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The silliness of Ernest Koroma’s government: the ban on all musical activities was illiberal, undemocratic and selfish

The silliness of Ernest Koroma’s government: the ban on all musical activities was illiberal, undemocratic and selfish thumbnail

On Monday 13th December 2010, Ernest Koroma’s Government, through the Ministry of Internal Affairs, banned all musical activities in Sierra Leone. These activities include musical rallies, assembly and album launchings. (Photo: Messeh Kamara)

I’m normally quite politically apathetic but I have been seriously troubled by the violence perpetuated by a small minority, which the government has now exploited, as an excuse to destroy civil liberties.  The government has stepped on our toes.  It’s all just got too much and I now find myself wanting to fight back. It’s the last ‘straw that has broken the camel’s back’.

We must not remain silent and allow a small minority group to hold the country to ransom and give Ernest Koroma’s government the chance to destabilise our hard-earned democracy–freedom of speech and that of the enjoyment of our promising music industry in the country.

It is time not only to defend the rights of Sierra Leone’s musicians but to counter-attack the falsehoods and distortions of all those who banned musical activities in the country.  It is time for the people to speak up for the right to freedom of speech and association, as enshrined in Sierra Leone’s constitution.

In a democratic society, the decision to ban an institution or a music industry when it is not directly responsible for violence and security is deeply controversial. Any such decision is surely not taken lightly. However, the Government ban on all musical activities in the country, will only serve to undermine the government’s effort to prevent violence, and praiseworthy peace-rally for musicians it organised recently. 

It will not only undermine the government’s agenda for change and peace-building efforts, it also denies our promising artists a legitimate, political channel, to air their views, possibly forcing them to pursue a more sinister and violent path—a  similar move that triggered the decade of civil war, as opined  by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report.

The Government’s decision it seems, is more a product of political timing than democratic reasoning. A political cocktail that started with the scolding of Emmerson’s album, combined with the government sidling certain sections of the music industry and boosting the moral of those musicians who sing in support of the government’s policy, no matter how damming such a policy may appear.

The government highlighted the recent youth violence in Freetown in support of its long running campaign to ban music activities altogether. But banning the whole music industry because of a one-off episode of violent behaviour by a small minority is perverse.  There clearly is an obvious cause for concern here, but not against the music industry.

There is a compelling argument as to why the Government’s decision is not only wrong, but also counter-productive. By banning the music industry and its activities, the government effectively deprives other peaceful citizens and musicians, future engagement in potential career development paths as well as cultural aestheticism. Far from dissuading young people from violent ideology, a ban could effectively result in increasing its appeal and ability to recruit, albeit surreptitiously. Past revolutionary movements have evidenced that a number of youth who espouse a rebellious ideology, are drawn to it on account of it being “taboo”.

The excitement afforded by musical activities can imbue feelings of importance, and the rightness of action in the face of “injustice and oppression”:  providing a sort of cinematic salve to the monotony of everyday life.  Added to this is the fact that it is part of Sierra Leone’s cultural development and tradition.

However, our experience of the sad chapter of the civil conflict has shown that the legitimacy and effectiveness of radical youth groups is not derived from their wellness to cause trouble, but rather their disillusion of the state of affairs. Moreover, patronage politics remains at play, particularly at party level where influential ‘Big Men’ still recruit youths as personal militia. These youths are often employed during election periods to intimidate rival supporters and political candidates. 

The war took a lot from them. Their experiences of the war is unimaginable, therefore a re-occurrence of these kinds of violent behaviour cannot be disconnected from their harrowing and post-traumatic depression of the decade civil conflict.  Now, these youths have become, among other things, victims of the nasty state of affairs, jobless, uneducated and illiterate.  Regrettably, some unscrupulous musicians have now taken control of these misguided youths, in a desperate ‘false life’ quest to emulate the lifestyle of some anarchist musicians in the western world. The violence which ensues is typically limited to small-scale rioting and vandalism, during which rival supporters may engage in spontaneous street-fighting.

However, we should not always use the war as an excuse for the lawless actions of those who want to cause carnage for no apparent reason, but out of rudeness and stupidity. Such people must be arrested and locked-up at Pandemba Road prison until they are deemed rehabilitated to reintegrate back into society.  If they have all the time to engage in conflict, then, let the government capitalise on the available human resource to find some work for them.  This could be engaging their stupendous potentials and skills to facilitate agricultural productivity in the farms, being a big boost to food security.

