Saturday, July 30, 2016

Is WhatsApp Killing African Talent?

Africa, probably more than any area of the world, has been swept up in the Whatsapp revolution.

WhatsApp is a social media app that permits the user to easily transfer high quality video, audio and pictures files instantaneously between smartphones around the world. It doesn't matter which corner of the world users reside in, as long as they have respectable access to the Internet, WhatsApp allows them to share huge files.

With the proliferation of mobile web access in many African countries, the use of WhatsApp and other mobile social media platforms have taken off like a category 5 hurricane. For many Africans who can not afford the exorbitant phone fees required to talk to their relatives in Asia, Europe,  the Americas or even Australia, WhatsApp has been a real God send, as it now allows them to be in constant touch with their relatives in these far flung areas of the world.

For those of us living in America and other Western countries who come from struggling families in Africa, it means that we are now constantly and instantaneously bombarded with a barrage of family problems, from the important to the ridiculous, thanks to WhatsApp and other social media platforms, Facebook and WhatsApp being the two most popular.

Unfortunately, for struggling African musicians, comedians, or other providers of content that can be easily shared via whatsapp, the app is turning out to be a major curse rather than a blessing.
Talented Sierra Leone musicians like Emmerson, Arkman, Innocent, Steady Bongo, Amie Kallon and others now have a growing fan base for their music overseas, thanks to the sizeable number of Sierra Leoneans living in the diaspora, many of whom rely on Sierra Leone music to combat the occasional feeling of nostalgia every immigrant experiences when the make their homes far away from their country of birth. But instead of buying this music all they now do is call relatives and get them to send it free over WhatsApp. A whole Album of songs can be easily sent via WhatsApp without any reduction in the quality of the music.

In Sierra Leone, a country with lax copyright laws and a growing affinity for sharing content on social media, the latest popular work by the country's struggling artists are usually spread all over social media even before they have hit the retail market.

Take for example two extremely talented Sierra Leone based musicians Emmerson and Arkman. Just before the summer, Emmerson released a single titled "Munku Boss Pan Matches," in which he lamented the rampant government corruption in Sierra Leone, comparing the country's insanely greedy politicians to kids in a candy store. He mocked their exuberance, as they raided government coffers to satisfy their expensive lifestyle patterns, while the majority of the people in the country lived in poverty and squalor.

Emmerson's music quickly became popular in the country spreading like wildfire in the harmattan. With chronic hardship now reducing many residents of the capital to foraging in dustbins for food, while the political class live like old kings of Europe, the music resonated with the country's downtrodden.

Unfortunately for Emmerson, his music was already in the hands of almost every Sierra Leonean with a smartphone even before it even hit the stores, thanks to Whatsapp. Though he probably made some money from concerts and some limited sales, free social media distribution of his extremely popular song potentially resulted in a loss of revenue in the region of thousands of dollars.

Another Sierra Leone musician who potentially lost a lot of money due to unsanctioned distribution of his music via WhatsApp is the talented musician Arkman with his hit "Vanity."  The song which preaches against materialism and superficiality, was a popular hit back in Sierra Leone and a major play in the Sierra Leone diaspora party circuit. Arkman could have made a lot of money from this beautiful song.
Where WhatsApp has greatly facilitated communication in Africa, the fact that it currently has very little to no safeguards in place to restrict the distribution of licensed content, could have negative consequences on the development of musical talent on the African continent, unless the App's owners could enable content owners to use it as much for sales as for distribution.
The proliferation of mobile technology has the potential to seriously accelerate the pace of development in Africa, but we should be cautious that our young talented musicians do not become losers in this revolution, even as free riders benefit by no longer having to pay for music.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Culture Clashes Lead to Fatalities in Bonthe as Local Youths go on the Rampage

Over the weekend in Bonthe, arguably the most peaceful area Sierra Leone, a group of youths went on the rampage over a minor incident that resulted in clashes between some misguided youths on the island and soldiers stationed there, resulting in fatalities. It is reported that at least two people were killed yesterday in skirmishes between the youths and some soldiers stationed in the area, with some of the soldiers sustaining minor injuries.

The whole incident started with a quarrel between two young people on the island, one Michael Jikpama and a lady called Esther Senesie. During the quarrel Esther sucked her teeth at Michael, an act that is traditionally considered extremely disrespectful in the area, especially if it is from a woman and directed against a man who has been initiated into the local Poro secret society. To add fuel to fire, Esther also told Michael that if he was a man, he should do what he wanted to do over the perceived insult.

