Analysis

Sierra Leone’s 2022: danger, division, uncaring govt, Establishment lies, falling wages, ineffective opposition

“They offer nothing and destroy everything”. Dangers for Sierra Leone’s people are growing – but the drivers of the situation will not be unfamiliar to UK readers

Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown (image: Magnus Ohman, Creative Commons)

Skwawkbox has received the article below, written by a Sierra Leonean journalist whose name is withheld because of the risk of reprisals.

For me the year 2022 has had one outstanding feature. We have grown more apart as a people than ever before. A number of incidents occurred this year that indicate that our political class are firmly out of touch with the people and the realities on the ground.

1. The demonstrations of August 10th that turned into riots.

News had circulated for weeks that the week of August 10th would see sit at home strikes.

At a time of high fuel prices, high food prices and ever escalating inflation and cost of living it was inevitable that the protests would attract interest and sympathy from Sierra Leoneans.

Indeed a week or two prior to the strike there were attempts by market women to protest against the high cost of living that was quelled by the police who arrested the women with subsequent unconfirmed rumors of harsh treatment towards them in detention.

One would have expected the government to reach out to its people with a well orchestrated pr campaign to let us know that our pains and frustrations were felt and understood and to reassure us that they were doing all they could to make things better.

Indeed I heard the president make such a statement during the opening of one of the bridges, possibly the only statement he has ever made that gave me hope for this nation. One would have thought similar heartfelt messages in the run in to the strikes would have helped ease tensions.

Instead there was a deafening silence. It seemed as if the concerns were dismissed because of the person calling for the strikes. I became aware of the strikes when I was told on the Friday preceding that certain offices would be closed. In fact on the day of the proposed stay at home I went to see my family off at Sea Coach and everywhere was eerily quiet.

I wrote about it on FB talking about how dangerous it was that one person could shut down an entire nation. Certain persons close to the powers that be told me I was dreaming and the official government line was that people had been scared to leave their homes and didn’t support the strikes.

Then came the demonstrations. The events are well recorded. 4 police officers died and a number of civilians as well. Destruction of property abounded. Restraint flew out of the door.

I reached out to both parties to ask for restraint. I was rebuffed and the word insurrection quickly became the official line. Just as we had been told terrorists abounded in our midst so were we told an insurrection had been suppressed.

There were rumors of executions in the days after, the most prominent being an Apc social media activist. The police claimed he was caught in crossfire, the opposition claimed he had been targeted for execution.

Apc politicians were named as being behind the events. We were treated to the rare spectacle of diplomats telling our Foreign minister that they didn’t share his view of events.

It was stunning that all the government officials who spoke after the event did not take into account the complaints that cost of living was killing us and they all concentrated on the political angle.

The only politician who asked that we examine the incidents critically and look at the complaints of the people was quickly branded a traitor with prominent SLPP [the ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party] bloggers calling for his dismissal.

A prominent APC lawyer who had given his legal opinion on the legality or lack thereof of public assembly without prior notice to the police was arrested for a few days.

Two prominent politicians were also picked up for questioning before that. Social media went quiet and people hunkered down.
Supporters of the government kept on sending pictures of slain police officers while opposition supporters kept on sending pictures of slain and wounded civilians. People even started sending pictures of policemen and women who died of natural causes in an attempt to inflate the number of deaths of law enforcement officers.

We saw the police declare a Nigerian actor wanted who had been dead for over 10 years and whose poster had been circulated as having arms.

Propaganda and bluster filled the spaces an independent media should. In all of this no one seemed to be thinking of what was best for this country. They forwarded anything and everything they thought would give their party of choice an advantage in public opinion.

I forever lost respect for one individual who told us his niece had been lynched by protesters only for her family to say she had died in hospital of an illness. And he never had the decency to retract the story.

The worrying aspect for me was that we have been clearly divided into two camps. Pro government and pro opposition. It is clear that all our thoughts are short term even at the level where it should be strategic. We are breaking our country apart along ethnic lines, along regional lines and along cabal lines and I do not see any statesmen with the stature to close it.

2. Fuel shortages

The year opened with the closure of 4 or 5 stations for “hoarding” fuel. The station owners protested vigorously that they had been selling and that because of the rush they had had to stop selling to restore order. With no other explanation the stations started selling again.

We then saw the hostile posture of several government officials and people linked with the ruling party towards the traditional oil marketing companies.

They were accused of sabotaging the government by hoarding and trying to enforce price hikes.

For the neutral observer it seemed a bit odd given the constant fall of the leone against the foreign exchange but it would appear those in authority believed their own hype.

We experienced several fuel shortages followed by hikes. Reasons given ranged from Russo Ukraine war to sabotage.

Finally to much hype a new player entered the space. APP was hyped as the government’s answer to the “opposition dominated” oil marketing companies. We were told that shortages would be a thing of the past and that prices would be stabilized.

As usual it was much ado over nothing. December saw the worst shortages we had experienced the whole year. We remain braced for further price hikes.

