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Post-Election Sierra Leone: Coming In From the Cold

Karamoh Kabba, Freetown, Sierra Leone, February 6, 2008

In post-election Sierra Leone, the ruling All People's Congress and the opposition parties—the Sierra Leone People's Party and the People's Movement for Democratic Change—have all put their shoulder on the wheel of governance in a way that is wholly contrary to that of post-election Kenya.

Unlike in the East African country, where over 500 people have died in the post-election conflict, this small West African nation has enjoyed a litany of praise from democracy-loving nations and international organizations for conducting free and fair elections in 2007. Indeed, it is safe to state that Sierra Leoneans have taken a bold step in redeeming themselves from their war-scarred past. This has undoubtedly padded the crutches upon which the nation has been strolling with the help of donor nations and international organizations since the end of hostilities.

But in assessing the people's determination to extract themselves from the deepest poverty, desolation, and corruption entrenched by many years of one-party government rule, autocracy, and the wars of the past decade, one needs firsthand observation of the present situation on the ground.

I have been away so long that I may not be any different from the foreign pundits and journalists who come here for 10-days at a stretch mostly in search of sensational stories. But I am a Sierra Leonean and I have seen enough reason in the three peaceful postwar elections to return recently to where I spent the first 27 years of my life and tough it out.

(Photo courtesy of Karamoh Kabba)

From Lungi airport, I ran into a thanksgiving parade of schoolchildren on the fathomless and unattractive red dusty road, pockmarked with potholes, that leads into the capital of Freetown. But for the courage of the people here, this inauspicious entry does not make a good impression on tourists and investors bound for the country. When asked, one of the students, in unconditional terms answered, "There is much to be thankful for."

As I would learn later, with the return of electricity after more than 10 years of darkness, the price for ice water has been slashed by 50 percent and the price for ice cubes has plunged to 100 leones from 500 leones.

At Latihide, in one of two female dormitories at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, I met a student—who only wants to be called Lucy—with an unbelievable hope in this nation and its new leadership. "Once there is energy to turn the wheels of production the prices for essential commodities will plunge. At least we get occasional light now," Lucy said.

I took Lucy's statement, "The prices for essential commodities will plunge," to the Ministry of Trade and Industry, which regulates the prices of essential commodities that my student host at the University of Sierra Leone was probably unaware of. Deputy Minister Mabinty Daramy was quite generous with information.

(Photo courtesy of Karamoh Kabba)

"We are experiencing a global food shortage," she said. "The benchmark for rice in the world market, in December, jumped to all-times high. Wheat on the other hand suffers from poor harvest this year in the world. Even Pakistan, a huge wheat producing country, is now importing wheat because of low production and over export. Emerging economies, such as Ghana's and China's increasing demand for wheat compounded by poor harvest, have put a heavy burden on producers."

"This is a recent picture of an armed Pakistani military officer on guard to protect the exportation of wheat," Daramy said, reaching under her desk for a picture she had printed and blown up to show cynics who posit that the rising price of grains is due to government inefficiency. "It is also unfortunate that we import most of our wheat supply from Pakistan," she added.

"We will also brainstorm with the importers and petty traders on how to salvage this global food shortage trend while government embarks on other short-term, medium-term, and long-term plans for sustainable food import and production in Sierra Leone. There is a grand plan underway at the Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security for sustainable food production," Daramy said.

(Photo courtesy of Karamoh Kabba)

My personal observation is that the past government seemed to have been more focused on grand policymaking than on paying attention to the everyday little things that could have improved the living and health conditions of the people. Not a single landmark has been saved from the activities of petty traders and the filth they create here in Freetown. Victoria Park, which was once for recreational purposes only, has been taken over by petty traders and been completely littered.

Twenty minutes after I went away to see Sylvia Blyden of the Awareness Times newspaper, I returned to where I had parked the Mercedes-Benz truck a friend had lent me only to find that a youth named Tony had spread his wares for sale on the front end.

A simple city ordinance for health standards for petty food traders does not seem to exist or at least does not seem to be enforced. Scrap metal and abandoned or disabled vehicles—a possible source of revenue for a city government with a well-operated impoundment lot—contribute to the heavy traffic jams here at rush hours. The many years of filth build-up in government offices is an eyesore as well.

By my estimation, three large central marketplaces complete with toilet facilities, playgrounds, parks, and a trash collection mechanism would not only improve health conditions but also help the city collect revenue from the activities of petty traders plying their trade in centralized locations. They would also provide fun places for Freetown residents to shop.

Driving past the infamous Kroo Bay shantytown, I noticed a flat concrete bed on big steel or concrete pillars that could be used to reclaim much needed land above water level for one of the markets of my vision. But to work, there must be a grand compensation plan for the residents here to start a new life somewhere else, with further incentives for them to start new businesses in the provinces.

(Photo courtesy of Karamoh Kabba)

Amid the unaddressed social problems in Sierra Leone, there is a glimmer of hope in the president's just-launched "attitudinal change" campaign. I attended the second very inclusive brainstorming meeting that was held to come up with a road map for the attitudinal change campaign. I hope that a huge government and citizenry propaganda campaign will soon come out of this effort to help change the people's mindset about civic responsibility and national allegiance.I took the opportunity to hold a cordial discussion with Vice President Samuel Sam-Sumana.

"My critiques were more concerned with experience than my vision. But I asked them to show me where I could find some experience to buy before I start the job, if that would have made them comfortable. But apparently, we could not find a manufacturer or a retailer of experience." Sam-Sumana laughed.

"My being here in this office is a chance that has been given to our generation to prove itself in restoring the confidence of the people. If I allow my vision to be blurred by my critiques, I will fail myself, I will fail you, and I will fail the entire generation that has been given the chance with governance," he concluded.

At Stop Press, I ran into the secretary general of the Sierra Leone People's Party. I congratulated him for his show of leadership during the elections. Then I drew his attention to what is happening in Kenya and asked if the S.L.P.P. had shown courage in handing over the reins of government to the winner of the elections for the second time. He said that that he was very concerned that the new government might not adhere to the example the S.L.P.P. has set. But a woman I spoke with on the street thought differently. "The people of Sierra Leone are wiser than we may imagine  … no party is going to be able to derail democracy in the country anymore," she reassured me before walking away proudly.

(Photo courtesy of Karamoh Kabba)

On Jan. 30, I attended a People's Movement for Democratic Change weekly meeting. The venue was packed full with supporters and party executives. I had not imagined that so many partisans would gather in one place just after the elections. From what I saw at the party's Hanna Benka-Coker office, the P.M.D.C. is strongly resisting being absorbed by the  All People's Congress -P.M.D.C. coalition.

I was impressed with how the supporters of the three parties—the A.P.C., the P.M.D.C., and the S.L.P.P.—go about their business amicably in all the government offices on a daily basis. In fact, the A.P.C. presence in many of these offices is at the political appointee level. Amazingly, their working relationship with their bitter election rivals is commendable. Perhaps it could be marketed as a commodity to the rest of Africa.

It is understood that Sierra Leone needs to copy good economic development policy models from successful developing nations. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when you can just put your shoulder to it and turn the shaft of good governance.

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