In a newspaper article written by Mr. Abdul Fonti (thenewpeople.com, 06/10/13), the author questions whether the President, Dr. Bai Ernest Koroma was becoming a DICTATOR. According to the article, “President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma stands accused of putting on display a dictatorship tendency. The President surrendered himself to a barrage of criticism from the general public when he decided to be confrontational with civil society organizations in the country by making wild threatening remarks.” The writer further stated that “The President implicitly warned of dare consequences if the civil society groups continue to highlight the excesses of the All People’s Congress (APC) led Government of Sierra Leone”.
It should be recalled that recently, Civil Rights Organisations (CSOs) in Sierra Leone issued a series of what the government considers as “ultimatums”, in relation to issues of serious concern to the people in this country. Chief among these concerns is the dire state of most of the roads and streets in the city. There is no question that the state of the roads and streets in especially the city, Freetown is DISGRACEFUL to say the least. It is against this background that the Civil Rights Societies reportedly gave a 60 day request, sorry “ultimatum” for the roads to be repaired.
There is no hiding of the fact that the state of our streets symbolises the lack of maintenance, utter negligence and total disregard for road users in the city. It is undeniable that the countless number of potholes can be linked directly to the frequency of traffic jams in the city; as motorists spend most of their time tip toeing their way through, and deciding on which pothole or “gallop” is less threatening to their vehicles. It is no coincidence therefore, that major arteries like Kissy Road, Fourah Bay Road, Circular Road, Kroo Town Road, etc have become a driver’s nightmare; The consequences of such meticulous manoeuvres are obvious, even to the “okada rider”.
The frustration and anger felt by many is symptomatic of the outburst from the Civil Society Organisations, especially when you consider that it is the same roads that dignitaries, MPs and other big guns use on a daily basis. The difference is that they don’t have to suffer the inconvenience of sitting in traffic, thanks to their police escorts which clear their paths in advance. With their fleets of 4 x 4 x far, you don’t expect a bumpy ride though.
Although the response from civil societies in this matter is understandable, it is one thing to express a concern, but an entirely different thing to follow up those concerns with an order or ultimatum to an elected government. The government’s response in a press release comes as no surprise, that:
“It has come to the attention of His Excellency the President that over the past few weeks various civil society organizations have issued absurd ultimatums to government threatening certain actions if they are not satisfied with the implementation of its programmes in the areas of infrastructure, agriculture and local content policy. “The approach taken by the said civil society organizations is mischievous and a form of moral blackmail which will not be tolerated by government. It is important to mention that government is firmly committed to the implementation of its Agenda for Prosperity and will not deviate from its principal objective of laying the foundation for Sierra Leone to achieve middle income status”. In English, the government does not seem to object to the concerns raised but the “approach”, which is like holding a gun to its head.
But Mr. Fonti interprets the government’s response as that of “the President implicitly handing (sic) down his own ultimatum, practically warning the civil society activists in the country to ‘SHUT UP’ or face the consequences”. He further describes the press release as a “… presidential order’ ostensibly instructing civil society organizations to conform to ‘undemocratic tenets,’ seems as a textbook case of tyranny at its peak. It however remains to be seen if civil society organizations and activists will subject themselves to ‘undemocratic threats’. I’m I missing something here?
To all intents and purposes, Mr. Fonti accuses the president of dictatorial tendencies, and reminds “President Ernest Bai Koroma that we are in a democracy. He was elected through the voice of the people and not by guns. He is at State House to implement the people’s agenda and not his party agenda. It is compulsory that the views of the ordinary people are incorporated in developmental projects. He concludes that the government’s response is “a desperate attempt to intimidate civil society activists so that the poor citizens would be left at the mercy of wicked, immoral and corrupt politicians”.
He asks, “What is wrong if a civil society organisation issue an ultimatum for the government to rehabilitate the deadly roads in the Freetown city? When did it become a crime for a civil society organisation to remind the government to implement the legal local content policy? Does it make any sense for the government to threaten a civil society organisation simply because it reminded the agricultural ministry to initiate efforts to enhance agriculture in the country?” Instead of behaving maturely and democratically by initiating visible actions to settle the concerns raised by the civil society activists, the Ernest Bai Koroma led government choose to quarrel in public like teenage girl”.
At this point we need a reminder that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” (United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights ). Civil right organisations have been known the world over, as the medium for the voiceless, the under privileged, the despised and so on. As the name implies, they promote, preserve and defend the rights of civil societies. But the emphasis here is on the word CIVIL, and the common denominator to Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi, etc was their “APPROACH”; Non Violent.
No one can question the right of these societies to highlight society’s anomalies, as any kind of civil rights oppression is wrong. But to issue “ultimatums” and threaten with “certain actions” may be seen by many as not only confrontational but pushing the boat out. Mr. Fonti will struggle to convince even his compatriots that the President is displaying dictatorial tendencies; when you consider the relative freedom of the press that is currently enjoyed by many in the media today. We know that dictatorship naturally arises out of democracy, but the most aggravated form of tyranny and slavery arises out of the most extreme liberty. When liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near.
There is nothing wrong with CSO asking for the basic rights of society; and for these groups to voice such concerns epitomises the lack of a viable and constructive opposition party. However, CSOs should not be mistaken for opposition parties. It is easy to join the CSO band wagon, but one must be wary of those with hidden agendas that may masquerade as activists. The tendency for infiltration and usurpation is ever present. CSOs are expected to be neutral, irrespective of the ruling government. With some political parties known to boycott political sessions in the country, raising issues of national interests that are deep fried in threats and ultimatums may sound too familiar for comfort; hence deprive the whole exercise of any iota of neutrality and rendering it militant.
Our country is enjoying the embryonic stages of democracy, after we graduated from a decade long course in abject barbarism. It should be noted that prior to the war, institutions like CSOs, Gender Equality, Disability rights, Local Content Policy, etc were never part of our social or political discourse. The absence or lacks of these social structures, which form the building blocks of equal rights and justice, have been identified in line with theories of conflict prevention as necessities. Now that we have them, we must all endeavour to use and not abuse them. When Rosa Parks was asked to give up her seat, the black community voted with their wallets and boycotted the bus rides. If the government fails to heed the concerns of the nation, the ballot box should tell the story. But to threaten and give ultimatums may not be the wisest move. Sometimes, “People demand freedom of speech as a compensation for the freedom of thought which they seldom use.”Remember that the government was elected, CSOs were not. You are doing a good job though; don’t just allow any adulteration of our noble cause. If you think of yourselves as helpless and ineffectual, it is certain that you will create a despotic government to be your master. The wise despot, therefore, maintains among his subjects a popular sense that they are helpless and ineffectual (F. Herbert).
Dedicated to Rosa Parks.