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CLICKS AND GANGS: PALO CONTEH’S ALBATROSS

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CLICKS AND GANGS: PALO CONTEH’S ALBATROSS

By: Sheik Bakarr……………………………..

That cliques and gangs are a serious menace to life and property in contemporary Sierra Leone is a terrible understatement. Youth gang culture has been a part and parcel of Sierra Leonean political life albeit by another name, from as far as the sixties. The fundamental difference between organized gang violence in the sixties, seventies and eighties is that unlike those days, today, it does not seem to be funded and organized by any discernible political figure or around any political entity. In the sixties to date, they were actually instruments of political parties bent on perpetrating their rule. The African Research Institute in its 2011 report holds that the employment of youth violence for political purpose was not the monopoly of any one political party. It states that between ”1961 to 2007,”Sierra Leone has held 11 parliamentary and five presidential elections. All have been accompanied by violence. In the 1967 elections, the ruling SLPP used new public order legislation and ”rarray boys”- thugs – to stymie opposition”. It further states that ”the 1973 election was boycotted by the SLPP, amid allegations that APC supporters were preventing its candidates from entering nomination centres. SLPP candidates were also reportedly kidnapped. In 1977, voting took place under a state of emergency. The APC employed its youth wing and the Internal Security Unit – commonly referred to as “I Shoot U” – to harass SLPP politicians and supporters. In eight constituencies, polls could not be held. In 1982, more than 50 people were killed in an election conducted in a one party state ruled by the APC.”

By 1978, after the APC had all but consolidated itself in power and when at all cost it wanted to hang on to it, it relied mainly on unemployed lumpen youth to railroad its opponents into silence with violence and intimidation. Between the 70’s and 80’s, lumpen youth became the favoured tools for particularly APC politicians bent on perpetuating their rule over their hapless citizenry.Firstly, by the mid to late 70’s, the ruling party under Siaka Stevens in line with the vogue in Africa, and much of the third world at the time, wanted to mould Sierra Leone into a tightly controlled one party state. Stevens’ terrible economic policies and the unbridled corruption that characterised his years of misrule, had mired Sierra Leone into such an economic Armageddon, that the salaries of even the few gainfully employed people went unpaid for months. There was such a miserable level of unemployment and underemployment that the only outlet for survival for the bulk of these uneducated and unskilled youth, was engaging in political violence for well heeled politicians and political parties. Although President Koroma I believe was popular enough to win the pools in 2012,I have no doubt that hired youth who succeeded in railroading the opposition in some parts of the country particularly the capital Freetown, the swing diamondiferous district of Kono and the north played a crucial role.

Youth were also used to openly campaign for the APC in 2012.We are witnesses to how some youth ‘okada’ riders were given motor bikes and funds to campaign on behalf of the president and his party. In the immediate pre and post elections period in 2012, okada youths were particularly so pampered by the government and its senior functionaries, that some were even emboldened enough to challenge in some instances, the authority of the police. In some cases, State House became the police station for okada riders.Perrinial law breakers, they would storm State House in their hundreds whenever the police took them to task for traffic misdemeanours. It was not uncommon to hear okada riders boast that the APC is their government. They became the blue eyed boys of the government and because they were led to believe that with the government on their side, they can transgress for as much as they wanted and get away with it, they almost became law unto themselves. It is also an open secret that the government openly courted the support of local musicians who gladly obliged and played a pivotal role in the success of the ruling party in the 2012 elections.

It is about this period that fan groups of the most popular musicians like LAJ, Pupa Baja, Kow Denero, Inoncent began to sprout. They had quite fanciful names: Black Leo, Red Flag Movement or RFM.The emergence of these fan clubs led to what I call youth rebel culture. A lot of ego set in with the youth leaders of the fan groups fanning the flames of competition, by engaging in what became known as ‘beefing’or the bad mouthing of rival fans or musicians. These fan groups first took upon the dimension of cult groups and as the competition between the groups became more heated, open street attacks on one another became the hallmark of the new gang culture. Some key government functionaries notably the controversial former lands minister Musa Tarawally played the role of patron saint. It became common place for the publicity hungry minister to be seen chairing one peace accord after another in his so called bid, to stem the tide of violence that was taking hold of Freetown’s streets. On a few occasions, State House also played host to some of those ‘peace meetings’. Then as is always with youth rebel culture, these clique members became cause celebres. They stood out like heroes in their communities and their sense of power and pride grew as they attracted some of the choicest girls in the community. Reach out.com calls peer pressure  the influence one feels from a person or group of people to do something you might not otherwise consider doing.