It’s a shame that a small minority of these so-called musicians and their fans have felt compelled to take the law into their own hands, and terrorise our peaceful citizens, which gives a sense of another civil ‘battlefield’.  I have no respect or sympathy for these youth who have sought to resort to thuggery and anti-social behaviour that is absolutely uncalled for. 

But, government banning the whole music industry is not just a wise option. If, these youth are no longer able to engage in symbolic musical  or expressions of dissent, what other options are afforded to this group of misguided youth to support the cause they feel so passionately about? The music industry provides youth with an opportunity to channel their anger and views on pertinent issues that concern them, as long as the chosen mode of expression is acceptable. The music industry has served as a brake to more radical, violent actions such as going back to the bush to fight. With this avenue now closed in the eyes of music fans, there is a real concern as to what path will they take?

A recommended approach in tackling violent youth groups is for the government, media and citizens to simply ignore this minority but provide adequate security to deter such violent groups from being given importance by the publicity and general punishment of the masses on their behalf. The government should allow musical groups to operate, but monitor them extensively and out in the open. This kind of day- to- day enforcement can take place with a well-trained police force, (beyond bribery and corruption); will help maintain peace and stability. 

Thus, this is the time for citizens of the country – men, women, youth, children, civil society and Human Rights institutions to protest against the government’s unlawful ban on all musical activities in the country. What we have to do is question the validity of claims made by the government and other undemocratically-minded people, of their action to undermine freedom of speech and freedom of association imposed by the ultimate banning of all musical activities.

Notwithstanding the lawless attitude of the minority, the government’s ban of all musical activities is illiberal, undemocratic and threatens the seriousness with which we view our Constitution. Does it not prove that the Government’s view of democracy is profoundly ideological?

This is a democracy after all – a world that values freedom of expression and that tolerates dissent. In fact, it’s the same Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 19 which guaranteed this right: that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

Having done extensive research including global government documentation and law reports, as well as the world-wide web, unfortunately my findings are that Sierra Leone is the only country in the history of any civilised society where musical activities have been banned altogether by the government. Perhaps there are other diaconal states that have done so, but this is not to my knowledge.

And, despite the recent political unrest in the country, Ernest Koroma has not come close to demonstrating that it understands the scale of the damage his government is doing.  Locking up journalists as if they were cattle, marginalising youth who voted the government back to power, banning musical activities and radio stations in the country – highlights gross immorality and monumental irresponsibility.

The Government is quite mistaken if it believes that the old ways of doing things has any place in modern democracies. The country and our musicians deserve a big, genuine, and craven apology for the unwise decision to deprive them of the ‘’ sweet salone music’.  I can only imagine how boring the country and our youth have now become without such musical events and launching shows during the Christmas and New Year celebrations. 

It should be noted that music has played an important part in the country’s post- conflict recovery process.  Music serves as a therapy for people to recover from the post traumatic stress of the decade of civil conflict.   And in fact music is a better option for youth employment, in a country where youth unemployment is rising at an alarming rate.

So now that the government has banned the youth from doing music to earn their daily bread, what next can they do? Perhaps the government is about to create another time-bomb, which could eventually explode into another conflict or arm conflict in the country. 

We should not allow our political or regional divisions to distract us from giving Enerst Koroma’s insane, irrational decision to ban music, the full attention it deserves. Rarely are we treated to such an epic government policy of sloppy idiocy and demented thinking.

The new Government has decided to scrap the Tejan Kabba and Jimmy B’s legacy of the music revolution which would have made our country proud of being a democratic, pluralistic state that upholds the true values of freedom of speech and association. 

I was very critical of the Tejan Kabba’s government in the past, especially in the areas of corruption and poor state of affairs, but its tolerance for ‘ the youth music ‘ was exactly the kind of democracy we needed in a society where people are empowered to express their views through music or other cultural art forms. Tejan Kabbah’s government luckily understood the benefit and saw the sense in protecting it. We enjoyed, and saw a democratic change of government through positive musical activism. Now, to everyone’s surprise, Ernest Koroma’s government has banned it.

