The date was January 19,1995. I was at work at Sierra Rutile when reports reached us that RUF rebels were three miles off at Matagelema, between Sieromco in Mokanji and our plant site. I panicked and ran straight home to collect my kids and other members of my household (my wife was then in Freetown), bundled them in my vehicle and escaped to the coastal villages. What transpired in the ensuing two weeks, moving from village to village in hiding till we finally made it by boat to Bonthe is best left for another “pondering”. Unfortunately, some of my colleagues were ambushed by rebels and died. Some senior employees of both mines were abducted by the rebels and traversed the length and breadth of this country accompanying Foday Sankoh for a whole year before finally being released. The bulk of the senior staff made their way as cargo in mineral product shipment barges to Freetown. Needless to say that material possessions were the last thing anybody thought about-we lost everything. Some Senior and Junior staff could not escape and stayed within the townships with the rebels. Many members of the communities in the various villages and townships-workers and non-workers and their families stayed within these communities at great peril to their lives under rebel occupation.
But how did a mine reputed to have access to a satellite system that constantly tracked rebel movements (a big lie that unfairly embellished the mine’s reputation!) end up being so easily overrun? We had an arrangement with top brass of the military to send a “Rapid Deployment Force” to the mine if there was any imminent trouble. We also had considerable confidence in the Navy at Bonthe. The military contingent we had at that time ran with the rest of us into the bush and became a “Rapid Retreat Force”! Looking back after several decades at what happened, I can only marvel at the security unpreparedness of a group of highly talented people managing a sophisticated mining operation. We had gotten so absorbed in producing and making profits for the operation that security became a secondary issue, even though there were signs all over the country that the war had got more complicated with several groups becoming fifth columnists.
I am compelled to draw parallels with the present situation. Whilst President Bio and his team are talking about the “Big Five” and going about their busy schedules, insecurity has been knocking at our door all the time.
The government has classed the events of November 26 as being associated with an attempted coup. These happenings have been roundly condemned, but as with everything else in a highly politically polarized country, several versions have been peddled, even including one insinuating the events were staged by the government. The Communications Ministry has done a good job of communicating relevant information. The President has also given two reassuring broadcasts to the nation to allay the fears of the populace.
As we await government’s investigations into the issues, one cannot however help but state that Sierra Leone has been in a state of insecurity for quite a while. During the period of the previous government and the current one, there have been several incidences of elections related violence. The bad economy of the country has always created discontent amongst a sizeable percentage of the population and economic difficulties have been felt in rising prices. Basically whilst we may have had military security of sorts, economic security and political security have been problematic. In development circles, the traditional notion of security has now given way to a broader concept of human security that recognises the interconnectedness between security and sustainable development. Security plays a critical role in reducing poverty and addressing human rights in post-conflict and fragile states.
Lans Gberie (current Ambassador to Switzerland) in a 2010 article for the Institute for Security Studies, put this concern into context very well for the Sierra Leone situation when he wrote about the Koroma regime:
“Sierra Leone, of course, has not yet forged an acceptable and sustainable political settlement; it has not been able to devise a broadly acceptable system through which competing political and economic interests are channeled by means of state institutions in a routine, smooth and violent-free manner. In such a situation, competing political factions tend to resort to force or violence to gain primacy; leadership succession becomes almost a life-and-death struggle.”
Stakeholders at the second security sector review (SSR) 2013-2022 held in 2012 gave their views about how they wanted to see Sierra Leone:
“A safe, well secure, politically tolerant, prosperous and corrupt free country with a buoyant economy, well managed resources, capacitating dysfunctional institutions, free and responsible press and the equitable distribution of national wealth. A country where the rule of law prevails with a non-partisan security sector, strict adherence to the principles of democracy and good governance, respect for human rights and employment for the youth population.”
They cited amongst other things concerns about the weaknesses in the capacity in security sector institutions, monitoring and implementation of government policies and political will of government to address some problems and unemployment as serious issues to be tackled.
The situation described by the respected Lans Gberie and stakeholders has changed little over the years.
One is by no means downplaying the attempted coup, which should be roundly condemned. The government’s statements on this matter are reassuring when they state:
“……..our response to the events of November 26 will be measured and determined along ONLY ONE parameter: THE RULE OF LAW. Nothing more, Nothing less.”
The government has also stated categorically that political, tribal and religious matters will not be relevant in these issues and that all those found culpable, no matter their status, shall be held fully to account for their actions within the confines of the law.
Many however have the distinct feeling that whatever may have happened, the effectiveness of our security forces should be called into question as is the use of intelligence and counterintelligence services or the police to protect the nation from internal threats.
Going forward, the government should do all it can to break this vicious cycle of insecurity which seems to happen every so often. The consolidation of peace and stability, promoting poverty reduction, rule of law and good governance are important if we are not to revert into conflict.
It is now more important than ever to keep the current inter party dialogue alive for both major parties to engage constructively, and allow justice, the rule of law, and peace to prevail in the country. It also behooves the government to be resolute, in spite of any distractions to fix our chronic ethno-regional problems, create a level field in the electoral process and seriously address our constitutional issues.
Let me come back to the Sierra Rutile situation. It was the responsibility of the state to provide security for an establishment so vital to our economy. However, there is a lot the mine itself could have done to bolster its own internal security, make proper evacuation plans and improve the relationship with community members, some of whom had deep resentment against the company for various reasons. The concentration on production was laudable just as the government’s concentration on its “Big Five” promises. However just like Sierra Rutile which shut down for years, the government may find investors avoiding us like the plague because of perceived problems with insecurity. Those of us in the private sector have already began seeing signs of this.
I must however congratulate the President and his Minister of Communications for their reassuring statements after the attempted coup. Let the investigations be fair and be based on the rule of law and by all means let perpetrators and their backers be punished. The matter of having pre-conceived notions about who the “enemy’ might be by rabid political supporters must be stoutly resisted as should any witch hunting. Let the chips fall where they may and justice prevail. The loss of innocent lives is regrettable, especially those security personnel who paid the ultimate price for serving their country. May their souls rest in peace.
It behooves the government to seriously consider the wider problem of security. Indeed, the enemy is within with our wider security problems which extend beyond mere military prowess.
Ponder my thoughts.