SIERRA LEONE - IS THERE A WAY FORWARD?
Ambrose Ganda
Editor of Focus on Sierra Leone
(Presented at a briefing session for the UK High Commissioner to Sierra Leone (designate) Mr David Allan Jones, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, London on Wednesday, 15 March 2000)
THERE ARE two obvious ways of looking at the situation in Sierra Leone. One is optimistically; the other, pessimistically. A lot can be said for both. However, a pessimistic outlook would only help to serve notice of imminent demise into oblivion, on an otherwise good-natured and friendly people, whose misfortune has been to have been ruled over by a generation of corrupt and uncaring leaders.

Sierra Leone of course has by now probably hit the nadir of its bad fortunes. It may well be that the only way out for it now is upwards, from the trough of despondency, desperation and war-weariness.

I am optimistic therefore that if they take the chances that are beckoning at them, the people of Sierra Leone, with their characteristic resilience and bounteous energy, would bounce back to create a harmonious and peaceful country for themselves and for their future generations.

For this vision to be attained, we need to initiate a process of drastic stock-taking into our society to identify some of the chronic weaknesses that have militated against our best and every endeavour so far to improve things for ourselves.

As I am limited for time, I will single out just three of these weaknesses two from the political system that has operated ever since independence 1961; and one associated with the socio-economic policies, whose legacy is the large and visible battalion of disadvantaged and disaffected citizens.

The impact of adversarial politics
The current political system is characterised by an adversarial tendency that sees us putting an utterly disproportionate effort into slandering one another and into manipulating negative scenarios that put opponents in a bad light. We would never try to run a business, a school, or a club on that basis. Why we feel that it is an appropriate way to run a country baffles me. By choosing a system of adversarial politics, a very small nation like ours is spending a lot of its energy and effort in utterly negative activity. It is simply a waste of precious time. Over the years, it has created a poison that has permeated the body politic and seeped into most aspects of our national life. It simply accentuates our lack of unity of purpose and action.

Increasingly, I see it also as an abuse of leadership responsibility by politicians, and as setting a bad and wholly negative example of conduct by the very people from whom the country is entitled to expect much more. It has still not dawned on Sierra Leonean politicians, old as well as young, that politics is, strictly speaking, a profession that should be setting standards of leadership that can be emulated throughout the community. Most of those who run the structures of government, and therefore control most of  the power, have come to put their own personal interests above their responsibility to the society which they claim to represent.  Materialistic values such as money and assets - and the ability to keep amassing more of the same - are often higher on their to do lists than considerations for the collective betterment of the public. They manipulate the awareness and energy of the public to achieve their own ends.

Opportunism and exploitation, i.e. the economic abuse of our compatriots, is continuing to the present day. It  has become a paradigm which is founded on a small number of individuals thriving on the ignorance, acquiescence and apathy of a public that is too naive to know how thoroughly they (perhaps, unconsciously) serve the power elite.

Curbing selfish traits
The second weakness that constantly militates against our best national efforts for progress is the very evident culture of underlying selfishness. Here again, in order to help curb this trait and reverse its trend we need to put in place structures that represent, and hopefully would fulfil, the basic material and spiritual needs of the people and resist the temptation for corruption which would detract from that goal. In other words, we want a system in which gratuitous exploitation, greed, and elitism are recognised as inherently anti-social, to be visited with public shame and, in the case of corruption, legal sanctions.

This calls for a new concept that is oriented towards the ideals of co-operation and sharing. What must change are the underlying attitudes, the paradigms of those who operate and are influenced by the systems. Every day, the unchanging story is of Sierra Leoneans allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by defeatism, despondency and indifference. This attitude causes the vast majority of people to say I cant do anything about it. Then everybody throws their hands up in the air and gives up the power to influence things for the better.  For example, I often detect that people have become desensitised to corruption. They seem to have accepted almost as a way of life.

If Sierra Leone is to begin to make any headway in this area, and particularly also for the tasks it has to face in post war reconstruction, national reconciliation and eventual development, then there need to be restrictions on the licence that selfish politicians have which allows them to ride on the backs of their unsuspecting compatriots, and which has enabled them to create an underprivileged and disaffected class in the country. 

The weakness of socio-economic measures
Sierra Leone's third chronic weakness lies in the attempts to grapple with social and economic problems on a purely superficial level, rather than on the level of their underlying causes. Surely the right time is now, to investigate and analyse the events of the past, so as to construct firm foundations for the future, and thereby avert a repetition of the mistakes that provoked, for example, the ongoing civil unrest and confrontation.

In these present unhappy circumstances, what the country needs most is a more resolute application of policies that have been proven in practice and authenticated by experience elsewhere. These would include, for example, measures that have unfailingly reversed negative social and economic trends in other countries and swiftly replaced them with positive ones. 

Sadly, one such would-be empirical example of success has recently been dealt a terrible natural blow by a flood disaster, not of its own making, from which it will take years for it to recover. I mean of course Mozambique, which had undergone an experience of civil warfare similar to our own, but was on the mend to an impressive recovery through the application of a sensible and sustained  programme of difficult but necessary policies.

Sierra Leone cannot hope to emulate pre-flood disaster Mozambique without creating a positive environment for the management of its affairs.  It requires all hands on deck, and that includes the very best of our own indigenous human resources. We need to raise a cadre of professional people of outstanding calibre, who are available to serve selflessly in government. Surely, there must be men and women who have achieved real distinction in their careers, successful self-made business people, and people with distinguished records in their professions who would want the opportunity to serve their own people and make their (people's) lives worthwhile.