I would like to think that, Enerst Koroma’s government doesn’t like the word ‘’youth music’’. It thinks it has become a political ‘’opponent’’ (I’m not making this up). The government seems to have a fetish for the word “ban”, and seem to be banning everything with impunity. Clearly, they must now be “happy” with muzzling everyone. But ‘banning’ by whims and fancy, has no place in a civilised society, especially when it done undemocratically.

Politicians think it’s reasonable to ban music. Some politicians think it’s helpful to castigate political opponents. Some people think it’s good to support our politicians even when they’ve got it wrong and some people think it isn’t. Pursuing government policy to prevent violence around ‘banning music’ is one of the most brazen and cheap political tricks in the book. 

It should be the fundamental role of the police and court, not only to protect citizens, but also to punish those lawless persons caught in conflict with the law during protest or other such public activities. But banning protest or musical activities because of the unfortunate attitude of the minority, without any due process is totally absurd.  If the state can been seen to lack the machinery to manage small-scale internal conflict of this nature, not to talk about external ones, then I am afraid, but have to infer that the government is incapable of protecting the state.

Ernest Koroma’s government would have to think out of the box and emulate the good example of modern democracies in the world.  Recently, the British public has witnessed some radical student protests, to the extent of destroying properties and perpetual disruption to business as usual, all towards a fearless resistance to the government’s policy of increasing tuition fees.  Nasty the student protests may have been, yet, the UK government has not been so naive to ban future student protests.

I know some ‘doubting thomases’ would argue that there is a difference between the UK and Sierra Leone, and that the two countries would pursue a diverse approach to policies.  But, this assertion is at variance with the reality on the ground as the gap between these two countries in the areas of development and rule of law makes the difference.  It’s but vital to emulate the good examples of Best Practices of other countries, in order for Sierra Leone to become a truly democratic and developed nation.   

Ernest Koroma’s government is banning musical activities not because it’s genuinely silly. The government is pretending to be silly. The ban has occurred because it contradicts the government’s   ‘Agenda for Change’. That agenda is very simple: monopolise the music industry, deprived the youth.

It’s a shame that the government does not seem to recognise the role of the positive, social, economic and cultural benefits of the music industry and have now metamorphosed into a musical studio, usurping an unconstitutional function as an entertainment event management company, while at the same time depriving the private sector or music industry from performing the role it can do better.  This government does not seem to recognise the role of the private sector or civil society. 

You can see it in the Freetown City Council’s role in the hosting of the Morgan Heritage Musical event, where they unilaterally deprived the poor local musicians from organising their own musical events in such a crucial festive season. How absurd for the government to ban local musicians, but instead allow foreign musicians to organise their activities in Sierra Leone!   This is not only very unfair but irrational!

The government must have paid a huge price for neglecting its citizens and local musicians, as the Morgan Heritage folks have spent two days gripping a virtually empty National Stadium to the total disappointment of the organisers. I am sure the people would have boycotted the event as a mark of their unhappiness against the Government’s ban on Sierra Leonean musicians from hosting musical shows but going ahead to allow Morgan Heritage to perform is perplexing. Some media reports suggest that the Freetown City Council, being the chief host of the event, is now indebted to the tune of well over US$200,000 as a result of the Morgan Heritage.  The question ‘who paid the cost’ remains, unanswered. But now that the event is over and the Morgan Heritage group have made a huge wealth out of our poor economy, who is there to clear the mess of a collapsing economy?  I only pitty the taxpayers and  my  good friend Egerton  Davies (Shabba) who found himself in such a scam business venture, after all his huge efforts… my sincere thought is with  him. I am a big fan of the Morgan Heritage! And, I genuinely do support such a laudable initiative of inviting international artists into the country. However, such activities should be managed in a democratic and fair process and not be at the expense of depriving our own musicians the right and freedom to do likewise.

Our People’s Loyalty?

We have to turn the table around next time, and divert such colossal financial, technical and human resources wasted in the planning of international musical events, which could otherwise be invested in youth employment projects, children’s education and the creation of music or sport academies to develop our own local talents, so they too can rise to the level of AKON and the Morgan Heritage. 

As for the ‘Baw Wow Society’ who claimed to have lost US$35,000, I am really disappointed that they have also paid the price for an unwise government decision.  But, paradoxically, I would want to consider it, as disappointment in return. Because the very ‘Baw Wow Society’ group had also disappointed me at the very last minutes, after the indefatigable effort of Mamajah Jalloh, aka ‘DJ Base’ and my good self to persuade them from their US base to attend a charity event in London in 2009.  They showed us that, the thirst for money surmount the love for our country. They subjected us to the whims and caprices of a US based negotiator – their agent who conveniently manhandled us, in the expectation of thousands of dollars than we could have afforded to contract the Baw Wow Society’ group…what an error! 

