By Abdulai Mansaray.
With the recently concluded report on the “Bo Political Mishap “published, the spate of violence that is rearing its ugly head in local communities does not augur well for all peace loving and well meaning Sierra Leoneans. The Foundation for Democratic Development –SL (FDID-SL) has added its voice to what is becoming a matter of concern that should be taken seriously, if not already. According to FDID-SL, “what is most alarming and worrisome is that little or no action has been done to forestall this unfortunate state of affairs”. A police officer, an “Okada” rider and a young woman were reportedly killed recently. The FDID-SL believes that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes were drug fuelled individuals. It is easy to brush these incidents under the carpet and label them as “isolated” incidents, but the two incidents in Kono and Bo had political DNAs embedded in them. This is alarming when such an atmosphere is juxtaposed between a ten year period of interregnum and the forthcoming elections.
Sierra Leoneans do not need a reminder of the decade long civil war that brought the country to its knees; the effects of which continue evidently in all spheres of life. The origins, circumstances, outcomes and effects of the war were, and are an open secret for all to see. There is not a single Sierra Leonean, at home or abroad that was not touched by the carnage that was unleashed on the country. As Sierra Leoneans, we are currently constipated with the wrath of war, and it makes for grim reading if such tendencies continue to re-surface unabated. It is unquestionable that the war was conceived by grown up men but the perpetration of the wanton destruction was largely carried out by the youths; who were used and abused by the likes of Charles Taylor and Foday Sankoh among others, for their selfish needs. As many would testify, the war lords took advantage of and abused the innocence of youth. According to reports, the recent violence in the country seems to have the finger prints of the youth all over them.
Many psycho-analysts will point to the current youth violence as a by-product of the past war in the country. There is no question that majority of the youths today are traumatised from the decade –long war. Some were born into, breast fed on and weaned off the ravages of the war. According to some reports and what is fast becoming folklore, some of these youths were forcefully conscripted and forced to carry out unimaginable atrocities. Some were reportedly asked to kill, rape, decapitate and amputate others just to survive or save their own lives. Most were asked to do so to especially their own family members, relatives or people they knew, while drugged up to their eye balls.
This might not be the best forum to recount such gruesome acts, but it is worth noting that the recent upsurge in violence among the youth population today, might just be the dregs of the trauma of war. This is no attempt to psycho analyse the problem but it stands to reason that these children had and continue to have the images of death, destruction and violence embedded in their innocent minds; at a time when they were most vulnerable. There is no question that the government and other international organisations have taken steps to address the resulting traumatic disorder such experiences may trigger, but indications are that more needs to be done.
Since the cessation of hostilities that culminated into democratic elections, Sierra Leone has enjoyed a deserved period of peace, reconciliation and a laudable democratic status. In 2006, the country was ranked 58th. among 180 countries on the Bertelsmann Political Transformation Index. That in itself was no mean feat, when you consider that the country had just avoided the road to perdition. But it is the youth violence that is fast becoming common place that needs the country’s attention.
Many analysts have attributed youth violence to the high percentage of poverty and unemployment. According to the Africa Economic Development Institute (AEDI), 60% of the youth is unemployed; one of the highest in the world. Most of these youths were active participants in the 1991-2002 civil war. Youth is the first victim of war and the first fruit of peace. It can take 20 years or more of peace to make a man; it takes only 20 seconds of war to destroy him. It is no secret that the country and the government have “adopted” a generation that has known nothing but warfare. To think that it is this same generation of children that will become the leaders of tomorrow is scary. The AEDI maintains that with the high unemployment rate, “there is a potential threat of an amalgamation of youth’s disaffection, chronic poverty and high cost of living to the stability of the nation”. War leaves behind not just physical wounds but also deep emotional and mental scars.
Wahab Shaw, a youth program specialist with the UNDP contends that “the high unemployment, the number of illiterate, and the marginalisation led to the civil war in the first place” and it is such a potential that many present socio-economic factors and could reverse the progress that has since been made. This view is backed by Ban Ki-moon the UN Secretary General, who stressed in his latest report that international investment needs to be stepped up to reverse the current unemployment statistics. It appears that the government initiative to tie up several important mining contracts is geared towards alleviating the situation. The art of progress is to preserve order amid change, and to preserve change amid order. It will be foolhardy to attribute the violence to just unemployment and general youth disaffection.
