Sierra Leone Diaspora Investment Conference

Sierra Leone: Poverty has no tribe and other things politicians don’t want you to know


Two months to last year’s election, I worked for a TV station in Sierra Leone. In my first week I traveled with a crew to the North (Port Loko, Magburuka) and East (Kono) to ask everyday citizens about their quality of life. What I learned on that journey was simple, poverty has no tribe, wi pipul den dey suffa all sai.

In Port Loko I met a girl, 13, at a well fetching water. Girls and women there fetch water twice a day, spending hours laboring. At Magburaka Hospital, I met a woman who had come to give birth surviving only on the kindness of the nurses, even a cloth to wrap her newborn she could not afford.

In Yigbeda, Nimi Koro, I met students on the highway during school hours carrying blocks on their heads. Why? The village’s 4 school blocks could no longer accommodate its 400 students. In the absence of government support the community, along with its children, were providing the labor needed to build the school.

Kono District, the hometown of former VP Sam-Sumana, and First Lady Sia Koroma was a sunken place, the opposite of prosperity. In Old Meima, Tankoro Chiefdom, not too far from where a 706-carat diamond had been found the chief said that a sick person there had to be taken 5km on a motorbike to get to the nearest clinic. Old Meima has 763 residents, all of them struggle to have one meal a day.  

Everyone I interviewed; from workers, youth, to artisanal miners at a pit in Koidu City raised the same issues; access to water and food.

Underemployed youth who had completed their WASSCE turned up to dig at the mining pit every day to ensure that they got their daily bread. Surviving against the odds was the summary of life.

Another crew went to Kenema, Bo, and other parts of Sierra Leone, they also captured the pressing needs of the people. The footage was cut into a documentary that was played for the aspiring presidential candidates at a debate and for TV viewers at home a month before the election.

I’m spending a lot of time in  Sierra Leone, to run my marketing company;  train, and engage with young people. What we talk about is access to opportunities and skills development.

Since the announcement of the formation of a commission of inquiry, I have witnessed a lot of disparaging comments and actions and behaviors both online and offline from supporters of the previous government and supporters of the current. The talk is divisive, retaliatory, and attempts to create tribal and regional animosity. I have been reporting on Sierra Leone for over a decade, and this is the worst it has been.  The political class both at home and abroad and seem committed to polarize all issues divide the people with the hopes of conquering them.

Last week 10 members of parliament from the APC were stripped of their titles after a court found them guilty of breaking the law. The MPs had failed to resign from their government jobs before declaring their intent to campaign for parliament. Supporters of the APC party put up barricades around the party’s headquarters.

In response, the police used excessive force to disperse them, many were injured, and some more arrested. By sunset, the Speaker of Parliament, Abass Bundu, had sworn in new members of parliament to replace those who had lost their court cases. The extremists on both sides have used these incidents to further polarize the masses with talk of precedence, while others wave a red flag claiming human rights abuse.

Meanwhile, we are precisely where we were a year ago on human development. No matter which side you fall on the political divide, the facts of life in Sierra Leone as reported in the documentary we made last year are still valid. Yu borbor dem day has given way to di gron dry, but the message is always the same.

People are hungry. Nothing has changed.  On any given day 700,000 young people can’t find work. The majority of our people 60% of them live on SLL 10,000 a day ($1.10). These things don’t have a tribal or a regional dispensation. This is Sierra Leone.

The more time we spend politicking around region and tribe, the less time we have to focus on what really matters; holding our leaders accountable on the issues that affect the masses and not a few political elites.

People won’t protest for water, healthcare, and jobs, but they’ll barricade the streets for their political leaders? If we are going to be disruptive, it should be for social good and social justice, and not party colors. Poverty doesn’t know green or red, hunger knows no region. Di gron just as dry in Bo and Bonthe as it is in Kabala and Maforkie.

If you’re living in a community that doesn’t have water, find out who is in charge, find their name, call them out, ask why not? Do this repeatedly until they get you the social services you need.  If your friends are dying in their 30s and becoming statistics of our failed healthcare system find out who is responsible, call them out, make sure they don’t sleep well at night because they know tomorrow they will have to face you. The activism we need most is that which makes government work for the people, and not that which uses people as tools to reinforce a destructive political status quo.

In the past year, we have seen an unprecedented rise in digital activism. As the price of mobile data tariffs have gone down, more of us have access to communicate and participate in the discourse. This is progress, but we have to use this increased connectivity to make things better off for the community and not worse.

We need to put less effort into the politics of things, the tribe of things, the division of things, the APC of things, the SLPP of things, and the past of things. We need to leave the political “hallelujah boys and girls” to do what they are paid (yes they are paid) to do while we focus on ensuring accountability, good governance, and the rule of law. The more we allow political trolls to drive the discourse towards division, the more we are susceptible to becoming their parrots and the enemies to our own progress.

If you go to the North, they are no better off than people in the South with regards to access to opportunities, access to water, and access to health care. Children have been failing exams there as elsewhere across the country. Productivity levels across the board are low. Just like the people in the South don’t have factories and industries the same for the people in the North.

We are all in the same impoverished boat, all of us as Sierra Leoneans, no tribe, or region is better off.

That is what all of us should unite behind. How can we fight for progress across Sierra Leone? The election is over, we’ll have a new one in four years. Put your green polo and red polo in your portmanteau until 2023, for now, all of us should be Leone Stars, na Salone wi foh play foh.

Those politicians that want to fight must use the justice system, and not use poor people’s blood as dissent. Or let them take their own children and put them to man the barricades and sleep in jail cells.

Yesterday the Brits, Americans, and the Europeans put out a two-sentence statement calling from calm. The embarrassment of it all. If we tell the world that our country is in disarray, that we don’t have political stability, how does it benefit our nation? If we continue to perpetuate the same negativity already present about Sierra Leone as a place of war and gore. Who does this narrative serve? Not a single one of us. The Foreign Direct Investment won’t come, tourists won’t come, diaspora won’t come; the things on which we must rely to build our economy will not come to pass. The gron will remain dry.

At the root of this crinkum crankum political higgi hagga is not that Temnes hate Mendes or Limbas or Lokos; it is that the Anti Corruption is empowered and the Commission of Inquiry is in full force. It is that after the technical audit of key MDAs in telecommunications and transport the government has asked for those named to return the monies they stole by June 30, 2019. What we are seeing is a push back against accountability and corruption.  

There was an actual press release in December whose aim was to ethnicize and trivialize the Commission of Inquiry. I know because when I spoke out against the dangers of that kind of rhetoric, I was attacked by supporters of those who the party’s release hoped to protect. So this is actually a deliberate attempt to cause upheaval.  If the political elites in opposition can make it appear that they are victims, they can get empathy, and maybe get international actors will intervene to broker “peace” where the deal possibly would be the forgiving of their corruption sins but God forbid! Di mammy ein money foh commout.

We must remain united for social action and continue to call for accountability.  

Sierra Leone will always be a country of tribes. Embrace your tribe and love your culture but don’t allow anyone to weaponize your tribal identity in the name of politics.

If you must fight, and come out into the streets, let it be to take a stand for development and progress for all of us. Poverty knows no tribe, but neither does progress. Di rain that brings forth growth for Sierra Leone go fodom na all man gron, only when we serve Sierra Leone above all else.

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