Abdulai Mansaray, author
There has been a flood of condemnation following the visit of President Bio and his entourage to The Gambia last week. It is obvious that his visit, among other issues was firmly centred on the bilateral relationship between these 2 countries. The relationship between Sierra Leone could be traced back to colonial times, and this was exemplified by the people of both countries. It is therefore not surprising that many families in Sierra Leone had, and continue to have relatives in both countries. Throughout history, both countries were united by means of cultural similarities by virtue of inter marriages and cultural affiliations. The ties between these countries were further strengthened in the educational sector as well. With Fourah Bay College as the citadel of learning in West Africa in those days, The Gambia was the only country, though foreign, whose students were considered as home students. This meant that unlike other citizens from other African countries, Gambians were treated on par with Sierra Leoneans, and hence required to pay their University fees in local currency.
Until The Gambia had its own University, the majority of its people sought further education from Sierra Leone, and this was conducted on a local level for The Gambian students. In addition to this, there have been a lot of similarities common to both countries. A typical example of the strong ties between both countries was ably demonstrated in Kono district, where a large population of Gambians, and especially the Sarahule tribe had settled in the mining district. It is not surprising that many rich Gambians could trace the origin of their wealth to the diamondiferous region of Kono District. Bio’s visit to The Gambia should therefore not come as a surprise to many, as this relationship dates back as far as our mutual colonial history.
Unfortunately, President Maada bio’s recent visit will be remembered for the wrong reasons, thanks to what has been described as an insensitive display of avarice, during a cultural dance to welcome the entourage. In the video clip that is doing the rounds on social media, Bio could be seen dancing together with his wife and well-wishers. What is causing most of the angst, especially to his detractors is the part of the clip where the First Lady Mrs Fatima Bio is seen “showering” her husband with foreign currency. But what is wrong with this? Many people have condemned the gesture as insensitive and politically incorrect.
This piece is not aimed at moralising the pros and cons of either the visit as a whole or the act of “showering” such gifts, but is an attempt to present a balanced view, where practically possible, about the whole saga that is causing such angst. For starters, it is a very common practice that during cultural festivities, we do display such gestures to our griots, dancers and cultural groups. It is not uncommon to shower the participants with money. It is common place and it is a culturally accepted phenomenon. This is not privy to any one particular cultural group, tribe or otherwise. From the North of the Limpopo, right down to the South of the Sahara, this has always been an age old practice that has formed part of the richness of our cultures. However, some people may wonder why this one has drawn so much criticism; the Context. If this was performed by any other person, you wonder if anyone would have batted an eye lid. But because this was done by our President and his entourage, the criticisms have come flooding. Nevertheless, we should be honest enough to understand the standpoint of the critics and sceptics. It will be disingenuous to dismiss outright their concerns and criticisms. However, in trying to forge a better place called Sierra Leone, it is worth remembering that we need to be constructive in our criticism.
Let us look at the context of this scenario. One of the main policies or signature feats of the embryonic Maada Bio government is the WAR ON CORRUPTION. As we speak, our country is witnessing an unprecedented drive to fight corruption. Irrespective of your political persuasion, this is a laudable feat. But against the backdrop of a very harsh economic climate in Sierra Leone today, one the current government has rightly or wrongly attributed to the handwork of the past APC government, it is difficult to see how one can juxtapose the fight against corruption and the display of what many saw as a display of avarice. Let us be honest with ourselves for a minute here. If our government is happy to tell anyone and everyone who cares to listen that our current economic malaise is a concomitant effect of the reckless behaviour of the erstwhile Koroma government, which has resulted in an unprecedented WAR ON CURRUPTION by way of a Commission Of Inquiry, such a display “wealth”, irrespective of its cultural tenets, will fly in the face of logic. By implication, such an act of cultural display will seemingly defeat the object, and many will see this as an “own goal “by President Bio. It is difficult to marry the idea of fighting corruption and lamenting the hardship of a country on one hand, and displaying such a spectacle of wealth, irrespective of the amount involved, in the same breath.
