Chernoh Bah says Abdul Fatoma is on the right side of history
|Undated, archive photo of Abdul Fatoma|
For several days now, the civil society activist and human rights campaigner, Abdul M. Fatoma, has been the center of ugly news in Freetown. He is the recent victim of political intimidation and harassment in Sierra Leone; a practice that has increasingly become the feature of governance since Ernst Bai Koroma and his APC entered the State House in 2007.
Abdul Fatoma’s drama started when police officers, without warrant, arrested and frog-marched him from a radio studio, where he was being interviewed, and took him forcefully into the walls of parliament. Once inside the walls of Sierra Leone’s parliament, Fatoma was arraigned in front of angry-wig-totting MPs. One-by-one, they spoke, and they described Fatoma with the most unpleasant of adjectives.
The members of parliament: the speaker of the house, his deputy speaker, and their other colleagues – the avant-garde of the law-making body of the land – were all obviously furious and angry. They are seeking revenge against a civil society activist. Dressed in an elegant western-suit, the soft-spoken Fatoma is the activist, who months ago, had raised the anti-graft floodlights on the nefarious working of the Sierra Leone parliament. Parliamentary finances, over the years, have been dispensed with near secrecy from the public eye. Nobody, including the media, had bothered to ask MPs how they were spending public money assigned to them for work in their constituencies.
After hours of being held hostage by lawmakers and forced to listen to angry MPs, who took turns deriding his boldness, Fatoma was again hurriedly bundled away by police troops and taken directly to a police station in the center of the city. From there, he was finally dumped into a police cell. He was forcefully detained for a whole night; his traveling documents were seized, and the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) of the Sierra Leone police, again, reportedly, subjected him to a routinely rigorous intimidating interrogation. Politicians in the current government had instructed the police action to detain and intimidate him.
Why did politicians advise police to detain Fatoma? Because Abdul Fatoma is a Sierra Leonean human rights activist with a proven record of reporting on economic and social rights. He is also the head of a UN accredited civil society organization based in the United Kingdom. For several months, before his arrival in the country, Abdul Fatoma had raised questions centered on endemic corruption and lack of accountability from elected officials in the Sierra Leone government. And in this case, his only crime was his demand for accountability and transparency from members of the Sierra Leone parliament. He had demanded that parliament account for the hundreds of millions of public money they received, in recent years, to carryout development in their respective constituencies across the country. Some of the funds that Fatoma spoke about were part of public money assigned for the fight against Ebola.
Many in national and international circles believe that more than a quarter of funds allocated for the country’s fight against Ebola still remain largely unaccounted for. A national audit report, released at the peak of the Ebola outbreak, had in fact stated that a greater part of the public money allocated for the Ebola response was diverted into the private bank accounts of politicians and public officials. Some of that money was reportedly allocated to parliamentarians to help facilitate their efforts in combating the Ebola epidemic. This national audit scandal around missing Ebola funds attracted global news headlines, and the Sierra Leone parliament convened preliminary hearings on the matter of the alleged missing funds. National media gave it some frontline coverage and, after a few weeks, the news evaporated. Talk of the stolen Ebola funds eventually died out: a typical Sierra Leonean attitude towards national events.
So until Abdul Fatoma’s statement, which questioned parliament’s commitment to the fight against graft and public corruption, the issue of parliamentary accountability has never been the subject of a public debate. The Campaign for Human Rights and Development (CHRDI) statement that raised the question eventually rang the alarm bells on parliament. The national media and the public floodlights were now focused on the members of parliament. For many years, or even decades, cases of corruption relating to the ruling class have always ignored parliament and its membership.
The parliament of Sierra Leone, awkwardly situated atop one of the hills overlooking Freetown, appears to exist in its own world. It assumed for itself the status of an untouchable chamber, the kind of environment reminiscent of a secret society. Its members have, for many years now, used crooked parliamentary standing orders to intimidate and silence citizens: dare to question their work, then you dare to face the quasi-judicial power of parliament. Contempt of parliament, the usual phrase, is often the charge leveled by parliament against its few opponents.
In Fatoma’s case, they claimed he has incited public hatred against parliament. In the ensuing argument between Fatoma and the members of parliament, one journalist has stood up in defense of parliament: Oswald Hanciles.
Oswald Hanciles is President Ernest Koroma’s special assistant on media outreach. Hanciles works in the president’s office and describes himself as the only Sierra Leonean to have ever written the biography of a sitting president. And rightly so. He previously worked as a newspaper columnist, and for many years, he wrote many articles on corruption and development, and he also spent some time with youth activists in Freetown. On the eve of the elections of 2012, Oswald Hanciles published “Natural Born Leader” – a partial story on the life of the current president of Sierra Leone in the form of a mini booklet. At the book’s launch, Hanciles equated Ernest Koroma to Nelson Mandela and Kwame Nkrumah, calling Koroma one of the world’s best leaders. The awkward phrase “World Best” would later show-up in Koroma’s campaign mantra for a second term in 2012. The president himself chaired the said book launch that was attended by more than half of his cabinet. A few months later, Oswald Hanciles was rewarded with a job at the State House in Freetown. Since then, Oswald Hanciles took up membership of Koroma’s All Peoples Congress (APC) and became an active defender of Koroma’s policy. Hanciles’ work on corruption and development has been replaced by sheer propaganda to promote and secure the APC’s standing and influence, and increase his status among the higher ranks of the APC’s praise-singing team.
