Sulakshana Gupta is a journalist currently based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She manages media development projects for the BBC World Service Trust focusing on governance and human rights and in her spare time travels around the world. The opinions expressed in this blog are her own and do not reflect the views of her employer.

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Sulakshana Gupta is a journalist currently based in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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The rising price of life

Bus in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Photo by Annabel Symington under a CC Licence

Last week the price of fuel went up almost 30 per cent in Sierra Leone. Over the past year and a half the government has tried to phase out subsidies on fuel, causing prices to rise steadily. But this is the sharpest jump yet and is bound to significantly impact people’s lives.

What’s amazing is that there are no protests or riots on the streets. People seem to have resigned themselves quietly to the price increase. Many still haven’t realized that the price has gone up because the unit of sale has also just changed, from gallon to litre. Unfortunately, it’s about time the price went up. The government of Sierra Leone has been subsidizing petrol, diesel and kerosene for years and simply can’t afford to do it anymore.

This increase is going to have a knock-on effect on the cost of living in Sierra Leone. Everything from transportation to the price of basic foods is going to go up at a time when people are already struggling to make ends meet. Almost two weeks before the prices rose, there were sudden and acute shortages in the country. Unconfirmed reports that gas companies were hoarding to create an artificial demand started to flood in. Meanwhile, government spokespeople swore they had nothing to do with the crisis.

The city of Freetown descended into transport chaos with long 10-car queues at all gas stations. A fuel hierarchy emerged where the well-connected could get a full tank while the ordinary taxi driver couldn’t.

Perhaps Sierra Leoneans should draw inspiration from Uganda, where fuel prices recently rose by about 25 per cent. Opposition leader Kizza Besigye organized a walk to work campaign, calling on people to protest against the sharp rise. While the protests themselves have attracted a massive government clampdown, the idea itself was workable. Without any popular protest in Sierra Leone, the situation will completely slip under the radar of the international community.

Despite its grizzly post-conflict image in the international media, Sierra Leoneans are a peaceful people and protesting isn’t really part of the culture. Basic service delivery is one of the poorest in the world, yet levels of public patience are surprisingly high.

It’s now been a week since the price hikes and still, all’s quiet. Now, I’m not one to stir trouble, but it seems like this is an issue civil society should be actively pursuing, at least to get a clear understanding of why prices were so low before and why they’ve had to go up. People are owed an explanation at least.  

Happy anniversary!

Today, 27 April, Sierra Leone celebrates its 50th independence anniversary. To mark the occasion, the Freetown chapter of the British Council is hosting an exhibition of 50 restored photographs that present a pictorial history of the past five decades. However, if you’re not in Freetown, then you can still check out some extraordinary historic postcards digitally restored by photographer Peter C Andersen. Andersen came across these postcards when he met ex-Peace Corps volunteer Gary Schulze, who had worked in Sierra Leone. He has digitally restored and scanned over 500 photographs and posted them on his website.

I asked Peter what prompted him to take up this pet project. ‘Simply because I have the editing software and I can do it; some of the pictures had rips and tears that I could fix, so I made it a project,’ he says. Peter is also the chief of outreach at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in Freetown.

Here are a few pieces from the wide selection on his site.  

Big Market

Freetown’s Big Market was burnt down in 1999 during the 6 January rebel attack on Freetown. It was rebuilt after the war ended at its location on Wallace Johnson Street in Central Freetown. The Big Market is the vibrant meeting ground for traders and eager shoppers looking for a good bargain on West African crafts.

Railway

This is a long-lost sight in Sierra Leone. The railway no longer exists but recently mining company African Minerals renovated a small stretch to transport their material around the country. According to a local media report, it’s been 38 years since the country had a railway.

Ginger beer sellers


This is a quintessential Freetown shot and shows a group of young children selling bottles of ginger beer on the streets. Even today, this is a familiar sight; the only difference is, instead of selling it in glass bottles, they now recycle plastic soft-drink bottles.