It’s not uncommon to want to be part of a group and feel like you belong in a community, especially if you are new or less experience than the people around you. Peer pressure can be as simple and direct as someone telling you what to do. It might be a good idea to talk to someone you trust if you feel threatened, or if you are being hurt or pressured into something you don’t want to do. You could talk to a family member, friend, teacher or counselor. Peer pressure can be indirect. It might not always be obvious to you. It’s not uncommon for a group of friends to have particular habits or activities that they do together. But when you’re with a different group of friends, it might be unlikely that you do those same things. For example, you might only smoke when you are with certain friends, or you might be more likely to study when you are with other friends. Sometimes, peer pressure can be Individual. Sometimes the pressure comes from yourself. Feeling different from a group can be hard. Sometimes this happens when people move to a new city or start a new school or job. This often means having to make new friends and fit into a new environment. To avoid feeling out of place, you might do things to make sure you feel like the rest of the group. When people feel unsure about themselves, they might be more likely to feel the effects of peer pressure.

This is how overpowering peer pressure can be. Sierra Leonean youth have always been a deprived and dispossessed lot, they have always been largely unskilled and often always on the margins of society. It is this level of deprivation and exploitation they were subjected to by politicians who wanted them to ensure their perpetuity in power that was the fuel that attracted them to the rag tag RUF.Youth like adventure and novelty. These are fuelled by a hyper inquisitive mind.

In the Sierra Leonean context, the patronage of politicians for the votes of these cliques certainly went with pecuniary rewards especially for the senior members of the various groups. With their new found wealth and power, they felt particularly from red carpet welcomes at State House, a sense of new found power. With time, multitudes of their ilk got attracted to them. Education Scotland says young people can be drawn into gangs as a method of protecting themselves and as a way of carving out an identity. As the power of both Black Leo and RFM grew, less sophisticated groups like ‘Black Street’ ‘Baghdad’ and ‘Mount Aureol’ ‘Friends of the Dead’etc. started to mushroom. This latter group had no discernible hero or cult figure to hero worship. I am told that they largely saw themselves as down trodden and marginalised young people, who needed to do something desperate and dramatic for them to come out of their cocoon of obscurity.

Their relative poverty and obscurity meant that they could not compete for the headlines with the more sophisticated and more established fan groups. This handicap some believe, has forced them into becoming domestic terrorists that stage broad daylight raids on market places, to the more blood curdling spate of colour based murders we are witnesses to today.

It is important that one understands the complexities of youth gang culture before   trying to craft out a prescription for dealing with it. By some fate, the cocky, prickly, swashbuckling, and self confident former soldier has been lumbered with the mess that the Musa Tarawallys of this world have created. Palo Conteh takes upon this task with quite an appropriate resume. A born and bred Freetonian, he is armed with the streetwise experience the gangs deceive themselves to have monopoly over. He is a lawyer and so is well placed to know the legal ramifications of dealing with adolescents in conflict with the law that are supposedly still tied to mother’s apron strings. He is head of the police and prisons and so has the tools at his disposal to mangle to rubble the most hardened of criminals or their petenders. He is a powerful government minister and a trusted confidant of the president. He also carries powerful personal attributes. He is relatively young and has a charismatic personality. He is a man who many say carries his heart on his sleeve and is not fazed to speak his mind even on the most sensitive of issues. I once heard him say openly on public radio that it is the hunger for votes by politicians that has led to the proliferation of slums in Freetown. He is rankled by the sickening sight of horrible hovels that have defaced the otherwise beautiful military edifice at Cockerill.It is not every day that you hear an APC politician talk like that. A lot of Freetonians agree with him on this score and it speaks volumes of his self confidence. He certainly looks like a new breed politician. In addition, he has a powerful track record of solid achievement. Unlike Manchester City’s enigmatic midfield engine Yaya Toure, Palo has tackled a deadly virus. His leadership and organizational skills played a major role in curbing the fearsome Ebola scourge. He did the impossible when he found an effective strategy to contain the okada menace and return a sense of sanity to central Freetown. Containing the okada menace is no mean fit when one puts into context the level of seeming protection the riders had received from senior government functionaries.

Palo it seems is a man with a mission and has the uncanny knack to take on a monster that no one would like to touch even with barge pole. In the cliques and gangs, he may yet meet his albatross. Many believe that some of the members of these cliques in their pre clique and relatively more saner days, were enthusiastic members of the ruling party even if unofficially. Many are said to have been active participants in the ruling party’s 2007 and 2012 elections campaigns. Some say Palo may also encounter resistance from more pedantic, grass root party activists who not only see some of the clique members as their party foot soldiers, but also share an ethnic affinity with them. Some APC party faithful are also said to be fearful that a comprehensive crackdown on the cliques might rile the music godfathers of the established cliques from which the ‘Black Streets’ and ‘Baghdads’ of this world are said to have been born. Palo’s task is monstrous enough to faze the most daring of valiants.But he has tackled a deadly virus and has handcuffed Okada.But he will still have the Albatross of the cliques to contend with. Nice weekend Palo.

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