Op-Ed- The Salone I’ll Remember Not To Forget

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By Babatunde Ahonsi

As I end my tour of duty in Sierra Leone as the United Nations Resident Coordinator (UN RC), I can say that all things considered, I have far more to remember not to forget than to forget. The last 38 months did throw up multiple external shocks and a few unwholesome internal dynamics that adversely impacted Sierra Leone. But even with the grave breaches of state security on 26th November, these months have largely been a fruitful experience for me leading the UN country team in its efforts to support and accompany the country’s quest for sustainable development and durable peace.    

Borrowing in a flipped manner from the title of the 2013 poem, ‘Always Remember to Forget’ by Albashir Adam Alhassan, I am leaving Salone primed to always remember not to forget the critical building blocks that are being put in place that would help the country in the not-too-distant future realize its huge development potentials. This is partly because of the association of the United Nations with the molding of some of these building blocks. But far more motivating for me has been the role of the government and the good people of Sierra Leone in casting these essential building blocks for economic and social transformation.

So, I’ll always remember not to forget the following recent trends and developments that are likely to yield the country significant returns in poverty reduction, food security, social harmony, and national resilience.

First, elite consensus on the imperative of peaceful resolution of political and other grievances via dialogue has been further solidified by the 18th October 2023 Political Agreement for National Unity. This historic agreement which was signed between the main opposition party (APC) and the government after an internationally mediated dialogue to resolve the political impasse that followed the June 2023 general elections may be viewed as the manifestation of a deep conviction among Sierra Leonean leaders to never again resort to violence to resolve political differences and disputes. This can only be good for nation-building, social progress, and development.

Second, it would be hard to forget Sierra Leone’s uniquely high level of inter-religious harmony and tolerance. It is the only country among the nearly 50 that I have paid extended visits to where there are so many people bearing Christian-sounding names but are practicing Moslems, and so many people bearing Islamic names that are practicing Christians. It is also the only one where so many of its political leaders of the Christian faith regularly recite the basic Islamic prayer – the Al-Fathia – at public gatherings and so many political leaders of the Islamic faith regularly recite the basic Christian prayer – the Our Father – at public functions. When coupled with the country’s high rate of inter-ethnic marriages, it is not surprising that many political analysts largely attribute the polarizing and divisive nature of politics in Sierra Leone, especially during elections, to the irresponsible exploitation and instrumentalization of latent primordial sentiments of ordinary people by leading politicians for electoral advantages.   

Third, progress on the gender equality agenda in recent years has set Sierra Leone apart from countries in West Africa as a pacesetter in the empowerment of women and girls.  I will always remember not to forget how through advocacy, technical assistance, and multistakeholder engagements, several UN agencies supported and worked with the government in its adoption of new strategies, programs, policies, and laws that are helping to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment (GEWE). In particular, the GEWE law passed in November 2022 has led to women constituting about one-third of the current cabinet and Parliament.  More sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) cases are now being prosecuted with harsher penalties for perpetrators while one-stop centers have been established across six regions to better prevent SGBV and address the treatment, psycho-social, and justice needs of survivors. Also, capitalizing on the delivery infrastructure provided by the expanded educational system, most 10-year girls in Sierra Leone early last year received the HPV vaccine which will provide most of them lifelong protection against cervical cancer, a cancer that kills more women than any other cancer in Africa according to the WHO.

Fourth, continuing with the theme of health, how can I ever forget that Sierra Leone was one of the few countries in Africa that developed a national COVID-19 prevention and control strategy even before its first case of infection was identified? When I resumed in Sierra Leone as UN RC in late September 2020 at the height of the pandemic there was widespread fear that the country would be decimated by very high rates of COVID-19-associated illnesses and deaths. In the end, due to the proactive multisectoral national response, the pandemic turned out to be less of a public health challenge and more of an economic adversity, with the country also being one of the first in West Africa to fully vaccinate more than 70 percent of the target population against the coronavirus. Added to the notable progress being made in significantly reducing pregnancy-related and early childhood deaths as well as massive expansion in access to basic and senior secondary education for Sierra Leonean children and adolescents (who represent more than 65 percent of the population), the emerging picture is one of notable enhancement of the human capital of the country that would surely propel its economic and social transformation in the coming years.   

Fifth, the Salone that I’ll always remember not to forget is the one with rich and spectacularly scenic natural endowments. It is a country literally awash with water bodies including 12 rivers and an extensive coastline, and a country generously blessed with wide lush green cover and stupendous biodiversity (albeit under severe threat by rapid deforestation). These two natural assets alone portend massive economic growth opportunities from eco-tourism and the blue economy if appropriately exploited and managed. Alongside its other impressive natural assets of precious metals, critical minerals, and solar endowment, there is clearly a pressing need to better use these huge gifts of nature to leverage climate finance and nature-based technologies and solutions to drive the country’s quest for economic recovery and inclusive, green, and sustainable economic growth. The country must begin to systematically step away from merely exporting most of its natural resources cheaply as primary products. Hopefully, the government’s flagship program – Feed Salone which seeks to simultaneously address food insecurity, malnutrition, unemployment, poverty, and climate change alongside the complementary Presidential Initiative on Climate Change, Renewable Energy, and Food Security will help Sierra Leone make this sorely needed shift in its development strategy.

Sixth, I will certainly miss the dynamism and resilience of the youth, persons living with disabilities, and smallholder farmers across the country who are often not fully empowered as agents and beneficiaries of the development process.  Sierra Leone must do more to support disability rights as an essential condition for upholding human rights, sustainable development, peace, and security. Similarly, the flagship Feed Salone Program will only yield a significant and sustainable impact if smallholder farmers are at its core. Further, with 15-34-year-olds representing a third of the country’s population, Sierra Leone cannot possibly achieve its aspiration to become a middle-income country by 2035 without investing in the capacity, agency, and leadership of young women and men to collaboratively lead development efforts and to tackle other challenges that affect their lives including the escalating problem of substance (Kush) abuse.

Seventh, as a Nigerian married to a Ghanaian who has lived and worked in Ghana and has also traveled frequently to other West African countries, I have tasted a wide variety of jollof rice, including Sierra Leonean jollof rice. I was frequently put on the spot in the last 38 months by Sierra Leonean friends and colleagues to indicate which West African country offered the best jollof rice!  So, I am glad to be moving to a country where I do not expect to be asked diplomatically delicate questions about jollof rice.

Finally, I will always remember not to forget the several stakeholders including development partners, NGOs, the mass media, the academia, youth groups, faith-based organizations, and private sector entities that collaborate with the UN in its support of the country’s pursuit of necessary policy reforms to prevent its economic collapse and facilitate its return to the path of sustainable development.  I am convinced that these joint efforts will yield even bigger and faster development gains for Sierra Leone if significant sections of the elite could become less motivated by selfish narrow interests, privilege the long-term over the short-term, look more inward than outward, be more patriotic, and act more consistently for the common good.  In the final analysis, the future of Sierra Leone is in the hands of Sierra Leoneans.

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