Kissy Road


This is an idyllic shot of Kissy Road in eastern Freetown, showing what seems to be a quiet day in town. Today this is one of the busiest trading hubs in the city with traffic backed up for miles.

Madam Yoko


Sierra Leone is often criticized for the poor status accorded to women in society. This postcard shows an image of Madam Yoko, a powerful paramount chief of the Mende tribe who ruled until 1906. She was hailed as a visionary chief and was popular with the British rulers at the time.

Information gap

‘The Freedom of Information Act in Sierra Leone may not pass until after the national elections,’ moans a friend at the Ministry of Information and Communication. The FOI bill, as it’s popularly called, has been sitting in Parliament since October 2010. The Act gives citizens the right to access information held by public authorities. Despite a number of legislative committee meetings, Parliament has not agreed to let it pass. Popular excuses have been: a lack of quorum, lack of clarity on language in the bill and the absence of the Minister of Information and Communication.

The passage of the bill would make Sierra Leone the seventh country on the African continent with the right to information legislation. The others are Angola, South Africa, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and Liberia. Apparently, parliamentarians in Sierra Leone are terrified of the bill and the levels of transparency and accountability it might force them to adopt. ‘They don’t want journalists probing into their personal lives and expenses just before the national elections in 2012,’ the friend says.

A couple of  weeks ago, the Freedom of Information Coalition, a network of civil society organizations, sent a letter to the President, reminding him of his government’s promise to pass the law in 2010. Emmanuel Saffa Abdulai, leading the coalition from the civil society group Society for Democratic Initiatives, wrote:

‘Mr. President, I note in 2009 the Honorable Minister of Information and Technology, Alhaji I.B. Kargbo, signed a declaration in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, in a conference organized by Carter Centre, on your behalf indicating an intention to make the right to information law in Sierra Leone. Furthermore, through Alhaji I.B. Kargbo your government committed itself to the introduction of freedom of information law in 2010, this time in Accra, Ghana, where public undertakings were made to Jimmy Carter, former president of the USA. Undertakings of a similar nature were later made to the World Bank and your pledges are noted on the public record.’

Some people think that there hasn’t been enough pressure on the government from within the country. Letters such as these have no teeth; they get published in a few newspapers in Freetown and then forgotten.  International organizations such as the World Bank have been pushing the passage of the bill. But in Sierra Leone only Abdulai’s voice has been most audible. ‘Maybe Parliament feels that there is only pressure from one person, not the whole civil society,’ says Edward Kwame Yankson, the focal point for FOI within the Ministry of Information and Communication. There is an urgent need for grassroots civil society to get involved and tell average citizens about the benefits of the bill. If people in Sierra Leone feel that they own the bill, there will be more pressure to see it passed.

In neighbouring Nigeria, an FOI Bill has been pending for 11 years and was not even debated in Parliament for four years. Finally in February the bill passed in the House of Representatives. However, the version passed by the Senate is different and this issue is waiting to be resolved.

In Sierra Leone FOI has been on the agenda since 2005. If momentum doesn’t pick up we could be waiting a long time too.

No more fresh vegetables?

Woman and child carrying fruit, Sierra Leone

Food shortages are expected in Sierra Leone, due to the ban on cross-border trade.

At the end of last month, the three countries in the Mano River Union – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – passed a resolution to ban cross-border trade in food products. It all started when the government of Sierra Leone banned the export of, first, timber and then local produce like rice, cassava and palm oil to maintain internal food sufficiency. Guinea and Liberia reciprocated with their own bans.

While this may seem like a good protectionist idea on paper, it’s going to be hard to implement. The borders between the three countries are porous; close economic and cultural ties had prompted the creation of the Mano River Union in the first place in 1973. Now it seems that all three governments are backtracking on the original intent of the organization.

In Sierra Leone, many border towns are almost inaccessible by road from within. In terms of governance, places along the border, like Madina Wula in the far north, feel more part of Guinea. They are able to communicate in the languages of both countries and use both currencies for transactions. In the rice-producing regions of the east, it’s been common practice to sell the produce to Liberian traders instead of incurring the high costs of transporting it within the country. If small farmers and traders can no longer do that, it translates into huge potential losses.

