Bootlicking and credibility of Sierra Leone civil society

July 19, 2018

By Alusine Sesay


Activism started way back in 1517 when Martin Luther, a German Monk and Professor in Theology stood firm against the powerful Catholic Church with regards payment for indulgence to gain salvation. Martín Luther wrote his 95 Theses and he was among the first to make use of the printing press to popularise his Lutheranism in Germany and other parts of Europe. While the Catholic Clergies were using resources derived from payment for indulgence to live a lavish lifestyle, Luther vehemently argued and posited that the only way to gain salvation was through faith. His activism, together with others like John Calvin, according to historians, gave birth to the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation did not only bring changes in religious thinking, but also ensured political transformation in Europe and other parts of the world. The legacy of the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation would ever be remembered in the annals of history and political transformation, not only in Europe but also in Africa and other parts of the world. Historically, that could be the beginning of civil society movement which has today taken centre stage in democratic good governance.

The history of activism in Sierra Leone could be traced way back from colonial days when people like I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson and others stood against colonialism. The trend continued onto after the war when people like Zainab Bangura and others advocated the ushering in of democracy. Honestly, civil society played significant role to restore democracy in Sierra Leone. From the Election before Peace campaign to the stand-off between civil society leaders and the then Revolutionary United Front leader, Corporal Foday Sankoh, to the consolidation of democracy in Sierra Leone, there contributions have been immense. Civil Society activists, together with the international community, openly challenged the then National Provisional Ruling Council and forced them to conduct election and hand over power to a civilian ruler, hence the multi-party election in 1996 in which Ahmad Tejan Kabbah emerged as President under the Sierra Leone Peoples Party(SLPP). From the records, it is glaring that Sierra Leone had serious minded civil society activists who stood firm in the face of all odds and said NO to impunity.

What is happening today in the civil society landscape of Sierra Leone is very much disheartening. Unfortunately, some people are now parading the country in the guise of civil society but acting as mouthpiece for government. The primary objective of civil society is to hold government to account on behalf of the suffering masses. But interestingly, in Sierra Leone, their important role of ensuring democratic good governance and respect for the rule of law has given way to bootlicking and political gangsterism. They care less about their credibility and have reduced their importance to the level of a joke. Instead of holding the powers-that-be to account, they would be all over the place defending government policies as against the will of the people, whom they claim to represent.

I have long been groaning over this issue; but what finally prompted me to put pen to paper is the heightened outright division among civil society groups on issues that border on the poor masses. Unlike the few neutral and credible ones, a vast majority of our civil society activists in Sierra Leone have their loyalty to either of the two major political parties – the APC and SLPP. I guess nobody would challenge me on this assertion because it is no longer a hidden secret. And what amazes me most while listening to local news in the morning hours of Monday was the two different views expressed by our budding civil society activists with regards the current price hike in petroleum products in the country. While Edmond Abu of Native Consortium and Research Centre was on the 98.1 Gud Morning Show threatening to stage a protest against the price increase in petroleum products, one of the network members of a so-called Civil Society Consortium on Service Delivery, Robert Kargbo, was being interviewed on the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation’s Morning Coffee. According to Kargbo, he was in Port Loko to sensitise residents as to why government decided to remove subsidy on petroleum products and the subsequent increase in prices of basic commodities. Karbgo sided with the government outright, stating that the country was losing huge sums of money to smugglers. He told the Journalist that he used his personal resources to undertake the sensitisation project on behalf of government. With the two contrasting views and approaches of the two so-called civil society activists regarding the increase in the prices of petroleum products, I wonder as to which direction the country is heading. If I were the journalist interviewing Kargbo, I would have asked him ‘when did you become a government spokesperson?’ How generous he is to undertake such an expensive project on behalf of government when he should be advocating on behalf of the suffering masses? Do we trust him saying that he used his meagre resources to undertake the sensitisation?  Anyway, I took his words with a pinch of salt. It is no crime holding and expressing views on certain issues, but for a civil society to openly support a seemingly bad government policy, sounds bizarre.

The trend of bootlicking, and political gangsterism among civil society started during the reign of the All Peoples Congress regime of former President Ernest Bai Koroma. Like the media and other sectors in Sierra Leone, many are now hiding under the cloak of civil society to pursue their political agenda. During the APC regime, people like Alphonso Manley, Warisay and others were parading the nook and cranny of the country in the name of civil society, but had their political agenda under their sleeves. They were all over the place defending and even propagating the ‘more time’ agenda on behalf of former President Ernest Bai Koroma. Even when things were not right for the public, they selfishly defended the government because they were gaining a lot from the national loot. Something dangerous is happening to this country’s democracy. Everybody has now seen politics as the only means of survival and prosperity. And everybody has taken sides – either as APC or SLPP. Too bad

After the death of the APC leaning Alphonso Manley’s Civil Right Coalition and Warisay’s Democracy Sierra Leone, we have seen the birth of the seemingly SLPP leaning Civil Society Consortium on Service Delivery who are parading the country in the guise of civil society but with a motive close to their chest. These are the same crop of civil society groups who collected money from the National Telecommunication Commission (NATCOM) to sensitise the public on the increase in the tariff by telecom companies. When I confronted two of them about the issue in 2017, they told me they were not bribed but given incentive to undertake sensitisation on behalf of the mobile companies. Cheap life! So disgusting that one of the civil society activists told me that people are not using better mobile phones, hence the challenge in the network system. “The mobile companies are using huge chunk of money to deliver service to the public but the type of mobile phones owned by people is a big challenge. They are not using better phones to access better network,” he remarked. I will not mention his name but the individual knows himself and he is one of the champions of the so-called Civil Society Consortium on Service delivery. Do I trust him? Never! Even if he spits fire, I know he has selfish agenda-making money for himself and his family in the guise of civil society. Civil society my foot! How can civil society connive with multi-national companies and the government to cheat on the poor masses?

As a nation, we are not getting there at all in terms of taking this country forward. The same that was happening during the Ernest Koroma regime is also showing its ugly face in the New Direction regime of President Julius Maada Bio. No change! Unfolding scenarios are giving credence to Dr. Kandeh Yumkella’s assertion of ‘Alusine and Alhassan’ –the two identical twins-APC and SLPP that are responsible for the backwardness of Mama Salone. We still have mortgaged and muddy crop of civil society groups that lack the required credibility to put the government on it toes. If they want to maintain their credibility and be remembered by children yet unborn, some of our civil society in Sierra Leone should rise above mediocrity and bootlicking and seek first the interest of the poor masses instead of propagating government agenda. It is actually good to lobby government on certain issues, but only in the interest of the masses. The structure of government is very much powerful and needs powerful and credible civil society to challenge the status quo. People like Martin Luther of Germany, Mahatma Gandi of India, to name but a few, are still being remembered because of the credibility they maintained in the interest of the masses. Despite all the odds, they maintained their grounds and achieved their goals of transforming the world into a better society.