2021 – Another Annus Horribilis for Democracy and Women

2021!!! What a year! Globally the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked mayhem and disrupted lives across all countries, negatively affecting economic growth in 2020. Even with the gross underreporting, the number of confirmed cases was close to 300,000,000, including 5,411,759 deaths, reported to WHO. Even though significant progress was made with vaccinations, its impact was inflation, disruption of markets, supply chain bottlenecks that will be felt globally for years to come.

In Sierra Leone, although the officially reported cases were comparatively low, the pandemic also negatively impacted medium-term growth prospects and the economy due to disruption in global trade, travel restrictions, and domestic restrictions on mobility. Even as we dealt with the pandemic, it seemed like we had a new tragedy every day. 

Most of the disasters were not natural. They were as a result of weak governance and institutional capacity. The deadly oil tanker explosion at SLPMB junction at Wellington left 148 people dead and many more injured could have been avoided if we had proper systems to warn onlookers and looters of the dangers. The damage would not have been so extensive had the police and fire services responded promptly. The fire tragedy at Susan’s Bay that affected over 7,000 people and gutted over 180 makeshift structures could have been prevented or minimized if it was not so overcrowded, there was proper planning and enforcement of the Freetown Improvement Act and if we had lessons from the last fire disaster at Susan’s Bay. 

The death by suicide of a Korean national following allegations of seizure of his trawlers by officials of the Ministry of Fisheries after allegedly receiving bribes from a Chinese company. The shady and opaque deal with the Chinese over the lease of 252 acres of land at Black Johnson Beach for the setting up of a fish harbour without a proper environmental impact assessment and with little regard for the views of the local community. 

The continued failure by the Judiciary to list cases such as one filed by the Krio Descendant Yunion for hearing. Issues about the independence of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission. The fracas during the emergency sitting of Parliament at the Bintumani Conference Hall in Aberdeen that resulted in the eruption of violence and the intervention of the Police. The gaffe by the Governor of the Central Bank that he used $68 million in bribing businesses and individuals to stabilise the country’s currency and his admission which he later apologized for that “If you have a private sector that people who go to borrow don’t want to pay, when you put their collateral, they go and bribe Judges. The Bank of Sierra Leone never wins a case in this country, you know why because the bank doesn’t bribe.”

The continuous and excessive use of force by the Sierra Leone Police, including the alleged shooting of a resident of Hastings following a land dispute. The release of the damning 2020 audit report. The regular and scandalous revelations by the Africanist Press raised questions about the proper management and accounting of public funds. The timidity of the Anti-Corruption Commission to seriously tackle corruption within the current administration. Tensions over the conduct of bye-elections and, in some cases, allegations of blatant rigging. The controversial interim census. The damning comments from the EU Election Follow-up mission about the significant decrease in trust in the essential bodies – the Judiciary, NEC, PPRC and the police – which play integral roles in the forthcoming elections. All of these incidents would have been prevented if we had in place proper systems and built and strengthened our institutions. 

There were many other incidents. It seems like a wrecking train that overshadowed some of the government’s successes, such as the abolition of the death penalty, repeal of the seditious libel provisions in the Public Order Act, road construction and significant improvements in its flagship free quality education initiative.

It was a terrible year for women. Even after the government adopted Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment policy and submitted a Bill to Parliament to give effect to some aspects of the policy, other government institutions paid little or no regard to these signs of progress. The female Mayor of Freetown regularly complained of sabotage, harassment and attempts to intimidate and sabotage her work primarily by the Central Government. For complaining about the interim census and raising concerns about its constitutionality, Madam Femi Claudius-Cole, Acting Chairperson of the Consortium of Progressive Political Parties (COPPP) and All Peoples Congress (APC) politician Diana Konomanyi and 15 other women were locked up in police cells. 

A video emerged of officers from the Sierra Leone Police maltreating Fatmata Binta Jalloh and four other students of IPAM during a demonstration. The Independent Police Complaint Board (IPCB) found that the officers involved used unwarranted and excessive force and recommended that they be compensated. The lack of justice for little Khadija, who was allegedly raped and murdered, and yet not one has been convicted for the same. The 21-year-old woman found dead in a Bondo bush. The alleged death of a 17-month-old baby while locked up with her mother in a police cell for a minor offence at the Panlap Police Division in Makeni City.

The reputable Lara Taylor-Pearce, Auditor-General, and one of her deputies were unceremoniously suspended and a tribunal set to investigate them on charges that are yet to be disclosed to the public. Dr. Catherine Jackson-Cole, a female medical practitioner, was allegedly assaulted by government officials at the Ministry of Health. The abuse and intimidation of Marcella Samba-Sesay, head of Campaign for Good Governance and Chair of National Election Watch, continued unabated. And there were allegations against the Sierra Leone Football Association regarding sexual harassment, corruption and mismanagement in women’s football. 

These and many other reasons may be why Sierra Leone was amongst the worst performers in the 2021 Rankings Of Women’s Wellbeing in 170 Countries in the Georgetown University’s Institute for Women (GIWPS) and the PRIO Center on Gender, Peace, and Security report. It was 132 out of 156 countries in the CEOWORLD magazine annual ranking of the Best Countries for Women.

Speaking at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2021, President Bio stated that “(W)e no longer wish to be perceived as a nation saddled with the tragedies and failures of the past. We no longer wish to be seen and spoken about as a nation recovering from civil strife to Ebola and from bad governance and economic gridlock to food and climate insecurity. We are a nation striving ever harder to fulfill our enormous potential…Our peaceful democracy has matured…..We continue to remove threats to democratic freedoms and human rights.”

If the President’s words must be converted from mere words to action, there must be wholesale changes across the board. Not just by adopting fancy policies or enacting legislations that will remain in our statute books. They need to be realized and implemented. We cannot continue the backslide in our democracy and our treatment of women. There is hope in the President’s rhetoric. There is hope in the women of Sierra Leone, who are increasingly finding their voices and making sure they are heard. 2022 should be the year that women’s hopes are realized, and our democratic dispensation will end its downward trend.

Basita Michael is founder of SierraEye Magazine.

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