By Karamoh Kabba
In his rollercoaster two-term of office, between 1996 and 2007, late president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah of Sierra Leone (Sierra Leone People’s Party) managed to establish democratic institutions.
That was despite the already precarious post-war environment he inherited, great expectations from war wearied citizenry and that mutinous soldiers had snatched power away from him in a coup d’état in1997, just less than one year after his controversial victory in the first post-war election in 1996.
Kabbah cherished civil society organizations (CSOs) for scaling up activism against reactionary type politicians, which partially helped him to solidify power. He was therefore obliged to create space for non-state actors, which culminated in the mushroom of CSOs that spouted thereafter.
His handing over note enjoined former president Ernest Bai Koroma’s interest in improving on and strengthening of those institutions Kabbah had established. And between 2007 and 2018, Koroma’s All Peoples Congress (APC) party government, indeed, adhered to Kabbah’s call: The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) was strengthened with prosecutorial powers and all ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) and their political appointees underwent careful transitions to ensure continuity in governance.
Koroma was also appreciated for his massive infrastructure development agenda and for the enabled business environment he created in the country; at times during his ten-year governance, Sierra Leone was called a works-yard; he further expanded space for media and civil society activities and attracted big mining conglomerates amidst the global crunch down in 2007-2008, especially when multi-national corporations were folding up en masse.
On this already war and coup d’état induced fragile political stage in Sierra Leone, an insatiable appetite for state capture amongst president Bio and his cast of autocratic rulers has come to vogue and in prominence.
And it seems that even the foreign observers and international opinion leaders are oblivious of this state capture phenomenon that has become apparent in this small West African nation that has been, to some extent before now, working its way out of post-war stigma and derelict infrastructure left behind by the eleven-year civil war and coups between 1991 and 2002.
The question that now lingers on the minds of many attentive citizens living this observable fact is; why the lack of awareness of or concern about what is happening in one small part of this global village, especially for those accredited to bilateral and multi-lateral commitment in the country?
Embedded in this quagmire of mistrust in and genuine disdain for the international community for demonstrable inattentiveness to the Bio regime’s abrasive disregard of the Constitution and the rule of law, indiscriminate human rights abuses and repression of freedom of expression and political freedom, there is still a glimmer of hope that the attention of international observers will catch up with him.
Now, save for few exemptions, state institutions are covertly and or overtly acting in collusion with non-state actors to ensure that president Bio’s state capture agenda is achieved. One disenchanted citizen gripes that, “We have demonstrated much patience with state sponsored police brutality, political intimidation, manipulation of the judiciary, silenced mainstream media as well as rights activists in Bio’s repressive environment he has so cunningly created.”
And this is why Article 19, an unsuspecting credible observer that gathers information from local media operatives is being misled into believing that the Sierra Leone’s press freedom environment is favorable. The organization runs a big banner headline on its website; “Sierra Leone: ARTICLE 19 welcomes the decriminalization of defamation and seditious libel” and the message in part reads:
“ARTICLE 19 welcomes this timely and progressive decision by the government and the final vote in parliament on 23 July. This is a step in the right direction and will undoubtedly contribute to strengthening media freedom, free speech, right to information and protection of journalists in the Sierra Leone.”
Whereas the repeal of Part 5 of Public Order Act of 1965; seditious libel and slander bit is factual, the intention of the governors may be deceptive. By the look of things, it seems like the decriminalizing of seditious libel and slander is a bargaining chip for Bio’s government for transactional politics with the media and a blindfold for international observers.
Evidently, decriminalizing seditious libel and slander in July 2020 has culminated in deafening silence from the media. In return, Bio’s government is yielding good tidings dividend from blindfolded world press freedom observer and other organizations about Sierra Leone’s media environment.
For example, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) runs a big banner headline on its websites in praise of press freedom in Sierra Leone. The fact is that president Bio had racked the nation’s press freedom ranking from 79 when he took the mantle of power over from former president Koroma in 2018 to 86 on the global scale of 180 countries by 2019.
This was mainly due to widespread state-sponsored post-election human rights abuses against journalists and opposition politicians.
Amongst many instances of over use of the criminal libel and slander law by the Bio administration, Sallieu Tejan Jalloh, editor for The Times newspaper was arrested on 11 November 2019, detained and “charged with criminal defamation for an article he has not yet written”. This is just one instance to show how brutish is Bio’s government.