While Sierra Leone produces coffee, rice, cassava, pepper and palm oil, many of its other vegetable needs are met from neighbouring countries. For instance, potatoes, onions, carrots and fresh fruit are some of the items that come in from Guinea, and already shortages have been reported in Sierra Leone. Putting an end to this supply will mean price increases. It will also create a further dependence on imports from countries like India, China and Holland, instead of promoting cross-border trade. The government of Sierra Leone, on the other hand, seems to believe that this move will actually halt the prices soaring in the country.

The one certainty is that this move will increase corruption at the borders. News portal Freetown Daily News reported that scores of people are stranded at the borders with perishable goods. This places them at the mercy of unscrupulous customs officials. Again, because of the distances, the National Revenue Authority is not able to properly audit each and every border customs station.

At the end of the day, the small-time farmer will bear the brunt of this, as they won’t be able to sell their stock before it rots. Most small farmers have no way to preserve their produce. Yes, it’s a good idea on paper, but only if supported by a clear logistics plan for storage and movement of goods around the country. Progress on this front has been painfully slow.

Photo by Annabel Symington under a CC Licence.

Not a good place to be a journalist

This year’s State of the Media report has just come out in Sierra Leone, and among other things it highlights that harassment of journalists by politicians is still common practice. The report, published by the Society for Democratic Initiatives (SDI), says that in 2010 alone, 25 journalists were ‘beaten, unduly arrested or manhandled’ by government workers.

Some of the recent incidents include the arrest of four print media journalists allegedly ordered by the Ministry of Lands for investigating an alleged fraud case. In November last year 10 journalists were allegedly beaten by supporters of the opposition party the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). No charges were filed against them. Journalists in Sierra Leone are often at the receiving end of verbal abuse – like Kadijatu Sesay a female journalist who was verbally attacked by a bank MD when she tried to investigate charges of staff maltreatment. One of the best remembered cases of political harassment was around the time when Hafsatu Kabbah, the former minister of fisheries and marine resources, was being prosecuted on corruption charges. Journalists were denied entry into the courtroom and the BBC’s resident reporter Umaru Fofana even received death threats.

stack of newspapers

An archaic law called the 1965 Public Order Act is still used to punish dissenting media. One of its clauses deems libel criminal and seditious and a number of journalists in the country have spent time behind bars because of it. The commonly cited case is that of Paul Kamara, editor of a Freetown based newspaper called For di Pipul, who spent 13 months in prison for criticising former president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. The Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) has fought long and hard for this libel clause to be reviewed but in 2009 the Supreme Court upheld it despite months of campaigning and a peaceful protest by journalists.

The political harassment of journalists is a serious problem in Sierra Leone, especially since the country is heading towards national and local elections in 2012. But there’s the flipside as well. Media in Sierra Leone are largely partisan and unprofessional.  The situation turned dire in 2009 when the political radio stations owned by the ruling APC (All People’s Congress) and the opposition SLPP had to be closed down for inciting violence. Newspapers based in Freetown regularly make their money from political mudslinging and extortion from politicians.

So yes, Sierra Leone is a bad place to be a journalist, more so if you’re a bad journalist. Twenty five harassments in one calendar year definitely pose a threat to an independent media – but so does unprofessional and politically motivated journalism.  

Photo by Daniel R Blume under a CC Licence

A good news story for International Women’s Day

As the world celebrates the centenary of International Women’s Day on 8 March 2011, it’s also going to be a day of quiet jubilation for women in Sierra Leone. The longest-serving female prisoner on death row has been released after spending eight years behind bars, six of those waiting to be executed. The death penalty is still legal here.

