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Death of a Watchdog: The Sad Passing of Richie Olu Awoonor-Gordon

Death of a Watchdog: The Sad Passing of Richie Olu Awoonor-Gordon

“The Bridge on the River Kwai”, is one of my favorite movies of all times.  Not because of its Academy Award winning beautiful pictures – that is part of the calculus of course – but precisely because it touches on what Rev. John Maxwell calls, ”the significance question of life”.  At the completion of the bridge towards the end of the movie, Colonel Nicholson the lead actor, reflects on his twenty-eight years of military service, and concluding it was good went on to make the following soliloquy:

“…. but there are times when suddenly you realize you are nearer the end than the beginning.  You wonder and ask yourself what the sum total of your life represents, what difference your being there at any time made to anything, or if it made any difference at all really?”  (Photo: the late Richie Olu Awoonor Gordon)

When the sad news of brother Olu’s passing first struck me, my mind swung back to those words of Colonel Nicholson as I struggled to collect myself to absorb the full impact of the blow.  At the same time however, I took a pause to reflect upon the life and legacy of this legendary watchdog of government, human rights and democracy.

The two major ant-theses to development in Sierra Leone since independence are CORRUPTION and MISGOVERNANCE. Every other problem in my humble, albeit debatable opinion, could be symptomatic.  Yet I know no one single individual in our generation to have devoted his or her life to placing these issues on the front burner so selflessly, so courageously, so consistently, and perhaps so tenaciously as did Olu Gordon.

Our paths first crossed a couple years after he was tossed out of Fourah Bay College campus together with some like- minded colleagues and students – in an oppressive authoritarian setting the powers -that -be don’t usually tolerate such ‘subversive’ minds to linger around campus for too long.  In that first encounter, Olu came across as very engaging and passionate, with a tenacious grip on a set of fundamental convictions.  These convictions were deeply rooted in realistic conceptions of history, human nature and power – against the backdrop of a knowledgeable understanding of how the world works, how it ought to work and should work.  We had an instant liking for each other and remained friends to the very end.  My ears still tingle with his words of our last conversation over the phone a few years ago while he was on a conference in Chicago – the topic of conversation – a free and democratic Sierra Leone with opportunity for all.  It was the same thing we discussed when we first met.  As a matter of fact it was the staple theme of our conversation for all those years any time we engaged each other.

With the hiatus of a brilliant and promising faculty career, Olu – as usual with his kind of disposition – retreated into the murky world of the Fourth Estate, to let his pen make his case by penetrating the dark dungeons of government with the singular objective of making power more accountable, more responsible and more responsive to the needs of the common man.  In a regimented political stratosphere of one-party Sierra Leone, it was a world fraught with dangers and enormous personal risks.  Essentially, journalists and activists who ventured to raise their heads above the parapet to question the activities of authorities were toiling in a monumental gamble with their lives –they were daringly swimming with the sharks.   Chances were one could be eaten alive with rabid ferocity.  Yet it was during those heydays of one-party misrule that my admiration and respect for brother Olu peaked.  After “graduating” and “re- graduating” from Pademba Road prisons, he became “embalmed” and inured to arrests and harassments, and never looked back.   In my mind it was then that he received his true personal calling, and his credentials as a watchdog of government and society came to a full throttle.

“Organize, organize, get organized, you must organize yourselves first”.  After some years those words may have faded into our subconscious by now, like a distant dream.  But those of us, who listened to Olu at panel discussions and seminars, conferences and activist forums, or even private conversations at times, could well remember his frequent use of them in our struggle for a multi-party political dispensation in Sierra Leone.  They didn’t make much sense to my amateurish brain by then.  But I know for sure they formed the central tenets of Olu’s liberation philosophy for the oppressed masses.   Like the Brazilian philosopher and educator Paulo Freire, whose seminar book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed”, led to his arrest and subsequent banishment from his homeland, Olu also believed that when the oppressed organize themselves they get to understand their situation better, through critical dialogue and exchange of information.  The end result is to take concrete action, overthrow the ‘culture of silence’, and reclaim their humanity through self-affirmation.  It is exactly the same theory the oppressed in North Africa and the Middle East are working with – after all those years- through the help of the digital social media.  And I always remember Olu each time I follow up on those revolutions.

But the question anyone would like to ask is – how in the midst of unimaginably overwhelming odds, amidst  external  pressures and internal forces, was Olu able to maintain his balance in his fight against different regimes in Sierra Leone – without surrendering his integrity? Simple!  Olu lived by a collection of beliefs that constituted a clear personal philosophy that guided his life against unprincipled conformity.  The two most important questions that lead to the formation of an enhanced personal vision in life are –  HUMANISTIC – how can I best achieve my human potential, and –  EXISTENTIAL – what is the meaning of life. But there were other conceptual tools in the bag of Olu’s distinctive personality – for afterwards he was a man of multiple intelligences.   Like most great students of history he was a critical thinker, always analyzing complex policy and social phenomena in the light of past experiences in order to size up future prospects and challenges.   Indeed the Einsteinic goofy hair which all turned grey so rapidly, was the result of the heavy intellectual lifting to which the brain was constantly and rigorously subjected.   Olu’s actions were also motivated by moralistic questions – what is the right thing to do, in spite of dangers and personal consequences? I am sure these moral principles were borne out of empathy – that fellow–feeling of compassion and kindness which Olu developed from the extraordinary and ubiquitous poverty and suffering he witnessed from his fellow Sierra Leoneans. The Peep Magazine, his final brainchild, is an embodiment of satirical humor and creativity.  Here, serious matters were brought to national consciousness in an entertainingly funny way. But in all seriousness, Peep was a watchdog, a whistle blower, and a social reminder that whatever takes place in the dark dungeons of government , in business, in society, that harms the public good must be brought to light. Wow! What an irreplaceable loss for our country and for the goodness of man!

To write history while at the same time acting it – albeit inadvertently – is a graceful combination of privileges that Nature blesses but a few men and women on this earth.  Olu was one of those few.  The struggle for the ultimate freedom and liberation of Sierra Leone was Olu’s existential gravitas.  He lived it daily, breathed it, talked it, wrote it, even laughed it off with satirical humor, if only to make it more bearable and attention gripping.

The movie has come to an end.  But perhaps unlike Colonel Nicholson Olu did not have time to reflect on or worry over the meaning of his fifty –three years of existence as he approached the finish line. He probably crossed that threshold long ago. It is up to us now to appreciate and reflect on his life, while examining ours against what to do with what he has left us. To all of us who were privileged to be close to him – family, friends, and his numerous acquaintances in Salone and around the world – my sincere condolences. Let me remind you however, that while we live with a void in our hearts, we must be proud of the life he lived. For brother Olu lived a life of purpose and meaning.  He was a formidable watchdog who was always there to sneak and peep upon the powers- that- be to ensure that public interest is adequately defended and protected.  He showed up and was willing to pay any price, to ensure that government becomes a force for the common good. 

 Long after Sierra Leone’s democracy triumphantly arrives at the cool water’s edge – long after we are gone – Olu Gordon for what he did and the stuff he wrote, will wear the crown of victory as one of those who were in the front lines of that history – a writer of history who was simultaneously a history maker! Thanks for showing up brother, and rest in peace!

By Joseph Cabineh Howard

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