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‘Interpreting’ Julius Spencer’s Ebola Position

AUGUST 26, 2014 By Oswald Hanciles

In communication, sometimes the source of an information can be as important, or, even, more important, than the message itself.  The title of this piece touches on the SOURCE of a message, Julius Spencer. He is soft spoken; approachable, in spite of his tall, ebony-black bespectacled intimidating presence; his close-cropped white beard on a visage that always appears inviting with a slight smile. The Integrity, Courage, Imagination and Patriotism of Dr. Julius Spencer could get objection from 4% of Sierra Leoneans when I put him on the pedestal of one of the Greatest Sierra Leoneans of all times. There is greater hope in some of us now that Julius Spencer has jumped into a leadership position in the Ebola War.  First, let us reflect on the words of Julius Spencer…..

“We did it before…We will do it again”

“We did it before as a nation; we will unite against Ebola today and do it again”: Julius Spencer said at Credentials Hall in State House, on the 16th August, 2014, while giving the Vote of Thanks in the Press Conference in which President Ernest Bai Koroma himself addressed the nation.   When I did a telephone interview with Julius Spencer on Sunday, August 24, 2014,  he spoke of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) starting their own Ebola Campaign before being invited by State House; on the communication “confusion” which was in the Ebola Operation Command (EOC), and is now being “sorted out”; he spoke of  SLAJ members donating quarter page space EACH  in the about 60  newspapers published mainly in Freetown;  and thirty minutes daily of airtime in EACH of the  about 50 radio stations countrywide  to the Ebola campaign (which, in real terms, would value SLAJ’s contribution to the Ebola War at over Le10billion, making SLAJ the largest bloc contributor  to the Ebola coffers); of the need for weekly Ebola press conferences, and, regularly nation-wide broadcasts by the President to defuse the rising Ebola “fear…and panic…”; he spoke on his being a member of the “Social Mobilization Committee” of the EOC which will make sure accurate information would dampen  the people’s fear of the Ebola; but,  one of  Julius Spencer’s  sentences which accentuate the gravity of the Ebola War is this one:  “Ebola could collapse the economy. It may take a while for the country to recover from it”.

Julius Spencer: Liberation Radio Broadcaster in 1997/1998

Why should we take very seriously the words of Julius Spencer?  Go to history   The AFRC junta booted out Tejan Kabbah’s government on May 25, 1997.  They invited the murderous RUF rebels to join them to rule over the country.   Fear spiked in the country – and, fear became palpable as the AFRC/RUF junta would murder people, dismember their bodies;  and in one specific instance, at the Krootown Road/Siaka Stevens Street junction,  in broad daylight, the AFRC/RUF rebels displayed  a grotesquely lewd ‘dish’ of a man’s chopped off head ‘eating’ his sliced penis.  By June, 1997, Julius Spencer was the brain of the ‘underground’ radio station (actually based in Lungi, with Nigeria-led ECOMOG troops protecting it) FM 98.1 Radio Station.

The whole of Freetown would be glued to the radio – and, people still listened avidly to the even radio after the AFRC/RUF junta had decreed that anyone caught listening to the radio would be arrested. The killer-AFRC/RUF didn’t make empty threats. But, the people were not cowered; not only did they listen ardently to the radio, but, hundreds of people would risk their lives in a ‘citizens’ journalism’ movement to send reports to the radio about the truth of what was happening. Julius Spencer (along with today’s Ambassador Allie Bangura; Hannah Fullah) using incisive information, deriding the AFRC ‘head of state’ as ‘foot of state’, steeled the resistance of the people to resist the coup; Julius Spencer undermined the AFRC/RUF regime that was striving to create an environment of normalcy; thwarted the effort of the AFRC/RUF that were struggling to convince the international community that their popularity was growing within the country.  Most people refused to go to work. Thousands fled the country. It was a united show of ‘People’s Power’ against ‘Gun Power’.

On February 28, 1998, when the Nigerian-led ECOMOG troops kicked the AFRC/RUF from power….. crowds poured out into the streets  of Freetown in triumphant ecstasy, and  vented incendiary anger against those who had “collaborated” with the AFRC/RUF junta.  For the first time in the history of Sierra Leone, Apartheid-era jungle justice among blacks in South Africa was enacted – and “collaborators” were ferreted out, ‘neck-laced’ with burning car tires, and, publicly burned alive.  It was victory for the people – as well as a warning to the ‘governing elite’. In invoking the spirit of 1997/1998 people’s power resistance in our war against the Ebola about a week ago, Julius Spencer was being inspirational. In the ethos of Orwellian ‘Double Talk’ of the aforementioned Press Conference, Julius Spencer was also being ominous. It is in the interest of the ‘good guys’ in the Ebola War to take full advantage of the symbol of Julius Spencer, and, the knowledge, experience, and subdued intensity of the person of Julius Spencer.

