Pa Baimba Sesay
Wikipedia defines civil society as that arena outside of the family, the state, and the market where people associate to advance common interests. The role of civil society groups in a country’s socio-economic and political growth is as crucial as the need for such groups to always keep to their traditional role of checkmating the excesses of state institutions.
Civil society work in last 57 months
In June 2007, the World Bank’s Africa Region External Affairs Unit (AFREX), in a report, titled “The Civil Society Landscape in Sierra Leone Understanding Context, Motives and Challenges” wrote that “In conflict affected countries, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) – in the absence of a strong Government – play a critical role in providing services to citizens, and at times substitute for public institutions and become primary providers of basic social services.” In Sierra Leone, the important role that civil society groups played in the country’s restoration of democracy, in ensuring an end to the civil war and in the fight against corruption need not be overemphasized.
In recent time, we have also seen how civil society groups have tried to ensure the President Koroma led government move in line with its promises prior to attaining the Presidency. President Koroma knows that in the sustenance of democratic values, the role of civil society groups is very crucial. And so far, what President Ernest Bai Koroma has done in the last 57 months or so is to provide the enabling environment wherein, the work of civil society groups, as well as media institutions could go unhindered. If there is anything positive that media groups or civil society groups would say of the present government, it must be with the enabling environment provided thus far. There has never been a time in the political history of President Koroma that a media practitioner has been arrested, not to talk of any disturbance to the work of civil society activists. This in itself is a positive development in our post war peace building efforts.
The Society for Democratic Initiatives is one among civil society/human rights groups in Sierra Leone .This group has been advocating for a law on access to information for over a decade. It has a vision of wanting to “see a transparent, accountable and right free Sierra Leone. The goal of SDI is also to ensure accountability and transparency in governance, advocating for the promotion and protection of people’s right with emphasis on women and children’s right. SDI operates presently in four districts in the country. (http//www.sfdi-sl.org). The freedom of information advocacy has been one of the principal advocacy drives in Sierra Leone. Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai is Executive Director of SDI. He is not just a legal person by profession, but someone that has dedicated most of his time and energy in human right advocacy work in Sierra Leone. He is one of several youths contributing to Sierra Leone’s sustenance of democratic values. From a very humble beginning, his contributions have been great and outstanding.
Given his role in Sierra Leone, especially in his advocacy for a law guaranteeing a law on access to information, I found time to exchange emails with Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai Esq., on a range of national issues, including his views on government’s commitment for a law on FOI, the human right record of Sierra Leone since President Koroma came to power, the aspect of decentralization in terms of progress made and whether he thinks the government has been of success since 2007.
Media/FOI/human right issues:
The advocacy for a law on access to information has been on for over a decade in Sierra Leone. The government of President Ernest Bai Koroma came in, in 2007 with the string determination of enacting a law on access to information. In 2009, a draft of the FOI bill was presented to His Excellency by a coalition of civil society groups on FOI, with SDI taking leadership at the time. At the said ceremony, the President made clear his commitment to enacting the law and since then the Minister of Information has also been playing a crucial role in getting the bill enacted. We have witnessed where the bill was even presented to Parliament for ratification. Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai thinks, there has not been the political will to pass the FOI law. For him “State House does not want the laws pass, but does not want to be seen opposing it. So it goes through the back door talking to MPs not to pass the law….” However, it may not appear as presented by him, since in Sierra Leone, there has always been the observance of separation of powers, with the Executive arm of government allowing the law making body to work separately.
And besides, the fact that the government, through the Ministry of Information and Communication has been pushing for such a law is indicative of the very political will that is needed. And it only would mean we need to keep talking to those representing our interests in our House of Parliament for its ratifications.
In fact even with government’s effort, there has also been the involvement of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists in the drive towards a law on freedom of information. Abdulai Esq. makes the point, that “SLAJ is a media umbrella organization that is doing FOI at its own platform. As an independent organization it has the right to decide who to work with or not. But the end goal is, there are many organizations working on the issues and so it’s a national campaign. The FOI campaign led by SDI under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Coalition has been doing this for ten years. The entirety of the success- drafting bill, making FOI an issue as it is now et al- belong to those young men and woman who have for a decade campaigned for the passage of the bill. I have listened to people say FOI is SDI and or SLAJ, this is ridiculous, at some point, someone has to lead a campaign or an agenda to change things. So if these two institutions are providing such leadership, so let’s stop complaining.”
