Freetown’s song and dance

Music has turned rallies into parties for voters in Sierra Leone.

There are fears that huge turnouts are more a sign
of manipulation than voter engagement [Reuters]

Youth, melody and fashion have characterised the climax of campaigning for Sierra Leone’s presidential and parliamentary elections.

All the main political rallies have been dominated by young people wearing T-shirts, listening to loud music.

Indeed, music, dancing and more than a little alcohol has transformed parts of the final rallies for the three leading parties contesting Saturday’s vote.

Marches for the Sierra Leone’s People’s party (SLPP), the All People’s Congress (APC) and the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC) have resembled giant street parties rather than conventional political gatherings.

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Among the tunes supporters have been listening to is Wahid’s Tinden, translated into English as A Lot of Things.

The song is political, according to Wahid, and “explains the things that allow our country to grow, and highlights the things that have taken it backwards”.

Wahid plays Sluk music, which he refers to as traditional African Zuk music done in a Sierra Leone style, singing in the local Krio language.

He is among a new wave of artists that have caused Sierra Leone’s music scene to flourish since the country emerged from a brutal decade-long war in 2002.

“Music is one of the fastest growing industries in the country generally,” he says. “A lot of young people are into music to create jobs for themselves.”

Unemployment problem

Given that youth unemployment is currently at 80 per cent, creating jobs is a high priority. The average age of a Sierra Leonean is barely 18 according to UN figures and only five per cent of the country is over 60.

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Youth unemployment in West Africa was described as a “time bomb” in a UN report released last year, and with many young people in Sierra Leone dissatisfied with the current SLPP administration, there are fears that the election could produce a violent outcome if it is not conducted fairly.

That is an outcome Wahid and other award-winning artists such as Daddy Ish are campaigning to avoid through the UN-backed Artists for Peace, a coalition that also includes dramatists and comedians and which aims to dissuade youths from resorting to political violence.

“There is no effective communication between top and bottom in this country,” Wahid says. “We are acting as the voice of the people – relating to them.”

Although attending an SLPP rally in the St Johns area of Freetown, he sports a yellow “I love Sierra Leone” cap, not the green of the SLPP, the red of the APC, nor the orange of the PMDC – saying that all the Artists for Peace have to be neutral.

Neutrality is hard to come by in Sierra Leone given the country’s mass poverty and the deprived conditions of most citizens.

DJ Base says African politics
is all about money

DJ Base, one of the country’s most prominent radio personalities, says: “People in this country need money and African politics is all to do with money.

“Some people just say if this or that political party gives me money then I will vote for him.”

Base, whose real name Mamajah Jalloh, says he was the first DJ to play Emmerson’s 2 Fut Arata, an anti-corruption song whose title means “two-footed rats”. The lyrics compare the leading presidential candidates in Saturday’s elections to rats.

Emmerson developed his talent in the same Bodyguard studios in Freetown as Wahid and the song has been hugely popular.

But for Base, whose night-time show on UN radio is one of the most listened to in Sierra Leone, the problem is that when something makes a popular connection with the country’s youth, especially on a political level, it is bound to be used in a political way.

Chasing the young

A song entitled We Give Them Notice by Fabulous was released, containing lyrics promoting the opposition APC and criticising the SLPP. Within days the SLPP had recruited its own song writer to pen a retaliatory party anthem.

The closer than expected race for the presidency and parliamentary seats has been made more interesting by the emergence of the PMDC, formed in 2005 when its leader Charles Margai left the SLPP after losing the leadership to Solomon Berewa, the vice-president and ruling party candidate.

The new movement has also made the clamour for the youth vote more intense.

The UN-backed Artists for Peace urges
youths not to resort to political violence

All parties are touting themselves as the right choice for young voters.

Given that African politics is generally an old man’s game – the outgoing president Ahmed Tejan Kabbah is 75 and Solomon Berewa is 69, despite his youthful nickname, Solo B – Mohammed Onanah Jalloh is a spring chicken at 30.

He is the chairman of the country’s central district for the PMDC and says that his party will change the constitution, which says a candidate has to be over 40 to stand.

“Up to 65 per cent of our parliamentarian aspirants are between 35 and 45,” he says.

Ernest Koroma, the leader of the APC, also told Al Jazeera that he would do more to develop the country’s youth if elected.

There are fears, however, that the huge turnout at each party’s rallies is more a sign of voter manipulation than young voters engaged in politics.

Widely believed reports say that party officials have been paying people the equivalent of $3, giving them a party T-shirt and enough food for the day to take part in rallies.

John Caulker of the Forum for Conscience rights group says he is disappointed with many of his fellow young Sierra Leoneans.

“They just want to protest so they support the APC or whoever,” he says. “But they do not seem to understand why they are protesting.”

Trying to navigate the sea of red that is the APC rally, Mateus, a taxi driver, shakes his head saying: “These young people, many don’t even register. They just want to dance and party.”

Fed up and hopeless

Yet an indicator of the difference $3 could make to someone’s life here was evident when Al Jazeera visited Maurice, a 29-year-old who squats in the dank shell that is what is left of Freetown’s city hall, all but destroyed during the war.

Critics say some youths just want to party

Having come to the capital looking for work, Maurice cannot find a job, sleeps on damp cardboard and blames the government for failing to help him. All he can repeat is he is “fed up” and has “no hope”.

Such disenchantment coupled with traditional political divisions and the new fault line created between the SLPP and PMDC has led analysts to fear a relapse to violence could be a very real possibility after Saturday’s vote.

Caulker says there is a 10-to-one chance of that happening if a presidential run-off is required, should no candidate win a 55 per cent majority.

But DJ Base says the crucial thing is that the elections are free and fair.

Radio has played a crucial role in Sierra Leone since the end of the war, with a proliferation of independent stations. High illiteracy rates and the lack of power in many areas to run televisions mean the medium has flourished.

As a result, Base says it has been possible to air opinions from every side and attempt to educate people that democracy and peace is the best route to development.

“Politicians are aware that people will not take any mess,” he says. “They will try their best; we’ve been through a lot. The key will be that the elections need to be free and fair.”

Whatever happens, he says, people in the provinces will not be sleeping after the election. They will be listening to his show.

Source: Al Jazeera


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