By Mohammed Legally-Cole
Confusing and rather traumatic reports loiter the international news sphere, sprung from the Guinea Bissau has now proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the information was incorrect and unsubstantiated and rather very conflicting.
It could be recalled that the Times Newspaper in Freetown published a front page article on Friday 17th June 2016 with the headline: Over poor diplomatic ties…. Guinea Bissau Government orders the deportation of over 4000 Sierra Leoneans. This news was received with mixed feeling as it did not go down well with the Government of Sierra Leone whose diplomatic ties was strong and sealed even before President Ernest Bai Koroma came to power. This rather confused and traumatic images and information led to the immediate action of the Sierra Leone government through its Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation to issued an emergency response letter to the Ambassador designate to The Gambia as par extension responsible to cover Guinea Bissau to investigate and take immediate action to the said event.
In actual fact, this article was even published in the Makoni Times website on April 7, 2016 with the headline ‘Xenophobic attack: Sierra Leoneans blast Ernest Bai Koroma and the APC Government.’ This was later culled by Times Newspaper and was sensationally blown beyond proportion. This unreasonable publication moved this journalist to visit Guinea Bissau in order to investigate exactly what had transpired in Guinea Bissau that led to what the Times newspaper published.
Firstly, the news of deportation of 4000 Sierra Leoneans by the Guinea Bissau government was false, deceptive and unfounded and that the Guinea Bissau had never deported or even threatened to deport any Sierra Leonean. Secondly, it was proved beyond all reasonable doubt that the information was spread or orchestrated through a social media network (whatsapp) by an aggrieved person/group who might have been affected by the state of affairs. Thirdly and final, the Guinea Bissau government ordered the burning of all makeshift camps commonly known as ‘Campama’ along the stipulated Islands and also seizing and burning of prohibited fishing-net based on national policy to preserve their ecosystem e.g. Islands and surrounding mangrove.
The fact of the matter was that the Guinea Bissau government issued warning to all nationals that are plying their trade as fishermen in all its stipulated Islands, to avoid the use of a prohibited type of fishing-net, followed by another issue based on health reasons, which led to the destroy all makeshift camps along the coastline of the Islands and that fishermen should moved into the bigger settlement of the stipulated Islands, but the stubbornness of the fishermen led to the burning of all makeshift camp commonly known as ‘Campama’ in Portuguese. This did not only affected Sierra Leoneans but all the different nationals who are plying their trade as fishermen in these Islands of Guinea Bissau namely Guineans from Conakry, Senegalese, Malians and even Guineans from Bissau were all affected but the Sierra Leonean fishermen are in a large scale and all these nationals are all engaging in illegal local small scale fishing.
Upon investigation into these events, several interviews were conducted with people with substance in the Sierra Leone community that are serving as stakeholders in Guinea Bissau and its Islands.
Mr. Abdul Malik Kamara (1991 to date) is a Business Interpreter and Agricultural exponent and farm owner in the Southern Tombali Region in Cambrass village off Cassini between the border of Guinea Bissau and Guinea Conakry.
Abdul Malik: First of all, the journalist/editor who wrote that article on a local tabloid called The Times in Sierra Leone should go back and apologies to the Guinea Bissau government because his article and allegations are baseless. If he is a traveler within the Ecowas sub-region, he must have find out that Guinea Bissau people are the most hospitable people with open heart than any other country just as Sierra Leoneans are hospitable to foreigners – ‘here is home from home for every Sierra Leoneans.’
It is really true that there was a burning of all makeshift camps within the fishing Islands, but as far as the issue of deportation of 4000 Sierra Leoneans is concern, it is a false story. Since my lifetime living in this country, a Sierra Leonean has never been deported by the Guinea Bissau government.
Unlike Guinea Bissau, there was a time when the government of Sierra Leone ordered people to desist from all illicit mining and vacate certain mining areas in Kono and other diamond areas. Miners both national and international were authorized to obtain mining permits. This is the same thing that is happening here in Guinea Bissau as it is a tax-based country, whose revenue is derived from the Agricultural sector (Cashew) and the fishing Industrial sector (Fishing) respectively for their resources.