The APC holds a parliamentary majority in Sierra Leone at the moment and, in addition to being the party in power, also leads every parliamentary proceeding in the country. Fatoma’s confrontation with parliament is therefore a challenge against the integrity of the ruling party, which Hanciles himself is a registered member of. APC members have collectively described Fatoma’s campaign for parliamentary accountability as having severe implications for the electoral chances of the APC in the next general elections, due a year from now.
In his effort to defend parliament, Oswald Hanciles claimed that Fatoma had no legal mandate to question parliamentarians. “The attack on parliament goes beyond his legal mandate,” Hanciles said in a poor attempt to shield parliamentarians, many of whom are his party comrades, from actual public scrutiny. He went on to describe Abdul Fatoma as a “terrorist” and questioned his entry into Sierra Leone, ignoring the fact that Fatoma is a citizen of Sierra Leone.
There is no way a citizen can be charged with, or accused of, “illegal entry” into his/her own country of citizenship. Still, Hanciles insisted, “Fatoma is like a terrorist group of the nature of Al Qaeda, ISIL and Boko Haram.” And in a seemingly desperate effort to criminalize the civil society activist, he stressed that Fatoma, a citizen of Sierra Leone, had travelled into the country illegally. According to Hanciles, there is/was no proof of an entry notation in his passport. What he failed to mention was that the police, by forcefully withholding Fatoma’s passport without a court order, had unlawfully confiscated a citizen’s travel document. The terms under which a citizen’s passport, or any of his travel documents, can be confiscated can only be determined by a competent court of law. This has not been the case with Fatoma. The police have acted only on the dictates of politicians occupying the walls of parliament.
But what is at stake in the Fatoma conflict with parliament? And why has parliament, and Oswald Hanciles, turned the “weapon of mass destruction” against Fatoma?
These questions go into the heart of the psychology of governance that prevails in Sierra Leone today, which in part, accounts for the mass poverty and chronic underdevelopment that now forms the identity of the country. Fatoma’s struggle against parliament represents a wider battle against an anti-democratic culture. A culture that has been built on oppression for decades, and has always been sustained and protected, for many years now, by an avalanche of treacherous guards of inconsistent and unreliable political opportunists, who willingly and readily, in a prostitute like fashion, often put their literacy and energy in defense of chronic legislations and institutions that continue to hinder open mass democratic participation and ignore citizens genuine demand for accountable leadership in governance.
Fatoma’s call for parliamentary accountability, an action for which he is now being deliberately criminalized, unlawfully harassed, unjustly detained, and unfairly intimidated, is fundamental to the cause and process of democratization and the enforcement of citizens’ rights to demand administrative accountability from those to whom power, authority, and sovereignty have been rented. Parliament is obliged, by law and by the framework of institutional governance, to subject itself, without obstruction and hindrance, to the open demand for public scrutiny by voters. In matters of democratic governance, where law is actually supreme, parliamentarians are not lords. Citizens have every right and responsibility to demand explanation on how those powers, and the resources attached to it, are being dispensed, managed and/or used. Those to whom political power and political representation is bestowed, should see this as a privilege that they must not abuse. The Fatoma story is a proof that Sierra Leone’s parliamentarians flagrantly and recklessly holding their positions and ignoring the privilege and honor of their standing. This is the message and the significance of Abdul Fatoma’s campaign for parliamentary accountability. Parliament must act with transparency; their work must be focused on how to benefit the people they claim to represent and serve. The masses cannot allow parliament to abuse their given privilege to only benefit themselves and harass the constituents who dare to ask for accountability.
The fact that parliament, and its avalanche of gatekeepers led by the likes of Oswald Hanciles, have now launched a vengeful program of criminalization and persecution against Abdul Fatoma, the activist who instigated – for the first time in the country – the debate on parliamentary accountability, says a lot about the psychology of governance that has hindered the social and economic progress of Sierra Leone for decades now. If nothing else, it points to parliament’s aversion to public scrutiny, and attests to the ridiculous and wrongful use of parliamentary power and parliamentary privilege against the masses, who bestowed real authority on them. Parliament and its members have forgotten that their currently high living standards and expensive life-styles in a country laced with indescribable poverty, have come, ironically, as a result of the power, authority, and privilege bestowed upon them by the very masses they ignore. These very masses are who Abdul Fatoma, a citizen and a voter, represents and parliament’s awkwardly intimidating stance against Fatoma only illustrates how its members are willing to gang-up to oppress and silence, with the threat and use of police troops and jails, all those who dare to genuinely raise questions of accountability and transparency in governance.
Sadly, Oswald Hanciles and a few other individuals, who benefit from the proceeds of the national loot and this predatory psychology of governance, have unfortunately murdered rationality and common sense at the alter of opportunism in their desperate efforts to defend a coalition of rogue politicians who continue to flagrantly abuse political power and political privilege. The behavior of Hanciles and his friends, who continuously provide defense for this suffocating corrupt group of politicians at the expense of the masses, is reminiscent of the Pharisees who were always willing to wrongfully evoke the law to viciously murder preachers whose only crime has been the boldness to speak truth to power. And in the case of Fatoma, his only crime has been his boldness to raise the question of parliamentary accountability and asking that parliamentarians be subjected to public scrutiny.