Many more cases of human rights abuses were recorded; notably, the unknown number of prisoners killed in a “so-called” prison break operation as well as many crackdowns on and killings of demonstrators and opposition politicians.
And it’s why Sierra Leone’s ranking had been fluctuating up and down between 85 and 86 from a favorable 79 place before it jumped ten (10) points up in 75 place in 2021. RSF responded with a very favorable 2021 World Press Freedom Index report on behalf of Sierra Leone after that whopping 10-pointer gained mainly due to the repeal of the criminal libel and slander law.
For president Koroma, despite his relative steady favorable world press freedom rating even without the decriminalization of criminal libel and slander law, he gracefully absorbed serious criticism from the press and media analysts for the lost opportunity on his part. Simply stated, Koroma had squandered an opportunity to position his country in 69 place on the global scale then provided he had taken the decriminalizing of seditious libel and slander law seriously.
And for president Bio, his band of autocrats are now showcasing this false feat amidst untold incidences of gross human rights abuses, widespread intimidation and oppression of the opposition and continued utilization of the criminal libel and slander law by illegal detentions of citizens for criticizing his government despite the fact that he had singed the decriminalization Act.
Government subsidies and frequent diners at State Lodge or State House are also helping in that light. On Saturday, 8 May, 2021, the Editor in Chief of Africanist Press wrote, “The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) executive has reportedly accepted 40 bags of rice, 10 bags of onions, 5 cartoons of tomato paste and Maggie, and 10 jerrycans of vegetable oil as ‘gift from President Bio,’” knowing too well that “there is no free lunch”.
And in every step of the way, the non-state actors are either silent or many in support of government. There rewards include but not limited to political appointments, wasteful spending on CSOs activities and awarding of contracts. Even the inter-religious council that used to be a fervent rights advocate is now ominously silent.
In this manner, the press is blindfolded with Greek gifts and the international observers and opinion leaders are in turn fed with false reportage from the press and CSOs.
Bio’s state capture agents; ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) are left alone to be abrasively frivolous in draconian bills and senseless policies formulation, all geared toward Bio’s state capture agenda.
To further repress dissenting views from the opposition and amongst citizens, government has deployed more boots on the ground; the police, the paramilitary (OSD), the military forces as well as SLPP thugs and party enthusiasts to clampdown on any one, group and or organization from protesting and or demonstrating.
Notably, Statistic Sierra Leone, National Civil Registration Authority and the Ministry of Local Government are on three tracks to pass hasty legislations or implement politically insensitive policies in line with Bio’s state capture agenda. And the political intrigues and blatant deceptions filled activities of the trio have caused heightened political tension in the country.
For example, Bio’s government promised opposition politicians that his mid-term census is not intended for election purpose. That notwithstanding, on page sixty (60) of the National Electoral Commission’s (NEC) Electoral Cycle 2020-2024 Strategic plan, which claims to strengthen electoral processes for maximum performance, the Commission slammed political parties, the main stakeholders in election processes, with an array of what they called “electoral context externalities”, which have “potential impact on the electoral calendar”.
Meanwhile, an uncanny and misunderstood coincidence exists amongst Local Government Ministry’s decentralization Bill, Statistics Sierra Leone’s presidential ‘mid-term census’ proclamation and activities of National Registration Commission (NCRA). In the same vein, the Ministry of Information and Communications (MIC) is pushing a draconian cyber crime Bill down the throats of the people. These nexuses between three MDAs and their hasty activities have unruffled the feathers of opposition political party leaders.
This came to the head when NEC presented an electoral cycle that is replete with uncertainties and conditionality:
1. That he Commission will perform its function of preparing a voter registry provided the laws are not repealed or changed;
2. That the commission may do redistricting and boundary delimitation if there is significant changes in population distribution;
3. That the Commission will go ahead with the 2022 Local government election provided the legislation is not changed from four years tenure to five years tenure for Local councils as proposed in the Bill.
It simply means that at the end of the day, NEC will feed off NCRA data for voter registry, the Commission will conduct boundary delimitation and redistricting and the Commission will conduct no Local Council election.
This is because, every one of these ‘externalities’ has been proposed in some kind of pending legislation or policy. They are Bio’s own miniature Trumpism, his trump-cards in readiness to trump opposition parties to rig elections. And the cyber Bill, when passed, will serve as the tool to clampdown on dissenters to achieve the grand state capture agenda. I only hope that Bio is aware that Trumpism was Donald Trump’s Achilles heel.