3. The New Currency and Currency Shortages

Ever since the Governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone announced a new currency the leone started to depreciate. We moved from 9000 to 10,600.

Talk of the New Leone died down and the leone stabilized. It even started appreciating and then Mr Governor informed us that it would be released soon.

The leone jumped into hyperfall.

In less than a year it’s been almost a 100% drop. For a country dependent on imports for almost everything this has been a disaster for its citizens.

We have seen our purchasing power halved and even more while salaries have remained the same.

To make it even worse shortages of the new leones occurred just after release and now for Christmas. Banks have been directed by the Central Bank to issue the old notes even though the systems only allow for a one way flow into their vaults and then onward transmission to the BSL vaults.

Something is terribly wrong and it feels like we are being experimented on. Why wasn’t a 20,000 leones note introduced?

Wouldn’t it have been cheaper and caused less disruption?

We wait to hear what the total cost of this grand experiment has been and what the benefit to the nation is supposed to be.

On that note one would encourage the BSL if they really want financial probity to reign to support cashless payments by ensuring all the various digital payment systems can communicate with each other.

4. The education system

This was the year of two contrasts. At the NPSE [National Primary School Examination] parents bemoaned results they couldn’t understand.

Children who had done well in school and had their papers marked on coming out of the exam hall did far below expectations.

There was drama about standardisation and normalisation.

Similarly at WASSCE [West African Senior School Certificate Examination] parents celebrated results they couldn’t understand. Children did better than they had been doing and there were some amazing results with passes in further maths and fails in maths.

There were anecdotes about the huge passes turning into fails at entrance exams of the various universities.

Whatever the results Dr Sengeh took heat for results marked and released by Waec. Simply by pushing himself as the face that announced the results he attacted flak that should have been directed towards Waec which is supposedly an independent autonomous examination council.

Clear successes by Dr Sengeh with his ministry’s provision online of the new curriculum for basic education. I haven’t read it but those interested in the education field applaud the thought behind it.

Final thoughts: every issue in Sierra leone is politicized. WAEC [West African Examinations Council] needs to be queried. It’s marking needs to be reviewed by independent observers. The processes followed for drawing questions and getting exam papers to halls needs to be overhauled. It’s invigilators and examiners should be reassessed and certain standards met.

However the fact that the ministry releases results means that politically those who should enforce this change will prefer to go after the minister rather than the actual body responsible.

5. The Opposition Parties have been a disappointment.

One would assume that the high food prices, high fuel prices, depreciation of the leone, inflation and the generally moribund economy will lead to a sense of discontent with the status quo. One would be right in assuming this. Yet looking at the political landscape one is filled with deep misgivings.

Given the oratory prowess and statesmanlike stature adopted by NGC’S [National Grand Coalition] flagbearer during the run in to the last election it was assumed he would become a de facto leader and voice of the people.

Instead both him and his party seemed to lose their way. While he has claimed that is because they were pursuing a centrist path, supporting government on some issues and opposing them on others, the feeling among the general populace is that they have not done enough to justify the support they had among the young and intelligentsia. The jury is out on whether they will be able to match the 5 or 7% they garnered in 2018.

C4C [Coalition for Change] also seems to have its own massive in-house problems with issues between its parliamentary reps and national executive. Their flagbearer defected to the APC although he has still not been reinstated into the APC. While they may determine the fate of Kono, it remains to be seen whether they can mount a challenge beyond that.

The main opposition party, the APC [All-People’s Congress] should have been able to take advantage of the discontent with the government.

However they are mired in court cases. The recently conducted lower level elections have been discredited by the ITGC [Interim Transitional Governing Committee] leader who has asked that they be canceled and rerun. There were questions over their registration processes and allegations of disenfranchisement of voters.

The most popular candidate for flagbearer is embroiled in a court case that seems never ending. There are rumours of more court cases in the pipeline.

The number of flagbearer aspirants seems to be growing and they seem unable to come together and choose 2 or 3 strong, untainted candidates, any of whom would give the incumbent a run for his money.

One hears the refrain “In the struggles of the APC there is victory”. I have been told that this is the APC way. “We fight and then we come together and we win”. At the moment this feels more like a pipe dream than a plan.

Time is running out for them to sort out their affairs and elect a flagbearer who will lead them into elections. Even more disappointing is the emergence of some of the same people whose blatant displays of ill gotten wealth and arrogance saw the populace reject them in 2018.

I have been told that politics is a game of numbers. We cannot afford to turn away anyone based on morals. I say that is crap. How many who were in President Kabba’s government morphed to President Koroma’s government and are trying to sell themselves and get into this government.

Their interest is power and access to national resources and they hold allegiance to no one and have no convictions. They offer nothing and destroy everything. They hide behind tribal rhetoric and yet do absolutely nothing for the regions they hail from or their own people.

When will these parties learn that honest attempts to move the whole country forward trump whatever these so called big names offer?

We saw attempts to build a coalition brought a halt this year.

We await the election run in to see whether the opposition parties will coalesce into an effective coalition or splinter.

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