Sunday, November 20, 2016

Sierra Leone Government Jails Female University Student for ForwardingSocial Media Post

Theresa Mbomaya 
In an act that can be only be described as pure paranoia, the government of Sierra Leone has detained a 20 year old female university student, Theresa Mbomaya, for four days without bail, over a social media post that she forwarded to some friends, calling for peaceful protests against a sudden steep increase in the price of fuel and the generally hopeless economic situation that has gripped the country.

It can be recalled that many citizens groups, alarmed at the sudden downward economic trajectory in the country and the decision of the government to compound this by removing fuel subsidies, have been seeking police permits to peacefully demonstrate against the hardship imposed by the sudden increase in fuel prices in a country in which the average citizen lives on less than two dollars a day. So far the government has refused to issue permits for peaceful protests, with police parading through the city with water canons and armored personnel carriers in a show of force. People have been taking to social media to air their grievances. 
Theresa Mbomaya

Government supporters have been pointing to similar removal of fuel subsidies in other countries.  However, many have failed to note the fact that the majority of civil servants in Sierra Leone earn between 50 and hundred dollars a month and any removal of fuel subsidies will just send them deeper into already intolerable conditions of poverty. Pointing to the removal of fuel subsidies in relatively affluent countries seems insensitive, especially when the average Sierra Leone civil servant does not earn enough to feed and cloth their families, let alone provide them suitable housing.

The fuel price increase is bound to adversely affect students in the country, especially the capital Freetown, as many of them rely on public transportation to go to school. The impact of education should have been a reason to think over the decision more deeply.

The current Minister of Information Mohamed Bangura, a renowned political opportunist who has joined almost every major party in Sierra Leone, has been making loud noises about clamping down on social media and his first example seems to be the frail female student who is reportedly being held in very horrible conditions. His ministry released a public statement on the misuse of social media that was as rich in grammatical abuse as it was poor on substance.

Theresa's father, a secondary school teacher made an impassioned appeal to the government on social media on the day she was arrested, calling for the release of his daughter.  But so far his appeal seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Theresa is scheduled to appear in court on Monday to answer charges of public disorder and incitement. With the notoriety of the courts subservience to the government, only providence knows the girl's fate.

The government of Ernest Bai Koroma was returned to power four years ago on a promise of an Agenda for Prosperity. However, the last four years have seen the most dramatic decline in living standards in the history of Sierra Leone. 

A combination of the Ebola crisis, decline in mining activity, rampant public corruption, lavish public expenditure on government functionaries and gross mismanagement of public funds have brought the country to near economic collapse. The government recently introduced some half hearted austerity measures that are seen by many as a public relations stunt rather than an attempt to deal with official mismanagement. The impact of the measures are bound to affect the people more than the president and his allies who get fuel allowances.

Sierra Leone's problem is exacerbated by the fact that under the current government, civil service hiring is done mainly on the basis of political patronage. Many qualified people without political connections are out of work, while political operatives occupy core national positions that require technical expertise they do not posses. The result has been a steep increase in public inefficiency with a simultaneous decline in public sector productivity. The official currency, the Leone,  has depreciated by almost 50% in this year alone. 

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