It has been four years since we voted in our new councils. That, after a hiatus spanning over thirty years. Tomorrow we will be another test for the resolve of the people of Sierra Leone, as we get to vote for new councils and for the first time since independence, we will be voting directly for mayors in the six municipalities.
The run up to these elections have been generally peaceful when compared to most other parts of the continent. For this we must pat each other on the back. That is not to say, however, that there have not been disturbances. How about Kono, where violence followed attacks and intimidation gave birth to fear. Tongo Fields, where the fields were opened to confrontation and acrimony. And in Freetown early in the week, where stones looked back at rocks.
In all of this, no-one is saying who exactly the offending party have been. But one thing though is certain, all these disturbances happened when the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party were having their officially-sanctioned rallies. Isn’t there something to read into that?
Whatever it is, the plea from President Ernest Bai Koroma must not be allowed to drop on deaf ears. “On election day, let us demonstrate to each other that we are a peaceful nation” he told the nation on Wednesday. That day is tomorrow. Probably not unconnected, during the final rally in Freetown by the All People’s Congress party yesterday, I met a young man around the St John roundabout with a megaphone appealing to people to restrain themselves. “If you are bitten you don’t bite back” he appealed in Krio. Brilliant move!
In the same nation-wide broadcast, the president spoke about the African Union summit that happened this week, where free and fair elections occupied centre stage. Even though unimpressed by the stance taken by African leaders (excepting that taken by my president and a few others), on Zimbabwe, the fact that the issue of clean elections was discussed at length, is one reason we must be proud of ourselves as a nation. But it does not stop there. There are responsibilities. One of those will manifest itself tomorrow and the days following it, when we go to the polls and when counting begins and results start trickling in.
By the rules, no-one is allowed to campaign today. This is a deliberate strategy to cool off tension between and among candidates and their supporters. But I swear by everything I hold sacred that some will be busy just campaigning as you read this piece.
Political tolerance has been talked about too often but acted upon too little. The political rivalry especially between the APC and the SLPP sometimes leaves so much to be desired. The acrimony, the bete-noire, the desire and wish for the worst to happen to the other is extraordinary.
When tomorrow comes, we must all be mindful of our responsibility to keep this country as one and ensuring there is no bloodletting. Doing otherwise will be disastrous. I have been following the profiles of some female candidates that are being published in the papers. And it has impressed me the typical Mende names I have read about standing under the APC party, generally regarded as a northern-based outfit. Agreed Sierra Leoneans are generally hero-worshippers, so that whoever is in power has a huge following. But the fact the party is making efforts to cut across the tribal and regional divides is impressive.
But the idea, maybe culture, of them versus us should be stemmed. Or the notion of being with or against us must also be discouraged. In what bears some of the trappings of President Laurent Gbagbo or President Abdoulaye Wade, those things that were meted out on the APC when they were in opposition, seems to be being meted out by them on the opposition, now that they are in power. I met some exuberant APC supporters yesterday clad in their beautiful colours, saying, a party in power must be respected. But some of these people were the same guys raining insults and unprintable language on a sitting president called Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 2002. It would be nice if we practised what we preached.
One other interesting thing President Koroma said in his Wednesday broadcast reads thus: “In appealing to you to remain calm and composed during the election process, we shall not hesitate to ask the security forces to treat seriously any breaches of the peace or incidences of violent conduct.” Brilliantly put! But if that is a measure to be carried out by a police force that has generally been effective but not when it has been faced with a political situation, I am sorry.
Reason: the top echelons of the Sierra Leone Police, like those of most other African countries, is full of political bigotry and sycophancy that has colonised their thinking. The police have not had the guts to give us an honest account of the violent incidents that have happened in the last few weeks. And it is not new. When in 2002, I can vividly remember, SLPP supporters chased APC supporters out of Kono, the police swept it under the carpet. I remember Ernest Bai Koroma, opposition leader at the time, calling me and sounding very frustrated on the phone. He resignedly asked how come the government would not allow people to exercise their free political will. Good question then, good question today! The following day I had him on a live breakfast show. The message went far and wide. Not surprisingly, his father-in-law (of blessed memory now) who was a member of the SLPP called me up to deny his son-in-law’s accounts. Of course I interviewed him as well. Eventually, following proper investigations, it emerged that Ernest Koroma was right. His supporters had been disenfranchised by a party doggedly determined to remain in power.
Apparently because the Vice President is the head of the Police Council, the thinking of the top of the police force is almost always blurred. The earlier that is gotten rid of, the better for the protection of political opponents. Once again, as we prepare to go to the polls tomorrow, when the day comes, let us see each other as brothers and sister, and be not disunited by the selfish motive of the politicians. Please be your brother’s keeper, and your sister’s protector. By Umaru Fofana