I was warned not to take the water taxi from the airport to Freetown! But the hovercraft was not running, and people said the helicopter (at almost twice the price) was even worse! But in choppy seas, water taxis are most definitely not advisable – a few minutes out, waves came crashing through the glass at the front, wetting everyone, and filling the boat with water. Two passengers were swiftly despatched to the stern so that the prow would come up. Fortunately, that prevented more deluges, but every time the small boat topped a wave it came crashing down with a sickening thud on the next crest. The 20 minute journey lasted longer than a hour – and in the pitch black of night it seemed far worse than perhaps it actually was. How many of these small boats don’t actually make it? No-one apparently knows.
But Freetown itself has been rocked by violence again (swissinfo.ch report). Following fights during a by-election last week in Pujehun District, people purporting to be supporters of the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC) attacked the headquarters of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) on Monday. Although I did not witness the attack, reports (see Reuters) suggest that there was much violence, and several women claim to have been raped. Perpetrators of the violence carried machetes, and the police are reported to have fired tear gas and bullets. One person I spoke to definitely confirmed that there were at least four bursts of gunfire. Two days later, the topic is still on many people’s minds, and is front page news in the newspapers.
Many are suggesting that the underlying causes of this violence is the widespread unemployment in the country. Large numbers of people who were displaced during the civil war (1991-2002) moved to Freetown and have still not been able to find jobs. Crime is reported to be increasing all the time, as some of these people resort to theft and threats of violence as the only way of gaining a livelihood. As a commentary in the Standard Times on 16th March commented, ‘High unemployment among youths means many time bombs are waiting to go off at any time. Is this what we expect at this precarious moment? Who’s in charge here, and where is the pendulum of democracy and justice teetering towards? Our educational system has failed, especially the youths’.
Yesterday’s radio stations provided a wealth of commentary on the government’s decision in the aftermath of the violence to close the radio stations owned by the two main political parties, the APC’s ‘We Yone’ station and the SLPP’s ‘Unity Radio’ (see Cotton Tree News). These are widely seen as having whipped up violent sentiments among the parties’ supporters, and some commentators likened their use to the role played by radios in Rwanda’s genocide.
Today, things seem quiet. The word on the street is that arrests have been made. However, many people are fearful that this may be just the tip of the iceberg, and that the country could be plunged back into the horrors of the 1990s. Few want this, but for a country ranked bottom of the UN’s Human Development Index, the current global economic ‘crisis’ might herald a crisis of a very different kind. It is incumbent on those who believe in peace and consensus politics, that we should find ways of supporting Sierra Leone, so that its people can look forward to the future with hope.