Social media has been inundated with comments from readers since news broke out that President Bio has paid out millions of dollars to the former President, Dr Ernest Bai Koroma and senior government officials. The news has been greeted with consternation and relief in equal measure; depending on which side of the fence you are on. Some are still trying to make sense of and draw logic from the whole issue. For the many suffering retired, pensioned or relieved beneficiaries of the “windfall”, it feels like Christmas has come early. Bio’s new look Father Christmas figure is glaringly telling, when judged against the backdrop of the political tension that has characterised his government since its inception. Since Maada Bio took the oath of office to “preserve, support, uphold, maintain, and defend the Constitution of the Republic of Sierra Leone as by law established, and that I (he) will do right to all manner of people according to law, without fear or favour, affection or ill-will”, his reign has so far been met with stiff resistance and gridlock from the deposed opposition APC party.
Bio presented the country with his GTT Report, in which he gave a socio-economic cum political assessment of our country. Among the numerous ailments, his government diagnosed our country as near bankrupt. The assessment identified leakages in government spending and corruption as some of the major causal factors for our comatose economy. It goes without saying, that the prognosis was not good. With President Bio at the helm, his messianic ascendancy to power was seen by many and especially his followers as the second coming; to rid Sierra Leone of corruption. So when he pronounced in his first sermon to the nation, that “corruption” was the root of all evil in our nation, and that his government’s purpose on earth will be to eradicate corruption and separate the chaff from the wheat, the many in the country chanted “Hosanna” and Psalm 1:1 into the heavens above.
“Blessed is the man that …..
Walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stands in the way of sinners,
Nor sits in the seats of scoffers.
The new fight against corruption was a moment of epiphany to a lot of people. It marked the birth of the Commission of Inquiry that was headed by the 3 wise men, Justices Biobele Georgewill (Nigeria), Bankole Thompson (Sierra Leone) and William Atuguba (Ghana). And you thought ECOWAS was dead. Unlike the biblical allusion, there was not going to be any gold, frankincense or myrrh, but to bring back to Sierra Leoneans what belonged to Sierra Leoneans. While some saw it as Bio making a rod for his own back, others described the whole exercise as a witch hunt, a kangaroo court, and worse still, a vendetta aimed at decapitating the political appendages of the ousted APC party. This lead to the APC party feeling targeted, marginalised and persecuted; thanks to the overwhelming regional or tribal nomenclature of the accused “corruptioneers”.
In response, the APC party adopted a policy of non engagement; as they refused to recognise, honour the “sanctity” of the commission and preached a sermon of public disobedience that was laced with tribal and regional flavour. The ruling SLPP needed to bring in its own personnel, but the rapid fire and hire that ensued left many describing the action as a slash and burn exercise or culling programme. Some of these practices served as painful reminders of the outgone APC, and it was not surprising then that both parties were likened to twins; “Aki and “Paw Paw”, Alhassan and Alusine, or two peas in a pod. Many struggled to see a dichotomy between these parties, as the clarion call for a 3rd political party grew louder. The call for a 3rd party was more of a reflection of the frustration from the electorate that was increasingly becoming disillusioned with what was seen as a political musical chair or pass the parcel between these usual suspects.
The battle lines had been drawn with heightened tension and the odd street clashes between rival supporters or with law enforcement officers was becoming a daily occurrence. With the government chugging on with the Commission of Inquiry on the one hand, and with the APC party chanting its defiance, it was glaringly obvious that the lines have been drawn, and it was a matter of who blinks first. The rising tension was fast becoming palpable for the electorate. The ugly scenes that took place at the APC party headquarters in Freetown were not only regrettable, but also marked a turning point for the worst in the political brinkmanship and landscape in our country. EBK’s security detail was rejigged; thanks to his ambiguous position as an Ex-President and/or active politician for his party.
Bio’s attempts to diffuse the tension by inviting politicians and other stakeholders for a conference on national cohesion at State House and the Bintumani 3 Conference, did little to dampen the tinder box. Even the launching of the Ahmad Tejan Foundation for Peace and Democracy; all aimed at lulling the country into an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity did not seem to shift the sands of defiance. The APC party had always lodged the non -payment of the benefits and gratuities, in lieu of their end of service as one of the main bones of contention in this saga. Imagine for one minute, that you have been lawfully or unlawfully relieved of your position, and then deprived of your lawful payment that comes with your conditions of employment and service. Now think of how the party splashed the cash in last year’s election; as if the Leone currency was going out of fashion, and you would begin to understand their frustration. Or is it desperation?
