At the outbreak of civil war in Sierra Leone in 1991 and for nearly five years into that bloody and destructive conflict, there was a dearth of information about it, and a very deliberate lack of coverage of it in the international media. 

The effect on especially ordinary country dwellers was such that most of them felt abandonned to fate as they did not seem to be getting any attention from the authorities.  Their resignation was matched by the malevolent complacency of the sitting APC government which showed little enthusiasm to abate their misery. 

The ravages of the war reached their highest during November 1994 and extended into Christmas that year. By New Year's day and through to January 1995, towns and villages in  most of Eastern and Southern Sierra Leone and, by then, some parts of the North, were overrun. My own hometown, Serabu (Bo District), was razed to the ground along with its prestigious show-piece hospital. The November 1994 blitzkrieg was pandemic in scale. The NPRC military government of the day, though it did its best in the cvircumstances, appeared incapable of giving the people protection from the RUF's onslaught.

This left one feeling a desperate urge to initiate a process of sensitising the public and to attack the ignorance that abounded among Sierra Leoneans about their country's civil war. The ignorance had reached unspeakable proportions both inside and outside the country, but especially the latter, as people openly denied the reality of the war even as it crossed their doorsteps into their very midst. It was, and probably still is, ignorance that accounts most for the current lacunae in both the understanding and appreciation of the origins of the civil war among Sierra Leoneans generally, but specifically those who live abroad.

The birth of Focus
In my own mind, I began to explore ways of helping to redress this evident lack of concern about the war and its ramifications. I concluded that the best way that I could contribute to this was to start a newsletter in which some of the complex issues involved could be analysed, reported and eventually brought to the attention of those who might be persuaded to bring their influence to bear on them. So commenced Focus on Sierra Leone. (See here for the maiden edition.)

This was not the first newsletter about Sierra Leone that I had edited and produced. I had previously founded and produced Sierra Leone Report, Watchman, New Patriot and, for the last years of Siaka Stevens' presidency, SLAM (which was the organ of the Sierra Leone Alliance Movement, also founded by me and my colleague Mr Fred Kamara with whom I also produced Sierra Leone Report).  The papers had one common theme running through them – the welfare and defence of the underprivileged, disadvantaged and long exploited ordinary citizens of the country, and the articulation of their views as one saw them, since they themselves did not have the means to do so.  As far back then, one had begun sounding the alarm bells about impending civil strife but, alas, no one paid heed. With time permitting, all editions of these papers will be placed on the Focus web site for the benefit of visitors, especially students.

Focus  was born out of a genuine concern to keep the debate about Sierra Leone's future focused on the war and its underlying factors, as well as on the real issues of poverty, disadvantage and, of course, corruption and misrule by government. Since its inception the newsletter has led opinion from the front, sometimes carrying the opprobrium of those with vested interests in the current rotten political system and in the civil war continuing. 

Fearless flag bearer for the truth
Focus frequently treads where others have feared to tread and when the overriding interest of all Sierra Leoneans demands it. In our brief, there is no area of Sierra Leone's public life that is taboo or beyond reproach, discussion and analysis. Focus has never shirked from telling hard truths, giving objective analysis and even gratuitous advice for all who are concerned or involved in the governance of the country. It has done so steadfastly with candour and without fear or favour.

Living proof of this was (and still is) our stand in advocating a peaceful resolution of the conflict and in stressing, as far back as 1994, the need to engage in dialogue rather than resorting to military force to bring the war (and the coup of May 1997) – the epitome of many years of simmering unattended grievances of sorts – to an end. We advocated this notwithstanding the barbarity of the atrocities that the rebels were inflicting on innocent defenceless citizens and the illegality of the subsequent AFRC usurpation. The paper was resolute in stating that pouring petrol on a burning fire could only lead to a greater fire and would not extinguish it. Eventually after years of 'toughing it' out with the rebel RUF and (lately) renegade Sierra Leone soldiers, Lomé became a last resort. But it has left this paper asking the question: Why, if it could be done now was it not done before? Just think how many people would be alive today who lost their lives needlessly because some smart Alec fooled people into believing that they could somehow win a guerrilla war outright! 

The role of Focus
Contrary to the wishes of its distractors, it is not Focus' mission to replace government or be the alternative government. That remains for all times the sole prerogative of the Sierra Leonean electorate. The intention is not to usurp or arrogate that role to itself but to help and educate our citizens to discharge it sensibly. Nor is Focus a mouthpiece, agency or advocate for any government, political party or interest group.