Women prisoners in Sierra Leone, courtesy AdvocAid Sierra Leone

I am not allowed to reveal her name so I’ll call her Aminata. Aminata is now in her thirties and was sentenced to death six years ago. The charge was murder, killing the child of her husband’s other wife. I met up with Sabrina Mahtani, executive director of AdvocAid, a small Sierra Leonean NGO that provides legal aid, education and reintegration services to women prisoners. Mahtani says that Aminata confessed to the crime on her husband’s advice and although there was no evidence to prove her guilt, this was enough for the judge. Aminata is originally from Makeni, the northern capital. ‘Often in the provinces, women who are illiterate don’t understand the law and end up incriminating themselves by mistake or on bad advice,’ says Mahtani, who started AdvocAid in 2006. Her group took up Aminata’s case and began to dig up her case files in order to put together an appeal. Because of poor record-keeping, this was a challenge. Finally last week, a judge ruled that there had been too many irregularities in her prosecution and she had already served eight years in prison, so would not be retried.

For Mahtani, the next step after the victory is to help Aminata go home. ‘We give women start up money to travel, start businesses and carry on with their lives,’ she says. Many of the women serving at the Pademba Road prison in Freetown are from provincial Sierra Leone and find themselves in an unfamiliar place once released.

We’re talking about around 150 women prisoners in Sierra Leone, which seems like a small number. Often however, they are the breadwinners and sole care-givers in their families and this impacts many more dependants. In the eight years Aminata was in prison, her baby girl never visited. ‘There’s stigma around being in prison, and her family just couldn’t afford to bring her child to Freetown,’ says Mahtani.

Many women give birth in prison and continue to live with their children. Sierra Leone introduced a free healthcare scheme last year for pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under five but these benefits remain elusive for women prisoners. Mahtani laments that there’s one GP for about 1,400 inmates in the central prison in Freetown.

Through their literacy work, AdvocAid are also trying to help women understand their rights. Most of the prosecutions are for petty crimes like small theft and debt. For these, women who can’t pay the fine end up spending almost a decade behind bars.

Mahtani is worried about Aminata being accepted back in her community and that is one of the reasons her identity has been kept secret. The good news is that after eight years, this International Women’s Day will finally mean something to her.

 PHOTO: Women prisoners in Makeni. Photo reproduced courtesy AdvocAid Sierra Leone.

'Gaddafi is not a Sierra Leonean MP!'

Late last week the BBC World Service reported a somewhat amusing story on their programme Focus on Africa: is Colonel Muammar Gaddafi an honorary Member of Parliament in Sierra Leone?

This question came up when a sitting MP reminded his colleagues of a session in 2009 when Gaddafi was invited to speak in Parliament. On that day an enthusiastic motion was passed to make him an honorary Parliamentarian. The concern last week was whether this had been a binding resolution.

Gaddafi. Photo by BlatantNews.com via flickr (on public domain).

Freetown-based newspaper Awoko also reported the story and even dug up part of the speech from January 2009 when Gaddafi was in Freetown. It was delivered by then Leader of the House Edie Turay and went: ‘with leave of the Hon. Speaker and leave from the Honourable Members of Parliament and with your own concurrence Mr Leader I move that this house assembled here today the first day of January 2009 nominate Col. Muammar Al Gaddafi as Honorary Member of the Sierra Leone Parliament.’

Of course, this doesn’t mean that Gaddafi would have any decision-making power in Sierra Leone, but the possibility seemed to have caused some excitement on a slow Friday morning in Parliament. According to the BBC report by Umaru Fofana, this was debated for some time before deciding that the appointment had not gone through a Parliamentary endorsement procedure and was thus invalid. Honorary titles have been bestowed on several guests and American television actor Isaiah Washington was granted Sierra Leonean citizenship after DNA test showed that his ancestry could be traced back to the West African country.

Gaddafi maintained close political, economic and social ties with Sierra Leone. Last Wednesday the Information Minister Ibrahim ben Kargbo finally spoke out and said that the existing relations between Sierra Leone and Libya would not be affected by Gaddafi’s departure. He sympathized with the Libyan people, but did not criticize Gaddafi. The Ministry is worried about the 4,000 Sierra Leoneans living in Libya, many of them illegal immigrants. Gaddafi employs mercenaries from a number of African countries and there are fears that some among these might be Sierra Leonean.

