A Song Sparks a Debate in Sierra Leone

Jerome spent a year in the Peace Corps in this small West African country, apparently riding around on a motorbike and drinking palm wine, or so I am told. Sierra Leone is best known for its brutal decade long civil war that began in 1991 and the illicit diamond trade that fueled the conflict. The movie Blood Diamond starring Leonardo DiCaprio was set in Sierra Leone. The war was brutal even by African standards leaving tens of thousands dead and an internally displaced population of over 2 million people, or one in three Sierra Leoneans. Though the war came to an end in 2002 and despite vast natural resources, the country remains troubled even under a democratically elected government. The problem is one that plagues Africa - corruption and poor governance. The recent Transparency International corruption index ranked Sierra Leone the 146th most corrupt nation in the world on a par with Zimbabwe.

But Sierra Leoneans are all of sudden talking about the state of their country and discussing issues like corruption and governance thanks to a song by one of the country's musical international superstars, Emmerson Bockarie. The song, Yesterday Betteh Pass Tiday, is sung in the creole language Krio that is spoken in Sierra Leone. Translated the song title means "yesterday is better than today". The song has sent shock waves and started debate all over the country because of its frank social commentary and stinging lyrics. It takes direct aim at the country's leadership. It's not often we hear words like "transparency,""anti-corruption""accountability" or "teachers' salaries" in a song. There's even a shout out to President Obama thanking him for raising the issue of poor governance during his visit to Ghana earlier this year.

Here's a story about the current debate raging in Sierra Leone from All Africa:

The song compares the performance in government of the previous Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) regime and the ruling All Peoples' Congress (APC). Bockarie points out that government in Sierra Leone was bad under the SLPP, but is worse now.

The song highlights corruption, the high cost of living, nepotism, tribalism, poor service delivery, poor government salaries and a static economy, concluding that things have not changed for the better under the new government.

"We identify with this song because Emerson said it all, nothing seems to move," said Sahid Sesay a secondary school teacher in Freetown. He said the government had given a 20 percent increment in salaries, but this had had no impact "simply because all the prices of everything in the market have gone up".

The APC government came to power on a platform of change, and in his inauguration speech President Ernest Bai Koroma announced he and his team would show "zero tolerance on corruption".

Mohamed Turay, a research assistant at the Fourah Bay College in Freetown, said: "I think the government is still yielding in principle to an anti-corruption strategy in order to satisfy requirements for donor funds, without fully implementing it. The commission is still crippled by a lack of political will."

Turay cited the case of Afsatu Kabba, former minister of energy and power, who clearly flouted the procurement rules by giving out a contract to Income Electrix, an independent power provider, for the supply of 25 mega watt (MW) generator whilst there were other favorable companies that would have cost government less and that even when the contract was awarded only 10MW was installed and commissioned.

"But nothing came out of it. She is now sent to head the ministry of fisheries and marine resources. How can we say the government is serious about fighting corruption?" asked Turay.

He also said the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) Act directed that public officials, including their spouses and children, were to declare their assets. While the president had declared his, most of the ministers and other public officials had not declared their assets, in spite of the commission.

Can a song change a country? I sure hope so. It's time to attack the culture of gbashi, gbashi that plagues everywhere from Washington to Timbuktu. Listen to it, since it is sung in a English-based creole, you can understand a fair bit of it. Plus it's zouk, one of the world's most infectious musical rhythms. It goes well with palm wine, or so I am told.

Tags: africa, corruption, Governance Issues, Sierra Leone (all tags)

Comments

4 Comments

di bodi fin

And included some work for UNICEF building schools & healthcare buildings :)

But boy do I remember the experience of doing some early morning building work and then taking a break for fresh palm wine tapped the previous night-- tough to beat.

I can't imagine how different it is now, with cell phones and all.  Love the Krio.

by Jerome Armstrong 2009-11-19 08:22AM | 0 recs
Re: di bodi fin

The shout out to Obama I thought was pretty impressive. It shows his words in Ghana were heeded. It's not insignificant. Changing a culture is hard. Corruption is so ingrained. The healthcare bill here. There are so many taps on that leak money to special interests.  

Sierra Leone has so much potential. Glad it sparked fond memories.

by Charles Lemos 2009-11-19 09:01AM | 0 recs
Sett: Youssa N'Dour

Shortly before I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal--Youssa N'Dour (also a pretty famous musician outside of Africa--recorded with Peter Gabriel, etc.) released a song called Sett.  Sett means "clean" or something like this in Wolof (which I did not speak, being based in S. Senegal).  The message of the song was that the people should care more about the cleanliness of their towns/villages as a matter of pride and health.  It spawned many village sett parties and made a difference.

Maybe didn't change a country, but did improve a countryside.

Mmmmm.  Palm wine.

Hera durong

by The lurking ecologist 2009-11-19 05:22PM | 0 recs
Re: Sett: Youssa N'Dour

Mali's Habib Koité has a song called Cigarette Abana, or no more cigarettes that was used in an anti-smoking campaign. Definitely a strong tradition of social music in Africa.

I remember Sett. I am sure I have it in my collection. Cheikh N'Digel Lô is another who writes songs in this vein of self-improvement and self-reliance.

Also Fela Kuti, the Nigerian singer, was killed while in prison and he wrote powerful protest songs.

What makes this song different is that it has set off a debate. It's also kinda cool that Obama played a role because I haven't been happy with his lack of focus on human rights issues but on the other hand by tackling good governance you ultimately address human rights. So I see a method to his thinking.

by Charles Lemos 2009-11-19 05:38PM | 0 recs

Diaries

Advertise Blogads