The past few months have been extremely difficult for us Sierra Leoneans. The grumblings about difficulties in making ends meet have been constantly aired out in the open in discussions amongst various classes of people in society. We have seen fuel prices more than double over the past few months and cost of electricity increase by more than 50 percent with a concomitant increase in prices of basic commodities and services. These difficulties have resulted in an extreme rise in the poverty rate and have often also resulted in chaos in many spheres of life. That the political situation is chaotic has not helped.
Apart from the public many groups like Okada riders and market women have been understandably restive and opposition parties have not bought into the government’s narrative that this state of affairs is solely a global problem. The Police have been quick to snuff out any dissent and we have witnessed the incarceration of political leaders and women who were accused by the Police of either abating illegal demonstrations or participating in them. Meanwhile, Members of Parliament have been involved in acrimonious debates about reforming our electoral system. We have also witnessed incidences involving the use of pepper spray and stoning within Parliament, with one unlucky MP hospitalised. Social media is replete with hate speech and derisory comments related to our present predicament that threaten to irretrievably divide us as a nation. Various professional groups have been threatening to go on strike. We are indeed living in difficult and chaotic times.
The Police have been heavy handed in dealing with the ensuing chaos with several accusations levied against them of human rights abuses. Various government functionaries have done their best to provide explanations for the out of control cost of living, laying the blame squarely on the COVID-19 situation, supply chain problems and the war in Ukraine-factors which have also affected most countries. Those doing the explaining have been discordant in their messaging and laced them with vicious attacks on opposition members and anyone who dares dissent. There is still however a widespread perception that perhaps government could do more and also display greater empathy. A year to elections, the government seems to be playing defence with the opposition not allowing them to get out of the penalty box.
Not satisfied with the state of affairs, some ruling party members have called on the President to take center stage in assuaging the fears of a restive public. Sulaiman Banja Tejansie, a former Secretary General of the SLPP in an article on the SLPP’s bye election loss in Samaia Bendugu wrote: “COVID 19 and Russia have done us in I believe, but the current malaises that plague the SLPP are more self- made”. He cites the appointment of largely diaspora-based people to very sensitive positions as one and says they are largely here for the perks that go with lucrative jobs. Tejansie advises that the government puts in place mechanisms to attract investment, puts the brakes on the current high expenditure on overseas travels, reduces the ever-ballooning wage bill and reviews the duplicitous status of many offices needlessly created.
Party faithful should probably ponder over views expressed on the present conundrum by strong and well respected party members seriously. Sorie Fofana says the President has met 85% of SLPP’s manifesto pledges and cites the repeal of the Public Order Act, the free quality education scheme and the abolition of the death penalty as noteworthy successes. He however suggests that at this crucial time the President should address the nation to “give hope to the people”. Dr. Sama Banya aka Puawui, true to form reminds us of the “popularity” of President Bio and the “nefarious” activities of the APC- “Indeed! Victory for Maada Bio and no runoff. It has always been the avowed determination of the APC to make the country ungovernable”, asserts Puawui. He also suggests the President should have a “fireside chat with the nation”. “They will listen to his cool and confident admonition. Our people are currently being deprived of the truth and his Excellency needs to pay attention to that”, he reasons.
I particularly like the views of Honourable Davies-Cole in advising the President. He reserves harsh words for the President’s men- “The PR guys around you have failed you. The spinners are not smart, their stories are badly veiled insults, provocative innuendos, cheap stunts and above all they roll them out with brazen cheek and demonic audacity. They do you an injustice and they collect salaries and emoluments from our taxes. They fail you and the nation.”
He then offers his advice- “Your responsibility is to reassure us that you see and know how we feel and that you know our pain. Don’t tell us what APC did wrong………. We would remember you as a father who spent a lot of time away and even when he came home did not play with his kids.” He then advises President Bio to speak to the nation- “If I were allowed to advise I would have asked you to speak to the nation very soon. Drop by unannounced in a few areas, ask the cameras to go off, talk to people, make dem feel lek say you understand.”
There are examples of a President speaking frankly to the nation in times of crisis. During the Great Depression, the newly inaugurated Franklin D. Roosevelt in the USA made few promises and never predicted quick success. But he did make a difference during a time of deprivation, confusion and shock by offering frightened listeners empathy. One report states that “through his fireside chats, Roosevelt spoke directly to down-and-out citizens, entering their rickety houses and cramped apartments through the reach of radio. He narrated and explained the confusion around them; he did not sugarcoat, condemn or oversimplify. Roosevelt connected with his audience through an open conversation about what ailed the country.”
But what exactly should President Bio do in the present circumstances to turn the anxieties of the populace towards positive actions? Since we are stampeded by rumours and guesses he should speak directly to us to unite us to trust the machinery of government. Admittedly this will not be easy as there are many opponents with nightmarish visions of what this government portends for the nation. This cannot however be done unless he displays empathy, democratic principles of goodwill and respects dissent. Whilst preparing to address the nation, he should display a readiness to make those bold decisions to do some serious introspection and address those problems that may be internally inflicted that are within his control. Adapting or encouraging the adaptation of the “one trick pony solution” undertaken by some of his top people of blaming and castigating the opposition for encouraging dissatisfaction and dissent amongst the populace will not help.
There is no doubt the present hardship will be with us for some time. The World Bank’s African Economic Outlook makes it clear that the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war could leave a lasting impression over several years. Notwithstanding this, we should avert any civil strife as a result of food and energy-fuelled inflation, particularly in this current environment of heightened political instability.
President Bio should breathe his coolness through the heats of our desires and speak to the nation through “the earthquake, wind and fire” with what the hymn writer calls that “still small voice of calm”.
Ponder my thoughts.