the union has decided to join, speaks a lot about how relevant the union can be made if only concrete steps are taken. And steps towards taking these steps have started stepping up. The Freetown meeting produced a communiqué that aims to address the issue of food security. Preceding the summit had been a series of meetings by the four countries’ agriculture ministers to come up with a framework on providing food for some of the hungriest people in the world. The specifics are not yet public, but the fact that so much has been put into this is laudable. And here are the two ironies that I think are the most distinct.
The Mano River Union basin has some of the most equitably distributed weather patterns of rainfall and sunshine in the world. With arable land in all the countries where irrigation can be done without, it has always been an indictment that our leaders in these countries chose to over-rely on imported rice from Asia.
The summit also discussed the issue of drug-trafficking in the region. I understand that the United Nations was more vociferous about this than the leaders were. Be that as it may, if the words in the communiqué do not fall victim of what befell many other treaties and communiqués in the past, we should be moving towards food security. But like President Ernest Bai Koroma told the summit, all efforts will be futile if the peace in the region is not consolidated. The recent lessons of war and instability are an all-too familiar reminder of how war deprived Bo and the Liberia border from being linked by a well-paved highway.
Most importantly, it is good to let us know clearly the standpoint of our Union especially in time of need. Our leaders must strengthen the ties that bind their peoples by encouraging civil society partnership and cultural exchange programmes. And for the fools and robbers calling themselves border guards and personnel, extortion should be rewarded with severe punishment. And let us move more freely across our borders. And let the goods and services serve the good of the Ivorians, Liberians, Guineans and Sierra Leoneans. By Umaru Fofana