It’s because of the disappointment we endured in the hands of Baw Wow Society’, that we ended-up contracting Emmerson, at a time when he became politically intoxicated, following his highly controversial ‘Yesterday Better Pass Tiday ’’album.  Come to think about the thousands of pounds we spent at the Emmerson’s event is far way more than the US$35,000 lost by the Baw Wow Society.   Unfortunately, we were all branded as being political opponents. I was dismayed to see poor Sorie Sudan Sesay diverting his diplomatic function from the Sierra Leone High Commission in the UK, but acting on the orders of his political masters to disturb our event.  He was very busy discrediting our genuine and charitable show. But, he only succeeded in misinforming the pubic to satisfy his selfish political ends. 

This government does not believe in fair play and respect for its citizens! You can see it in President Enerst Koroma and Vice President Samuel Ansuman’s obsession for international artists, than our local stars. You can see it in government relentless, absurdist move to castigate Emmerson’s ‘Yesterday Better Pass Teday’ album, or the government sponsorship to a certain sections of the music industry, of those who could blow their horns to score political points.

You can see it in the government’s nonchalant attitude to support my initiative of inviting AKON to Sierra Leone, but went ahead to back another group who hijacked the process. I had gone ahead to arrange an initial contract agreement with a US-based event management company , JL entertainment to facilitate Akon’s visit to Sierra Leone, on a charitable basis to raise funds for  underprivileged and neglected youth in Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, those people whom, we informed decided to take control of the event, using an alternative backed with political power and money to hastily invite AKON.  It’s a pity the AKON show also suffered a big flop.  I understood there was a heavy down pour of rain throughout the slated night of the event.  I have to express my profound regret to my good friends at AWOL who were being misinformed, misled about the true nature of the event and made to invest their valuable time and resource in that traitorous business.

Love your Own!

There is no consideration for the disadvantaged persons in our society. You can see it in the recent unfortunate incident of the police vindictive action against some poor disabled youth who had gone to the Miatta Conference hall to cheer up President Enerst Koroma.  I note these disabled persons were seriously beaten and dragged out of the Miata Hall. Ridiculously, the president would have all the time in the world to meet with international musicians, not his own local celebrities or the ordinary citizens who voted him into power and direly need his attention to discuses pertinent issues towards nation building.

It should be noted that the Tejan Kabbah’s government was defeated by Ernest Koroma’s government in 2007 elections because many voters believed the then government had failed to deliver on promises of economic development, whilst rampant corruption had also damaged the country.

Tejan Kabba’s government work wasn’t perfect, but from such a tolerant and docile president we did actually make some good little efforts in promoting the music industry and freedom of speech. It’s entirely unsurprising and depressing that the Ernest Koroma’s government have wasted no time in getting rid of the music industry. This ban of the youth music is not something we should treat lightly. Our country should inculcate the true values of tolerance and part of that tolerance is allowing people we disagree with to express their views also. 

Frankly, Ernest Koroma’s government will not win, remember previous dictatorial regimes tried it, but they failed woefully.  Peaceful protest and freedom of speech is an integral part of democracy and it is the responsibility of the government to help facilitate just that.

The vast majority of young people from all backgrounds want to find solutions that are fair and respectful to all, and that do not ‘scapegoat’ or stigmatise youth activities. Our once proud image has suffered, often unfairly, at the hands of previous and successive governments.  Young people have been stereotyped as a group of thugs or rioters. We know that this is not the true picture of the youth but we also know that if the country is to move forward, we need to continue to focus on the many positive aspects of our youth and their development.

I know there are some groups who refuse to understand that with freedom comes responsibility.  These so-called youth thugs or ‘boga raray-men’ who want only to cause trouble, division and conflict and who refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, should be arrested and  brought to justice to face the full force of the law.  This, then, is not a question of freedom of speech, it is a question of protecting the public from individual thugs or groups who do not care about the lives of the people of Sierra Leone and show no interest in sharing positively in our country’s future.

The civil rights movement starts here!

