Sierra Leone: Only a New Government Can Bring Equality for Women

It was the great 19th century American social campaigner Lucretia Mott who stated: “The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of women, the very foundations of life are poisoned at their source.” Since then, many nations and regions of the world have made great progress. Yet in Africa, the rights of women still need urgent attention, including in my own country Sierra Leone. And many women continue to be subjected to the same injustice and disenfranchisement Mott so abhorred 150 years ago.

As a vice-presidential candidate in Sierra Leone’s elections next year—the first woman ever included on a major party ticket in my country—I carry a great responsibility to revive the push for both female political representation and gender equality in my region of Africa. And across our continent there are promising advances. At 49 percent, Rwanda has the world’s highest ratio of women in parliament. Women in South Africa and Mozambique have held deputy presidential positions, while in Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has proved that women can reach the highest office.

Yet these exceptions stand alone in contrast to the situation across Africa as a whole where women remain politically sidelined. In Sierra Leone, warm words by our current President Koroma have remained just that, and his promise of 30 percent representation of women in public office by the end of his presidential term next year simply has not been enacted. President Koroma has displayed a brazen ambivalence towards existing female representatives with his less than generous cabinet appointments. The recommendation of Sierra Leone’s National Commission for Democracy and Human Rights—which I was privileged to Chair—of the crucial need for political gender balance, it seems, is not a priority for the incumbent president.

My candidacy is fuelled by a desire to change this state-sanctioned apathy towards women’s rights and offer renewed hope to women in the country who have, despite a lack of representation, always been at the forefront of change. In 1996 when Sierra Leone was still under military rule, thousands of my sisters demonstrated despite the risk to their lives in support of restoring democracy. Today, just as then, women remain at the epicenter of any true democratization. And in this upcoming election, I intend to force the issue of female political representation to the forefront of the campaign.

However, there are significant hurdles to overcome—whether they are cultural stereotypes or engrained male-dominated hierarchies. These feed into a dangerous mix of apathy, tension and resentment towards women in Sierra Leone. Women in Africa must constantly challenge what the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance calls the ‘masculine model’ of politics that still prevails throughout the continent.

The need to engage with those who are under-represented extends beyond the cause of women’s rights. The civil war that ravaged my country for over a decade displaced three million, both internally and externally. Some 200,000 Sierra Leoneans now reside in the UK, most having fled during the civil war. As my Sierra Leone People’s Party pushes for further stability and democratization in the upcoming campaign, it is imperative that we re-engage with this Diaspora. They are crucial to the future of the country: the funds they send home to friends and family are the largest single source of income for many in Sierra Leone. Their professional expertise, including their experience of living and working in Britain where the rights of women and equality are further advanced, can provide their homeland with a wealth of opportunity. We must tap this reservoir of intellect to re-energize our workforce and bring much needed skills to our fragile economy.

However, I am under no illusion that such a re-engagement won’t be a challenge. Despite their love of their country, many in the Diaspora remain disaffected. This has not been helped by the politicization of the current government’s Diaspora office. Staffed entirely by members of President Koroma’s All-Peoples’ Congress party, it has become a largely partisan operation. And continuing accusations of high-level corruption in the Koroma administration has not helped. Only last month, an undercover report by Al-Jazeera implicated the Vice-President in the illegal sale of timber licenses. US Diplomatic cables made known to the world through Wikileaks have shone a light onto the favoritism and protection the President and his administration has given to those guilty of corruption and illegality. And, after five years in power, President Koroma’s Sierra Leone ties with Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe in the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. So it is understandable that many in the Diaspora are uncertain whether to engage more substantially in investment and support for Sierra Leone under its current government, despite their love for their country.