At face value, there are those who would see the payment of these benefits as a defeat for Bio and a defeat against the fight against corruption. Some will see it as Bio bowing to pressure or blinking first. Others will feel that Bio has had a short gun held to his head by the defiant APC party. In general, there are those who would feel disappointed that Bio has betrayed the fight against corruption; his most vaunted signature policy. But why make such conclusions?
When Bio took office from the APC, he declared the country as near bankrupt. By implication, the APC was collectively responsible for our country’s demise. It is no wonder then that the list of persons alleged to have been involved in corruption, and requested to attend the Commission of Inquiry carried a significant DNA of the APC party; by membership or affiliation. Without the benefit of due process, many have already found these alleged persons guilty. So to some people, withholding the benefits and gratuities of some of the accused was the right thing to do. But no, it was not, and it is not the right thing to do. For the purpose of this article, I will use the word “withhold”, which is not a direct description of the government’s action in respect of these payments. Some people have a black and white interpretation of these payments. If the APC party is accused of running down the country’s economy to near bankruptcy, and only for Bio to turn round and pay out to some of the very members who by implication, contributed in ruining the country, Maada is in effect rewarding corruption rather than fighting it; period. But is that the case? Has Maada robbed Peter to pay Paul?
For starters, it is the constitutional right of these public servants who had hitherto, served our country so well in their respective positions to receive their benefits and gratuities at the end of their service. It is the law and it is constitutionally guaranteed. Also, even if some of those receiving these payments are accused of corruption, they are yet to be found guilty or not. Whether they are guilty or not should not impinge on their rightful and well deserved benefits and gratuities. If it does, it will be termed as “seizing”; and only the law can seize but not the government or anyone else can. We should also remember that not all those that are entitled to these benefits have had the pleasure of being invited to face the Commission of Inquiry. It would be unlawful and unjust to tar them with the same brush; if that was the case. Leadership is about doing the right things. Genuine leaders don’t search for consensus; they mould it.
On the other side of the argument, many consider these payments as a feat of upholding the constitution. In many ways, this goes to erode the notion that the SLPP is bent on a revenge mission. Others will see the SLPP as constitutionally friendly, in spite of the political divide. It will also make the SLPP look like it is still focussed on its “New Direction” drive; to show the difference. This payment could also go a long way to wipe the cobwebs off the perennial accusation that the SLPP is targeting the APC party. The coincidence in restoring the security detail of the former President Ernest Koroma with the payments will make the SLPP look like a party that wants peace and national cohesion. But by making these payments to some members of the ousted party, is there any credence to the perception that Maada Bio is rewarding corruption than fighting it, or has he simply given back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar?
As the saying goes, the taste of the pudding lies in the eating. There is another train of thought which sees these payments as a battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate. If Bio has given to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, will some of these members, if found guilty by the Commission of Inquiry when that time comes, give back to the people what belongs to the people? This is why some may find this payment as a master political ploy by the SLPP. Now that some of these members have received or will receive their benefits, if any of them is invited to face the Commission of Inquiry, will they continue to refuse to attend? If so, what will be the excuse this time? If found guilty (big IF), will they cough up and give back to the people what belongs to the people? Now that the government has done its bit, will those involved, if found guilty do their bit by the people?
While this payment of benefits and gratuities to former members of the past government has left bitt
er and sweet tastes in the mouths of many people, the wisdom and constitutional, merits of this will now rest on the outcome of the Commission of Inquiry. It is now up to the government and the COI to come up with the goods. This is why some believe that these members have been three-footed into a sense of complacency. Some may be wise to spend their benefits wisely, and if possible, “Nor Eat Am yate O”. Maada Bio and his government are well too aware of the gripe the payments would cause in the country. Are you surprised that the news of the 50 school buses coincided with these payments?
If Bio has given to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, will others give back to the country what belongs to the country? Many will now be looking forward to the outcome of the COI, as the litmus test for Bio’s integrity and his government’s seriousness about the fight against corruption. Its time for peace and justice to drink from the same fountain of hope for our country.
Over to you Commissioner Francis Ben Kaifala.