In protecting Sierra Leone’s democracy, we all have to launch an appeal or ultimatum to the government, to lift the ban on music sooner, not later.

On behalf the music industry, I would like to make a passionate appeal to Ernest Koroma’s government, to reconsider its decision and lift the ban, now or at latest by the 30th of January 2011. Should the government fail to pay heed to this appeal, I will have no other option, but to call for a sit-in protest at the premises of the Sierra Leone High Commission in the UK. We will organise to install a music set at the High Commission and play 24/7, non-stop Sierra Leonean music there.  

The British government and the international community, who dish out all these ineffective aided funds to Sierra Leone, will have to be informed of this unfortunate scenario from the world’s media. And the government ought to know better the impact of such an international media, if we are to go ahead with picketing the High Commission in London.

Any move by the Government to distract our peaceful protest, would be politically damaging to the Enerst Koroma’s government and our democracy. Given that the international community is already monitoring the issue of the youth crisis and has expressed concern over politicisation, the government should not risk damaging relations with important donors such as the UK by banning music and destroying freedom of speech and association, as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Furthermore, there is strong public support for the music industry.  Any harm caused to those supporting the music industry, would likely cost the government political support, which it hope it would not risk in the context of approaching elections. Harm caused to the music industry would be seized upon by the opposition parties and could likely lead to the derailment of the government.  

Finally, I want to call on all members of the music industry, fans, the civil society and youth groups to join me in this fearless campaign, to get the government to lift the ban on all musical activities.  I urgently need your collective support to make a difference.  United, we stand, divided, we fall!

How you can help:

  • Text messages or make a phone call   to the offices of the President and Vice President and ask them to lift the ban on music.  
  • Write directly to the President, Enerst Koroma asking him to lift the ban on musical activities.  The email address for the President is: ernest@ernestkoroma.org
  • Visit or write to your MP asking them to ask the government to lift the ban on music. You can find your local MPs at parliament building in Freetown.
  • You can bring out your musical players or taps and play loud music on all the streets in Sierra Leone on the 1st of February 2011, if the government does not lift the ban by then.
  • You can also join me at the Sierra Leone High Commission in the UK on the 1st of February 2011, at 12 noon, if the government does not lift the ban by then.
  • If you are in Europe, USA, Asian, Africa or other parts of the world, you can also organise your own ‘salone party’ and protest at the various Sierra Leone High Commissions across the world.

Author’s Notes:

The views expressed in this article are my own and do not reflect those of the organisations or groups I am affiliated to, both in Sierra Leone and the diaspora. 

I understand my duty to the country and respect for both the Government and Sierra Leone’s Constitution, and have complied and will continue to comply with that duty.

I confirm that insofar as the facts stated in this paper are within my own knowledge, and are not influenced by political or selfish interest—in fact, I am a non-member of these so-called political parties in Sierra Leone.

I have made clear which they are and I believe them to be true, and that the opinions I have expressed represent my true and complete personal opinion, as a patriotic citizen of Sierra Leone, excising my fundamental rights of freedom of speech, as enshrined in the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone.

If anybody disagrees with the content of my article, please feel free to excise your democratic right too, and make your points known to the public.  I am free, available and ready to engage in any debates or discussions regarding this paper.

For further interviews, media relations, clarifications, or to join the campaign, please feel free to contact me at email: presidentfor2037@yahoo.com. If you are in Sierra Leone, please contact   my Personal Assistant in Freetown, Bankole Turay at the Foundation for Civic Innovation (FCI) on  phone:+232-77-552800 or  Email: bankolay8as@yahoo.com

About the author:

Messeh Kamara, aged 23, is a scholar of law and international development, currently studying and living in the UK.  He has held/hold positions with various youth and human rights bodies in Sierra Leone, including International Goodwill Ambassador, Handicapped Youth Development Association, Founding Chief Executive, Young Leaders Organisation, President of the Children’s Forum, Youth focal point, UN Voice of Children Radio Advisory Board, founding speaker of the Children’s Parliament, Director of Children’s affairs, National Youth Coalition, and Director Foundation for Civic Innovation. Currently, he is affiliated to the Commonwealth Youth Affairs Division in the UK, where he is assisting on youth development projects. In recognition of his achievements in the field of human rights, Messeh was recently honoured as a keynote speaker at the Swedish European Union Presidency Summit on ‘Human Rights’ in Stockholm, Sweden.

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