But help is on the way. My party’s presidential candidate Julius Maada Bio was the head of state who handed the country back to multi-party elections in 1996, and for whose decision so many women of Sierra Leone campaigned in the streets to support in that dangerous year. Other leaders, not least the current president, have offered visionary words but few have the track record of Julius Maada Bio of acting on their pledges. If elected, together we will increase the number of women in the cabinet and high office across the country. We will enact in full the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And we will ensure that contracts and business dealings by the government are made transparently, allowing for members of the Diaspora to have the confidence they can invest in their country knowing it is a nation led by an administration committed to transparency, equality and fairness.

Sierra Leone is still scarred from a painful decade of civil conflict—our economic platform and democracy remain fragile and our people remain wary of those that promise so much and deliver very little. Lucretia Mott was correct when she said a nation’s progress can be measured by the status of its women. As a female African politician, now under an increasing spotlight as the election nears, I have a duty to reengage with those that have been left outside of the mainstream, whether through gender discrimination, social exclusion or conflict. Only by opening up civic institutions, government and business to all, and challenging the unwritten rules that exclude so many from political participation, can we ensure lasting change in Sierra Leone.

Comments

  1. Nina van Vert says:

    It is definitely possible. One day the whole African continent will be thriving again. Life will come back to the place from whence all human life sprang.

  2. Paul James-Allen says:

    You can see the difference between an empty-visionary-masculine-model politician and an articulate-ready-to-work-woman politician. Dr Kadi Sesey makes me proud to be a Sierra Leonean.

    Paul
    Liberia

  3. Foday Daboh says:

    Sierra Leoneans, from reading Dr. Kadi Sesay’s piece, I want to reassure you that all is not lost and that help is nigh. Sane minds will not compare the SLPP ticket of Maada Bio and Kadie Sesay to that of Ernest Koroma and Sam Sumana. Please register enmasse to send the APC kleptocracy packing.

  4. A magnificient piece and indeed with Dr. Kadi Sesay working side by side with our President Maada Bio in waiting; Sierra Leone will surely take a ” New Direction ” where our women will be liberated from the shackles of male domination and subjugation.

  5. Mohamed Swaray says:

    Dr. Kadie Sesay and the Sierra Leone Peoples Party on whose ticket she is running as Vice Paresidential candidate have a proven track record of nucturing and protecting democracy in our country since independence. Our democratic future is more secure in their hands than the current crop of leaders. I wish their presidential ticket well.

    Mohamed Swaray

  6. Julius Maada Bio is a former NPRC Military Junta Leader who is the main opposition party candidate seeking to unseat the incumbent President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma. Mr. Bio is to be applauded for naming a woman to be his Running-Mate and by extension to be the first female Vice President of the Republic if Bio succeeds.

    Many are interpreting this to mean Bio’s credentials on Women Empowerment are not scalable by the incumbent president unless Ernest Bai Koroma also appoints a woman to be his Running Mate. But is that really so? Let us pause a minute and look at the facts of Julius Maada Bio (his service in NPRC) with Ernest Bai Koroma’s current public record.

    Firstly, what power does a Sierra Leone Vice President possess which will make attainment of a woman to that position such monumental achievement for Women’s empowerment?

    The current lame-duck Vice President Sam-Sumana is a glaring example of a relatively powerless VP. In the Cabinet, only the President and his VP were elected by the citizens. All Cabinet ministers are appointed at the discretion of the President and subject to disciplinary strides. However, lowly ministers have been known to insult VP Sam-Sumana with no disciplinary steps taken.

    A similar scenario of a lame duck VP position was that held by a former VP under the SLPP’s President Kabbah (ie; Dr. Alfred Joe Demby). So, I’m not sure a woman being Vice President is a real example of Women Empowerment.

    If we want to look at empowerment of women, we have to do so from a holistic view and in empirical terms and not give emotional value any more importance than it deserves. Now that the hullabaloo has died down over the issue of ‘first female SLPP running-mate’, it is time for us to look at the issue from an empirical point of view with facts and not emotions.

    First of all, hate him or like him, in terms of Woman Empowerment, this President has empowered far more women than any other President in the History of Sierra Leone. This is a fact and I will elucidate further as we go along this piece.

