/ 15 March 2018

Sierra Leone can do better, says Afropop star

Emmerson Bockarie:My vision for Sierra Leone is a place where equality is better shared.
Emmerson Bockarie:My vision for Sierra Leone is a place where equality is better shared.

Jamie Hitchen in Freetown

“A corrupt Sierra Leone…an undemocratic, heavily indebted, divided country”. This will be the legacy of outgoing Sierra Leonean president Ernest Bai Koroma, says musician Emmerson Bockarie.

The first-round of presidential results of the 7 March election were finally announced in the evening of 13 March by National Electoral Commission Chair, Mohammed N’Fah Alie Conteh. 

A run-off between two candidates: the Sierra Leone People’s Party’s (SLPP) Julius Maada Bio and the current party in power, All People’s Congress’s (APC), Samura Kamara, will hold on 27 March 2018. The SLPP edged the first round winning 43.3% of the vote to the APC’s 42.7% but with the 14 other parties sharing the remaining 14% of the vote, their political realignment, and whether they can convince their supporters to follow, is likely to be vital. 

Two candidates in particular― Kandeh Yumkella of the National Grand Coalition and Sam Sumana of the Coalition for Change― both of whom have had very public falling outs with the leading two parties in the last three years are in a position to become kingmakers; with Yumkella’s share of the vote in the first round 6.9% and Sumana’s 3.5%.

A few days before the announcement, but after Sierra Leoneans cast their votes to elect a new president, parliamentarians, local councillors and mayors, I sat down with Emmerson just outside Freetown to talk about his musical contribution to the political conversation in the country. 

His left index finger remains stained by the indelible ink that means he — like over 80% of Sierra Leonean — voted on 7 March 2018, but he is not interested in divulging who he cast his ballot in favour of. He prefers instead to discuss the work he has been involved with during this election campaign― in partnership with civil society organisations― to improved voter education and civic engagement nationwide.

Having collaborated with four fellow artists, and the Institute for Governance Reform to produce “Mi vote na mi life”, in 2017— a song that encouraged Sierra Leoneans to think about policy and ideas, as much as identity and promises of rewards when choosing their elected officials— he sacrificed his personal time to undertake a ten city tour of the country in January and early February 2018, as part of a civic engagement project run by Action Aid with support from the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA). 

Despite popular clamour for him to sing his popular songs, Emmerson remained focused on the task at hand; educating his fellow countrymen and women about voting procedures and the choices available to them. 

“Corrupt politicians know the weaknesses of our citizens and they exploit them for their personal gain…this work was aimed at better informing them”.

“Emmerson has been a leading campaigner for social justice in Sierra Leone for over a decade; his message appeals to and resonates with sections of the populace who feel hard done by successive government failures to provide basic services” says Joe Pemagbi, Sierra Leone Country Director of OSWIA.

“People came in their droves to see him” says Pemagbi, who believes Emmerson’s credibility and mass appeal made him an obvious choice for a civic education campaign.

However voter education and awareness was not Emmerson’s only contribution to this election. Having completed the ten city tour, on 26 February he released, independently of civil society, ‘Good Do’ a near 20 minute song, come social commentary, which offered deep introspection into the huge array of self-inflicted problems harming development in Sierra Leone.

The song even ‘features’ the presidential aspirant of the incumbent APC, Samura Kamara, with Emmerson having taken a clip from the televised presidential debate in which Kamara answered a question about the state of the country by blaming government.

To his critics, this attack on the corruption of the state and the hardship it has brought for many Sierra Leoneans was dismissed as mere opposition propaganda, but for others Emmerson’s work spoke to a truth that they both recognised and agreed with. He smiles wryly when I put the suggestion of political bias to him.

“When I released my album in 2005, everyone was saying that I was APC [then in opposition]. Over a decade later, I am now accused of being SLPP…I think that the government will always criticise you when you say some things that they don’t agree with but this is not a reason to stop doing it”.

His challenge to his critics is simple, “even if you don’t believe what I say, cross-check, ask questions of your leaders and elected officials….I am not a prophet, I am simply trying to show citizens what is there, but perhaps want they can’t yet see”. 

To that end the importance of using Krio to communicate his political messages, in a country where English might be the official language, but where Krio is the lingua franca, cannot be understated, “for the pop songs I sing mainly in English but when it comes to politics I have to use Krio”.

But the elections are not the end of the process. Whoever wins the presidential vote, and however the seats in parliament are shared, ensuring that elected representatives are held accountable to citizens and institutions alike is vital. The current parliament was accused of rubber stamping the whim of the executive and doing little to engage citizens. Music has an important role to play. But “politics is also tempting” for Emmerson, who says that not a day goes past when someone does not ask him about his political aspirations. For now though he is reluctant. “The question I ask continue to ask myself is if I get into politics, who will do what I do now”. 

Emmerson intends to continue to ask probing questions of whoever is charged with overseeing improvements in the everyday lives of fellow Sierra Leoneans. “My vision for Sierra Leone is a place where equality is better shared”. 

The newly elected crop of politicians may promise the same, but should they fail to deliver they know that Emmerson will be on their case.

Jamie Hitchen is a freelance researcher. He is currently in Sierra Leone and tweets @jchitchen