DECEMBER 11, 2014 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff
Such is the fraternal bond – expressed in historical, sociological and cultural ties – between Nigeria and Sierra Leone that governments now and in future should hail Nigeria for being a special friend to Sierra Leone.
Africa’s most populous country and the giant of the continent has always stood by Sierra Leone both in good and bad times, providing brain and brawn, men and women, in almost all spheres of human existence. That is the hallmark of a ‘Big Brother’, which Nigeria is always willing and ready to provide in support of and in solidarity with tiny Sierra Leone.
The unshakable fraternal ties between both countries span long years, perhaps since the anti-slave trade movement in the 1800s when the Admiralty Court was established here in Freetown, then the Province of Freedom, to put on trial slave merchants caught in the high seas with slaves bound for the Americas, despite the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. These Recaptives, many from Nigeria, made Freetown home and became integrated in the new found colony by adapting to their new environment and blending their cultural beliefs with those practiced by inhabitants they met. It is perhaps the single most reason why names of Creoles in Sierra Leone bear marked similarity with their Yoruba brethren in south-west Nigeria.
But the attraction is not just historical. It also stems from the academic. Fourah Bay College, the premier higher institution in sub-Sahara Africa, played host to many students from around Africa, including Nigeria, who went on to become great teachers, lawyers, doctors, clergymen and civil servants in colonial and post-colonial Africa. Of course the work of Archbishop Adjai Crowther, who went on to pacify the restless tribes of the Niger, bringing with him education and religion, is legendary.
In essence, the relationship between our two countries has been symbiotic, with Sierra Leone exporting great educators, clergymen and administrators to Nigeria during the colonial era, to help ‘big brother’ attain western civilization. But once that had been achieved, the pleasure has always being Nigeria’s to reciprocate handsomely.
Thus, in the early ’90s, under the State of Forces Agreement (SOFA) – a bilateral agreement allowed Nigeria to provide Sierra Leone with military and security support – Nigerian troops were deployed in Sierra Leone to back up our ill-equipped and demoralized armed forces as they struggled to defeat rebels in the south-east of the country.
Such was the reliance and dependence on the two platoons of Nigerian troops in Bo and Kenema that the population felt at ease with their mere presence. Even when the murderous Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, led by fugitive Major Johnny Paul Koroma, joined forces with the barbaric Revolutionary United Front to bring the entire country under a state of anarchy, Nigerian soldiers sacrificed blood and resources to help restore democracy in Sierra Leone.
Names like General Maxwell Mitikishi Khobe will always be etched in the annals of Sierra Leonean history. The late army general sacrificed his own life just so that we could regain our dignity as a nation. Nigeria lost hundreds of men and women and spent billions of dollars just so that the democracy we all enjoy today will be replanted after it was violently uprooted by ragtag soldiers on a spectacular misadventure! And that feat the Nigerians achieved twice, amidst betrayals from Sierra Leoneans, yet they never relented.
As a result, even when the West intervened belatedly and installed a peacekeeping force which almost collapsed, but for the robustness of the Nigerian contingent, Sierra Leone would not have brought the curtain down on mayhem and destruction at the time it did.
Now to the current outbreak. After barely being out of the woods, following the despicable act of Liberian Patrick Sawyer, who exported the Ebola virus to Lagos, Nigeria, the country has again deployed men and women to the frontline in Sierra Leone. The difference this time is these loyal ‘soldiers’ from Nigeria will be fighting an invisible enemy – the Ebola virus.
As the Ebola virus continues to rampage through the country, after traversing at a fearsome speed from a remote village in eastern Sierra Leone to the capital Freetown, I am reminded of those gory days when Nigeria came to the rescue. It is no gainsaying that if then military dictator General Sani Abacha had not sent troops, former President Tejan Kabbah would have died in exile, frustrated. The West gave moral and financial support, as usual, but was not willing and prepared to sacrifice men on the ground. However, Nigeria provided moral, financial and human support, albeit at great human and economic cost.
It is a similar story that is about to be written in yet another sad episode in our unenviable history in governance failure, greed and corruption. Nigeria last week deployed 100 health professionals to help Sierra Leone battle Ebola. Already, it had donated millions in cash and kind, either singularly or through the African Union, to help Sierra Leone out of the dark tunnels, once again.
It thus comes as no surprise that she is the single highest African contributor to the current Ebola fight. No doubt a country with high pan-African zest and solidarity, Nigeria is always willing to help her other African siblings solve their serious crises, not least the Ebola epidemic.
To this end, apart from real risk to the lives of their citizens here on duty, and potential one at home, Nigeria has also pledged to help train our health professionals in infectious diseases. This portends imparting much-needed knowledge and expertise in that domain to an otherwise ill-trained and less-experienced health professionals. That puts the cherry on the cake as we are challenged by a dearth of trained personnel in that branch of medicine. And with a future outbreak not a remote possibility, such training could be the masterstroke for defeating the virus with less hassle, if and anytime it reemerges.
Aside Ebola, Nigeria has dispatched lecturers and technicians to help enhance Sierra Leone’s human resource deficiency in fields as varied as engineering, medicine, law and tourism and hospitality, to name a few. Many have helped trained and mentored Sierra Leoneans, thus contributing immeasurably to our human resource development.
It is from this backdrop that despite many negative jibes about Nigerians being pathological criminals – an unfortunate stereotypical labeling – by some of our compatriots, Sierra Leone should always and forever be grateful to Nigeria because on numerous occasions, during peace or pestilence, she has stood by and for us, as both a friend in need and indeed.