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The Violence in Bo...Some Points to Ponder

  • Written by  Lans Gberie
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The circumstances surrounding the recent violence in Bo are so significant for the future of our democracy and our hard-won peace that they ought to be properly analysed to be understood. Even as the gruesome events unfolded, the trigger causes were clear: missile-throwing thugs attacked the entourage of Maada Bio, the opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) candidate, as it went past the offices of the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC), seriously wounding Bio in the head.

Doubtless suspecting an assassination attempt on Bio by APC operatives, youthful supporters of Bio rampaged through the city, burning down the offices of the APC and the homes of two leading APC members. One person was killed when the police opened fire on the crowd, and over a dozen were seriously wounded. For several hours, observers in the city reported scenes that were reminiscent of the awful-old-days of internecine warfare. It all subsided later, and Bio, his head heavily bandaged, addressed his ever-enthusiastic supporters and moved on to the adjacent city of Kenema, there to be received by tens of thousands of supporters without violent incident.

The government has, once again, set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate the violence and make recommendations. I wish the Commission well, and hope that this is not another nibbling effort, much like the Justice Thomson one that claimed to have investigated the attack and rape incidents at the SLPP HQ in 2009. In order to assist the work of the Commission, I make some reflections on the nature of political violence in our very recent past, pointing out what I feel may have contributed to the nasty incident in Bo.

One important factor that may have contributed to the violence was the very hysterical reaction by the APC and the pro-APC media to the election of Bio: a carefully-choreographed outpouring of inflammatory abuses like ‘murderer’, ‘thief’ and ‘coup-maker’ – and that went on and on and still goes on. The fact that Bio’s National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC) was a popular and internationally-recognised government which ruled Sierra Leone for four years, and which a good number of those shouting these abuses or conniving in them served gleefully (like the slightly ridiculous Frank Kargbo, the Attorney General and Minister of Justice, who held the same position in the NPRC). It also didn’t matter to these instant – and instantly outraged – human rights activists that Bio has been living peacefully in the country for the past five years, doing his business and participating in national politics with no one accusing him of anything untoward.

For a sitting government to demonise a citizen as a murderer merely as a rhetorical flourish is worse than contemptible. To do so with such reckless abandon is to expose that citizen to dangerous fringe elements associated with that government (or ruling party) who will be inclined to, as they say, take matters into their hands. If the attack on Bio in Bo was not a calculated assassination attempt by the APC leadership – I think that it was not – it surely may have been carried out by some deranged pro-APC activist naturally given to literalism: a ‘murderer’, after-all, ought to be killed, or so they say.

It is astonishing that the APC as a party (in contrast to President Koroma) and some individuals linked to it have reacted with gross insensitivity to what clearly appeared, certainly to those thousands of their fellow citizens in Bio’s entourage in Bo, as an attempt on Bio’s life. The shabby statement from the APC to the effect that the procession was “illegal” falls in that category, and so have been statements attributed to my friend, Mohamed Bangura, of the APC-allied UDM. On no day for the past three weeks or so have I opened my email without seeing some report, forwarded to me by mutual friends, of what “your friend Mohamed” is up in Sierra Leone – from his supposed intention to lead a “demonstration” against UN and the US embassy because their officials do not share his view that Bio is a ‘murderer’ to his more recent view that the attack on Bio may have been staged by Bio himself! Mohamed’s comprehensively illiterate “letter of complaint” on this issue, as published in the Awareness Times, must shame him and those of us who have worked with him in the past on some worthy issues. (In this I take it on trust that his position is not shared by the publisher of Awareness Times, my old friend Sylvia Blyden, who – on another level – relishes in gravely accusing me of sharing the “very same birthday” as John Benjamin, to which I must plea for mitigation on grounds that the offence was not premeditated.)

For those of us who have investigated the persistent incidents of political violence since the landmarked elections of 2007, we must face a sobering fact: almost all the political violence since 2007 has been initiated by people or groups linked to the ruling APC. This is extraordinary, since it is the primary responsibility of a government, and by extension the ruling party, to make sure that political violence does not happen.

An important point to ponder in this regard is that the elections of 2007 mirrored those of 1967 in offering a decisive opportunity for major political changes, and they were bound to open up inchoate fissures in Sierra Leone’s political system, as happened in 1967. That there was a smooth transfer of power from the SLPP to the APC was due to the enabling atmosphere provided by former President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who in any case did not run for re-election, and had only very lukewarm support for his Vice President (Solomon Berewa), who ran. Certainly while the APC and its Presidential candidate clearly commanded majority support at the time of the elections in 2007, there were strong grounds for challenging the legitimacy of the elections – stronger grounds than those of 1967, which precipitated an orchestrated coup: the wholesale invalidation of votes especially in a section that is likely to favour one political party cannot be accepted in a democratic system. This provided the context in which the violent intra-party confrontations have been happening since the elections, and Christiana Thorpe must share the blame for this.

Even so, however, it should be stated that actual violence was initiated by APC supporters, perhaps spontaneously. Almost immediately after Koroma was sworn in, hundreds of young people, in apparent celebration of the APC victory, stormed the National Secretariat of the SLPP and thoroughly vandalised it. Glass windows were destroyed and equipment completely looted. The party's newspaper and radio station were damaged, and the homes of several leading members of the SLPP were also attacked. The APC leadership was very slow in condemning these outrages, suggesting that top leaders at least approved, if not ordered, them. Ultimate culpability for subsequent violent confrontations can only be assessed on a case by case basis, but there can hardly be any parity of guilt between the two parties, a government in power, and a weakened opposition.

