The” Timbergate” Scandal in Sierra Leone.

By Abdulai Mansaray, UK

The recent documentary on Sierra Leone’s timber industry aired on Al-Jazeera has been met with controversy, accusations, counter-accusations and full blown smear campaigns. While some have hailed it as a good piece of journalism, others have seen it as a documentary that has blurred the thin line between investigative journalism and witch-hunting. Judging by the reactions you would argue that some people feel offended by this piece, by virtue of their positions as journalists, vested interests, party stalwarts or mouthpieces, or simply because they are Sierra Leoneans; who feel that the image and integrity of the country has been tarred with the wrong brush.

The reasons behind the plethora of reactions are varied, but it sounds like among others, the search for the truth, patriotism, and political reasons have been central to it all. In spite of the controversy that the documentary has created, one thing is certain; it has got Sierra Leoneans talking, thanks to Facebook and other outlets. There has been a frenzied outburst of emotions that have been thinly disguised as acts of patriotism, but it is unquestionable that the documentary has also put corruption firmly on the psyche of Sierra Leoneans; as if it ever went away. Some people would like you to believe that Sierra Leone’s economic malaise is a concomitant effect that has degenerated into pervasive corruption; a theme that seems to be central to the documentary. The first tenet is that you should report corruption regardless of loyalty to incumbent or opposition.

President Koroma’s government has been receiving lots of praise in its first term in office and deservedly so. Since coming to office, he has done a lot to enrich our democracy. One of the striking attributes is the setting up of the Anti-Corruption Commission, a department that has sought to promote accountability. This does not mean that the country never had such an institution, but unlike the past, there were hardly any prosecutions. In days gone by, the severest punishment an official received for corrupt practices was a transfer to another department, as “reward” for being a crook and “punishment “ for being caught.  It is a breath of political oxygen to see officials prosecuted today and made to pay fines or serve prison sentences. The president promised that there will be “no sacred cows”, and true to his word, much has been done to that end; so I heard.

These accomplishments do not mean that we should enter a period of complacency and close our eyes to the public corruption of our democracy.  Corruption, like risks can never be eradicated but can be reduced. However, it is not the sole domain of the president’s to do so. Citizens as patriots, have that moral responsibility to help fight corruption in all its forms or nomenclature. When the president took office, he identified the need for attitudinal change as part of his blue print for his tenure in office.  That in itself was a political diagnosis of Sierra Leone’s economic malaise. The president can deservedly accept and enjoy all the plaudits he receives for his hard work, but he will be the first to admit that it has not been perfect or a mission accomplished situation. There is still a long way to go.  .

Some have seen Sorious Samura’s documentary as politically driven; to mount a smear campaign against the APC, especially in the light of upcoming general elections in Sierra Leone. Others see it as a true mark of patriotism from someone who has the interest of his country at heart. This piece is neither intended to check the veracity of such accusations, nor is it meant to defend them, but to draw attention to the big picture.  When the European Union identified logging as a leading cause of environmental degradation in Sierra Leone in 2006, you cannot argue that it was not worth investigating though. Personally, I saw the arid or savannah –like background that was described as Masingbi.  If that is now the Masingbi I knew, then it becomes imperative, in my opinion to investigate such devastating environmental issues.

 “For us Africans, literature (like journalism) must serve a purpose: to expose, embarrass and fight corruption and authoritarianism. It is understandable why the African is utilitarian” (Ama Ata Aidoo). A counter video was produced to negate the evidence and innuendos or impressions created by the documentary. Central to it was to dispute the location of the Vice President’s office, where the bribery must have reportedly taken place. In Samura’s version, we see one of the VP’s “aides” introduce  the would be merchants to the VP, and continues his supplication and boasts, all rolled into one “ we are going to be looking up to you as a bigger father to give us the blessings in the business, ban or no ban. We hope to be able to do…” At that point, the VP interjects that the ban has been postponed. I must reiterate that I am not defending anyone here. In the “alternative video” which set out to expose “deception of Sorious & Al-Jazeera”, the author or presenter points out that the said transaction had not taken place in the VP’s office. Except if some of us had suffered from temporary amnesia, the only person who stated that they were in the VP’s office was one of the associates. Al-Jazeera did not say that they were in the VP’s office.

It is understandable to whip an air of frenzy if a blatant lie is noted. In an ideal world, readers expect the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Any doubt in the veracity of the story will dent its credibility. So if you cannot trust the messenger, it stands to reason that you cannot trust the message. Sadly, we are not in an ideal world and the big picture of corruption should not be allowed to be swallowed by ego-laden battles or otherwise. Ever heard the saying that “you should not believe everything you read”?

There are no doubts that writers, presenters, authors, etc always have a message, theme, theory or angle they want their audience or readers to see, hear or read. It takes all sorts of artistry to achieve this and in literary terms, it is the tricks of the trade; all the more reason why they have editors. If not, all media materials would be presented in their pristine and unadulterated versions.  One of Sorious’s critics suggested, that a series of innuendos and implied connotations have been made in the original version to point fingers at the President. This may have been true or false and it is up to individual perception. Unfortunately, some of us may not be equipped enough to see beyond the opaque.