    Whilst SLPP is making noise about Maada Bio following footsteps of politicians like Amadu Jalloh (NDA) and Hon. Dr. John Karefa-Smart, they forget we should not look at emotional window dressing come 2012 but at empirical hard evidence.

    When Maada Bio forcibly took over State House with guns in January 1996, he sacked the only woman in the NPRC Cabinet (Dr. Christiana Thorpe) on January 19th 1996*. On the contrary, President Koroma has included several women in his Cabinet.

    Whilst Koroma could do more to improve the sitting number of women in his Cabinet, he has not done any worse than predecessors because at no point in time did President Kabbah, President Stevens or President Momoh have more than three female Cabinet full-rank Ministers. Koroma named Zainab Bangura, Musu Kandeh & Afsatu Kabba in his first Cabinet.

    Now in addition to including several women as Ministers and Deputy Ministers, President Koroma has not only given us the first female Chief Justice of the Republic, Hon. Umu-Hawa Tejan Jalloh but he has given us what many APC strategists tell me they are going to be fondly terming as the ‘Female Generals’ when APC Campaigns kick off later this year.

    Indeed, it is President Koroma who has given us the first female BRIGADIER-GENERAL (Kestoria Olayinka Kabia) and he has also handpicked and catapulted several ‘Female Generals’ into strategic Government Offices. Ernest Bai Koroma has appointed at least four women into extremely important and sensitive positions:

    SOLICITOR-GENERAL (Martina Koroma),
    COMMISSIONER GENERAL (Haja Kallah Kamara) – acting
    ADMINISTRATOR & REGISTRAR GENERAL (Mariama Seray Kallay),
    AUDITOR GENERAL (Lara Taylor-Pearce).

    Of course, we will not forget all the women who have been appointed into the Judiciary apart from Chief Justice Tejan-Jalloh. The Judiciary is virtually manned by women at the moment and they are doing a yeoman’s task with very little funds at their disposal.

    I must remark that a praise-worthy aspect about the appointment of Chief Justice Tejan Jalloh is the fact that there was resistance to her appointment from within APC circles seeing she is a daughter from a prominent opposition family in Sierra Leone. President Koroma ignored the trepidations of APC members and appointed the woman (of an SLPP family) strictly on merit to become the country’s first female Chief Justice.

    Similarly, the Auditor-General Lara Taylor Pearce is on record for dragging a Government Minister to court in her personal capacity for attempting to usurp her right to her family’s ancestral lands. Thus, like the Chief Justice, there was some resistance to her appointment but President Koroma ignored all resistance to her appointment. After consulting Public Service Commission, Section 119 of the Constitution gives the President the sole prerogative to appoint an Auditor-General. He appointed a woman.

    In the area of appointments to chair State Boards, far more women have chaired Boards than any other time in the History of this country. Dr. Nana Pratt, Mrs. Maude Peacock, Mrs. Shirley Rogers-Wright were named amongst the first set of Board Chairmen appointed by Koroma. Madam Rebecca Conteh was last year named as Board Chair of the country’s Road Transport Corporation.

    Also last year, President Koroma used his initiative to ensure Mrs. Sarah Bendu who had been impugned for corruption, but later exonerated, was re-instated to head the country’s Road Transport Authority. By re-instating her, President Koroma continued to ensure young girls had positive role models to aspire to be.

    When his former press secretary opened a newspaper that spewed out sexually explicit insults against the president’s female critics in the media, it caused uproar amongst many women. The presidential secretary, though a trusted aide to the President, was to be relocated away from the sacred Presidency to the Information Ministry.

    President Koroma has been working overtime to empower the Women of Sierra Leone and give them the respect due them whether they were media persons like myself or judicial figures or military brigadiers or grassroots women. President Koroma has respected and empowered women at all levels of the society.

    This is why when analysts will be looking at Ernest Bai Koroma and Julius Maada Bio next year insofar as Women’s Empowerment is concerned, they will not be looking at Dr. Kadi Sesay’s ‘first female VP’ aspirations but at the two men’s records with respect to empowering and seeing to the needs of Sierra Leone Womenfolk.

