Ebola campaign: between point-scoring and making a difference


By Joseph Dumbuya

Listening to parliamentarians debate the presidential declaration of a State of Public Emergency, I was struck at the length SLPP MPs, not least those from the two epicentre districts, were ready to go to blame everything on the government and score cheap political points. Hypocrisy comes to mind. It then dawned on me that an opinion piece I had written, ‘Give Khan a perfect rest by defeating Ebola’, was a bit unfair on the Minister of Health, Ms. Miatta Kargbo. While the article in question had articulated forcefully failings on the part of Miatta and her Ministry and had proffered some solutions, there was no mention of failings on the part of MPs and other politicians.

This article is intended to discuss these failings for purposes of learning lessons and not for apportioning blames, but no apologies if it is seen as such. Already, the strong leadership shown by President Koroma is evident in the feel-good factor sweeping across the nation. MPs cannot afford to be left out. A change of approach is therefore needed.

Let me hasten to say, there is nothing wrong with holding the government to account for the way the Ebola campaign is being conducted. After all, the buck stops with the political head of the Ministry of Health, Miatta. That said members of parliament have a responsibility to play their own part. But they have been found wanting in this area. During the debate and on radio programmes, SLPP MPs were quick to remind us about the all too similar criticisms of the government. They drew attention to the inaccurate and misleading messages, the delay in the introduction of the State of Public Emergency despite several calls to the effect, failure to contain the virus at Kissy Teng in Kailahun District where the outbreak was first reported, and the shambolic preparations prior to the outbreak.

However, the desperate attempts by SLPP MPs to blame everything on the government, Miatta and her ministry smacks of hypocrisy. We saw SLPP MPs desperate to score cheap political points. One reason for this could be to divert attention from their failings.

Yes, it is all too easy to attack the government for the spiralling Ebola disease. But the question these MPs should ask themselves is this: ‘What difference have I made in the fight against Ebola in my constituency?’

While putting finishing touches to this piece, I just read a news item in the Awareness Times in which the Special Executive Assistant to the President took issue with the Sierra Leone Medical and Dental Association and the Kailahun Local Government Council for adopting a hand-off approach to the Ebola disease ravaging the country. We know for fact that opposition SLPP MPs were better placed to address some of the challenges than the Ministry of Health and politicians from the APC. These relate to conspiracy theories and the politicization of the disease, which undermined efforts at getting messages to the people.

There was this notion that the disease was introduced by the government to reduce SLPP votes. Also, the disease was dismissed as a cynical ploy by the government to rack money from donors. We know this is far from the truth. But the fact that people held on to them for a long time points to a failure by MPs from these areas to stop them. Don’t tell me the MPs did not have money to go to their constituencies and sensitize people on these issues.

Hon. Bernadette Lahai did just that. She took up the initiative to embark on an awareness-raising on Ebola in her constituency at her own expense. This happened long before the disease was reported in Kenema. Hon. Robin Fallay, who spends a lot of time in his home constituency in Segbwema, is said to have done a lot in this area. Had other MPs done the same, we wouldn’t have had these cynicisms permeate these areas for such a long time.

Instead these MPs spent more time in Freetown criticizing government efforts rather than trying to make a difference in their constituencies. Also, this could not have precluded them from criticizing government from their constituencies should they choose to do so.

The attitude of our MPs could be blamed partly on how they understand their job. This could be the reasons why some have been moaning about lack of money to go to their constituencies and do sensitization on Ebola.

The Majority Leader, Hon. Ibrahim Bundu, was on radio a couple of days ago to talk about the endorsing of the State of Public Emergency by parliament and then strayed to give a lecture of what the job of an MP entails. The interview could be remembered not for what was said but rather what was not said. Hon. Bundu did not say their job includes delivering development to their people, which is why they receive grants from governments. Also, he did not say their job includes lobbying government and donors for development assistance for their constituencies, providing leadership in realizing aspirations, raising awareness on varied issues of common good and spearheading developments including self-help projects.

This is what Robin Fallay continues to do even though he is no longer an MP. Fallay is reputed for snooping everywhere for development assistance for his people. This is what MPs in democracies everywhere do, in addition to making laws, providing oversight and scrutinizing budget.

Hon. Bundu is no stranger to the workings of developed democracies, having spent most of his viable years in the U.S. I remember when politicians in the UK drop leaflet in my letterbox, they explain what they have done in the areas of crime reduction, job creation, immigration, help for the aged, single parents etc.

This brings to mind the case of Al (Alhassan) Bangura who was so, so desperate to stay in the UK that he could stop at nothing to realize this dream even if it means damaging the image of his country. Bangura, who was a footballer with Watford, was refused leave to stay in the UK and was set for deportation to Sierra Leone. But he concocted a story about the danger he faces should he return to Sierra Leone. He claimed that his late father was a very senior member of the Soko secret society and that should he return to the country he will be killed.

Ten thousand members of the Watford football club did a petition to the Labour MP, Claire Ward, in solidarity with Bangura. Imagine ten thousand voters signing a petition and you appreciate why the MP was desperate to ensure Bangura is given a stay. So, you had this Labour MP peddling mischief about the Soko secret society she was completely ignorant about. The MP brokered a meeting between the then Home Office Minister Liam Byme and Bangura, which culminated in him being allowed to stay in the country on a work permit.

My local Liberal Democratic Councillor would tell us how he has ensured we have more police officers on the streets at night and have more street lights.

Why bore you with issues far afield? Well, I hope I have made the point that there is more to being an MP than just making laws. What lessons for Sierra Leone? You may want to know.

Now, following the declaration of a State of Public Emergency on July 30 and the formation of the Presidential Taskforce, the President has decided to shun his cosy State House office for the Ebola fields, thus making the Ebola campaign number one on the list of priorities.  With the hands-on approach, the President will no longer have to rely wholly on people around him for information on the disease. This has been greeted with relief by a nation anxiously looking for answers to the Ebola, especially as confidence in the Minister of Health suffers a severe battering.

The MPs should follow the President’s leads and go to their constituencies to provide leadership in the fight against the disease. This is not a favour; it is part of the job of being an MP. I do not think the MPs should be given money to do sensitization rather they should lend support to ongoing efforts from civil society and local leaders in their respective constituencies.