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Healing the Political Divide in Sierra Leone: The Role of the Media

Healing the Political Divide in Sierra Leone: The Role of the Media

A Paper presented at the 19th Biennial Conference of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists, 12 April 2013, By Dr Ibrahim Abdullah

I guess we have to agree that there is a political divide in Sierra Leone for there to be any discussion on the subject. We also have to agree that the divide is not in the best interest of the nation so that we can collectively begin to talk about healing. If we accept that there is a political divide the next question becomes: what constitutes that divide—political or otherwise?

The Media. In societies such as ours, where the bulk of our compatriots are unlettered—those whom the IFIs have tagged the less than a dollar a day generation—we should not be talking about roles. I want to humbly suggest that we talk about the responsibility(ies) of the media to the society rather than the role of the media! Framing it this way makes it compulsory for the media to own up to such responsibility(ies). Even so, we have to bear in mind that the media in any society serves particular interests and is never neutral/ objective. What responsibilities should the media have in a backward society such as ours and whose interest should it serve?

I will first of all address the question of political divide by raising four related issues. I will then move on to the responsibility(ies) of the media and examine the extent to which it can respond to the demands of healing the political divide.

Let me start on a cautious note: Political divisions, real or imagine, are not unique or peculiar to any polity. By its very nature, the practice of politics, is divisive. This is so in so-called advanced democracy; it is equally true of underdeveloped societies. What should, arguably concern us if we are interested in healing, is the extent to which such divisions become a permanent feature of the body politic; of society; and of everyday life. Heightened political divisions usually crop up during election periods; in fact such divisions become salient amidst fierce and not so fierce competition for power; and they define the battle lines and shape the discourse or lack of discourse on politics. Yet these heightened context-specific divisions should be expected: tensions are high during electioneering and people tend to go over-board!

Question: Do we have a situation in contemporary Sierra Leone that approximate a political divide that demands healing? When I received the call from the SLAJ President  inviting me, and subsequently the electronic invite, I assumed that the reference to the political divide is the division between Red and Green; between Peoples Party and Peoples Congress; between the so-called North/now North-West and the so-called South-East; the regionalization and ethnicization of politics and spoil system of political reward; in short the contest for power between the two historically hegemonic blocs that have governed a seemingly divided Sierra Leone in a musical chair-like politico-drama since 1961.

If this is indeed the divide, then it stands to reason that it should be interrogated if we are to come to grips with the substance of that division that is seemingly threatening to tear the fabric of state and society apart. How do we explain this divide that the nation has been stuck with throughout its post-independence history?

Observation One: Historicizing the State

Regionalism and ethnicity are not peculiar to Sierra Leone; they shape and animate African politics all over the continent precisely because of the way and manner in which the colonial state was constituted and by implication the state we inherited at independence. In Africa colonialism invented ethnic groups or ‘tribes’; privileged certain groups while marginalizing others; and made citizenship a collective entity by dint of belonging to a ‘tribe’ with a ‘tribal’ homeland. These were then pitted against each other to compete for power.

In Sierra Leone it started with the Crown Colony state of 1808 vs. the Rest; then the bifurcated Colonial State after 1898: dividing Sierra Leone into a civic (Creole) and ethnic sphere(provincial). This divisions shaped resistance to colonial domination:  a ‘provincial’ counter-elite vs. a colony-based elite. These fault lines began to crack on the eve of independence when a splinter group within the ‘provincial’ counter-elite broke away to form the People’s Congress as an opposition to the Peoples Party. This split constitutes the genesis of the political divide between so-called Northerners (Temne et al.) and Southerners (Mende et al). It is still being reproduced in bizarre way in our everyday lives; and arguably the fundamental basis of the political divide that is the subject of discussion here. The intense competition between these two political machines and the inclusivity vs exclusivity that it generates undermines citizenship as enshrined in the constitution: it skirts individual right and creates the basis for insurgent citizenship!

Observation Two: Ethno-Elitism

The second observation I want to make is that at the centre of this drama about power and who should ‘eat’ are the elites in our society. Elite competition is masked by crass ethnicity and regionalism; this seems to give it life support to make outrageous claims: we are the true representative of our people! on which it is anchored. Historically, Peoples Party was constituted as a coalition of chiefs and the educated elite from the so-called Protectorate to contest Creole hegemony; while People’s Congress started out as an alliance of a section of the labouring population and lower middle class elements from Freetown and the North to wrestle power from Peoples Party. How do we explain the dominance of elite interests in the formation of these two political machines? How do we account for the shift in the support base of Peoples Party? Did People’s Congress deliberately targeted the North and Freetown to make its presence felt? To answer these questions we have to turn to the dynamics of patronage politics and the emergence of a ‘northern’ counter-elite in the post-independence period. The dominance of elite interest remains intriguing: is the so-called political divide real or imagined? That is to say does it actually translate to a real national issue? Could it be that we are misreading the nation for an intra-elite struggle that periodically pops up whenever one power bloc in out in the cold and therefore deprive of access to state resources?

Third Observation: Winner Takes All Presidential System

Could it be that the political divide that we are talking about is actually a livelihood question that makes it possible for those in power to exclude those they consider enemies because they do not belong to the same political party?  If this is the case, on what basis can one justify such action? Why exclude the minority when democracy is about protecting the rights of the minority? Why exclude and discriminate against a particular group because they espouse ideas that are not in sync with the dominant tendency? Are there any constitutional grounds on which one can justify such actions? These are real issues that are best discussed within the framework of the winner all mentality of the presidential system. To exclude qualified citizens on the basis of their political affiliation is not only unconstitutional, it arguably takes us back to where we do not want to go: civil war and state collapse. If the political divide we are talking about is anchored on such abhorrent practices, then the press, I would argue, has its job cut for it. A responsible press together with civil society should mount a sustained campaign against such undemocratic and unconstitutional practices.