Though the paper operates away from the country, the motherland is never more than a heartbeat away and it is that feeling that has conditioned one's thinking and continues to provide one with the motivation to discharge what is truly one's patriotic duty. 

To those who argue that "long distance" commentators and analysts like Focus are irrelevant to the reality on the ground, this editor responds by recanting the Japanese proverb which says that "the frog in the well does not know the ocean". Surely, we do not all have to live in the self-made hell-hole of Sierra Leone, created by past and present corrupt, incompetent  and unpatriotic politicians, in order to see the daylight and proclaim alternative ways of bringing the country out of its needless and undeserved state of abject poverty. 

In addition, most of the decision makers today are too closely involved with the present rotten system to be able to think clearly or beyond their own personal interests. But even so, one can easily sense the lack of vision of many of our politicians who see no more than what happens inside their Lilliputian world. Yet many key factors that impact on the country are from without. Therefore those of us who are exposed to them and are familiar with the influences that they can bring to bear on poor (and badly run) countries like our own, ought to have our say and make our input. It should then be left to the politicians to take the advice; or, as they habitually do, leave it at their and everyone's peril! 

One thing however is certain. There is absolutely no personal gain or interest in writing and producing a newsletter like Focus which is non profit making and purely philanthropic, other than a genuine desire to make a modest contribution towards the country's development.

The ideology of Focus on Sierra Leone (and this site, launched on 3 June 1999) is that Society is the responsibility not of government but of the people. Thus the prime purpose of the paper is to challenge the mentality of Sierra Leoneans which makes them always look to their so-called "betters" in government for comfort. Focus firmly believes that Sierra Leoneans must become masters of their own country and destiny. Hence, they must make the progression from political infancy to adulthood, from subject to citizens, and from passive to active citizenship.  Until that happens, the vast majority of our citizens will forever remain enslaved in their country, without dignity and self-respect, always beholden to others.

Focus further holds that in asserting our sovereignty as a people, Sierra Leoneans will have to embrace a serious, radical but basic and relevant programme that will address the bread and butter issues of ordinary Sierra Leoneans. Many of our ills are not from natural disasters but simply from our own inertia and mismanagement. What is called for is a new shift of some power away from the centre (Freetown) towards the provincial cities, and from these to the towns and villages. In other words power needs to devolve from the centre to the fringes of Sierra Leonean society, so people can learn to believe in themselves and their own worth, and start doing things for themselselves. 

Focus on Sierra Leone believes that what Sierra Leone needs right now in place of the diatribes, sycophancy, name calling and rampant tribalism that is presently the hallmark of current debates are the ideals of reason, persuasion and argument based on fact, research and experience. Only these will provide the much-needed intellectual stimuli and the materials to construct a revolutionary kind of socialism that will lead to the creation of dramatic improvements in the quality and standard of life of the average citizen. The control, exploitation and distribution of resources is thus a key determinant.

The future challenge
Focus is fully aware that the failures of Sierra Leone's political parties - the present ruling elite - to move the country forward after so many decades of stagnation since independence in 1961 has prompted some serious minded and thinking citizens to start considering alternative solutions to the country's problems. These problems have only been made worse by the civil war but were in fact there before it erupted. Many of these people are already arguing that a new political ethos spearheaded by a new political organisation -  a third force - should emerge to create a platform of ideas and actions for forging a new future for the country. We see this as the challenge for the new millennium.

Focus is prepared for such a challenge and would willingly be part of, or if necessary facilitate, a determined effort to forge a new way forward for Sierra Leone, towards creating a consensus around a framework of ideas that will truly reflect the basic aspirations of our nation. 

As with most national endeavours of this kind, such a mission will fail unless the ideas originate from, and are supported and sustained by, the grassroots. But for even that to happen, it requires a core of dedicated, committed and like-minded progressives whose thinking transcends the current tribal, regional, sectional and class divides that have so tragically arrested our country's march into the league of developing nations.

If you have thoughts on the way forward or want to be involved in developing some of the ideas floated here, then please send your comments by email to Focus on Sierra Leone. We will acknowledge promptly by return mail. The substance of your contribution will be published on this site in a major forward looking exercise on: PLANNING THE FUTURE FOR SIERRA LEONE

Note:  The newsletter Focus on Sierra Leone and this web site are run and financed solely out of the personal commitment and dedication of the editor. At various times subscriptions have been made by members of the public but the infrequency of the editions of the paper (hence subscriptions) has meant that it could not be run as an economic venture. In any case, that has never been the intention. It always meant to be one's personal contribution towards the debate about Sierra Leone's future and progress.

Ambrose Ganda
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