Michael was so outraged by the challenge that he started mobilizing a group of male youths in the area, saying  that a woman had disrespected and challenged their society. The news of the apparent cultural affront soon quickly spread and a lot of enraged male youths quickly rushed and joined Michael and his rowdy crowd.

As news of the incident spread, the local chiefs tried to intervene and told the youths that the days when people fought over such minor cultural infractions were over. They told them that the island was becoming a multicultural place and new people were moving to the area, including outside investors necessary to the development of the area, who did not necessarily know the customs. They told them that the world was changing and the aggrieved youths should just overlook the incident.

However, Michael and his now growing gang did not listen and continued mobilizing angry youths in the town, with a plan to attack the lady and all those they perceived as her defenders. The news got to the security  personnel on the island and the ONS went on radio and warned the youths to desist from any action that would compromise the peace and security of the areas. He told them that if they had any grievances they should convey them through the legal channels. The mayor,who was away, also reportedly called the youths and appealed to them for calm. However, the youths were now bent on defending their customs and were not prepared to listen to anybody.

The traditionally minded youths went to the residence of the ONS and severely beat his wife, and also attacked a soldier there. A group of over one hundred irate local youths also started pelting the military personnel who were dispatched to the area with rocks. They soldiers fired some warning shots, but that just got the crowd more riled up and they started rusing the soldiers who fired into the crowd, leaving two dead and one wounded.

Tensions are still high on the island, but the quick action of the soldiers has brought some order and calm to the town. Authorities are still on the lookout for Michael and some of the key leaders of his gang.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Sierra Leone: Bleak Prospects in the Face of Abundant Opportunity.

Sierra Leone Diamonds
Bob Marley's aphorism, "in the abundance of water the fool is thirsty," which is probably the most memorable verse in his 70s hit "Rat Race," aptly describes the conditions prevailing in many Sub-Saharan countries today, roughly 50 years post independence. Sierra Leone us a poster child of all that is wrong with Sub-Saharan Africa.

How can a continent blessed with so much natural wealth and such a resilient people, be so poor in terms of human material development and progress? How can there be so much poverty and squalor in the face of so much mineral, agricultural and marine wealth. How can a country like Sierra Leone, with a population of only 6 million and some of the richest diamond deposits in the world, consistently rank among the poorest countries in the world and become only notorious for the severity of its natural and human conflicts and the weakness of its governance institutions.

Many young Sierra Leoneans cannot even imagine today that there was a period in Sierra Leone when the capital city Freetown had 24 hours of continuous electricity and that during those days, sporadic blackouts were met with cries of "blackout!" resounding through the main streets of that once beautiful city.

At the risk of waxing nostalgic, I sometimes tell some of my young friends that when we were growing up in Freetown in the mid 70s, it was a truly beautiful city, without the human and vehicle congestion that has blighted the face of the once hopeful metropolis. Freetown those days was without the poverty, squalor and sense of resignation that has come to define its population. I still remember nights when we would sneak out to see adults gyrating happily in bars to the tunes of Prince Nico's "Simplicity" and "Sweet Mother." In Grammar School I used to walk to Lumley Beach to study while watching the Atlantic waves rushing in. We thought things were bad then. It was the beginning of the nightmare.

The Road to the Diamond
Sierra Leone is at a crucial crossroads. The future of Africa will be a future of increasing population growth, depleting mineral resources, increased deforestation, the proliferation of virulent strains of drug resistant infections, a higher demand for public services and the potentially devastating consequences of global warming. It will be a future full of uncertainty, complexity, challenges and limited opportunities. At the threshold of this uncertain future, a country like Sierra Leone seems to not only be inadequately prepared, but most of the leaders seem to be blissfully obliviously of the potential implications of these challenges. The country seems to be headed into the future, unguided, like a running car that has lost the functionality of its steering.

If things continue as they are at the present, the future of Sierra Leone is truly bleak. However, all is not lost. Sierra Leone is a small country with excellent human capital. The country has over a decade experienced a massive brain drain of its educated citizens leaving for other countries, due mainly to conflict, the lack of employment opportunities, stagnant or declining real wages and a public sector job market characterized by nepotism, political patronage and tribalism.

