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2014 in Retrospect

January 15, 2015  By Abu-Bakarr Sheriff

Nobody thought 2014 would pan-out the way it did. Not even our flamboyant evangelical preachers who will waste no time to predict who will win the next presidential election! Not even the charismatic Nigerian preacher, Evangelist Johnson Suleiman – who comes here every January, and is renowned for keeping the congregation spellbound by foretelling what would happen to names and telephone numbers he would call at random – could foretell the Ebola scourge.

As individuals and as a country, we bade farewell to 2013 and ushered in 2014 with great hope and expectation, not least from President Ernest Bai Koroma and his ruling All Peoples Congress, who were just fresh from an electoral victory in 2012, which was given judicial approbation in June 2013 after the opposition petitioned the credibility of the presidential election.

The mood in the country was expectant. A national housing and population census was planned, while a constitutional review process had begun to review and amend the 1991 Constitution, which many political observers and legal analysts say has a plethora of lacunas which need bridging.

In his New Year’s address to the nation on 1 January 2014, President Koroma was upbeat and triumphant, and described the year as one of goodwill. “Let us make 2014 a year of goodwill for this nation, goodwill for our economic growth, goodwill for our fight against corruption, goodwill for the enforcement of law and order, goodwill for better health and learning outcomes all over the nation, goodwill for the rebranding of the nation and good will for more jobs, especially for the youths of this country,” he urged all and sundry – teachers, nurses, politicians, traders, security agents etc – to embrace that goodwill as the country was poised to implement the eight pillars of a poverty reduction roadmap that his administration flatteringly calls “Agenda for Prosperity”.

But if the president and indeed all of us were looking forward to a great year, a hideous and insidious virus, whose origin is in the dense rainforest of the grandiosely named Democratic Republic of Congo, was lurking ominously in the sub-region.

The Ebola virus, as we belatedly came to know, had started killing families in the remote Kissi areas of Guinea, which share common language, culture and trade links with their kith and kin in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Perhaps as an omen of bad things to happen in 2014, the country’s war-time president, renowned for using tact to pacify and neutralize the rapacious and murderous Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and renegade soldiers, Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, passed away on 13 March.

True to his word, as he had promised in his new year’s speech, President Koroma’s administration gave the former president – described  as “father of peace” and one who laid solid foundation for post-conflict reconstruction and institutional capacity building – a befitting state funeral, as well as declaring a seven-day national mourning.

President Koroma was effusive in his praise for his predecessor at the national stadium, where the remains of the former president was laid.

“We are gathered here today to honour a man who truly deserves honour, His Excellency Alhaji Dr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the first president of the Second Republic of Sierra Leone. He was a great Sierra Leonean, a man who stood tall at critical moments of our country’s recent history. In honouring him today, we are also identifying with his actions for peace during the civil war; we are also affirming his dedication to a democratic vision for this country; and we are commemorating his achievements as a political leader, as a high level international civil servant with the United Nations, and an international statesman leading elections observation missions all over Africa,” said President Koroma.

And so was the outpouring of emotions and eulogies from within and without for the late former president. Indeed, Sierra Leoneans shelved their partisan leanings and lined the streets of Freetown to pay their last respect to a fallen national hero.

That was in April. Soon that sense of national unity dissipated as an opportunist former opposition lawmaker who had joined the ruling party, hinted the idea of a third or even unlimited term for President Koroma. Perhaps taking a cue from another sacked former minister in the vice presidency who was eventually rewarded by the president, Robin Fallay traversed the country like a mad masquerade, preaching his gospel of “After U NA U”.

Soon the entire country was agog with the catch phrase. But the opposition, determined not to be undone, at least at this time, suddenly awakened to action. And in a clever way, they coined a counter phrase “After U NA GBAGBO” in pejorative reference to former Ivorian president, Lauren Gbagbo, now an indictee at the International Court of Justice, who refused to relinquish power to current president Alhassan Ouattara.

Meanwhile, as both sides tried to cancel each other out in the debate, Guinea was struggling to cope with the magnitude of stemming the spread of the Ebola virus, which was new to West Africa, save for a brief spell in the Ivory Coast in the early 90s. If Guinea was struggling, Liberia just couldn’t cope with the mystery and ferocity of the virus in its host.

Despite the sounding of the alarm bell by journalists, they were dismissed as alarmists and doomsayers. Thus, as May was coming to an end, the index case of Ebola was reported in a small village in one of the Kissi chiefdoms in Kailahun, eastern Sierra Leone.

Like the armed conflict in 1991, which again started in that part of the country, which the previous government failed to nip in the bud, the current government, either through complacency or ineptitude, failed to tackle the virus at source.

As the virus has started showing signs of burning out, Sierra Leoneans at home and in the Diaspora would always remember May 2014 with little fondness. But they would also loathe remembering Miatta Kargbo, then Minister of Health and Sanitation, under whose watch the virus took foothold in almost every nook and cranny of the country.

Ms. Kargbo was the President’s new kid on the block for the plump job of health minister, and was feted by many, not least for her eloquence and beautiful looks. However, many say she is not a team player and offended her colleagues and health workers by being unrepentantly bossy.

But, they say the buck stops at the desk of the president, because he hires and fires ministers. Hence he should share the blame for appointing a rookie to that specialized ministry. He should equally share the blame for the slow response to tackle the virus. Not until Dr. Sheik Umar Khan tragically died in late June did the president and his bevy of advisors at State House realize Ebola was a monster, very stubborn to beat.

Belatedly, a presidential taskforce was established, as things went in full gear, though at times hither and thither.

If the drama at State House was not enough, as individuals and organizations jostled for attention to pay billions into the National Ebola Fund, things were playing out at the ministry of health and Emergency Operations Centre, which has since been renamed National Ebola Response Committee.

In all of this, Sierra Leoneans have had to contend with curtailed freedoms, lockdowns, shutdowns, quarantine, restricted market hours, no market days, no Xmas festivities, no schools, colleges, etc, as they stoically wait to defeat the virus.

Like the rebel war, the Ebola virus has cost us immensely, both in human lives and economically. It will take us decades to get back on the highways of prosperity and drive to sustainable human (not individual) development.

What is certain though is our resolve as a country and people to rise up again because we may have been battered, but still alive!

And as 2015 has ushered in renewed hope of renewal, it is expected that Sierra Leoneans will extend that goodwill the president spoke about at the beginning of 2014 to country, countrymen and those who have stood with us through thick and thin.

I wish Sierra Leone a great 2015!

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