By Brima Sannoh in Pujehun
Hate speech and tribal politics became major problems in Pujehun and the larger southern region of Sierra Leone during the 2018 general elections.
Neighbours, once living in peace and harmony, suddenly became enemies. People from the minority Limba and Temne ethnic groups were reportedly given notice by their landlords. Many of them were eventually forced to leave the district.
Sierra Leone’s imaginary geopolitical divide means that majority of the people in the southeastern part of the country consider themselves loyalists of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), while those in the northwest consider themselves loyalists of the All People’s Congress (APC).
After two decades in power, the APC lost to the SLPP in the 2018 polls. SLPP supporters, feeling sidelined throughout that period, felt it was payback time.
Abdul Bangura, a dealer in used clothing, was forced to relocate his business to Freetown. He only returned to Pujehun two years later, “after the situation became stable,” he said.
Fellow northerner and petty trader, Santigie Koroma of Gendema Town, who now lives in Pujehun Town, was also forced to leave Gendema during the second round of the presidential elections, when he said hate speech was directed at him by his co-tenants.
In some other parts of region, the worst happened. In Taiama Town, for instance, which is in Kori Chiefdom, Moyamba District, the very day the final presidential result was announced, rogue youths suspected to be members of the SLPP descended on the offices of the APC and set it ablaze. And the house of the party’s District Chairman, Legacy Sankoh, was vandalized and several people of northern origin were asked to leave.
The situation in Pujehun is a microcosm of what obtains in the rest of the country. And it didn’t start in 2018.
The August 10, 2022, deadly protest, memories of which are still fresh in the minds of many Sierra Leoneans, is another example of the volatility of the political situation in the country. Much of the protest occurred in the northwest – Freetown and northern districts.
The year before, security forces in the northern regional city of Makeni clashed with youths over the decision to transfer a standby generator to nearby Lungi, also in the north. The government said the move was meant to provide power for the airport town which had been in blackout for a long time. But some people in Makeni, the de facto headquarters of the APC, read a political motive in it.
In the same year, 2021, angry youths in Tombo, a fishing community in the Western Rural District engaged themselves in burning and vandalising public buildings including health facilities and a police station.
In all of these incidents, the youths were at the forefront.
The Bintumani III Conference was one of many efforts explored by the Bio Administration to bring about peace in Sierra Leone. The government presented the idea as a move to bring healing from the ethnic divide that has played a part in all these violent occurrences. The effort was however met with serious criticism from opposition political parties, some civil society organizations and individuals who felt that it lacked inclusiveness.
Chapter 2, paragraphs 31 and 32 of pages 34 and 35 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) report states that a factor that contributed to the conflict was suppression of political dissent, thus leading to the collapse of peace.
The TRC, in its recommendations, emphasized that freedom of expression should be a life blood of democracy and that a culture of public debate and tolerance of dissenting ideas are signs of a vibrant and healthy democracy.
Page 35 of the same post-war Commission report clearly notes that prior to the start of the conflict, government accountability was non-existent and that democracy and rule of law were dead. The recommendation for this finding was that the state should strive to strengthen democracy and the institutions of accountability, as well as show respect for the independence of the judiciary and parliament and hold free and fair elections as key measures for achieving peace.
Isaac Sundifu Koroma, spokesperson for the Pujehun District Civil Society Forum, said that clearly, all efforts have not paid off.
“What is posing threat to the peace of Pujehun particularly and Sierra Leone generally are the continuous tribalism, hate speech, and politics of tribes. These were the factors of the war. They’re still happening and as a nation we are far from addressing them,” Sundifu said.
On the other hand, Abdulai Jalsil Sillah, Executive Director, Youth in Action for Development (YAD) Sierra Leone, who is also a member of the Pujehun District Human Rights Committee, said the new National Commission for Peace and Cohesion that was established after the Bintumani III Conference should have been very active by now in addressing the problems affecting the country’s peace.
“I agree that the government did well by setting up that commission, but it in fact happened very late and has been very slow in doing the work it’s supposed to do,” said Mr. Sillah.
He stressed that the commission should be empowered by the government with much needed resources to function well, and for the officials in charge to travel to every corner of the country and engage with the people in the various tribal languages they can understand.
According to Sallah, such engagement should be done continuously, especially before the upcoming elections.
For some people though, some of the roots causes of Sierra Leone’s problems are embedded in perceptions. Isata Kallon, a petty trader in Jumbu Malen, for instance, has problem with the idea of political strongholds.
“The idea of referring to certain regions of Sierra Leone as strong holds of political parties is further dividing the country,” she told ManoReporters.
Some other people lay the blame squarely on the door of politicians.
Magdalene Karim of Massahun, the chiefdom headquarters town of Kpaka in Pujehun, is worried about the peace of the country after the recent violent occurrences.
“Politicians are not doing enough to unite the nation and we should be worried about that,” she said.
For Mohamed Lukullay of Yorni Village in the Kpanga Krim Chiefdom, there should be weekly or monthly programmes, wherein the government, especially the President, will interact with the people through discussions. He believes that this will give the people hope and build their confidence and trust in the government.
This report was done as part of a fellowship supported by the Africa Transitional Justice Legacy Fund in collaboration with the Media Coordinating Group.