April 20, 2015 By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff
Sierra Leone clocked the ripe age of 54 on Monday, 27 April. Sierra Leoneans at home and broad spent the day engaged in a lot of soul-searching, no thanks to a traumatic experience with Ebola, which hitherto was prevalent in east and central Africa, and a constitutional brouhaha which has been unwittingly brought on this country.
Unlike previous anniversaries, the 54th independence anniversary was largely subdued. Ironically, in London and New York our compatriots in the Diaspora demonstrated against “dictatorship, corruption and unconstitutionality”, while in Kenema opposition activists raised their voice against perceived instances of dictatorship and a blatant disrespect for constitutionality and the rule of law.
Adorned in their green, white and blue, numbering hundreds and placards aloft, these brave Sierra Leoneans reminded world leaders that they should not allow Sierra Leone to slide back into anarchy and chaos. Contrary to what some have posited as the antecedents of armed conflict in the early ‘90s, it is the suppression of free expression and the miscarriage of justice that boils over into violent conflict, not the freedom to demonstrate or protest against an action by a democratically elected president. Of course protects which turn violent should be condemned, and rightly so.
Like the Ebola outbreak which has forced us to behave abnormally as part of our exceptional and inherent coping mechanism, our 54th anniversary as an independent nation-state was spent oddly, not the normal way – where masquerades will be out on streets of towns and cities and in cities populated by our compatriots abroad. Instead, we spent it largely at home, reflecting, praying that our country will rise again to the top. And that never again will our leadership allow an epidemic of this nature to overwhelm us, leaving us flat on our face!
Prior to the outbreak, Sierra Leone was hailed as a perfect example of how to transition from violent conflict to peace. Some of our countrymen may have forgotten, sadly, but this beautiful country and fun-loving people once transformed from paragons of peace to architects of destruction and apocalypse. The reason for that was bad governance, corruption and injustice by a political class and elites, backed by a police force which had anything but independence in how to carry out their constitutional duty.
To date, as we grapple again to confront bad governance, corruption and injustice, and coupled with the worst Ebola outbreak in the world, Sierra Leone may have clocked 54 but there was no fanfare, with the mood being gloomy and somber, as events in Kenema made a bad headline even worst.
In his Independence Day message to the country, President Ernest Bai Koroma attempted to paint a glorious picture prior to the outbreak: “…this time last year we celebrated our Independence anniversary in very high spirits, our economy was moving forward, jobs were being created, incomes were on the rise, school attendance was up, and pregnant women, children and mothers were accessing healthcare in our hospitals more than ever before,” albeit conceding there were challenges as he implored his compatriots to be steadfast in their resilience and determination to bring Ebola to zero.
Without any gainsaying, it is every Sierra Leonean’s desire to land the final decisive blow on Ebola because the illusive virus has not just made abnormal our normal lives and lifestyles, it has also thrown spanners into our individual and collective hopes and aspirations.
Today, many homes have people who are either unemployed or underemployed. While this used to be the phenomenon prior to the outbreak, its existence in our midst has further exacerbated an already bad state of affairs. Thus, cost of living has ballooned while standard of living continues to plummet! In essence, the poor and vulnerable have plunged further into the abyss of poverty as depravity and impunity takes sway, not least in the handling of Ebola funds.
For me, these are the issues Sierra Leoneans were eager to hear in President Koroma’s speech. Issues such as the real time Ebola audit report, post-Ebola plan etc. He actually highlighted what he and his colleagues in the Mano River Union have designed as part of a master plan to transition from hopelessness and despair to hope for a brighter future for our children, the poor, women and the aged.
“Our post Ebola Plan has four clear-cut priorities: health, education, social protection and economic recovery through private sector development and revamping of the agricultural sector,” he said, without elaborating further as to how this will roll out.
Curiously, as our president prevaricates from sharing the blame for a slow response to the outbreak, “We were not prepared for it”,he comes acrossas one who is eager to take plaudits for his achievements but evasive as to his shortcomings. The fact of the matter is that good leadership is measured by the actions, omission and foresight of the leader. Hence foresight to initiate a laudable initiative as the free healthcare should be hailed, just as failure to nip in the bud an outbreak which started in two neighbouring countries at least six months early ought to be recognized and accepted.
Perhaps the great disappointment came in President Koroma’s silence on public emergency laws imposed as part of measures to contain the virus. A good many Sierra Leoneans expected some relaxation of the stringent rules which have rendered local businesses bust and employees redundant for almost a year now. As twelve of fourteen districts continue to post zero cases, some for more than one hundred days, a pleasant 54 Independence Day present would have come by way of relaxing the measures, such as extending trading hours until 10pm from Mondays to Saturdays, including allowing local bars and restaurants to operate until same time. Such would bring the local economy back from the state of comatose and usher in renewed hope and zeal to a resilient people.
In sum, as Sierra Leone reaches 54, the mood may have been subdued due to the Ebola outbreak and demonstrations occasioned by a seeming constitutional impasse, but the future could yet look bright for the country and people. That is, provided unity, peace and justice remain our abiding core values and not just another mantra we pay lip service to.