There are some genuine questions about the fate of Libyan mobile network GreenNet that was supposed to start operations in Sierra Leone soon. The company doing the installations for the launch in Sierra Leone is worried that they won’t be able to recover their money from the Libyan investors.

In neighbouring Gambia, leader Yahya Jammeh is being compared to Gaddafi in his dictatorial ways. The Gambian people have struggled for decades with political and press freedoms.

In Sierra Leone, people continue to protest quietly in their homes.

All aboard Gaddafi?

You can catch the 6 am bus from Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown to the southern capital city Bo. You would spend about five hours on a bright-green luxury bus, probably the most comfortable way of travelling between cities in the country.

But these days, you would pay closer attention when people call it ‘the Gaddafi bus’. This is because some of the best vehicles owned by the public in Sierra Leone were donated by the Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi; the name stuck.


Freetown. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (World66.com).

Gaddafi has always supported Sierra Leone, although sometimes in less admirable ways. He was one of the main supporters of the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone, pumping money and arms into the hands of RUF rebel leader Foday Sankoh and former Liberian president Charles Taylor. In 1985, Taylor received military training in Libya as a guest of Gaddafi; there, he met Sankoh, and the rest is bloody history. Sierra Leone’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission even recommended that Libya pay reparations for its role in the conflict.

In recent years, Gaddafi’s support has come in the form of food aid, transport and money to build a beautiful mosque in the eastern part of Freetown. This is now popularly known as ‘the Gaddafi mosque’; it is indeed quite striking.

The Gaddafi mosque. Photo by Allison Cross.

Apart from this, there are partnerships to build hotels, mine rutile, bauxite and iron, and also introduce the Libyan mobile network GreenNet into Sierra Leone, which launched earlier this month. This is why the Sierra Leone government has been completely silent on the issue of the 17 February revolution. While the Arab League has condemned Libya’s actions, there hasn’t been a peep out of the African Union. While many receive aid from Libya, others are terrified of Gaddafi because of his keenness to prop up rebel leaders and dictators.

In the past, Freetowners have been in awe of Gaddafi and his maverick presence. On her blog Sweet Sierra Leone, Freetown resident Vickie Remoe recounted the excitement on the streets when he came to visit in 2007.

Today, people I speak to denounce him as a lunatic. For many, he brings back memories of the civil war and of citizens turning on their own. Our office driver Amidu Kuyateh who, like me, has been glued to the BBC World Service for news updates, is horrified. ‘I don’t care how much he’s done for Sierra Leone, he also helped start our war and now he will kill his own people to hold on to power,’ he said to me.

Yes, Gaddafi’s symbolic presence in Freetown is hard to miss. But if he is exiled, I’m sure Sierra Leone, cash-strapped as they are, would not welcome him with open arms.


Goodbye, blue berets

Starting this week, Sierra Leoneans in Freetown will miss a familiar sight they’ve grown used to. The resident battalion of Mongolian peacekeepers in their khaki uniforms and blue berets are finally leaving the country.

UN peacekeepers formally left the country in 2008, but the Mongolian Guard Force have protected the Special Court for Sierra Leone since January 2006 and managed the movements of high profile detainees like former RUF rebel leader Issa Sesay and former Liberian president Charles Taylor. Last week, in what was a colourful ceremony, they handed over the Court’s security to the Sierra Leone Police.


A total of 2,300 Mongolian peacekeepers have served at the court but they’ve maintained a quiet presence. I’ve been visiting the court regularly since 2009 and the sight of them perched in their towers always comforted me. The only time I’ve made eye contact is when there’s been a hearing or a screening at the court building.

