REBUTTAL: State Violence and Political Repression in Sierra Leone

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Chernor Alpha Bah is a Sierra Leonean Author and Publisher

By: Elkass Sannoh & Austine Luseni

Chernoh Alpha M. Bah and one Mathew Anderson in their article circulated on social media-purportedly claimed to be published by “The Africanist Press,” dishonestly blamed the ruling Government for the recent spate of violence caused by politically motivated youths.

This is not Journalism! Sadly, when an opposition mouthpiece goes into citizens Journalism all the cardinal principles will be ignored. As a Journalist, one of the five cardinal principles is FACT. Africanist Press should try to know that getting the facts right is a core principle in Journalism.

If the Africanist Press is not owned by a politician their Editorial Mandate should always be striving for accuracy, give all the relevant facts and ensure that they have been checked. Whilst it is also not obligatory to present every side in their piece, but it is professionally incumbent on the author(s) to report the other side. Even the Independent Media Code of Practice made it compulsory for Journalist to do so. But alas! This is to satisfy their political godfathers against the general good of the country. As a citizen, Sierra Leone should be bigger than your partisan ambition.

CHERNOH’s POLITICAL CAREER

Unfortunately, Chernoh Bah is a failed politician who was forced out of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Party. As the then Spokesman, he contested twice to become a Member of Parliament in Bombali District, Makeni town, where he claimed to be given birth. The last attempt was futile because his party was barred from contesting the 2012 national elections due to their internal crisis which stalled them in Court.

After being bolted out of the NDA with the emergence of Mohamed C Bah from the USA and Pateh Bah, he pitched tent with the late SLPP Member of Parliament and National Publicity Secretary, Hon. Musa Tamba Sam. One of the meetings we were privy to (Chernoh Bah, Tamba Sam and Bamidele Thompson of PMDC) he said he needed a Senior position in the SLPP but Bamidele who was vying for the PMDC Chairmanship convinced him to take his position, Director of Communications and Spokesperson.

He denied and said he preferred to be the Spokesperson for SLPP and should be taken to the Presidential Candidate, Rtd. Brigadier Julius Maada Bio. The rest is history but he was disappointed because he was told to follow the queue. He later supported Samura Kamara, APC Presidential Candidate, but his dream became a nightmare. In a failed frustrated mood, he left for USA and took the pen to meander his way into Journalism as a strong opponent to the New Direction administration.

In the article, they said:

“We must begin by asking the question: why had random violence become a regular feature of Maada Bio’s presidency in these two years?”

To elucidate on the answer(s) for their comprehension, let us inform the Africanist Press that the main opposition APC has refused to recover from the tsunamic victory which brought the ruling SLPP to governance. The APC was rudely weeded out of governance because the majority of Sierra Leoneans wanted to put a stop to the ingrained corruption, maladministration, regionalism, thuggery and state plunder. If Chernoh Bah and his Africanist Press have blinded their eyes to those issues we would say they are suffering from political malady.

Looking at a situation from one perspective rather than the two sides of the coin begs one to question the level of correctness in your article. Your article is not only misleading but also inciting.

HE President Julius Maada Bio is a democratic leader who delegates authority to others, encourages participation, relies on subordinates’ knowledge for completion of tasks, and depends on subordinate respect for influence. This is a Government that does not remote the activities of its institutions from the above, but instead allows them to govern and leaders take full control and directives of every Ministry, Agencies, or Departments. This is to say, this isn’t a Government of (D Pa say or Powers from the above influence the actions of other state actors).

Even when the President travels on relevant matters, state institutions have governed correctly.

NATIONAL COHESION

Many strides have been made by this Government for a national build-up and cohesion but your party (APC) has always stood on the opposing side, giving good for nothing excuses as a means to boycott. The most recent of them all was the Bintumani three (3) conference. This conference was organized mainly as a means to dialogue and pave the way forward for peace and unity. Several political parties were in attendance. But the APC party to which you belong failed to attend.

