Maada Bio: He, Who Opens a School Door, Closes a Prison

Abdulai Mansaray, author

Kono district has always been the proverbial man that sits by the river and washes his hands with spittle. It is no secret that the mere mention of Kono district conjures images of wealth, thanks to its rich deposits of Diamond and gold. Since the first piece of diamond was discovered in the Gbogbora River in 1930, the district had been and continues to be like a light to moths. It has attracted people from all over the African continent and beyond; and this does not take into account the internal migration from especially the North and south of the country, to the district.  The nectar effect of Kono district had seen mining companies like Sierra Leone Selection Trust (SLST) and National Diamond Mining Company (NDMC) come and go. Those were the days when Kono district was at its height, and places like Yengema were the lifeblood of the district; loaded with facilities including an airport, golf clubs, swimming pools, supermarkets and living quarters that were fit for kings and queens. Unfortunately, the benefits from these companies and all the mining activities have not left any beneficial lasting effects on the district. You just need to visit Yengema today, to recognise that the district does not seem to have anything to shout about; despite being endowed with such wealth.  The last time I visited Yengema, you could be forgiven to conclude that it was a complete ghost of its heydays.

But despite all the goodies that Kono District had brought to the country’s coffers, the district was not only neglected but seemed to have been punished for its blessings. It is unquestionable that against the backdrop of its riches, it remained and remains the most underdeveloped region in the country. There are many people who may be tempted to conclude that Kono was a better developed region; considering that it had good night clubs, beautiful houses, etc. However, there is no doubt that these were more privately run developments, as successive governments habitually ignored and failed to recognise the importance of Kono District as a cash cow of the country. Basic facilities in areas like healthcare, education, roads, infrastructure and social amenities were largely ignored and abandoned. In sum, it is undeniable that the district did not fully benefit from its rightful position in the country.

One of the areas where this was glaringly evident in comparison was the educational sector. Most of the schools which included Yengema Secondary School (YSS), Sewafe Secondary School(SSS), Kono Model Academy (KMA)  AnsaruI Islamic Secondary School (AISS) and  Koidu Girls Secondary School (KGSS) to name but a few, were largely run by private individuals or religious bodies. While regions like the Northern, Eastern and Western areas of the Country had government run schools like Kenema Government Secondary School, Magburaka Boys Secondary School, Bo Government Secondary School, Government Model secondary School, Jimmi Government Secondary for Boys and Girls etc., Kono languished in the lower rungs of the ladder with none. But in spite of this wilful neglect, the district persevered and produced very good results.  

The sad truth is that, Kono was the only district without a government sponsored school. But the trend of neglect by successive governments in Sierra Leone was an epidemic in itself. While regional institutions, training colleges, trade centres and other facilities to accommodate vocational learning were spread across the country, Kono was so neglected that the district could hardly boast of a school with 6th form education. The pursuit of further education was conversely one of the main drivers for youth migration from Kono district to other parts of the country. This neglect was so evident that many had come to the conclusion that the diamonds were a blessed curse for the district.  One was left with the impression that the presence of diamonds was in stack contradiction with the vaunted adage that “learning was better than silver and gold”.

The temptation for the youth to prefer the shovel to the pen was significantly great. Ironically, the attitude of successive governments in relation to education Kono seemed to suggest that silver and gold were better than education. But as the years passed by, requests and pleas for higher educational facilities in the region did not only fall on deaf years, but were massaged with daft promises that coincided with upcoming general elections. The promise of building higher educational facilities in the district became the mantra of the manifesto of every successive government. Politicians continued to promise bridges where there were no rivers.

In the last 10 years of the erstwhile APC party, the people of Kono were as usual, promised a University or at worst a College. This hope was intensified when Sam Sumana was appointed as the Vice President. During the lifespan of the last regime, the district boasted of the VP and the 1st and 2nd Ladies. The district also had a sizeable number of representatives at the heart of the APC party, who erroneously but boastfully called themselves “sons of the soil”. But in the run up to the last general elections, it was not surprising to see how quickly the government carried out the road constructions. This development was marinated with the promise that a university will be built after the elections; with the expected triumph of the APC in mind. As we all know now, the trick did not work this time; thanks to the irritating involvement of C4C, which many have come to identify as a manifestation of the district’s a protest against the APC  party.

It is worth noting that when President Bio promised a Free Education program as one of his party’s flagship policies, many doubting “Thomases”, including me poured cold water on the idea as a political gimmick. I am sure that you can excuse our cynicism at the time; for it was near inconceivable that against the backdrop of Sierra Leone’s economic malaise, a 5th world country, having a Free Education programme was equivalent to hell freezing. The Bio government has proved all of us wrong and thankfully so. Although many people continue to find faults with the new free education programme for obvious reasons, it will be ingenious irrespective of your party affiliation not to acknowledge this national feat by the government.

It is therefore not a surprise that the Bio government has promised to build a university in Kono district. The long awaited University for Kono is now close to being a reality, as it is reliably learnt that this is on the Presidential plate for launching. This is not a secret, as many indigenes of Kono believe that the APC party had it as a policy statement, had the design developed and the concept fully framed out. Sadly, many also believe that this was hurriedly diverted to facilitate the Ernest Bai Koroma University. This version or conspiracy theory could not be verified, but it’s easy to see why such conspiracy theories present themselves in the first place. Reliable sources from the grapevine suggest that the funds and sites for the University in Kono have already been earmarked and benchmarked. If these sources are anything to go by, then President Bio may have just walked his way up into the Christmas list of many people in the district. Well Bio promised free education and we didn’t believe him. He has promised Kono a university, and many would struggle not to believe him.

 I am sure that some party faithful of the APC will not want Maada Bio to take any credit for this. But just like with the road constructions which formed the bedrock of the Bai Koroma’s reign, many SLPP supporters were reluctant to acknowledge the good job done among others, in road construction, by the APC party. Many said that the project was already underway by the then Kabba led SLPP government. There will be no surprises this time if, if the party opposite return the favour.

It is obvious that many people will continue to view the promise of a university with the utmost scepticism; and who can blame them? They have heard this before. Considering that the promise of a higher institution has been going on from gk[auto generation, taking this promise with a pinch of salt may sound understandable. But if the promise of the free education programme is also anything to go by, some of us will struggle to restrain our glee and congratulations to his Excellency Maada Bio and his party.  The adage that “Diamonds are forever” is arguably becoming a fallacy. Investing in people and especially the youth is one way to fill the inevitable vacuum that the diamonds will eventually generate. To all intents and purposes, there can be no better way to do so than the education route. With the Free education programme up and running, and despite its teething problems and distractions, the hope is that Kono district will at last share in this long awaited necessity; a University it can call its own. It time.