It is that time of the year again, the season of good will to all men. It is yuletide and the season of plenty. It’s Christmas. It traditionally marks the birthday of the Lord Jesus Christ. Christmas has a special meaning to especially Christians worldwide. But to many around the world, it is that time of the year when families come together to celebrate. People travel from far and wide to be with families and friends, and people from the diaspora are no exception. It is the annual rendezvous for the thousands of Sierra Leoneans across the globe. Many see this time as a “wan tem for year” pilgrimage. It is a time to merry. Spending Christmas in the diaspora (Salone style) is like spending Christmas in Saudi Arabia; “yain yain”. It is therefore not surprising that most Sierra Leoneans the Christmas period as a moment of pilgrimage back home.
There is no question that Christmas brings a different atmosphere to the country; and this is especially so in Freetown. Sierra Leoneans from the diaspora always add some colour and a feel good factor to the country. For starters, the exchange rate of foreign currencies usually takes a dip in value; not because of the world market but because our cousins bring in a fair bit to the scene. While many Sierra Leoneans would see this as a time for family re-unions and time to detoxify the ravages of long working hours abroad, others and especially those from the criminal fraternity see this like a harvest season. Over the years, many visitors have experienced joyful moments on their travels back home. Unfortunately, there have been others who have not experienced the joyful side of going back home. It is the experience of the latter that has prompted this piece.
In the past few months, there have been a lot of hazard warnings splashed across social media; warning Sierra Leoneans ( Jesse) planning to visit the motherland this Christmas about the spate of criminal activity. Many have shared their personal experiences, quoted the experience of people they know, and have understandably issued hazard warnings to all those planning to visit the country. No one is suggesting that this is a new phenomenon, or that it is the monopoly of Sierra Leoneans. Unfortunately, the rate at which such attacks of criminality, ranging from hijackings, burglary, larceny and home invasions has been taking place is reaching an alarming rate. Are people from the diaspora becoming the official targets of these gangs? WHY?
Recently, the government did not only identify the tourism industry as a major foreign exchange earner, but also the Bio government has taken further steps to boost the untapped resources and potential of this fledging industry. The government recently introduced the Visa on Arrival and Online Visa application (VSL Travel). The Finance Minster Mr J.J Saffa presented what was fondly tagged as the Government’s (bread and butter) 2020 budget for parliamentary approval. Among other GDP friendly budget plans, “all aviation related charges will be exempt from the payment of GST. These include landing and parking fees, aircraft towing, aircraft cleaning, baggage handling, aircraft security as well as aircraft fuelling. The objective is to reduce the cost of travel to Sierra Leone in order to boost tourism and create job opportunities”.
If we are to achieve this, the contribution of Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora should not be lost in this drive. The issue of tourism is not just about foreign visitors. Come to think of it, the contribution of Sierra Leoneans, who are loosely seen as “foreign citizens” from the diaspora, cannot be overemphasized. According to the findings at the Global Forum on Remittances, Africa has the highest remittances sent by 31 million international African migrants, reaching nearly $40 billion in 2010 and equivalent to 2.6 percent of Africa’s gross GDP.
This does not only show the importance of remittances and diaspora investment, but also its vital role in the blood circulation of African economies. According to Statista.com and theglobaleconomy.com, the inflows of remittances to Sierra Leone showed that the country received remittances valued at 47 million U.S. dollars in 2018. AFFORD UK in partnership with AFFORD SL through the Migration and Development (MADE) West Africa project and Diaspora Finance Initiative (DFI) project organised an in-country training workshop on ‘Enabling and Enhancing Diaspora Contribution to Development and Job Creation’ at the New Brookfields Hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone from the 12-14 June 2018. This was in part, recognition of the impact made by Sierra Leoneans living abroad.
Not withstanding the fact that security, peace and the need to feel safe is vital in the drive towards boosting the economy, the spate of reported violence; especially against visitors and diasporans alike is counter-productive. A victim of crime is a victim of crime, irrespective of the birth marks of the criminal or victim. No one is asking for special treatment for Sierra Leoneans visiting or returning home. Such visitors are not an endangered species and have not been accorded UNESCO protection status. But this is a trend that needs to be nipped in the bud. It requires the intervention of all the law enforcement services to arrest this situation. It does not augur well for the name of the country. It is one thing to take inoculations against malaria, cholera and the usual suspects; but it is a completely different kettle of fish to have to deal with targeted attacks from criminals.
With the kind of strident steps taken by the government and other stake holders to rebrand Sierra Leone, this matter should not be ignored. The implications could have serious and insidious consequences for our economy and our image as well. There is no reason why Sierra Leoneans going back home should feel like targets or sitting ducks for a handful of criminal gangs. This piece is aimed at calling on all law enforcement agencies and especially the Bio led government to tackle this problem head on. It should not be tolerated and must not be allowed to fester. Like every Sierra Leonean, all visitors should feel safe and welcome to enjoy our lovely beaches and whatever nature has blessed our country with. We can accept that “de grun dry”, but visitors can also help with some badly needed irrigation.
It is laudable that the government is embarking on programmes and initiatives to boost the economy. The recently rolled out policies in the aviation industry have not gone unnoticed. However, if the objectives are to be realised, our country will need the visitors to do so. But we cannot entice visitors if we allow lawlessness and crime to fester unchecked and with reckless abandon. A good act does not wash out the bad, nor a bad act the good. Each should have its own reward. We cannot repeal the consequences of crime, but as a nation we have had our share from bad press coverage at a global level for too long. Those days when Sierra Leone was synonymous with war and Ebola are over; and should be over. The report of criminal gangs targeting visitors and especially diasporans is one unenviable record we can ill afford. Some diasporans see this as “Bad heart”.
Over to you Inspector General of Police.
Don’t forget to turn the lights off before you leave the room.