Have you ever told the general membership of your party or readers that H.E. Bio once commissioned V.P. Juldeh as a Peace Ambassador to hold talks with Former President Koroma at his residence in Makeni on the way forward for peace to reign in the country?

Have you ever reminded your audience of H.E. Bio’s meeting with political party leaders at State House for the same? I’m sure the answers to these questions are “NO”.

Another question that comes to mind is: Who is actually fueling the flames of these violent activities across the country, mainly in opposition strongholds? Let the answer flag your conscience, if you have one.

To the sponsors of the violent activities, the “depressed” leaders who thought they’ll govern from the comfort of their homes even when their time has long past but yet want our peaceful nation to be ungovernable, couldn’t be spared of finger-pointing.

Chernoh Bah and Co, Sierra Leoneans are no longer blind to facts. Lunsar, Tombo, and Hamilton violence are cases of different nature but yet investigations will reveal simple answers as to who was behind them. Every good loving Sierra Leonean can attest to the fact that these incidences were premeditated and perpetrated by supporters of the main opposition party, your party.

In broad daylight and in plain view of the public at Hamilton, the SLPP Parliamentary aspirant’s vehicle was burnt to ashes.

The Tombo incident was fueled by inciting audio, recorded by one of your party members who chose violence as an option. Such audio bears the same fruit as your misleading articles. For the Bo incident, all those involved were arrested and dealt with by the law. To get more facts, contact the All Political Parties Association for their recent findings.

Under the Leadership of HE Bio, no Citizen has been deprived of his/her Fundamental Human Rights in Sierra Leone. And as long as one does not infringe on the freedom of others in expressing his/her rights, rest assured nobody would be denied access to live/express their views freely.

WICKED AMBITION

Much to what you have said in your piece, it seems to us that you being oblivious and overzealous just to State the farce about what actually happened. True journalism is embedded in the spirit of objectivity and balance of fact. To that end, we are urge to ask how did Chernor and his Co. unfortunately become roaming journalists with baseless and unfounded lies that are affix to their disgruntled thirst for power against the general will of the people.

How lovely to see a man who was craving to become one of SLPP’s stalwarts now lampooning against this same party he wished to be part?

It is interesting to note that a defunct politician has now taken a new career in journalism. But we must also school you that just as your Freedom of Speech granted in our supreme law (Constitution Section 25 Act #6 of 1991) you must also aware that the same constitution under Section 24 also preaches about your conscience which is more important to be established.

Unfortunately, however, out of hate and selfish, you failed woefully with flimsy rantings on the New Direction government of President Bio.

Chernor and Co., let’s now assume that indeed you were chanced to have been part of the new direction government as you once wished it, should you be as blind as you have become lately to analyze the reality regarding the state of affairs in the country? Or is it that you being jealous of the strides made so far in fighting corruption which APC’s Ernest Koroma once legalized and shattered the rest of the country’s economy?

If in any case one is to go by your vengeance, we are hastening to say your frustrations could not be far from your anger that you were repeatedly snubbed to become either a member of the ruling SLPP or an affiliate. We advised that you do your homework well and bring forward the facts, instead of merely narrating dream day thoughts.

Chernoh Bah’s Africanist Press aim has been to promote the interest of the main opposition and to engender public disaffection against the ruling Government. This type of Journalism is what Donald Trump will call “Gutter Journalism.” Sierra Leoneans have got enough of your partisanship and lack of objectivity.

Our advice to Chernoh and his team is simple: uphold the ethics of professional journalism and shun any attempt to be misused by rogue politicians. Professionalism matters!


State Violence and Political Repression in Sierra Leone

By Chernoh Alpha M. Bah and Matthew Anderson

Protests, social unrest, violence; these symptoms do not appear in a society without a cause. When democratic expression is repressed, when the voices of oppressed people are suppressed, and when state violence becomes unbearable, the end products are social unrest and mass protests. Today’s crisis in Sierra Leone is no exception. In his widely broadcast message on May 8, Julius Maada Bio, the president of Sierra Leone, described the ongoing violence in the country as acts of “terrorism”, blaming it mostly on opposition members and their supporters.

“Protest is the language of the oppressed,” said Martin Luther King Jr., the iconic American civil rights leader at a time when millions of African Americans were taking to the streets to protest worsening poverty, police brutality, and the discrimination against blacks in the United States during the 1960s.

In some cases, the US civil rights protests turned violent, resulting in extensive property damage across major US cities.  Even so, the heavy-handed response of US federal and local authorities to black protesters, including the murder of 30 civilians by police and military officials in the Detroit riots of 1967, for example, were rightly considered unjust, immoral, and anti-democratic. Indeed, not all violence is the same. Nor is expressed defiance of governmental policy equal to treason or terrorism. Throughout the struggle for the rights of African Americans in the 1950s and 1960s, the US federal and state governments tried strenuously to justify violent repression of protesters and activists by labeling them as “terrorists”, “criminals”, “communists”, and “provocateurs.” But men and women who are drawn into the streets out of desperation because of the threat of state repression, of arbitrary arrests, and of police brutality, are not terrorists. Even while the destruction of property by such protesters may be regrettable, it is not equivalent to the violence inflicted by a government, well-armed and powerful, against civilian citizens. Nor are police beatings and killings justified in such an instance even where the claim is supposedly in the defense of life and property. When a populace is confronted with state violence, people often resort to mass protests and resistance.

Indeed, it is nothing new for authoritarian governments to label all opposition, including legitimate opposition, as “terrorists”. There is a long history of anti-democratic regimes resorting to such cynicism, from Apartheid South Africa locking up Nelson Mandela in prison for 27 years for supposedly being a “terrorist”, to the arrest and murder of activists and journalists opposed to Siaka Steven’s one-party rule in Sierra Leone during the 1970s and 1980s.

Sadly, authoritarian regimes, especially newly emerging authoritarian democrats in most parts of the world, have often quickly labelled active civilian opposition groups as “terrorists” when they cannot win the national debate and conversation on public policy. Such anti-democrats willfully ignore the root causes of social unrest and economic depression that drive protests and resistance in the first place. Despotic leaders throughout history, whether they are from the army or from political parties, have always justified state violence and anti-democratic policies in the name of maintaining law and order and national security.

It is with this historical context of the nature and character of dictatorial governance that we must consider the crises in Sierra Leone today. We must begin by asking the question: why has random violence become a regular feature of Maada Bio’s presidency in these two years? Most especially, when did this actual random violence and youth protests commence and why have they continued unabatedly? Within one week alone, there have been three recent incidents of violence and bloodshed across several parts of the country: the mass killing of prisoners at Freetown’s Maximum Prison and two other separate youth protests, in Lunsar in the north of country and in Tombo in the outskirts of Freetown. These violent events have similar features – they are all characterized by deaths and direct confrontation with armed troops of the Sierra Leonean state – the police and the military. In the prison incident alone, more than 60 deaths – mostly of unarmed prisoners – have been reported by eyewitness accounts. And in Tombo and Lunsar – as in the Freetown Prison – public infrastructure was equally set ablaze. Police stations and houses owned by local community leaders perceived to be state allies were also targeted by aggrieved youngsters.

But what is most important in this context is the response of the Bio regime to these events. Many in government have casually described the ongoing youth protests as “riots by lawless youth.” They have even gone as far as ascribing them to “hate messages” allegedly spread on social media by defeated opposition elements. Some ruling party supporters and government spokespeople even claim that the ongoing violence is sponsored by Ernest Koroma and APC opposition politicians. They allege that Koroma and the defeated APC leadership are resisting Maada Bio’s pending Commission of Inquiry White Paper that is expected to exclude key APC politicians from future elections or from holding public office.

But the government has failed to acknowledge what actually precipitated the youth responses witnessed in Lunsar and Tombo. Youths do not begin to protest simply because some former opposition politicians with nothing to offer them (nor significant popularity to speak of) tell them to. No, the recent youth protests are a symptom of a country deeply entrenched in political and economic crisis; a crisis that has reached its apex during a raging disease pandemic, and a crisis that has been punctuated by state violence throughout. Protest events, like these, have been witnessed across many countries on the African continent where citizens – from South Africa, Uganda, Burundi, Nigeria, and Congo – have protested against the hardship of violent lockdown measures.

What those concerned about the ongoing violence in Sierra Leone have failed to consider is the state’s own role in the origin of this chain of violence. They have ignored how at the first sitting of the newly elected parliament in April 2018, riot police stormed parliament and forcibly removed opposition members of parliament who were, by the results of the 2018 elections, the majority in parliament. Having removed the majority opposition party in parliament, ruling party politicians hurriedly, and in a questionable and illegal process, imposed a Speaker of Parliament who was not even from among the elected MPs, but whose political record has been the subject of two judicial processes from the days of Tejan Kabbah and Ernest Bai Koroma.

That forceful imposition of a parliamentary Speaker, the Deputy Speaker, and Clerk was the initial inauguration of state violence orchestrated by ruling officials bent on ensuring that the SLPP, and eventually the Bio regime, will command control of parliamentary processes despite being the minority political party in parliament. Ruling party supporters and their leaders celebrated this parliamentary coup against the popular will of the people. They justified that violent beginning of the Bio regime as a representation of political tactfulness. What they failed to understand was that by that singular action alone, Bio and his new squadron in power had set in motion a violent train whose gushing flames would eventually be fueled by the resistance of the constituents whose representatives were brutalized and humiliated by coercive agents of the executive.

Following that fratricidal and shocking beginning of parliament, ECOWAS (which had played a crucial role in mediating the elections of 2018 that brought Bio to power) dispatched a fact-finding mission to Sierra Leone. SLPP leaders ignored the recommendations of the ECOWAS parliamentary delegation and moved their attack against the opposition majority in parliament by further use of the judiciary to force ten opposition MPs out of parliament. This use of crooked judicial precedents, which run against the primary legislative instruments of the country, were part of ruling party efforts to fully control the three tiers of government – the executive, judiciary, and the legislative arm –  against the popular electoral will of the greater majority of citizens as expressed in the elections of 2018.  These two state-orchestrated violent events are the principal triggers to other state orchestrated violence that escalated across the country over the last two years. Supporters of this state violence – who are mostly ruling party supporters and their new employees – must now recall how nearly a year ago, on May 31, 2019, when dissatisfied opposition supporters who had gathered at their party headquarters to protest the controversial court removal of ten APC MPs were attacked and teargassed by police troops. Images of these violent scenes were relayed by live television broadcasts across Sierra Leone and beyond.

These state sponsored violence and terror did not stop at the gates of parliament and the judiciary. Its extensive arm reached into the electoral terrain as well. Supporters of state violence must also be reminded the way ruling party agents and thugs, under instruction from SLPP leaders, interfered in the August 2019 by-election campaign in Constituency 110. They kidnapped one Ibrahim Conteh at the village of Hamilton, drove him to the home of the SLPP candidate, tied him up and tortured him to near death. The violent scene of this incident, which occurred right in front of SLPP constituency leaders in that area, was also filmed by phone camera showing the agonized victim in pain and blood while pleading with ruling party gangsters for his life.  That notwithstanding, on the very day of polling in that constituency, officials of the ruling SLPP, including a cabinet minister and party thugs, stormed polling centers and destroyed voting materials, forcing a cancellation of the elections. This was done when it became clear that the SLPP was facing electoral defeat in that by-election despite unleashing all its brigades of violence during the campaigns and after arresting and unlawfully detaining opposition party organizers ahead of the polls. That cancelled by-election has not been slated for electoral competition ever since it was annulled nearly a year ago now.  A similar version of electoral violence was equally unleashed in the Tonko Limba local council election in September 2018. Let the SLPP supporters now condemning “youth violence” also recall June 30, 2019, when thugs representing two SLPP factions – of the party chairman Prince Harding and Jimmy Batilo Songa – engaged in a fierce fight in their party office in Bo resulting in the disruption of traffic and the destruction of property. Let them also recall in that same month of June that armed police equally stormed a village in Mile 91 and killed, in cold blood, a local village farmer on the pretext that he was farming marijuana.

No arrests of the known perpetrators in these incidents were carried out because the violence served the political interests of ruling party politicians. Indeed, the irony of the sudden condemnation of violence from the SLPP leadership stems from the fact that the violence committed by the ruling party since Bio assumed power has gone without condemnation from the presidency and the ruling party’s leadership. The result is a growing atmosphere of fear and repression in the country, where the state and SLPP leadership can commit violence with impunity, while simultaneously arresting and brutalizing anyone brave enough to speak out.

Foreign embassies in Sierra Leone and the few remaining voices of democracy in the country have repeatedly spoken out against these rising trends of violence and despotism orchestrated by ruling party officials and their supporters. By all accounts, genuine democratic voices in both civil society and the independent media can no longer raise their voices in the prevailing toxic political environment under Bio because they have become afraid of the overt and covert reprisals that often accompany any form of dissent against the evolving climate of repression in the country.

The truth that needs to be told to the community of civilized nations is that there has been a massive crackdown on civil liberties, especially the right to free expression and the right to political association since Bio assumed power, despite the constitutional guarantees provided by the multi-party constitution of Sierra Leone. Independent journalists, in particular, have come under attack for exercising their right to free expression. These attacks include the case of two female journalists who were beaten by presidential guards at the national sports stadium in Freetown in full glare of leading officials in the government. When news of the incident appeared in the public domain, ruling party officials initially defended the violence of the presidential guards by seeking to label the victimized journalists as “opposition elements”. The state was eventually forced to apologize and pay a paltry compensation to the victims due to concerted pressure from the press union and a cross section of civil society. Several other journalists have experienced similar harassment. A journalist working for the national television was recently dismissed because of a Facebook message he posted that appeared to praise a former minister in the previous government. The list of media harassment includes the recent violent beating of Faya Amara Faya by military forces.

The escalating environment of violent repression of legitimate grievances, the suppression of press freedom, and the violation of electoral processes are what leads to mass protests and social unrest. This is exactly why youths are protesting across towns and villages in the country. The casual and blanket labeling of those a government disagrees with as “unpatriotic,” “terrorists,” and “thugs”, sets a dangerous precedent and has always been used by despotic leaders who are eager to justify further state violence and political repression against opponents in a competitive democracy. Indeed, this rhetoric by SLPP elites follows a dangerous historical pattern that fosters the erosion of democracy and respect for human rights.

All activists, journalists, and genuine pro-democratic voices from all political parties and wider civil society must reject the cynical rhetoric expressed in Maada Bio’s recent speech, which represents nothing short of a state project to criminalize free speech and opposition in a competitive multi-party-political environment. We, as a society, and as freedom loving human beings, must reject all forms of state orchestrated violence, even if it is perpetrated in the interest of our friends and political allies. Silence in the face of the ongoing crackdown on democratic values – the criminalization of right to free speech and the right to political association – risks turning all genuine democratic voice into direct and indirect accomplices in the ongoing consolidation of a hegemonic dictatorship in the name of enforcing the rule of law in Sierra Leone.

Editorial note: This article is part of an ongoing series on rising state violence and authoritarian democracy in Sierra Leone. The next essay will examine question of state violence as it relates to the right to employment and institutional governance under the Bio regime. For more information, read Africanist Press:

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Abu Bakarr Tarawally is a Journalist based in Freetown. He works for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation as a radio producer. He has once served as Editor for a few newspapers in Freetown, including Sierra Express Media, The Exclusive Newspaper and his own newspaper, the Daily Express Publications. He is a teacher trainer, and loves writing and reading a lot. Email: abstarawally@gmail.com. Call +232 88601277 or +2327661303.

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