In our everyday conversations, it is not uncommon among Sierra Leoneans to hear some stereotypical questions or statements.
“You na which nation?”
“You na Kontri?”
“Nor menn den munku dem”
“Na den Mende dem so.”
“Nor menn d Krio boy.”
“Bo do ya o! Na ouna government dis.”
These types of not-so-smart expressions are usually ignored, but they have undertones in our overly commonplace public discourse. Each time I hear someone asks, “you na which nation,” it is obvious such a question is intentionally axiomatic and more disingenuous than funny.
Over the years, I have been attempting to think ethnographically about the Sierra Leonean identity – tribe versus nationality, north versus south-east, western area versus provincial communities (countryside). The efficacy of such a divide served the colonial government then, but it has continued to be an uneasy confluence of the love and hate experience in our country.
And so then the question is: how many of our unsavoury expressions should the Sierra Leonean avoid in order to have some confidence in what binds us together as a country called Sierra Leone? Our everyday expressions play a large part in the construction of our single identity as Sierra Leoneans. In part, these subtle stereotypes are crucially as important as our bad politics which now inform what has brought Sierra Leoneans together at Bintumani III.
It is apparent that aside from our stereotypes, one conspicuous factor that overshadows our commonality is politics and a matter of fact, bad politics. Party politics in Sierra Leone is brutal and divides us as a people under one nation. Political season unmasks our tolerance, gains, and homogeneity. We experienced this not too long ago when events leading up to our 2018 general elections presented not only a fractured nation but one in dire need for a national cohesion dialogue.
The initiative by the current government for a national cohesion consultative conference is therefore not by accident. It is by all means needed to make sense of our reality as a nation as encapsulated in the President’s speech, with the aim to encourage our imaginations to continue public discussions and engagements around the future of Sierra Leone's civic culture and democracy.
We shall forever be reminded by the words of the President of the Republic of Sierra Leone His Excellency (Rtd.) Brig. Julius Maada Bio.
“We are gathered here today to take a major step in strengthening our democracy through a consultative conference…Sierra Leone is not divided by religion or ethnicity. Sierra Leoneans live together, worship together, celebrate together, watch football games together, use the same markets, and live in the same communities very peacefully. The problem is that bad politicians are at the heart of the acrimony that continues to mar the social peace in this country. They make everything political - the ethnicity of people, the region they come from, what they believe in, what they say, even people’s last names and the colour of clothes people wear.”
His words won’t change the course of history for the All Peoples Congress (APC) whose leadership called for a no representation at the consultative conference – notoriety of pre-independence relived when the APC was absent at discussion tables for Sierra Leone’s self-determination. Their claims among others for not participating in Bintumani III were gathered on the present commissions of inquiry. These commissions have been instituted to hold their stewardship to the nation to account. But in the acerbic mouth of the controversial Sierra Leone Bar Association President, Basita Michael, “To the leaders that that didn’t attend, you are entitled to your skepticism and opinions about B3 but there is a real need for Open National dialogue and you missed a great opportunity to make your positions felt.”
It is no secret that underneath our commonality as Sierra Leoneans, there are equally differences that have come to define our country. The recognition and frank discussions of our differences at Bintumani III and a path to bridging those fundamental divides through a Peace and National Cohesion Commission is essential in maintaining our peace as a nation.
The National Cohesion Consultative Conference has only amplified our already existing discussions on responsible government, nationalism, human rights, and the distinctively Sierra Leonean response to our differences. We need to aim at a higher baseline of pluralism with a sense of duty and responsibility that envisions Sierra Leone as surrounding the diversity of the North, South, and East of the toll-gate in the West. A roadmap to our transformation in our public discourse may help us transition to a more inclusive society without even realizing it.
If I have a conclusion, it is perhaps that I find our commonalities mediate considerable influence over our differences. There is an exemplary show of religious tolerance – Christians and Muslims support one another, tribes in the North can easily find their way to the economic basins in the south-east, intermarriages among tribes are common and social interactions in schools, universities and public service connect folks from remote corners of the country.
But are we there yet? There are challenges ahead, however after Bintumani III, the answers may be found in the Peace and National Cohesion Commission.