In my discussions with a lot of Sierra Leone professionals in the country's scattered diaspora, many are prepared to take a substantial reduction in earnings to go back home and help put the country on a better path. However, job prospects for Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora have mostly been open to political allies of the leadership, most of whom lacked the skills needed by the country and headed back home to jobs for which they were highly unqualified and unprepared for. 

Late President Tejan Kabba
A Trusted Leader
The dismal performance of these diaspora returnees has just perpetuated the growing myth that most Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora are incompetent. A lot of local based professional have justifiable had to view their diaspora counterparts with scorn and contempt. It can however be safely said that there has been no concerted effort on the part of the current government to seek competent professionals for crucial positions. Employment opportunities have mostly been open to the loudest defenders of the ugly status quo. It has been a case of incompetence in, incompetence out. As Idrissa Conteh, one of Sierra Leone's finest journalist once said when we were together in school, "when there is not there, you cannot force there to be there." In computer terminology it is GIGO-Garbage in, garbage out.

However, Sierra Leone is a democracy. It is possible that the next leader of the country, whether they are from the ranks of the opposition or from the ruling party, will not have the primitive mindset of the current President, Ernest Bai Koroma, a man whose fondness for sycophancy is matched only by his affinity for regionalism. 

A few weeks ago, I was appalled by a set of interviews given on BBC by the new Information Minister Mohamed Bangura, a political opportunist whose glaring display of ignorance and lack of diplomatic fitness is matched only by his juvenile command of the English language. To have a fellow of such caliber masquerading as the information minister of our country is a bitter pill that many enlightened Sierra Leoneans now have to swallow. Even with all her negative history, this is the only time  in the history of Sierra Leone that ministers of government are among the lowest caliber of folks in the country. A few months ago the Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, a visually impaired musician, was openly insulting the parents of the substantive Minister in front of the employees of the ministry. It was the lower employees who were begging them to behave, appealing to them like two small children in the schoolyard playground. Even the President had no option but to let them go. If a new leader, whoever that happens to be, will just try to put the right people in the right positions, that would be a major step in putting the country back on track. It would be a step in the right direction.

But as of now, Sierra Leone is a vampire state subject to the whims of foreign vulture capitalists. In a vampire state, the leaders are like vampires or bats, sucking the lifeblood out of the masses. In Sierra Leone today, even in the midst of all the poverty and squalor, the President and those in his favor live like royalty, building mansions in the midst of shanty towns and tenement yards. The poor people are forced to contend with backbreaking labor for a currency whose value continues to decline by the hour. Many young people are forced to turn to alcoholism in order to blunt the impact of the grinding poverty. Many young women from respectable families are turning to prostitution to make ends meet. They do not even hide it anymore.

In a bid to attract foreign investment, Sierra Leone has had to contend with unscrupulous capitalists who negotiate terms that are only beneficial to those in power. The businessmen willing to invest in the volatile country have shored themselves against the uncertain business climate by negotiating contracts that have no benefit for the country either in the short or long term, but only act to mask the rape of the country by providing a semblance of employment. These much touted investors usually close down shop at the smallest whiff of uncertainty. Some just grab enough minerals to make some profit before they close down at the earliest opportunity.

Unfortunately, the destiny of Sierra Leone lies in the hand of voters shackled to the chains of tribalism. Even with the dismal performance of those in power, people will still vote for them because they either speak the same language or come from the same region. African leaders are the most blessed in the history of leadership. As long as you can identify your political outfit with a particular tribal identity, you can rob the masses blind and they will still vote for you. The vote will not be any show of support for your performance or policies, but a vote for a sentimental affiliation to the party. Until we find a way for our political parties to lose that tribal attraction, African democracy will continue to be government of "the brothers pretending to be for their brothers, while robbing everybody blind." It is a sad state, but that is the state of Sierra Leone today. Will things change? Only time will tell.

Sheku Sheriff

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Blog is Back!

Over the past year, I have had emails, calls and social media contacts from various fans of my weblog, the Segbwema blog. People wanted to know why the frequency of blog posts saw a steep decline. There was a partial hiatus of the blog, as I was engaged in several projects that did not leave me enough time to focus on the type of stories I usually like to explore from a neutral perspective. Also, with the proliferation of social media information outlets, it is very easy these days to get news in real time, as soon as an incident occurs. So unless a story is really worth exploring, the information vacuum that used to exist in the days before the mobile revolution simply doesn't exist anymore. However, the same problems that I am passionate about continue to exist and I think it is now time to lend my voice to the effort to bring reforms in governance and social justice in Sierra Leone.

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