March 31, 2021
BY Andrew Keili
It would have made life much easier for Mayor Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr if she had not made those statements captured on audio that seem to have got her into hot waters. On the face of it, many have considered her tribe-related references inappropriate. Her statement about “playing dead” to the SLPP initially so she could achieve success by stealth for APC is unsurprisingly viewed with disdain by ardent SLPP supporters.
The Mayor has ignited debate on this issue with many coming down hard on her for what they consider as a misguided, tribally sensitive statement. Hardliners within the SLPP who have never taken a liking to her reiterated their justification for their continued hate for someone who they thought was always bent on undermining them. Perhaps the reaction of hardliners is predictable. What is however disconcerting for the Mayor is the disappointment amongst many neutrals and her ardent supporters who have looked up to her as a disciplined, hardworking and nationalistic breath of fresh air to listen to what they considered a tribal rant. One said: “She seems to have done some admirable work as Mayor. Nevertheless, if she has an iota of honour, she should now hit the road”.
Notwithstanding the hullaballoo, one needs to take a closer look at the rhetoric itself and beyond it. The offensive statement goes: “Dem wan kam with Kemokai na ya, so when are say do dis e tell me say buwa biseh (Mende greeting), there’s no way we go accept dem na ya.”
At first glance this appears like a general reference to a typical Mende name, Kemokai, signalling that Mendes pejoratively identified by the “buwa biseh” greeting would be booted out. However, further explanations by the Mayor prompted one to look even closer at the circumstances surrounding the edited audio. Apparently this incident happened sometime ago and the Mayor had subsequently written a letter on 24th March, 2021 to the Executive Secretary of the Local Government Service Commission (LGSC) complaining about the conduct of some recruited staff, including an actual Kemokai. The Local councils as a group had not been pleased with the “unmandated and unprocedural” recruitment and allocation of staff to them by the LGSC and had made their displeasure known to the LGSC. They claimed they were recruiting staff without following the procedures in the Local Government Act of 2004 and HR guidelines of 2014. They had asked the LGSC recruited staff not to assume these positions until this matter was resolved. Two people were posted to the FCC, a Mr Peter Koroma as Deputy Chief Administrator and Mr Mustapha Kemokai as Environmental and Sanitation officer. They took up their positions flouting the Mayor’s instructions and appear to have been supported by the Chief Administrator. The Mayor and Councilors removed furniture from their offices but they kept coming to work, spending their time between the Chief Administrator’s office and that of the Chief Engineer and doing normal work. Mr Koroma, according to the Mayor had even started signing documents on behalf of the council. To date, apparently, these gentlemen who refused to acknowledge the Mayor’s authority are working at the FCC and given tasks by the Chief Administrator. For the “unauthorised” Mr Kemokai to work on the Mayor’s flagship sanitation interventions seems to have been particularly irksome to the Mayor.
On another note, I had always wondered that if she typically wanted to refer to a Mende man, Kemokai was not exactly typical-a Vamboi or Sandy would have been more identified as a Mende name. Now we know that indeed there was a Mr Kemokai, who the Mayor wanted out of the Council because of acts of insubordination.
The “Buwa bisie” bit is unfortunate as there is a danger that without the background people might misconstrue it as a tribal slur. This “tribal slur” business in Sierra Leone can however be condescending or humorous depending on the intent. The comedian Ernest Brewah aka Vamboi refers to himself in self-deprecating fashion as “the only Mende man with dignity and “quarity””. Kindo Amano and other comedians make constant reference to East end weddings in a derogatory but humorous manner that would not offend anyone. We live in a country in which people would still refer to “Da Fullah man” or “Kortor” of “Neneh” without even bothering to learn the names of the people concerned. The Fullahs can however now claim to have the last laugh-with a Vice President and countless professionals and graduates and leaders in commerce, they indeed have had the last laugh. The Limbas they referred to as “Sorie” are now employing those that made those remarks in jest. Every tribe it would seem has got some misconception about others, borne mainly out of ignorance. Even my uncles in Kailahun referred to Krio people as “tangalula mebla”-literally meaning “eaters of rotten cassava”- referring to Krios and foofoo. Nowadays some Mende people l know eat more foofoo than the typical Krio.
It is not however what is said but the intent that matters. Questions to asks now that we know “Kemokai” is not a general name for Mende people are a) “Did the Mayor mean to disparage all Mendes by saying “Buwa bisie”? b) Was the Mayor being critical of the government because of what she considers unfair imposition of their supporters (most of whom would logically come from the South East) on her? Was it what you would colloquially refer to as “overap”? I would venture to say, probably the latter two.
The real accusation here seems to be that the Mayor is portrayed as a Mende hating tribalist. The matter of intent and character references have to be considered. I hate being personal but in times of crisis when someone’s reputation is on the line, one has to say what the truth is. I am a proud Mende man and a friend of the Morgan family. They are very passionate about the development of Sierra Leone-from Yvonne’s Dad, Professor Hector Morgan to her ever smiling mum, Aunty Marion who has always been active in Church and women’s emancipation issues (especially disadvantaged girls) to my buddy Trudy, who is head of the Sierra Leone Institution of Engineers. Yvonne and husband Keith have been involved in working on projects for Sierra Leone even before she became Mayor. Professor Morgan attended Bo School and her mother is of Mende heritage. I haven’t seen a fibre of bigotry in her. Impatience to get things done right and timeously and commitment to accomplishing results even if it means she becomes a slave driver-yes! I also know some of the top staff of FCC. Nine of the top twelve have South Eastern roots. She is associated closely in her work with many other South Easterners. I have never seen her as one who would discriminate against people because of tribe. I have also had some professional relationship with her and can attest to her professionalism, being more concerned about performance in the job.
In many ways, I could also understand that tribal sensitivities in the current poisoned atmosphere where most things are viewed with a tribal and/ or political lens may compel people to be condemnatory of such statements. We have however also heard utterances more recently from top guns within this government about giving work only to party supporters. We have had several utterances before by top people (both during the tenure of this government and the previous one) whipping up tribal frenzy. This perhaps has muddied the water and as the Mayor has undoubtedly learnt, one has to watch what you say and to whom.
I would suspect that she is probably going to find the cooperation of Ministries much harder that she has already been having over the past year. Her falling out over so many issues with her parent Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development and Ministry of Lands and condemnation in SLPP circles have sometimes been the stuff of public spectacles.
The matter of foisting staff on Local councils is a germane issue that needs investigating further as is the issue of the lack of cooperation between the Mayor and Chief Administrator. This seems to have been the spark behind this outburst. Going forward, one only hopes that a way can be found for the Mayor and Government to work together to improve this capital city. Successfully addressing the myriad problems of the city have been the hallmark of the Mayor’s work. In my view it will be a win-win situation for both the Mayor and government-the current rancorous situation certainly does not help.
Ponder my thoughts.