Last week I went on my first visit to Parliament with the reporter who covers that beat. We went to observe the proceedings and get a story or two out of it. It was interesting — I’ve never seen Parliamentary proceedings in any country before. And given that Sierra Leone is a relatively recent democracy, which has suffered from war and several one-party states in the recent past, I was really interested to see that democracy in action.
Sierra Leone’s parliament is on top of a hill high above the city, with amazing views of the sea shore (I’ll update this post with a photo next time I’m there and remember to take a picture). From above, you can see an assortment of colorful houses mixed in with a lot of green.
When we walked into the Parliament building and were about to go to the chamber, security people called after us, asking my colleague and I who we were, what we were doing. “Wi na journalists” (“We’re journalists”), she said sounding amused and exasperated. She told me this was unusual — it was because of my whiteness that they suddenly wanted to know what we were doing.
We arrived pretty early, so the room was mostly empty. The chamber has three seating tiers, and the seats are coated in cracked blue paint. Before the proceedings, a procession of men came in, one carrying a huge trumpet. Five others, including the Speaker and others who held important positions in Parliament, wore tuxedo-like formal wear, and blond wigs of the type I’ve seen a lot in the Freetown courtrooms. The session opened, like so many things here do, with a prayer thanking God. It didn’t mention Jesus, as many Sierra Leoneans are Muslim.
There were two things on the agenda (which was available printed out on a slip of paper) that day: a vote on whether to ratify an amendment made to an agreement that would allow a foreign company to extract oil offshore, and the approval of three nominees for government positions (I know, I know — but please don’t fall asleep just yet). I wrote a story and column on the oil drilling issue — more on that below. My colleague wrote a piece on the government nominations.
The people assembled were either MPs or Paramount Chiefs, which is a hereditary position established by the British, and functions as one level of local government in the country. They were dressed in a mix of suits and ties and traditional Sierra Leone clothing, with colorful cloth and caps.
The first part of the session consisted mostly of testimony about why the nominees — for Minister of Youth Affairs, the Corporate Affairs Commission, and one other position, were qualified for the job (as interesting it was being in Parliament, this was as much of a snooze fest as it sounds). A lot of MPs or Paramount Chiefs stood up to talk about the candidates, how they knew them in college and they were very hard working and member or this and this club and group etc. et al.
Here are some other random observations from that day in Parliament:
- It felt like there was a lot of camaraderie between members. People, including the Speaker of Parliament, would make jokes and laugh
- When someone stood to testify, people would often talk through it. There was a lot of chatter in the room, and the Speaker had to bang his gavel down a lot
- People would pound their fists on the table when they agreed with something
- At one point, someone said MPs should be provided more security, and that he himself had once been physically threatened outside Parliament
- At one point (my colleague explained, because it escaped by notice), the speaker called on MPs who were not in the chamber to get in there. Apparently a bunch were on the premises but not in the chamber while the session was going on
- When one MP stood up to say how grateful he was that there was still a company in Salone that wanted to extract oil, the pounding on the table was deafening. People were very enthusiastic about the idea of oil extraction
- There was a lot of off topic rambling, and I don’t understand why, or if this is a normal thing for Parliaments. When they were taking testimony about whether to approve the nominee for Minister of Youth Affairs, one guy talked about youth unemployment, and wondered who was to blame — could it be the youths themselves (he seemed to think so). You can listen to 30 seconds of that here:
- At the end, Parliament was suspended indefinitely while everyone went on vacation. I asked my colleague when it would resume, and she said no one knew yet (???!)
I wrote a piece covering the ratification of the amendment to the oil drilling agreement, which you can read here. It was kind of hard to write, because I didn’t understand much of the larger context, and a document we had access to about the amendment was so full of jargon it was basically impossible to understand (I mean, give it a try).
I also wrote a column the same day, titled “Does Sierra Leone really need oil?” about my misgivings about all the enthusiasm these MPs and Paramount Chiefs seemed to have about oil drilling. I tried to do some research to back up my opinion, but like so any things, it’s a complex issue that I only understand partially. Here it is if you’re curious:
For a moment, the pounding in the room was deafening. “We must be happy that at least we have a company that is prepared to go the extra mile,” Member of Parliament Mohammed Sidi Tunis was forced to shout over the noise. The thundering of fists on desks came from a few dozen Members of Parliament and Paramount Chiefs who were showing their enthusiastic agreement for an amendment that would ease the ability of a foreign oil company, European Hydrocarbons Limited, to extract oil off the coast of Sierra Leone.
It was my first day in the Sierra Leone Parliament, and though I was just getting used to all the desk pounding, the enthusiasm for oil in the room was striking.
“Today I am very, very pleased that at least we have this one company…to continue the exploration and to see how they can work for the people of this country to benefit from what they call the black gold,” Tunis said.
I’ll take the enthusiasm at face value and assume that all the people in the room were excited by the prospect of Sierra Leone’s off shore oil resources enriching the country and its people.
It’s not that I can’t understand the excitement. Former Sierra Leone Democratic National Alliance Party candidate Mohamed C. Bah wrote in The Patriotic Vanguard in 2011 that producing oil would ideally allow Sierra Leone to decrease its reliance on foreign imports, and even bring in revenue by selling oil to Liberia and Guinea. A revived oil industry could provide much-needed jobs. Bah said reviving Sierra Leone’s oil industry should be “urgent” and would “[ease] the suffering on the people.”