As we go to press, our country is facing one of the longest periods of shortages of bread. According to information, our bakers have found the price of flour so astronomical that they can no longer operate a viable and profitable business, and this has led to a serious shortage that we have not experienced for a long time. There are some people who would conveniently conclude that our nation is facing starvation. The hyperbole for obvious reasons would not be lost on anyone here. Nevertheless, if our country is facing such a crisis, irrespective of how minimal its impact could be, the cultural display in The Gambia could also be described as insensitive on the part of the President and his entourage at this particular time. If there was any time to engage in such a practice, irrespective of its cultural value, it could be considered insensitive; and one would struggle to argue otherwise. No one is condemning the cultural aspect of such a tradition. But against the context of what is going on in Sierra Leone; the economic hardship, the COI and the recent shortage of bread in the country, it is understandable if many people find this very insensitive. At best, the First lady and the president could have got someone else to do such bidding for them; and in keeping with the traditional side of things. This may sound like there is a need for some lessons in protocol here. I am not offering though.
This brings us to the role of our First Lady Mrs Fatima Bio. The first lady is the wife of the First Gentleman of the state. She is not a politically appointed figure. However, by virtue of her position as the First Lady, she enjoys the unenviable position whereby her every move, appearance, speech and anything about her will come under the strictest scrutiny. Such scrutiny and the perks that come with her position go hand in hand in this business. This is not to say that such scrutiny is always justified, but it comes with the territory. It is difficult to join the dance of monkeys and not expect a tail to touch you. We all know the tremendous job that Mrs Fatima Bio has spearheaded in this short space of time. She has fronted women’s rights, the “Hands off our Girls”, the fight against cancer and many other projects. It is fair to say that she hardly gets the desired accolades that she deserves. Unfortunately, there is always an endless queue waiting to literally jump on her back each time she appears to step, out of line; according to some people’s standards.
But before we rush to condemn Mrs Fatima Bio for what many saw as an insensitive gesture in Banjul, we need to remember that she is human. In addition, she is an individual who deserves to be treated as an individual and a private citizen. This means that she has the right to live the life of a private citizen just like anyone of us. She did not become the first lady by means of a political contest. She did not run for the position of First Lady and was not elected to be the First Lady. That is between her and Mr Maada Bio. Her position as First Lady was down to the handiwork of Cupid, and we should not be envious of her for that. Nevertheless, it is inevitable though, that by virtue of her position as First lady, though a private person, she would double up as a public and private individual. Although the First Lady was in an official role as the First lady accompanying her husband on a state visit, the aria that she displayed during the cultural dance was purely one you would expect from a private individual. Perhaps, our First lady may be struggling to decipher where her role as a private person ends and that of a public figure starts. Many people will say that she may have been carried away by the occasion, and was consumed or carried away by the ambiance at the time. Even President Bio could not resist the instinct to “cut aria” at the time. Did they get caught up with the atmosphere? After all, are they not human? I would hate to have a wooden president with no human touch. They are human after all, and they are allowed to display some humanity, some of the time.
This brings us to the curse of political correctness. What we are seeing here is a call for political correctness. But as a country, should we not be transcending political correctness and strive for human righteousness? There are some people who see political correctness as a euphemism for political cowardice. I am sure that Fatima Bio would have come in for the same criticism, had she stood there and not move a muscle while all around her were dancing. She would have been described as “wooden”, proud” cocky, snobbish or an otherwise individual, had she just folded her arms and not tweaked a muscle. But the moment she obeyed her natural instincts and responded to what makes her human, all hell froze. But if truth be told, the spectacle does not make for good reading back home. As for the First lady, she may need some guidance on protocol in the future. Perhaps, her handlers need to take a good look at themselves, and especially the body responsible for protocol at State House.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter (M. L. King).
Don’t forget to attend the COI when you leave the room.