Observation Four: The State As a Source of Accumulation

The last point I want to make with reference to the issue of political divide is the centrality of the state in our body politic. This point is related to the first observation about the historicity of the state and its how it was constituted. The state in most African country remains the largest employer of labour. But its role and function in the economic sphere goes far beyond the provision of employment: it is a source of accumulation for corrupt politicians; an avenue for inflated contract and shady deals for the business community; the conveyor of development resources and donor funding; and the provider of largesse to cronies and the anointed. To fall foul of those in power in any African country is literally to announce your economic/financial obituary. Is it possible then, that cries about marginalization which constitutes the hallmark of those who have lost out is actually a cry of lack of access to the resources of the state? Is the political divide we have been interrogating a coded word for those who have been pushed out  from the queue of those who have lined up to ‘eat,’ to ‘chop’ state money with impunity?

These are legitimate questions to pose in a context where politics has become a nasty game of ‘eating’ and a contest between ethnicities and regions about whose turn it is to eat and for how long.

If these observations constitute the main drivers that are animating the seemingly contentious issue of the political divide—now the sing-song of the opposition—then we are on familiar grounds: there is nothing particularly new about what is currently unfolding. If truth be told politics in Sierra Leone, nay in Africa, has always been conducted in this winner take all manner.  The question that should interest us here is: How do we change it? How do we begin to reimagine an alternative? And this is where the press comes in.

The Press

To arrogate a role/responsibility to the press is to assume that the press is capable of playing that role/carrying out that responsibility. If the political divide is characterized by intra-elite wrangling, ethno-elitism, and crass regionalism, is the press in Sierra Leone free of such markers?  Are the press women and men not Sierra Leoneans like the political class? Are they not members of political parties? And do they not belong to ethnicities?

What the nation is asking the press to do—both electronic and print—is to stand above ethnic and regional interest; to become professional; to refrain from accepting brown/white envelops; and to think Sierra Leone in carrying out their professional duty. In a context where majority of the media are one-person business out to make profit; where jobs are hard to come-by for educated graduates; where individuals need to supplement their meager income with extra cash; asking media practitioners to embrace an abstract notion of national interest in defending democracy is not asking for too much. This, I would argue, is absolutely doable!

But to inaugurate a healing process championed by the media it is absolutely necessary for the media to examine/reexamine its modus operandi. The language of the media—both electronic and print—implicates them in the very political divide that we are talking about. The media reports almost about everything using the very language of the political divide: the North-West; the South-East; Northern Sierra Leone; Southern Sierra Leone; Mende; Temne et al. The use of  these racist and backward representation feeds the political divide in question and reproduces the very image of exclusivity and inclusivity that underguards such political imaginary. Two example centred on language will suffice.

Since its inception Capital Radio has consistently presented the country in backward political terms: Makeni is in Northern Sierra Leone; Bo is in Southern Sierra Leone; Kailahun is in Eastern Sierra Leone; and Freetown is dubbed Western Sierra Leone. These seemingly geographical marker are not about geography; they are about politics for it evokes a political identity that allows the user to situate the individual with reference to the political divide.  A so-called Northerner is assumed to be RED; a so-called Southern is presumed to be GREEN! Geography was NEVER  a marker of political identity until Capital Radio came on board. I find it very distasteful and offensive. Once you are located in Freetown, Makeni or Bo, the next thing is your ethnicity; and then your political affiliation. As far I know no one in the media has protested against this ugly practice because the very media uses these markers of political identity to inform their reporting.

The print media constantly uses the racist word ‘tribe’ to refer to Sierra Leonean nationals. You cannot be a Sierra Leonean; you have to belong to a  backward entity called ‘tribe’: you have to be Temne; Loko; Limba; Mende; Kono et al. Once your so-called ‘tribe’ or region is identified it becomes safe to assume that you are RED or GREEN. So the political divide that the media is called upon to heal is being marketed by the very media summoned to do the healing. This is indeed a classic case of ‘physician heal thyself’!

I want to suggest that the Herculean task of healing the nation which the media has to undertake can be summed up in just two words: DEMOCRATIZE POLITICS! The media has to struggle to democratize politics; to expand the democratic space and to spearhead the move from elite-based ethnic politics to a people/mass-based issue politics. This would involve a sustained alliance with civil society to engage in activities that would undermine the very basis of divisive politics. Claims by politicians that they represent this or that community has to be challenged and verified; allegations centred on exclusion should be investigated and publicized; the present winner takes all presidential system needs to be reviewed in the light of claims about exclusion. The media should specifically address the following issues:

  • Spearhead a popular review of the current constitution
  • Explore alternative models of democratic governance and decentralization
  • Appointments to public offices must straddle party and regional divide
  • Judges should be elected on the basis of qualifications not appointed
  • A national code on integrity should inform all public appointments
  • A special provision specifying regional spread must be included in the electoral code to ensure that the president-elect has sizeable support in every region
  • The Presidents’ role should be minimal in the appointment of officials to the following Commissions: Judicial Service Commission, INEC, Public Service Commission

The above intervention—which is strictly speaking constitutional—may or may not bring about the healing that the political divide demands. Yet it point to a direction where we might began the healing process to tackle the debilitating consequences of a real/ imagine political divide.

By Dr Ibrahim Abdullah, Department of History and African Studies, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone

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