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Sierra Leone Conference – a date with our destiny

Sierra Leone Conference – a date with our destiny

Many a time, we have left our destiny to be determined by a very few people. Almost always, these are men. Often, they are the elites in society. Most often than not, they are the educated few and sometimes, our destiny is entrusted squarely in the hands of politicians. We allow them to think and make decisions for us without consultations and where they do, it is just to get us to concur and support to what they think is good enough for us.  (Photo: Osman Benk Sankoh, author)

Have we always had time to question them to see if the decisions they take or make on our behalf are for better or worse for us? Have we ever thought of mechanisms to hold them accountable if their thinking is not in tandem with what they imagined us, the vast majority think or want?  As a nation, this is not peculiar to us. We have seen it all and Conferences to determine our destiny as a nation have been held since 1960, before the attainment of Independence.

The first in a series of these Conferences stemmed from the very first one the late Siaka P Stevens stormed out of Lancaster House in England where he, together with Sir Milton Margai and a host of others had gone to discuss the granting of our Independence from the Brits.  Next, came in the Bintumani 1 and 2 conferences when our womenfolk took only their brooms and their voices and vowed not to rest until the military guys in 1996 returned the country to democratic civilian rule. Where were the men, you may want to ask? Under their beds while the women were peacefully confronting men with guns. Of course, during the period of instability several peace Accords where held in Abidjan and Yamoussoukro (Ivory Coast). There was also the Truth and Reconciliation Commission among others and now, another Conference is being planned.

For all of these, doubts have always existed. Cynicism and skepticism like shadows; have always reared their ugly traces just at the time when you don’t want to be associated with them. But that has not stopped man from thinking big and having great ideas.

In the United States of America for example, when on May 25, 1961, the late President John F Kennedy announced before a joint session of Congress of his ambitious desire to land an American safely to the Moon before the end of the decade, the doubting Thomases went over-drive . This transformative idea was tattered into shreds. The cynics say it was not possible.  Kennedy’s vision was thought to be a dream only. For them, the possibility does not exist and the President was only doing words, just words and empty words.

However, barely a decade later, on July 20, 1969, the impossible became possible. An American, Neil Armstrong steeped onto the Moon’s surface and said, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Today, Kennedy may have died long ago but it is his same position decades ago that Sierra Leonean born Herbert M’cleod finds himself. In his somewhat  not too physically  giant-sized  structure lies  the heavy burden of organizing a conference that will review, “ the whole spectrum of our development as a nation since Independence and determining where we want to be in the next 25-50  years and how best to get there without the pitfalls of the past.”

This enormous task has been given to the former UN man by no less a person but the current President of Sierra Leone, Ernest Bai Koroma who, on the eve of the country’s 50th anniversary in April this year suggested that it was time for us to rethink fifty years back, take stock of the past and chart a new direction.

This is definitely not a small undertaking and I am sure that M’cleod who is the Coordinator for the Secretariat that has been asked to plan for what has been dubbed as ‘The Sierra Leone Conference on Development and Transformation’ knows very well the enormity of the task at hand.

Unashamedly, Sierra Leoneans, most Sierra Leoneans don’t ‘think big’. Most often than not, we are all too well comforted and at ease with the small things. When former President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah promised that by the time he leaves office in 2007, no Sierra Leonean would go to bed on hungry stomach, instead of helping him for us to achieve food security for this country; we jumped at him like a hungry baboon looking for a banana to savor its hunger. We folded our hands, threw our machetes and hoes away and instead, we banked on the false hope that Kabbah was going to put food into our mouths until we grew swollen stomachs. In the end, hunger continues to hang over our shoulders like a cloak and the former President’s vision became untenable.

But as I always ask myself; “can the fear of drowning stop us from swimming?”  What is wrong to think transformative? Do we as a nation continue to sit back and allow ourselves to be consumed by the mistakes of the past? If your answer is yes, definitely mine and I am certain that the vast percentage of the population of this country will answer in the contrary.

As M’cleod and his team from the Secretariat prepare to embark on this long journey of drawing a roadmap for Sierra Leone’s development for the next 25-50 years, several questions have been raised in many quarters. They stem from the legitimate to the downright laughable.  People have asked why now?  Why the need for another Conference?  The opposition, Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), though they are members, just like all other registered political parties of the Steering Committee; have washed their hands off the conference and vowed not to  be involved in  the process.  In some corners , others have touted that the Conference was simply to rubber stamp an APC  manifesto and prepare the way for  a third term bid for President Koroma .

The question though I think we should redirect to ourselves is: what is wrong with now?  At a recent outreach to freshmen at Fourah Bay College campus, a colleague of mine Ismael Koroma, selling the conference to the students at the Amphitheatre said, “We have boarded the Zion train and unless and until we land successfully, our hearts shall not be at rest.”  Simply put, if we don’t prepare for emerging issues such as  the looming oil boom and bio – fuel; then we would have only succeeded in falling prey to the same mistakes previous generations made when they failed to plan for the emergence of diamonds in Kono in the mid 1930s (IK calls this, the Kono disease).

The Conference which is now slated for mid January next year will look at major themes: Governance (Political & Economic), Managing Natural Resources, Social Service Delivery, Private Sector and Infrastructural and the Role of the Diaspora).  The methodology includes; meeting with specialized groups, holding Focus group discussions throughout the country, calling for papers from academics, asking Senior Secondary school students to write an essay of not more than 500 words on:  “What Sierra Leone they would like to see in the next 25 years”.  Phone–in and text messages during live TV and radio programs, the use of the social networks and regional Town Hall meetings are also being planned.

It is also important to note that previous documents like Vision 2025, the TRC and even Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) and the Agenda for Change are being captured. It is the hope that the conference “will provide a comprehensive road map that will inspire successive generations of Sierra Leoneans towards building a peaceful and prosperous country.”

Yes, one may say conferences have been held before but I am not sure there has ever been a development conference in this country. I am also not sure consultations have been held exhaustively with the people, the grassroots that matter the most, before decisions are made on their behalf but this time, it is happening. The Conference next year is just an event out of an entire process that has already started.

There is so much to be done and I am not sure Sierra Leoneans can afford the luxury of waiting any longer.  They know what they want.  No one needs to spoon the market women to say they want modern day malls like the ones in Lagos orAccra. No one needs to tell the fishmongers in Tombo about getting proper storage facilities for their catch. The Okada riders in Bo know too well that factories to manufacture our raw materials are constructed here so as to provide job opportunities for us and so on and so forth.

What M’cleod probably needs to help them now is: how?  But I am not sure they even want to leave that to him and him alone. This is so many tasks – getting Sierra Leone to become a middle income economy in the next 25 years is no mean task but if we believe in ourselves and work as a nation, it can be achieved.

For James Jonah during the first Bintumani Conference, he probably worked the magic by singing,” have faith in God; have faith in God, wonderful things will happen to you if you have faith in God.” I am sure M’cleod may want to start practicing that song now. Or does he have something different but equally inspiring? Wake up great people of the Lion Mountain and embrace the Sierra Leone Conference now. This is your magic moment and our date with destiny!

by Osman Benk Sankoh

Osman Benk Sankoh is the Community Outreach/Media Analyst of Sierra Leone Conference on Development and Transformation 

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