It is an open secret that just like the Charles Taylors of this world, some politicians are cashing in on this state of youth disaffection and unemployment to carry out their dirty work for them. These innocent youths stand to be used, abused and later refused by some political figures for their own end. Youth is easily deceived, because it is quick to hope. The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently. This is more so with people of different political persuasions. The problem arises when the youth try to substitute intelligence with experience and the experienced do the same with intelligence. There is a distressing contrast between the radiant intelligence of the child and the feeble maturity of the average adult.
The current situation has not been helped by the status quo among the political parties. Notwithstanding the traditional and tribal rivalry between the APC and SLPP, there are strong indications that there is an internal rivalry within the higher echelons of the APC. Rumour has it that the president is contemplating replacing the current Vice President, Sam Sumana as running mate for the next general election. The recent “Al-Jazeera” documentary on the “Timbergate” has not helped to dampen such rumours. Instead, it may have given more sermons to the disciples of the conspiracy theories. Added to the mix is the defeaning silence from the President’s office to set the records straight. The Minister of Interior, Musa Tarawally is rumoured to be angling for the VP position; hence the rivalry that gave birth to the incident in Kono.
As Sierra Leoneans, we will be deceiving the youths of today if we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that the recent violence is an exception. There is a powerful potential in our youth and we must, especially politicians have the courage to change old ideas and practices so that we may direct their power toward good ends. The president has been known for a lot of things, but knee jerk reactions are not one of them. He has been known to take informed decisions that may seem too slow to others. However, if this spate of violence is to be addressed, an atmosphere of zero tolerance must be the watch word, irrespective of political affiliations. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. The most important element of a free society is the rejection of the initiation of violence. Therefore a twin approach of sensitizing the youth and swift justice should be the watch word, against the background of gainful employment and hope for the youths. Justice must be done and must be seen to be done. A country cannot always build a future for its youth but it can build its youth for the future.
The press and media have a pivotal role to play here. It is obvious that media outlets have their political slants by design, ideology, persuasion or otherwise. In an ideal world, the media should be the custodian of public opinion and janitor of society. Despite their political affiliations, the media should always aspire to cast its objective eyes on issues; with its triple aim to educate, inform and entertain as its foundation blocks. Unfortunately, certain sections of the media have become active echo chambers for some political parties. It is true that he who pays the piper calls the tune; and that many will resist the temptation to bite the finger that feeds them. But as the fourth estate, the press has a moral obligation to be responsible in its activities.
The intense rivalry between the political parties has been wildly played out in the media. Personality attacks have become the order of the day, and politicians have used some journalists to their hearts desire. It is shocking to see the kind of expletives used against rivals. There is no doubt that such an atmosphere will permeate down to the common man on the street. The intensity is so much that it is beyond belief. During my recent visit to Sierra Leone, I was jokingly accused by my cousin of being “an APC man”. My only crime was wearing a Manchester United replica shirt. I told him that I was allergic to politics and showed him the marks to prove it. He still remains unconvinced.
It is unfortunate that certain parts of the press have not helped the situation. If the recent attack on journalists in a Pujehun school is anything to go by, the threat to freedom of speech is alarming. There is no excuse for such behaviour and must be condemned in all its forms. There should be no room for taking the law into one’s hands. On the flip side, would such attacks be reflective of the public’s perception of the press? There is no question that some parts of the press have dragged the noble art into the cesspit of organised gossip, at the expense of responsible reporting. Some media outlets have even made it their mission statement to attack rivals of different persuasions. It is this kind of atmosphere which slowly but surely becomes etched on the psyche of the man in the street and will result in the psychological dents that we see in our youths of today.
There is an atmosphere of bad blood brewing in the build up to the elections. Sierra Leone’s record of democracy seems to be at stake here. There is nothing wrong with criticism; as long as it is constructive. Sadly, the slightest criticism gives rise to floods of conspiracy theories, witch hunts, sabotage etc. Criticism may not be agreeable but it is necessary to call attention to the unhealthy state of things.
If we are to teach peace in this world and if we are to carry on a war against war, we shall have to begin with the children (Mahatma Gandhi). Sierra Leone is still going through a defining moment, but if we fail to define the moment, the moment will define us.
Don’t forget to leave the lights on.