By Andrew Keili
The condemnation of the violence that led to the sad death of our compatriots-both security personnel and civilians and damage to private property and state infrastructure during the recent protests has been swift and universal. There is also universal agreement that those responsible for these deaths should be punished. Many are also in agreement with the government that investigations should be conducted and appropriate actions taken against those responsible for the carnage in a fair, transparent, and impartial manner, with due respect for fundamental rights and freedom.
President Bio wore his Commander in Chief hat to deliver a tough war-like message. He attributed the state of affairs to “malcontents who attempted to violently take over the reins of government”. This was an “insurrection that was pre-meditated, well-planned, financed, and executed with shocking brutality” by “APC Warriors, PPP, and persons determined to capture political power even at the cost of hundreds of lives”. The unrest, he said, occurred in areas that are traditional strongholds of the APC. He asserted this was not a protest against the high cost of living and robustly defended many actions taken by his government to ameliorate the hardship.
The refrain about the involvement of the APC was repeated in several pro-government circles, with the SLPP Chairman stating that “the whole process was sponsored, engineered & implemented by the APC & its apparatchiks”.
Several APC officials including Dr Samura Kamara, a leading flagbearer aspirant and the Secretary General of the Interim Management Committee, Ho. Abdul Kargbo have stoutly defended the party, distancing it from the mayhem, condemning the violence and resultant deaths and calling for independent investigations and bringing perpetrators and their backers to book. For whatever reason, the Chairman of the Interim Management Committee, Alfred Peter Conteh in a BBC interview seemed to infer that some elements of the APC not under his control might have had some involvement of sorts.
The President talked about actions to be taken. He said that the full force of the law will be brought to bear on persons responsible for the carnage and their sponsors and collaborators. The government will also undertake necessary security actions. Its actions will guarantee all constitutional rights and freedom of peaceful citizens and the security forces will act within their professional codes of service. Though many opponents of government would dispute this, he claimed the government has “made every effort to open up spaces for dialogue and peace” and would assure the right to peaceful protest, with some caveats.
Although there has been huge support from government supporters on the President’s hardline rhetoric against the APC in particular, with many calling for “fire for fire”, there have been a few more measured voices within the governing party. It is however worthwhile to make some comments on the situation, if only to spur further discussions on the issues.
1. The national security apparatus may be grossly inefficient
For all the accusations being brandished around against certain people, the evidence does not seem to have been presented to the public and no pre-emptive actions seem to have been taken. Internal national security has long ceased to be a purely Military of Police matter. What role has the national security apparatus played in all of this? The National Security and Central Intelligence Act was passed in 2002. This Act established the National Security Council as the highest body for the consideration of security issues in the country and formed the Office of National Security (ONS) to capture the new wave of security threats in the country. Issues such as political tolerance and national cohesion and availability of employment opportunities have been acknowledged as being important for the attainment of our national security goals. Some factors cited as militating against national security include indiscipline, lawlessness and youth violence, bad governance, pervasive poverty and illiteracy and unemployment. How involved has the Security apparatus been in such matters? Have they been effective or are they politicized?
2. Describing all protesters as violent or politically manipulated may be misplaced
Even though the demonstrations were not officially permitted by the Police, not all demonstrators may have been rioters. There were most likely others with different types of motives-some may have been genuinely aggrieved and wanted to protest, some may have wanted to score political points, some to steal and others to wreak mayhem. Using the same paint brush to paint all of them may be misplaced.
3. Government has almost always refused to give permission for demonstrations
The Police claims rightly that no group or group of persons requested for permission as required by law, either verbally or in writing, from the police to hold such demonstrations. This may be true but there is evidence that groups have almost always been refused permission to demonstrate even though the right to Freedom of Assembly and Association is guaranteed under Section 26 (1) of the Constitution of Sierra Leone, 1991. This was the case even for the previous government. Public safety has often been cited as a reason but as someone noted, there is no reason why consideration for limiting the number of demonstrators, routes and timing and keeping hoodlums at bay could not be explored to arrive at a reasonable solution. It is quite possible for people to demonstrate on issues that may not be politically motivated.
4. The President has still not spoken to the nation on the state of affairs in the country
The President’s speech was occasioned by the riots. Many feel however that he should have spoken a long time ago frankly to the nation on some of the issues of hardship faced by the general populace and explained about the steps being taken by the government to ameliorate the situation. He spoke on those during his recent speech but the impression is that this was forced on him by the occasion.
5. There is need for balanced, impartial investigations
The accusations being levied by senior government officials on senior members of the APC as being responsible for sponsoring or inducing the riots does not help the situation. Those accused claim they are baseless, but these have nevertheless resulted in the use of threats and invectives against them on social media, which could possibly result in physical attacks. The investigations should be allowed to “out” those responsible in a proper manner based on evidence adduced. Merely saying that people have used tribal slurs, as reprehensible as this is, is no proof, especially when evidence abounds that all sides of the political divide have been guilty of this in the past.
6. The problem of “facelessness” should not deter dialogue
“Facelessness” should not be used as an excuse for not engaging in dialogue. Unwittingly, not allowing demonstrations under any circumstances encourages “facelessness”. The fact remains that irrespective of whoever is responsible for what happened, the various political parties and a multiplicity of other stakeholders including disenchanted youths should be included in this dialogue with government under various auspices. Civil society and other moral guarantors should also be involved in such dialoguing.
7. Social media firebrands are filling the information void
Social media is hard to control even in advanced countries. SLAJ stated this very well in its press release- “SLAJ is further concerned about the trend of happenings in the country showing deep hate and division along tribe, region, and politics, leaving little or no room for healthy dialogue, and well-meaning engagement and consultation on national issues. The debates and interactions on the new found social media space are full of these divisions. The government should step in to exert some control.” However, the government itself needs to do a better job of filling in the information void often exploited because they fail to inform citizens timeously and correctly without spin on some issues.
8. Is the APC derailing the functioning of government or are they “fall guys”?
There is need for impartial people in the proposed dialogue to answer a few questions related to the role of the opposition APC especially on addressing the following questions:
• The governing SLPP claims that converse to its peaceful cooperation with the APC during the 10 years of its governance, the APC has never allowed it to govern but instead puts stumbling blocks along the way of the government all the time in various forms including fomenting violence. The APC in turn claims their actions are not violent and are based on the SLPP’s bent on stifling legitimate opposition at all costs.
• The SLPP claims that the very fact that these riots took place in APC strongholds, with the rest of the country in a state of tranquility is testament to the fact that there is no general national disenchantment and that they were machinated by the APC.
9. The views of our moral guarantors should be seriously countenanced
Almost to a man, our moral guarantors, while condemning the violence, have made a few things clear. They call for de-escalation of the situation and believe there must be dialogue involving various political players. It would seem merely citing terrorism and refusing to accept that there may be other issues of discontent does not help the situation. They are obviously concerned with the state of insecurity. It would not be surprising if the current spate of insecurity affects investor confidence. Our Constitution invests power in the President to take action to keep us safe while it also stipulates protection of civil liberties, a mandate that sometimes finds those dual aims at odds. The President must endeavor to balance these out carefully and spearhead the deep search into the root cause of our problems to seek viable solutions in a fair manner that keeps the country together. There are always two sides to a coin. Ponder my thoughts!