Julius Spencer: Credible Academic

Julius Spencer earned his master’s degree (1982) and doctorate degree (1988) from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria; and acquired his Bachelor of Arts in Education degree from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone in 1977. In 1996/1997, he won a Hubert Humphrey Fellowship in Mass Communication to study in one of the top five universities in the world, Boston University, in the United States.  Another course in the London-based Commonwealth Institute Nuffield Foundation Fellowship for Theatre solidified his academic credentials. If it were book knowledge alone (I am a trifle disdainful of book knowledge not backed with ‘applied knowledge’), Julius Spencer would not be one of my top Sierra Leonean luminaries. Julius Spencer is an epitome of ‘Book Knowledge’ that is wonderfully blended with ‘Applied Knowledge’.

Julius Spencer: 1% of Africans to resign a cabinet position

So sure has been Julius Spencer of his ‘Knowledge Power’ that in 1999, after he had won laurels as one of the primary fighters in the trenches for twice helping to restore Tejan Kabbah’s SLPP government to power, Julius Spencer resigned his job as information minister. (Thus belonging to the about 1% of Africans ever to resign a cabinet position over the past sixty years). He could have grumbled and/or pressurized Kabbah to be transferred to a cabinet position where cabinet ministers who earn $800 a month could end up with $2million in his/her bank accounts.  He did not. He said ‘di minister pay too small’. (Ustem u done yeri dat before nar Salone?!). Julius Spencer encapsulates the fusion of intellect and imagination.

Julius Spencer: Fusion of Intellect and Imagination

From 1997 to present, he has acted in a total of thirty five stage plays in Sierra Leone and Nigeria; and directed a total of forty five stage plays –   in Sierra Leone, Nigeria and the USA. They include “Chap Am So”, by John C. Thorpe (So impressive was this play, it received 10 nominations for 1997 Audelco Awards in New York, including Best Director). Between June – July, 1996, Julius Spencer wrote and directed “We Are On The Way,” a five-part radio drama serial sponsored by the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO); in February of 1996, Julius Spencer wrote and directed “Le Wi Vote”, a two-part radio drama commissioned by the Interim National Electoral Commission (NEC).  This was broadcast on all radio stations in the country.  Between November of 1991 and August, 1996, Julius Spencer was a Stringer for the Arts on the BBC African Service; during that period, he submitted packaged reports on artistic events in Freetown which were broadcast on the popular Network Africa Programme. He has done public relations for diverse international organizations, and corporate bodies like CELTEL, Airtel, Moneygram, etc.  Julius Spencer’s CV would fill two 200 page books.   For now, it has to be emphasized here that ‘Julius Spencer is President’….

Julius Spencer: As ‘President’ in ‘Who Will be the Next President’

Well, on the big silver screen, Julius Spencer played the role of ‘President’ in the film ‘Who Will Be the Next President’. I would feel so proud when I would see that film being shown repeatedly on South African-based DSTV satellite T.V. – the one or two Sierra Leonean films ever shown on that channel which is dominated by Nigerian-produced films. How does the luminescence of Julius Spencer become relevant in this Ebola War?

‘Communications Warriors’ using Potent Communications Weapons

The Ebola War today, and, in the future, would be lost or won mainly when ‘communication weapons’ are used. It is less of a health matter; since its thrust should be primarily to educate people to PREVENT them contracting the Ebola; to communicate with people to persuade them to change their habits, alter their cultures, so that when those close to them are infected with the Ebola virus, they recognize the earliest symptoms and take action, and, when it is too late, they don’t get themselves infected.  Intense education of people to change their habits, or, even, adjust their cultures and traditions radically even in a whole decade is a herculean task – so, to achieve such a goal in a FEW WEEKS is indeed are frighteningly daunting challenge.  It is a challenge that can best be done by the best of communicators (with scope, depth, and PRACTICAL experience).

The big question: would the politicians, and bland bureaucrats, give Julius Spencer and his ilk a free hand, and, the necessary resources?  In the 1997/1998 communications war in which Julius Spencer proved he was a virtuoso, the ‘enemy’ was physical, identifiable, and easy to pigeonhole and attacked – RUF and AFRC.  Today, the Ebola Enemy is microscopic – ‘cleverly’ taking advantage of centuries of superstitious and unscientific mindsets. The ‘enemy’ today could be the President, some of his cabinet ministers, or, a majority of the people – thus, to nuance one’s communication weapon would call for a near-communication genius, like Julius Spencer.

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