Politics and Governance: a Critical Distinction

September 14, 2017 by Dr. Fodei Batty

There is an old adage that says: “marriage is like a bus, once you hop on you can’t keep running.” This saying advises the discerning that it is pointless for someone to keep doing the same things they did to achieve a certain goal once that goal has been achieved.

The moral of the above saying could also be applied to the distinction between “politics” and “governance.” Politics is akin to running to catch the “governance bus.” Once in office, the would-be politician who intends to succeed in governance is best advised to discontinue politics and concentrate on governance, otherwise they will fail and the voters who elected that politician into political office will reject them at the next opportunity.

Unfortunately, the lesson of the preceding adage has long been lost on our political leadership in Sierra Leone. It is for this reason that I will argue in this piece that politicians in Sierra Leone need to (re)discover governance as it is truly intended and, most important, learn to separate politics from governance. Otherwise, they will continue to be the failures that they are and they will continue to needlessly mislead our country from one disaster to the next, like what we have experienced over the past nine years, which has turned our once beautiful and peaceful country into nothing but a source of bad news around the world and the joke of many other African countries with far less natural resources than we do, such as tiny Togo where we shamelessly went in 1999 to negotiate a peace accord to our senseless rebel war.

Let me begin by offering some evidence for the above assertion. There exists a long held but largely unexamined assumption in Sierra Leone politics that is at the heart of the majority of the problems we have experienced as a country. Among our politicians, the assumption is that they should do their utmost and go out of the way to please certain constituencies or groups of potential voters otherwise such constituencies or groups, no matter how comparatively smaller they are in the grand scheme of the overall body politic of our country, somehow holds the magical key to victory for that politician or the political party to which they belong.

In Sierra Leone today, everything is politicized –from the purchasing of drugs for government hospitals to sending potential pilgrims to the hajj in Mecca. There is no distinction between politics and governance as our political leadership undertakes every project and government contract not for the overall good of the country or for the wisdom of such policy but merely to prove to narrow electorates that they are serving their interests and are better than the opposition in doing so.

Instead of taking the high road of morality and doing the right thing, our political leadership have turned blind eyes to everything that is illegal in the country in the hopes of pleasing every imaginable and dubious voting constituencies to be found.

This is exactly how and why Sierra Leoneans ended up with cheap and poorly constructed roads for unpronounceable sums of money that mainly enriched a few, and metal detectors to the entrance of every government building in the country that serve no useful purpose, to list but a few examples of our political leadership’s failure to distinguish between politics and governance.

To expand further on the largely unverified assumption, politicians and policymakers in Sierra Leone consistently disregard the implementation of policies and laws if in the implementation of such laws or policies they are likely to displease an occupational group, residents of a certain neighborhood, town or district, or a gender group or “ethnic group,” or even members of the so-called “international community of donors” –a large amorphous group within which exists a great deal of variation in terms of who exactly counts as a “donor” to Sierra Leone and not a representative of nebulous external interests.

Thus, under this misleading assumption, and our the failure of our political leadership to distinguish politics from governance, street traders who have encroached upon and cut off several major streets in central Freetown to vehicular traffic are allowed to continue their seemingly unrelenting and brazen march to seize the entire municipality –from Cline Town to Lumley, so far, as their own because they are potential voters who might vote against anyone: mayor, councilor, minister, president or political party, who dares to address their illegal encroachment on streets that is clearly destroying the city of Freetown for all the world to see. The rest of the population of residents of Freetown who, by any imagination or actual statistical count, are far numerous and represent a far greater threat to the interests of politicians at the ballot box have been left to bear the brunt of the ineptitude of the political leadership to address the problem for precisely the reasons of the unverified assumption to which I have referred above that voters will vote them out of office if they actually implemented the laws of Sierra Leone instead of ignoring them to please a few,

In the face of this imagined threat from a small percentage of would-be voters, our so-called governors or political leaders have long waved the flag of surrender, impotent and bereft of all ideas, as the vast majority of commuters in Freetown continue to suffer in some of the worst traffic you will encounter on the African continent –all caused by streets that have been clogged up by individuals selling little more than a pack of cigarettes, in some cases, and individuals who, past evidence leads us to believe, have little inclination to actually vote in elections because of their limited literacy. Yet, because our political leadership have never learned to distinguish between politics and governance, they remain incapable of addressing the problem and they continue to govern like politicians running for office, a strategy which ultimately results in the electoral losses at the ballot box (if there is no rigging of the polls) they fear in the first place.