Tensions and political violence escalated after, leading to open battles between the two main political parties – the All Peoples Congress (APC) and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) – in the capital, Freetown, and elsewhere. In all these instances, the police would appear on the scene after maximum damage had been done, and arrest ONLY SLPP supporters.

In 2009, the UN finally intervened – the first such high-profile intervention since UNAMSIL was withdrawn from the country in early 2006 – bringing together leaders of the two parties in a process of consultation. On 2 April 2009, these political leaders signed a Joint Communiqué – with the UN acting as moral guarantor – in which they pledged to uphold “the Rule of Law and [maintain] the core principle of democracy of free debate over alternative policies and views in an atmosphere of mutual respect.” They further pledged “to work jointly in preventing all forms of political incitement, provocation and intimidation that could lead to a recurrence of the disturbances” that the country had witnessed since the 2007 elections.

The Communiqué added very significantly: “While we must learn from our painful historical experiences, we maintain that we should not be haunted by those memories; instead we commit ourselves to building a peaceful, democratic and prosperous Sierra Leone for the benefit of all of our people.”       

From our recent experience we should know that political violence always has a catalytic effect. Intra-party violence never remains merely political; it often provides the context for opportunistic criminal elements to wreak their own forms of violence with impunity. A spate of general lawlessness, including attacks on cattle herders in the Northern Province, armed robbery, and other incidents suggesting marked religious intolerance (the burning down of a Church in Kambia District, and the defilement of a Quran by an errant youth in Bo at about the same time) became pronounced in early 2008 to 2009, when most of the violent confrontations between APC and SLPP supporters happened.

This underlies the significance of the recent political violence in Kono – provoked by the scrofulous Internal Affairs Minister Musa Tarawalie and supporters of Vice President Sam Sumana – and especially the lack of action on the lawlessness by President Koroma. This may well have played into the subsequent events in Bo, both with respect to the attack on Bio, as well as the very severe reaction to that attack by his supporters. This is because the sense of impunity encourages more illegality, for the state and its Rule of Law structures become irrelevant to many people; they cease to be the place of recourse for justice.

The name Musa Tarawallie, in fact, is a euphemism for political violence and thuggery in Bo because as the Resident Minister for Southern Province, Tarwallie was a harsh enforcer for the APC in the entire area, causing violence during a by-election in Soro-Gbeima Chiefdom in Pujehun, and triggering a number of violent incidents in Bo throughout much of 2008.

An examination of Bo District’s DISEC meeting minutes and police records in the city in 2008 can serve to illustrate this point. Violence seems to have accelerated after APC youths, allegedly encouraged by Resident Minister Tarawallie and without consultation with the City Council, in February 2008 painted the Clock Tower in red colour. The youths were led by one Catisco. That same week, after protests by the City Council, the same youths attacked the council’s offices, damaging glass windows and furniture, and allegedly wounding the SLPP Mayor. By 28 February, police records were indicating “rising lawlessness, larceny and burglary” throughout the city and its environments. APC youths stripped an old woman who was wearing a ‘T’-shirt bearing the image of Solomon Berewa (the former SLPP Presidential candidate), and when a passer-by soldier intervened on the woman’s behalf, an APC youth – and a former rebel officer – Bomblast attacked the soldier and beat him to pulp. Bomblast remained at large for weeks. The police reported that week that former Kamajors were mobilising at Njala Komborya, not far from Bo, “to stop strangers from harassing their people.” At about the same time, students at Njala University, which has a campus in Bo, stormed the police station to demand that a bike rider who had killed a colleague be handed over to them so that ‘justice’ could be done. In early April 2009, in the midst of APC-SLPP confrontations, a PROSEC meeting recorded an incidence of “religious intolerance”: twelve Muslim boys were reported to have set fire to the Poro Bush at Njala Komborya. In May, a youth, one Musa Sheriff in Bo, was seen urinating on a Quran and was arrested and charged with “effecting public mischief.” The Muslims in the city behaved with exceptional restraint: they allowed the matter to proceed to court, but when that seemed dilatory, on 18 May 300 “irate [Muslim] youths led by Islamic clerics besieged Bo Magistrate Court demanding that either the Magistrate passed judgment on the youth or hand him over to face Sharia law.”

A final point is that police capacity all over the country outside of Freetown and the key cities of Bo, Kenema and Makeni is negligible. In Kailahun, a district with a population close to 400,000, there were in 2009 only 128 police personnel covering the entire district. They have only one functioning vehicle – so bad are the roads in the district that in October 2009 this writer found five other police vehicles parked in the police station, wrecked. The total number of police personnel in Pujehun, strategically bordering with Liberia, was in October 2009 only 88, and they had no functioning vehicle. The lone vehicle for the district is based at Poturu; in Pujehun town itself, the small police post has only two functioning motor bikes. Kono has a more significant police presence, but the two divisions in Koidu Town have only two functioning vehicles.

It is important that urgent measures to address these defects are put in place in time for the elections in 2012.

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