 There is no question that the documentary, like any other has been edited, doctored, tweaked or otherwise, to measure. The question is whether the focus was to expose corruption at the expense of future generations or as a party political broadcast, as stated by the critics. You are the judge but I know the one I am settling for. The concept of using secret cameras to gather evidence may be a new one to some people. The word “secret”   can imply a lot of issues including deceit, trickery, skulduggery, entrapment etc. This might be partly responsible for the frenzied response from some people who were expecting an open conversation, only to find out that they have played a role in a documentary.  Some may feel betrayed or hoodwinked. But that is the crux of investigative journalism, to investigate. If you are honest about what you do or say, then why should you feel cheated? That in my view may be one reason we have been treated with some theatrics lately; it’s an alien concept of journalism. Hey, get used to it for that is one way that Sierra Leone will be sanitised from corruption.  Unfortunately, the big picture appears to have been lost here.

Like I said, the president has achieved a lot in comparison to most of his predecessors, but he will be the first to acknowledge that more needs to be done.  Sadly, there has been an equally blind loyalty that has degenerated into crass patronisation; to a point whereby any form of criticism is easily seen as a witch hunt, politicking or even treasonable.  There may be some truth in that but history tells us that if you look closely at those who patronise you, half are unfeeling and half untaught. It is a disposition that has its meaner side.

I am in no doubt that Sylvia Blyden has taken the issue because of her desire for the truth and for patriotic reasons; both noble devotions. When Sylvia gave us the “alternative”, some of us were forced to re-visit; the kind of reaction a writer aspires to generate. Unfortunately, there are some who have joined the band wagon simply because they are political echo chambers; and instead of giving their readers something to reflect on, have resorted to their usual insults and attacks on personalities. Some people find it difficult to discuss issues and consider any variance in opinion as a war against them.

This is a serious matter that should not be reduced to personality warfare. They may want to use the national flag as a wrap around to proclaim their patriotism, but a tiger does not need to boast of its tigritude. Patriotism is not only about defending your country all the time; it is also about supporting your government when it deserves it. But a patriot must also always be ready to defend his country against his government, and the highest form of patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one’s country, deep enough to call her to a higher plain.

The intention of Sorious’s documentary has been called into question, but the fact still remains that the plague of corruption has reared its ugly head again. There is no question that all institutions are prone to corruption and to the vices of their members; as there are no guarantees against failure or corruption of any kind. But any government that protects business only is a carcass that will fall by its own corruption and decay. Corruption has never been compulsory but has become the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty. But wherever you see someone who gives someone else’s corruption, someone else’s prejudice as a reason for not taking action himself, you see the cog in the machine that governs us.

Some of the worrying aspects of the documentary are that the VP’s men seem so confident about their influence that you could be forgiven to assume that this is business as usual.  This could be seen as an error of judgement for the VP to surround himself, with people who are using his position for financial gains.  They boasted of knowing people in higher places and even threw “protection” into the bargain; protection from who or what? But again, some people believe that it takes a lot for a blind man to threaten you with a stone. Notwithstanding all the accusations and counter-accusations, the government has promised to investigate.

Interestingly and rightly so, some people have been worried that the documentary will tarnish the good image of the country and undo all the good work that the president and his government have achieved. That will be the least of my worries. This year, the second-longest serving President of France  Jacques Chirac, was put on trial for embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds during his time as mayor of Paris. In the UK, members of parliament were prosecuted, jailed, fined and forced to resign their posts, because some had asked questions in parliament on behalf of vested interests. Others were imprisoned or fined for giving false accounts of their expenses. President Nixon of USA had his troubles as well for the Watergate scandal.

This does not mean that corruption is acceptable; and it is not intended to serve as an excuse. What the above shows is that all institutions are prone to corruption and the vices of their members; even those in very high positions. The difference is that in some societies, there’s demand for accountability. Those who are caught are forced to face the law. Interestingly, all these scandals were discovered by JOURNALISTS. Like their counterparts in other countries, they were forced to account.

 The government has promised to investigate. It will be naive to prejudge the outcome and we can make whatever comparisons based on the desire to get to the truth or otherwise. However, we should not underestimate the role of the press in promoting the attitudinal change that is required in Sierra Leone. The press is the 4th. Estate, the thermometer of public opinion and barometer of society. One thing is certain though: after this saga, some people may think twice before trying it on again.

Leave the Lights on this time: BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU

Abdulai Mansaray.

About Othman Sheriff 347 Articles
Born and raised in Kenema district, eastern Sierra Leone, Othman Sheriff began practicing journalism during his school days as a youthhood hobby. With a bachelor's degree in mass-media and communication, and a Master’s degree in development and peacebuilding, Sheriff is the Editor-in-Chief and CEO of Critique Echo Newspaper. While tirelessly using journalism as a tool to place his country’s socioeconomic and political landscape under a magnifying glass, Sheriff is deeply involved in community development projects. Over the years, Sheriff has formulated and implemented billions of Leones worth of development projects with funds from Europe and USA. He is chiefly focused on community infrastructural development and economic resuscitation projects, fostering interethnic, interreligious and sociocultural cohesion among the young population in Kenema district. Sheriff is a member of many international peacebuilding initiatives including the United Religious Initiative (URI), International Association of Educators for World Peace (IAEWP), Intercultural Leaders Network and Youth Solidary Fund program of the United Nations Alliance of Civilization (UNAOC)

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