Then there is the recent catastrophe of the mudslide that befell our country on August 14, 2017 that will forever live in infamy. May the innocent souls of those who lost their lives in such a preventable tragedy rest in peace and may God Almighty forgive the living for desecrating their deceased bodies in leaving them exposed for all the world to see.

After paying our respects, let us proceed to the heart of the matter of what really led to the tragedy.

Numerous sources, both experts such as geologists and ordinary members of the Sierra Leone public, have pointed out that the areas that were hardest hit by the mudslides beneath Sugar Loaf Mountain, and other areas across the hills of suburban Freetown were prone to soil erosion the dangers of which the political leadership has long been aware yet have failed to do anything to address.

According to one of Sierra Leone’s most renowned contemporary social and political commentators and philosopher, Alpha Saidu Bangura, who is resident in the United States, our political leadership failed to address the issues that led to the untimely passing of hundreds, and potentially up to a thousand, of our fellow Sierra Leoneans for precisely the same reasons advanced earlier. Fearful of losing voters, our political leadership looked the other way as thousands of people bought or forcefully occupied land in untenable areas surrounding the city of Freetown to build what should be illegal dwellings. Under the laws of Sierra Leone, the construction of any new structure for commercial or residential purposes requires a building permit of some sort. How did those who built their dwelling places on illegally obtained land that should not have been put up for sale in any form get the building permits to do so in the first place?

It has now emerged in the literal and figurative postmortem analysis of the aftermath of the tragedy that our political leadership was, again, fearful of losing voters. So, over time, they looked the other way in complicity as our fellow Sierra Leoneans, desperate for properties to call their own, illegally purchased the lands that ultimately lay in the path of one of the greatest tragedies Sierra Leone has ever known. The poor victims paid the ultimate price all because our political leadership is concerned with politics instead of with governing as if it really mattered.

Our political leadership are not alone, however, with regard to responsibility for the preventable loss of lives in the mudslides. Ultimately, some members of the “international community” present in the country over the last twenty years of APC and SLPP misrule will also carry some culpability to their own graves in their respective countries in the West because as far back as 2005 the former Minister of Lands under the SLPP, Dr. Alfred Bobson-Sesay warned about the dangers of illegal constructions popping up around Freetown on lands prone to soil erosion. Most people did not heed his warnings of danger. In fact, he was demonized and made a scapegoat by the APC that was in opposition at the time as well as by so-called “international rights groups” in the form of international non-governmental organizations who mischaracterized his efforts as an “insensitive politician violating the rights of poor residents of Freetown.” The APC and their supporters launched a political campaign aimed at mislabeling Dr. Bobson-Sesay as “Bobson broke ose” and some members of the international NGO community pressured the late President Kabbah to tell him to back off even as one of the staff members of his ministry at Lands was murdered in cold blood by an angry mob, incidentally, not more than ten miles from where the tragedy ultimately took place on August 14.

Following the tragedy, Dr. Bobson-Sesay was vindicated and he became the ultimate hero on social media in one of the rare moments of inspiration for a country caught in the midst of deep despair. Across the world, many Sierra Leoneans took to Twitter, Facebook or media to say “if only people had listened to Bobson-Sesay who tried to do the right thing in spite of what others might say about him!”

Of course, there are numerous other examples to draw from to show that our political leadership has been obsessed with politics instead of governance in the mistaken belief that doing so is what gets them reelected. Incidentally, and somewht ironically, the most visible instance of this mistaken belief that is the mudslide seen around the world has, judging by the mood of voters in the country, finally put paid to the APC’s chances of rigging the ballot boxes come March 2018 to undeservedly remain in power

For Sierra Leone to emerge from the abyss into which it descended less than a decade following our so-called independence from the British, Sierra Leoneans will have to pray for transformative and visionary political leadership in the form of someone who is educated about the choices facing our country and someone who is prepared to forsake narrow partisan demands for the benefit of our national interests.

Dr. Fodei Batty is an associate professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT., USA. He can be reached via email at: