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Did President Bio & the Opposition Shake Hands with Clenched fists in Sierra Leone?

Did President Bio & the Opposition Shake Hands with Clenched fists in Sierra Leone?

The recent political manoeuvre by President Julius Maada Bio has been hailed and lambasted in varying degrees from different political circles, using different optical prisms for obvious reasons. President Bio has recently concluded a meeting, after inviting all leaders of the opposition parties to State House “ for a consultative meeting, in support of what the State House referred to as the president’s inclusive governance approach to state governance, aimed at strengthening political engagement and collaboration” ( Sierra Leone Telegraph 03/03/19). According to the paper, Maada Bio extended an olive branch to his compatriots. Many will see this as a departure from type, and an increasing number of people will describe it as a “major breakthrough”.  There are those who see it as a laudable move by Bio, and that he has taken his statesmanship to a new level. What makes this move more eye-catching is the political backdrop, against which this is happening. (Photo: Abdulai Mansara, author)

Since Maada Bio came to power last year, he and his government have been accused of everything and anything under the sun. He took power at a time that the country had been at its most divisive state. He made some drastic changes across almost all walks of life, ranging from civil, political, and social to community settings. The changes were so rapid and drastic that his detractors described him as a divisive leader; and that he was the president for only the Mende tribe and the Southern part of the country and not for the whole country.  When he initiated the Commission of Inquiry (COI) as one of his flagship policies, his critics also saw this as a tool to dismantle and render the opposition party politically comatose. The COI was dubbed as a witch hunt, a hoax and a sledgehammer against the APC party. The threats of civil disobedience, chaos and otherwise became an everyday part of our life. It is against this backdrop that many have looked at this epoch making meeting, to fully appreciate it.

Judging by all the brow beating and chest chuffing proclamations that have gone before, you would be forgiven to think that hell had a better chance to freeze, than to see these opposing sides exchanging smiles under one roof. But as we all know, there is no logic in politics. In spite of the fact that many will describe this as a feat of political statesmanship, the cynics have not let up on their criticism. The SLPP is one of the rare ruling political parties in the minority. This means that it will need the support of other parties, and especially the APC to get its widely acclaimed policies and programmes through parliament. Although the government has succeeded in passing some legislation without the need for overt support from the opposition, we cannot ignore the fact these have been met with criticisms from obvious sections of the political divide, as unconstitutional.

So it is not surprising that most cynics see this as a political manoeuvre by President Bio to shake hands with his rivals; hence paving the way to gain support and ease his manifesto policies into fruition. If this is anything to go by, many would still see it as a mark of political brinkmanship and statesmanship. But if the cynics are to be believed, such a move gives credence to the saying that “If you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together”.

It is unfortunate that while many well-meaning Sierra Leoneans will see this as a new horizon on the political landscape of our country, there are those who are already accusing the government of betrayal. With the COI in full flow, the sceptics have poured cold water on this recent development. Some have gone as far as describing the meeting as a deal to get those invited by the COI; the majority of whom are incidentally of the APC persuasion,  to get off lightly. Some might understand such scepticism, because the APC and SLPP have been seen by some as political twins from the same father but different mothers. With the hand of friendship, cooperation and oneness extended to the parties opposite, there are those who wonder whether President Bio can shake hands with clenched fists. You may be tempted to sympathise with such scepticism, but such can only come from those who believe that politics is a blood sport. Those who find this entente cordial as a betrayal could be the same people who see political rivalry as a matter of life and death, served on a platter of hatred and sworn enmity. They forget that good fences make good neighbours.

Rumour has it that some of the people wanted by the Commission of Inquiry are residing and seeking refuge in the Gambia. President Bio has just returned from The Gambia, where he held bilateral talks on mutual cooperation for our countries. But this has not stooped the wagging tongues of his detractors that the President has struck a deal with the alleged fugitives. They refuse to see it as coincidental.  It is little wonder that these same detractors, who see politics as a blood sport, feel that Bio has betrayed the cause to fight corruption. They see the recent meeting with the opposition as a capitulation on the part of the President.

Despite the scepticism and accusations that have been levied against the President, there is a very valuable lesson to be learnt here. For the ordinary man on the street, who have been clamouring for demonstrations and civil disobedience, this latest development shows that we should never allow our politicians to use, abuse and misuse us for their personal gains. To all the Gibril Banguras of this world, who had been calling for civilians to burn down the CID office, this might be a message to highlight the need for us all to work together for our country. It reminds us that in spite of our political differences, allegiances and persuasions, we are all Sierra Leoneans, and belong to one Sierra Leone.

It is worth noting that among other policy statements and programmes, the COI is one of the most defining aspects of the Bio administration. There is no doubt that the majority is in support of the COI. But it is equally worth remembering that the COI was not set up to exert revenge, pay back or settle scores; as touted by the disgruntled.  The COI was set up as a recovery process for alleged stolen or misappropriated state funds. The aim is to recoup funds that were allegedly fraudulently diverted by certain individuals. To all intents and purposes, no one is calling for the death penalty. What the majority of Sierra Leoneans are asking for is “to give back to Caesar what belonged to Caesar”.  President Bio should remember that the eyes of the world are firmly trained on the progress, the process and the eventual outcome of the COI. Without doubt, the outcome of the COI may turn out to be the defining moment of his first tenure of office. Among other policies, the next election would by default, turn out to be a referendum on the COI.

President Bio has successfully launched the Free Quality Education for all. The jury is still out on that one.  Although it is very easy to condemn the sceptics on Bio’s recent meeting with his opposition parties, it could be understandable too, that they may have drawn their doubts from previous COIs. As we all know, previous COIs by past governments have not lived up to their billing. But unlike the previous COIs, the current one has not only been the most controversial, but has for the first time seen a whole political party issuing a mass party political defiance to a ruling party. Irrespective of your political persuasion, many would see such a stance by the APC as an act of party political self-harm with suicidal intent.

Let us assume for discussion sake, that the allegations that the COI is a witch hunt are true. Let us assume again for the sake of argument that the allegation that the COI is a hoax. Let us assume that the allegation that the COI is aimed at decapitating the APC is true. What we cannot assume is that, corruption is rife and real in Sierra Leone. It is a fact that corruption is the biggest driver of poverty in our country. It is also irrefutably true that 99.9% of the population want this cankerworm addressed, tackled and (though nigh impossible) eliminated.  But with members of the APC, and the APC Party kicking and screaming that it will not take part because of some legal gymnastics, has that left the APC open to criticism that it is pro-corruption? Does that leave the APC party open to the accusations that it supports and promotes corruption in the country? Does that give the unenviable tag that the APC is a corrupt party?

There are other guests of honour who have attended the COI. Others have avoided the indignity of such an attendance by making out of court settlements and have reportedly made full or part repayments. So what will people make of those who refuse to attend, guilty? Are members of the APC an endangered species that require protection from UNESCO? Many would want to know, what is so special about those refusing to attend; Guilt? I don’t think so. But that could be the unintended translation.

In addressing the leaders of the opposition parties, President Bio said that “politics is now over, and that it is time for governance”. We have all seen the photo ops showing the handshakes and round table entente cordial. Many of us will be hoping that those hands shakes were not made with clenched fists. And now that Maada Bio has extended the hand of friendship, and called for “an inclusive governance approach to state governance, what would be the excuse this time? If the APC should refuse to participate, I can hear the accusations flying; that “APC den nor wan peace” In politics, the axe should not forget what the tree remembers. Now that our politicians have displayed a manifestation of one country, one people, it is time for the country to show that when the music changes, so must the dance.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter (M. L. King).

Don’t forget to turn the lights out when you leave the room.

Abdulai Mansaray.

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