“Same car, different driver” is a phrase you can hear on the streets of the West African country of Sierra Leone every day. It sums up our bitter feelings about the government which has ruled since civil war began in 1991.
All of the leaders — Momoh, Strasser, Bio, Kabbah, Koroma, and then Kabbah again — have promised clean hands, peace and an end to the worst forms of suffering. All have delivered murderous poverty.
The present government was restored to power by the force of British arms. This is supposed to have brought a better life and democracy.
In fact, it has continued the cycle whereby each government gets into power so that it can choose who shall do the fleecing of the rest of society, who shall do the stealing, who shall cream off the diamond wealth.
I am bitterly aware of the years of civil war in Sierra Leone during the 1990s.
My younger sister, two brothers and three cousins were among the 50,000 civilians who perished in the fighting.
My mother and another cousin were among the hundreds of thousands injured.
It is hard when society is so torn apart not to welcome any force that might seem to being stability.
But I fear that nothing has been done to address the root causes of that war, or to prevent recurrence. Sierra Leoneans continue to die in droves as part of “normal life”, even if the civil war has halted.
A recent report from the International Crisis Group (an organisation which essentially supports armed intervention in countries like Sierra Leone) has confirmed my worries.
It said the British invasion had failed to produce a state “that will be stable and capable of exercising the full range of sovereign responsibilities on behalf of its long-suffering population”.
It added, “The Sierra Leone government for years collected customs duties on only 5 percent of diamonds exported from its territory.
“Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates that in 2003, only 5 percent of pharmaceuticals within the state health system reached their intended destination.
“In both cases, networks uncontrolled by the bureaucratic apparatus have distributed these goods.
“Medications have been sold at a cost too high for most citizens, contributing to life expectancy at birth of 34 and the death of a quarter of the country’s children before they reach the age of five.
“Whether the cause is corrupt politicians who take the spoils, or the state’s lack of capacity to control important activity within its borders, becomes irrelevant when failure is this profound.”
That is the legacy of Blair’s intervention in our country.
Death by malnutrition and disease is as terrible as by civil war. Every day thousands of young people die from basic diseases and lack of food.
There is no “task force” which arrives to deal with this emergency. Worse may be coming.
Deep-seated corruption and economic collapse started the fighting 15 years ago.
Now those same conditions are being repeated to usher in new possibilities of armed conflict. The elites are manoeuvring for position and showing signs of falling out.
Food supplies are still very vulnerable. Almost three quarters of Sierra Leone’s workforce is agricultural and 45 percent of GDP is in agriculture. But the country is still a net importer of rice.
Land is in the hands of village elders, buttressed by British-appointed officials, who deny security of tenure for young men and women who have been demobilised from the fighting.
My own job is helping women who have been traumatised by years of fighting.
Many have been raped — by the RUF rebels, or by government forces, or by the ECOMOG “peacekeepers”.
These women need the things essential to a normal life — work or education, enough money to get by on, somewhere to live, health services in time of need. None of these are consistently available.
I know of many women who were virtual slaves to various militias who were then liberated, but can find no alternative life.
They are now prostitutes or even fighters with gangs trying to grasp diamond wealth. Some liberation.
For many of us the violence and alienation in society was revealed by the murder of FannyAnn Eddy, one of Africa’s most courageous lesbian and gay activists, in Freetown last year.
The authorities seemed hardly moved by this slaughter of a true hero of Sierra Leone.
We are thirsting for justice and peace. If the answer is not soldiers and mercenaries, what is the hope for the future?
I believe one good sign was the recent general strike over pay and pensions. It lasted only one day and it is unclear what has been achieved.
Nevertheless it happened, and that is a great achievement. Power came not from a gun or a clenched fist but from a movement of solidarity and mass pressure.
I also welcome the global assistance from organisations like the International Labour Organisation and some women’s organisations which have highlighted the problems of our society and offered genuine selfless assistance.
Please do not believe that the British intervention has brought the results that are often claimed. This is not the way to emancipation in Africa or anywhere else.
Olayinka Coker is a women’s rights worker in Freetown