President Koroma’s human right record has always come under the spotlight, especially so when there has never been a political prisoner under his regime or the imprisonment of media practitioner. According to the President himself, “A culture of rights is taking hold, there are no political prisoners, no journalist has been incarcerated, no person has been executed under my government, and we are promoting the social rights of vulnerable women and children through the Free Health Care Initiative,”(www.expotimesonline.net/index). This is another huge success of his government. On that, Saffa Abdulai Esq. agrees there “has greatly improved and I think we are on the right track. The challenges that we have are part of the democracy evolution. However, we have to pay particular attention to the Sierra Leone Police…” He holds the view; the media should be watched based, based on the given political trend in the country at the moment.
Governance and politics
Another area that President Koroma will be proud of having made great impact is in the area of tackling graft. When he assumed office in 2007, he ensured, in 2008, that the anti-graft commission got the needed independence. An independent anti corruption body will be successful in its work. And true to his words, the ACC was allowed with prosecutorial powers by President Koroma, first in the political history of Sierra Leone. Although Sierra Leone is yet to get a law on Freedom of Information, “without which fighting corruption will be difficult”, Abdulai Esq. however thinks the Anti-corruption Commission is doing its best, but there is need for much more improvement in terms of deliverability. “There is huge amount of prosecution going on the country and am glad that things are happening. WE need to focus now more on public contracts and procurements…”
But what about the decentralization process in Sierra Leone? By 2004, the local government system was reintroduced by the Sierra Leone Government with a view of ensuring participatory governance and service delivery at the local level. So far, there has been much progress since the councils were introduced in 2004. For Abdulai Esq. “a lot of work has been done on local government. The Local government Act 2004 is an example of a major law that under pins transparency and accountability and devolution of powers. That law needs to be implemented logically to have it desired effect. Also, I believe that central government must support the decentralization and devolution process by devolving state institutions and ensuring that subsidies are paid to local councils on time. It is really important for governance to be taken down to the people of Sierra Leone at their local level. There are huge challenges like corruption and normal bureaucratic issues at the local government, but these things will pass, I believe. Institutions and practices will mature and a good system will work.”
There was a political question: whether he is impressed with the overall performance of President Ernest Koroma. He is impressed with many things of this government, “but similarly unimpressed and saddened that an opportunity will be missed…” He started by looking at infrastructural development. ‘Infrastructural development has been a major goal and success. The roads are better, buses are everywhere and I remember calling the Deputy Minister on the buses plying every rout. I am impressed with the country opening up for investment and mining companies mining, but I think a lot needs to be done for us to realize these investments…” Saffa Abdulai Esq. is “also a bit impressed with electricity for the city… It is good to get electricity every day if not every other day. It encourages investment and productivity. Let’s improve on this at a low cost.”
Challenges within four years
Despite the good grades given by Saffa Abdulai, he thinks there are still challenges. He spoke of those in the mining sector, those in governance, and the issue of media and hate speech. Though we have got an upsurge in mining companies investment in the country, he thinks, more attention should be paid to this sector, because, “this country will attract many companies to come here because we have the resources” and suggest we look at the issue of tax holidays given to mining companies. He thinks the country has been polarized and there is need to tackle this problem as well as the challenge of “politics of tribe…and it is a recipe for chaos.” Well, I hope some politicians wanting to fain power by preaching tribal hate will learn from this.
He also thinks the FOI issue should be given attention by government. He talks about the centralization of state power to one region of the county, to which I totally have a different view. A completely differ3nt one as a matter of fact, given the level at which President Koroma has tried to bring Sierra Leoneans together. There has been the involvement of all shades of tribe in Sierra Leone’s governance process, with government Ministers appointed from all regions by President Koroma.
From the above, I am left with the impression, that he appreciates the efforts that this government of Ernest Bai Koroma has been making since he was elected in 2007; though with some areas he thinks attention should be paid. The challenges the country faces like the aspect of it having been polarized has a multifaceted dimension. This is not new and we should even come to appreciate President Koroma’s effort in addressing that. Today a Mendeman, or Loko, Temne and Krio is just as part of government as is with another other tribe in the country. This is a national problem that demands the collective improvement of each and everyone. President Kabba (d) succeeded in the establishment of institutional reforms but when critically viewed in terms of his effort to bringing people together, he was lacking in some way-his cabinet had all but one tribe was missing. This was a challenge for him. But name me any major tribe today that is not part of the governance process in the country.
The need for the media to remain central to its traditional role, as he pointed out is well in placed. But I am also of the view; there has been great improvement in terms of practice and content in present day journalism. Notwithstanding the numerous successes that President Koroma has scored in five years, he knows there are still a number of challenges we need to overcome. And certainly, we ware sure of overcoming them with time. And this is why we have decided to keep asking that we give him another five years of governance.