They rarely left the premises, and when they did it was in secured UN vehicles in full uniform, which made them a bit of a novelty on the streets of Freetown. Though very respectful, they rarely smiled at passers-by and I was often tempted to pull a face, a tourist gag you’d try with one of the Queen’s guards in London.

As part of the UN Assistance Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL), peacekeeping troops poured in from all over the world from the end of the civil war in 2002 – from India, Zambia, Jordan and Nigeria, just to name a few. Between 2002 and 2004, there were about 20,000 peace keepers in the country.


But the Mongolian contingent is different. In the past, peacekeepers mingled freely with the local population in Sierra Leone and many even intermarried and had children out of wedlock. But none of this for the Mongolians. They have maintained a cautious distance from the Sierra Leonean community. ‘I think this made them more impartial and it’s why we looked up to them,’ says Aminata Sesay, who runs a small banana stall across the road from the court building.

In 2012, Sierra Leone will hold another national election, for the first time without the presence of UN peacekeepers. Some are nervous that the Mongolians have now left too. With issues of unemployment and service delivery close to a boil, the continued presence of the Mongolian guards could have had a calming effect.

However, it’s something that needed to happen. This is part of the handover process at the Special Court from international to national staff. Last year, the detention centre at the court was handed over to the government to be converted into a women’s prison. Increasingly, key positions are being offered to Sierra Leoneans.  


Still, many like me will miss having them around. Cote d’Ivoire has requested for a contingent of Mongolian peacekeepers and I’m sure the blue berets will continue to work tirelessly to maintain peace in West Africa.

All photos by The Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Entertaining the youth

Every evening at the National stadium compound in Freetown, Michael Kargbo leads acting workshops for a group of about 30 young people. All agree that this evening activity is the highlight of their day.

Outside the gates the whiff of smoking marijuana joints beckon, but these aspiring actors have bigger things to worry about, such as their lines, costumes and sets.

Kargbo’s group Jamcast was founded in 2001 and he’s been using performing arts as a medium to keep young people in Freetown out of trouble ever since.

In Sierra Leone, 60 per cent of the youth are unemployed. Rampant unemployment was one of the main reasons for the rebel-led civil war between 1992 and 2002, so obviously there’s cause for concern as dissatisfaction grows over the lack of jobs.

In December last year, the eastern and central streets of Freetown saw violence erupt between two rival music gangs; this was not a unique incident. Cases of youth violence are disturbingly common and there is a desperate need to get young people involved in nonviolent pursuits.

When I visited them on a Sunday evening, Jamcast were gathered in a large circle behind the bleachers, doing warm-up exercises, stretching their legs and throwing their voices. They’ve been receiving training in basic acting, body language and voice modulation, all of which instill discipline.

Next door is an Olympic-sized swimming pool, which was transformed from a sporting venue to a makeshift nightclub. Apart from the beaches, there is a lack of open spaces such as the stadium for recreational activities. About 97 per cent of these students are unemployed.  

‘I use them in the films and plays I make, and they get a huge sense of achievement from this,’ Kargbo says.  It’s not like he’s exploiting them: the films are made on incredibly small budgets, usually between $700 and $1000, and rarely break even. If a film does make a profit, then Kargbo pays his actors and crew.

Most of the participants were drawn here because of their obsession with Indian and Hollywood films. ‘I love Halle Berry,’ says 26-year-old Kadijah Koroma. She finds acting fulfilling, even though she makes little money. ‘I’m following my passion. I’m hopeful that one day it’ll pay off.’ She hopes to make it big, like her Hollywood role model.

Kargbo says that young people often use his group as a way to mend their ways. He points out a young porn star who recently made headlines over a sex scandal. ‘She’s trying to find something more meaningful to do,’ says Kargbo. It wouldn’t be wrong to call his sessions almost therapeutic.

Of course, Jamcast is not the only theatre group in town. But groups such as this one are few in number. Kargbo keeps his group away from drugs and violence, and the parents of his students are incredibly grateful. Many of those present have never been to school or university. ‘This is their only avenue to interact with people their age in a positive environment,’ he says.

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