October 9, 2015 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff
There is a clear double standard in official circles in Sierra Leone in respect of the democratic right to hold peaceful demonstrations. We are always proud to say we are a democratic nation-state, but it seems the authorities and their apologists are more than happy to cherry pick some aspects of democracy while jettisoning the others willy-nilly.
The police, headed by Francis Munu, have been guilty of condoning that double standard and in effect being part of the unholy plan to stifle democratic rights in ‘democratic’ Sierra Leone.
The Francis Munu led police force has churned out many incredible reasons or excuses for not allowing peaceful demonstrations to go ahead across the country. They include a dearth of resources, probable infiltration by hoodlums, disturbing public peace, et al. While infiltration of hoodlums cannot be entirely dismissed, the excuse of lack of resources and disturbing public peace is, with respect, puerile to say the least.
For example, a planned meeting of the pusillanimous Sierra Leone Bar Association in the wake of the controversial sacking of the elected vice president was abandoned after Munu failed to give it his seal of approval. Could any logical person expect a meeting of lawyers to be infiltrated by trouble makers? Munu cannot plausibly argue that lawyers holding placards within the precinct of the Temple of Justice would be disturbing public peace!
When the Supreme Court controversially ruled in favour of the government, there was a spontaneous demonstration in support of the ruling around the vicinity of the court and on Siaka Stevens Street. Again, no arrests were made. Not even retrospective as was the case with those who demonstrated in front of the American Embassy in Freetown, condemning the sacking of Chief Sam-Sumana.
As political parties are preparing for by-elections, thousands of opposition and ruling party members and supporters have been rallying in Freetown. The police have not only turned a blind eye, they have shown them routes to use, causing gridlock and making life more stressful for an already traumatised population.
The question that thus begs for an answer is: “What is the difference between these mass gatherings and the botched planned demonstration by the Alliance Democratic Party? Would the former gathering spread Ebola or not? By the way Munu incredulously proffered as one of the reasons not to allow Mohamed Kamarainba Mansaray and peaceful Sierra Leoneans to demonstrate the Ebola and the state of emergency.
Just this week, Guinean nationals in Freetown had laid siege at their embassy. It took Munu and his men more than 48 hours to disperse the crowd; I hope it was a coincidence, because the police suddenly came to life after Sierra Leoneans brought both issues into sharp focus, that is, whether Guineans can be allowed to stage demonstrations here while Sierra Leoneans are refused the same right.
It is crystal clear that the game plan of this government and the police (who do their bidding) has always been to grant permission to some demonstrators, such as Power Women, who do not pose any perceived threat to government, and to out rightly deny those they imagine could expose the frailties of a scandal prone government: be it the sacking of an elected vice president, the Ebolagate, busgate or the 50 man UN delegation.
It is more as a result of the above reasons that the Alliance Democratic Party was denied the right to simply converge in front of the Law Court building to register their disapproval of a ruling by the Supreme Court that has been universally pooh-poohed, not least by lawyers and those who framed the 1991 Constitution. It is also in that vein that some opposition parties and civil society groups have been blackmailed and the public hoodwinked to believe that holding a peaceful demonstration in a democratic state means “war and mayhem”.
The fact is that a country which does not allow peaceful demonstrations is autocratic and like Kamarainba rightly quipped, may be sleeping in a democracy, only to wake up one day in an autocracy, albeit one legitimized by the courts and “the people”.
It is little wonder that a recent Afrobarometer report rated our democratic progress as retrogressing, as exemplified by a lack of trust in the judiciary and lack of faith in most democratic institutions.