By Mahmud Tim Kargbo
Shaming is an arrogant word. It is effort masquerading as a feat. The fact is that the consequence of shaming is not always shame. To be shamed you have to first give the world the right to shame you, which some do not grant because they wish to persist with what they believe is right. Others, many Sierra Leonean politicians especially, have the gift of shamelessness, the reason why they are successful politicians in the first place. Long before Trump, they were Trump!
Credible Sierra Leone journalists know the feeble relationship between shaming and shame very well because they are, among other things, in the business of shaming. Journalism is also a complaint to the people about rogue public figures, chiefly politicians. In this aspect, too, the profession appears to have very little impact. For decades, journalism has exposed political crime, corruption and other forms of immorality. For decades, the same politicians or their types, have thrived. Why is it that in a functional electoral democracy, the average voter, who has moral expectations from society, family and bureaucracy, does not reject flawed politicians?
As another election season begins there might be more video clips of sex scandals and many revelations of corruption. But the shaming would have little effect at the polls. As to why this is so, the middle class often whisper in private that the average Sierra Leonean voter is a fool. People who do not even whisper honestly would say that the poor elect the rogues because there are no better options in the fray. But there could be a deeper reason why our politicians survive revelations and shame, and why there is no such thing in Sierra Leone politics as a career-ending scandal.
The elite presumption that a typical voter wants his politician to be a representation of the common man is fundamentally wrong. He may even say things to that effect parroting respectable views, but he appears to condone, and even admire, the politician who is uncommon. In an unequal nation, an equal man is probably an unremarkable man. For long, the voter has granted a status to politicians that is similar to a concession he has made for actors — that they are a special class of human beings who need not be like regular people, or even ideal people, who are generally useless. As a result, the voter’s real reasons for rejecting a politician are seldom moral.
The mass perception of a politician as a human anomaly is at the heart of many qualities of Sierra Leonean politics that the sophisticated find confusing. This is the reason why in one of the most hostile places on earth for women’s empowerment, some of the most powerful politicians have been women; why in a land where marriage is a symbol of respectability, especially for women, few single women have risen to immense power; why polygamous men have nothing much to fear; why in the 2018 general elections the contest was, among other issues, between two old politicians with one parading as an IMF/World Bank political economics technocrat?
In Freetown, where I was born and raised, the media never spoke about the nature of the relationship between Julius Maada Bio and his long-time friend and employee Samura Mathew Wilson Kamara, but the voters — the taxi drivers and maids and bus conductors — openly admired Julius Maada Bio for his unusual social status. The media, at least then, never used to mention the fact that both he and his rival played a huge role in destroying our economy, but their destructive status in our country’s economy never bothered their followers even though they themselves did subscribe to popular notions of morality. In the near future, overt inflation and lack of fiscal discipline, too, fare well in Sierra Leone politics.
The acceptance of the anomalous politician is also why politicians routinely land in an impoverished village in a beautiful car, exhibit inexplicable wealth but still manage to find success; and why criminals, too, do well.
Many right-minded nationals said several times, even after their national fame, that they would lose their deposit if they contests an election. Their reason is that the political system is run by money and rogue muscle power. But, if their analysis is true how did Maada Bio’s SLPP fare so well twice in Sierra Leone? The more convincing reason why many right-minded nationals would lose an election is that the typical voter does not perceive them as street-smart men who can beat the system. Samura Kamara, on the other hand, despite his high moral pedestal, has successfully portrayed himself as a shrewd man, which he is.
Apart from small material benefits, the voter also expects his politicians to be strong enough to protect him from state looting and political violence. Such a capacity, again, is widely perceived as something that the street-smart possess more than the righteous because he’s willing to lie on oath. The upper classes, who are not vulnerable to communal violence, would claim that the Right-wing is a lesser evil than the corrupt. Those who are easier to hack into pieces would have the contrary view. In either case, there is too much at stake for the average Sierra Leonean voter to reject a politician just because he has been shamed on moral grounds.