    If the President’s Free Health Care Initiative for Pregnant Women and their Under-Five children which has greatly empowered the socio-economic status of working class and grassroots women, is placed next to NPRC’s record of raping women, breaking up marriages and using Child Soldiers, well, the APC political strategists will be home and dry on issue of WOMEN’S EMPOWERMENT.

    APC Strategists will not even need to look at the issue of how Julius Maada Bio has confessed that as a uniformed military officer, he partook in a scene of brutal torture of an innocent woman (Salami Coker’s girlfriend Salamatu Kamara) by NPRC soldiers. APC will not need to even recount of how Maada Bio allowed the woman to be slaughtered to death without protecting the woman as a Gentleman Officer or of how Bio later joined in a very despicable NPRC cover-up of gruesome NPRC killing of a woman.

    Bottom-line, Julius Maada Bio appointing Dr. Kadi Sesay as his party’s female Running-Mate, is nothing to write home about when placed next to Bio’s NPRC public record on Women or next to President Ernest Bai Koroma’s monumental achievements in the area of Empowerment of the Sierra Leone woman.

    * EDITOR’S NOTE: Maada Bio was to later add a woman into his NPRC-II Military Junta Cabinet. Margaret Idriss became Bio’s NPRC Information Minister replacing Hindolo Trye in that NPRC post.

  7. Any development program that enlists people not on the basis of their proficiency and performace, but by their proximity to the axis of power, is operating on a bankrupt ideology, and at best belongs to the first half of the century we have just put behind. All great civilizations are built on the principles of social inclusion, and a government is only as good as the people who constitute the bulk of its leadership – be they men or women, mende or temne, limba or any social label. Any leader who has not grasped this invaluable concept is still living in the dark dungeons of history. Kadi, I enjoyed your take though!

  8. Bockarie Banya says:

    By the way who appointed the first female electoral commission (not very common in africa), the first IMC female commissioner. President Kabbah had more female ministers in his cabinet than President Koroma. What is the female parliamentary ration between APC and SLPP. You should not judge Bio’s record on gender based on NPRC as they were not voted by anybody. Has president Koroma delivered even 10% women representation as he promised 30%? So judge President Koroma by his own promises and not Bio’s NPRC2 regime that lasted less than four months compared to Koroma’s four years. Appointing Dr Kadi Sesay, a woman of substance is a very giant step in actualising 30% women representation. You and i very well know that the lame duck VP Samsuman can never be compare with Dr Kadi Sesay…so i guaranty she is going to have a very big say in women emancipation. Such an educated and eloquent women can never be compared with the inept Samsuna who’ only desire is to find ways of recouping what he spent to bring APC to power…so please dont triviaalize her appointed, every well meaning Sierra Leonean woman should sing praises of President Bio.

  9. Henry Coker says:

    It is not that time yet, when as Sierra Leoneans we should risk handing over power to a former junta leader just that alone tells us this axis of alliance could be a retrograde step to take. we need to say for the future and for all time sake military coupists have no place in the political arena.
    The message is clear Sierra Leone has known too much sectarian and tribal politics we need different perspectives this time.
    Let us have grownup debates this time not smearing each others, what are your political philisophies and ideologies – what are you going to do rather than what your opponent is being smeared with – lies

  10. I took time to follow all the previous postings, all i have to say is that the SLPP as a party has taken a signicant stride in having the first female vice president and for anyone who wants to downplay that fact can go ahead and voice her opinion, that is all what democracic freedom of expression is about, congratulations, General Bio, and welcome to your brand new office Dr. Sesay, the world will be watching you keenly as to how you will put your visions into reality to push for gender empowement, your sister next door, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will surely be around to see you through, ignore your detractors and show them that your vice presidency will be a vibrant one to consternation of fault-finders who will always dig for negatives once SLPP is mentioned in a proverb.

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