Let us even assume for the sake of argument that the next government, of whichever party turns out to be the winner, is elected with an outright majority. (I actually believe we are not ready for an election now and I would opt for an interim arrangement, with a moratorium on political rivalries, for the time being!) I would expect such a government to strive to involve bright talents from the other parties in its administration. It may well be that during its first term, such a government will have problems neutralising significant residues of negative and reactionary voices within its own ranks. But once it has settled into office, it should have full access to recruit from other parties.

The challenge of disarmament and national reconciliation
In talking about a way forward for Sierra Leone, it has to be said that we won't make a convincing start on tackling our problems without achieving the desired success on the vexed issues of disarmament and rehabilitation of combatants.  Unfortunately, this is an issue which I sometimes feel has been taken out of our - I mean the Sierra Leoneans' - hands completely. A lot of players external as well internal are involved in the process, all of them with varying agenda, which downplays and even reduces to insignificance the input of Sierra Leonean civil society. However, because of the weaknesses and tendencies that I have been describing earlier, our current civil society is itself not quite ready to take up and discharge its own historical responsibility. It was not, and has never been, prepared to face a cataclysmic event like the nine blistering years of civil war.

The promotion and attainment of peace and national harmony is the key to the country's future development. It requires us to know and face the causes of the armed confrontation and its consequences, in such a way as to put an end to the social, ethnic and cultural divisions it has generated. Once that has been done, we must forge an inclusive, as opposed to an exclusive, process which facilitates social participation and the contribution of all Sierra Leoneans without discrimination, in the fulfilment of public duties and in all the processes, including the institutions, created thereunder.

Currently, there is widespread suspicion and a palpable lack of confidence among ordinary people. One way in which we can start to build confidence is urgently to create and put into effect a credible and deliverable programme of reparation for the victims, and their relatives, of human rights violations and acts of violence connected with the civil war. 

In this respect we would need to underpin such a programme with measures inspired by transparency and the principles of equality, grass roots participation and respect for cultural identity or diversity, among which at least the following should figure: 

  • restoration of material possessions so that, as far as is possible, the situation existing before the violations can be re-established, particularly in the case of land and property ownership; 
  • indemnification or economic compensation of the most serious injuries and losses resulting as a direct consequence of the violations of human rights and of humanitarian law;
  • psychosocial rehabilitation and reparation, which should include, among others, medical attention and community mental health care, and likewise the provision of legal and social services;
  • the satisfaction and restoration of the dignity of the individual, which should include acts of moral and symbolic reparation. 
These will require a lot of money and resources for their implementation which Sierra Leone cannot presently afford. But if such a programme is accepted, especially by the international community, as the linchpin for real peace, reconciliation and stability in Sierra Leone, then every effort should be put into raising the necessary funds for it and facilitating its attainment. 

Needless to say, the armed confrontation has left deep wounds in individuals, in families and in society as a whole. Since together they form the main component of what we know as Civil Society, their well-being deserves the very best and most attention.  For it is only through the instrumentality of civil society, with the correct guidance and leadership from the government, that a long and complex process like that envisaged under the Lomé Peace Agreement of July 1999, can be realised and for true national reconciliation to be achieved. 

Conclusion
Despite my misgivings and the doubts that I have expressed earlier, I am still confident that things can, and must, change for the better in Sierra Leone. It will doubtless be a difficult undertaking for any government.

Change will not happen until Sierra Leoneans wake up from the deep slumber that makes it convenient for the few immensely powerful but corrupt people among them and their self-serving structures to take advantage over them. Every Sierra Leonean henceforth needs to metamorphose into an activist for that to happen. Hence civic education must be pursued with renewed vigour and be more focussed than it is now.

Of course I am fully aware that I say these things with the advantage of a long range patriot, operating at a safe distance from the ravages of war, shielded from its effects which confront ordinary people and the present government daily. Decisions have to be taken in the heat of battle sometimes and things can go wrong, as they often have. I hesitate therefore to lay down rules or make prescriptions that I myself would not be called upon to carry out.

I would also hesitate to blame ordinary people in our society for so aimlessly submitting to the control by politicians. The fact of the matter is that our society has become so complex and so mixed up that it is difficult for most civilians to figure out what is worth fighting for, or to identify what has gone wrong with it, and how best to run the country's affairs. Therefore in this singular respect, it is perhaps fortuitous that some of us who live outside that environment and want the best for our country can, with the advantages of personal security and relative freedom, look at Sierra Leone's plight objectively to come up with possible solutions.

The current state of our society is such that many people are caught in belief patterns which themselves directly or indirectly perpetuate social problems. There is currently an understandable desire for revenge for rebel atrocities. It is a feeling that is consuming the energy and resourcefulness of thousands of Sierra Leoneans. A way has to be found to assuage these feelings so that they do not go out of control and lead to other more intractable problems. 

Thus, how we deal with these( legitimately held) sensitivities and other negative belief patterns is a challenge not for the present sometimes backward-looking generation of politicians but for a younger, aspiring and visionary breed.

The immediate task now is to clear the decks and to equip the latter with all that is necessary for them to face this challenge head on.

08/04/00