Actually, a year ago, Guinea Bissau government has issued notice which include press release on radio, television and newspapers, that people who engaging on fishing within the specific Islands and mangrove areas should moved out of those areas. The government gave an ultimatum to vacate those areas as at last year December 2015 which came to pass but fishermen were reluctantly continued to stay in their makeshift camps called ‘Campama’, then the Guinean Bissau government decided to take a stern decision. This decision did not only affected Sierra Leoneans but all other nationals who are engaging in fishing for their livelihood such as Malians, Guineans from Conakry, Senegalese, Ghanaians and even Guineans from Bissau.
When the searching started, they seized all prohibited fishing net and materials and also registered all the names of the different nationalities based in these speculated Islands before they burnt down all makeshift camps/campamas.
Life in these Islands in the offshore of Guinea Bissau where our brothers and sisters are living is not easy to navigate and they are also living in a very deplorable condition, no proper sanitation, lack of proper hygiene, no hospital etc so they were asked to relocate to the mainland. And in Guinea Bissau, the migrants Sierra Leoneans base their effort on fishing for their livelihood is approximately 60%.
Meanwhile on the issue concerning of xenophobic act by the Guinean Bissau government as written by the Times newspaper in Sierra Leone, the said writer did not cross-check his facts but just wrote a sensational article blown beyond proportion. This was not a xenophobic action but rather a government policy to preserve the fishing industry and mangrove area where it is believe to be the breeding bed for the fishes and the type of fishing net these fishermen are using is prohibited on the fact that it is destroying even the small fishes and also really affecting natural resources of Guinea Bissau fishing industry. So the government left with no other option but to immediately carries out the seizing of these prohibited fishing net and burning down of all makeshift camps/campamas along the coastline of the specific Islands.
Mohammed Kamara – Representative of the Sierra Leone Fishermen Association in Guinea Bissau and a strong member of the Sierra Leone Community in Guinea Bissau.
It was on November 2015, when the Guinea Bissau issued a notice call on all fishermen who were engaging on fishing out of the city Bissau but on Islands and beaches precisely the mangrove environs on the specified Islands namely Caravella, Copressa, kalima, Casheck, Orakanu, Bolama, Popperza, Merus, Cansado, Jue, Yongkera, Biocosuru and Bubak to desist from fishing activities within those specific Islands and advised that because of the Biodiversity problem, any encampment along these Islands coastline has a direct effect on the surrounding environment. In this case, the Guinea Bissau government decided to preserve these areas and also gave the fishermen an ultimatum to moved out of the campamas and relocate to the mainland, some of the fishermen moved and others reluctantly remain in these encampments, then the government again decided to extend their decision for another two months and with stern warning that these people living in the encampments are disturbing the environment because after fishing these fishermen also embarking on cutting down the mangrove to dry and preserve their fishes and this is a direct effect on the environment.
Upon this situation, the officials sent to these Islands returned to the city Bissau and make their reports to the administration responsible for the environment issues. And on these grounds, the administration gave an instruction to seize all prohibited fishing nets and break and burn down all the campamas along the coastline of these specific Islands.
However, during the burning and seizing process, the Sierra Leonean community in these Islands called back to the association and other Sierra Leonean stakeholders in the Bissau to come to their aid and advocate on their behalf to the government. Fortunately through our efforts and God’s intervention, we are able to make a breakthrough and the burning was stopped immediately and actually some Sierra Leoneans affected directly due to the seizing and burning of prohibited fishing net and their campamas. This was how things unfolded from one Island to another.
Meanwhile, it could be recalled that some time in Sierra Leone in 2005, the government through the Fishery department banned the use of the same prohibited fishing net called 24 for the same reasons and this led to the seizing and burning of the fishing net.
Mr. Santigie Gibril Bai Koroma (Teacher and social media writer) and member of the Sierra Leone Community in Guinea Bissau.
Santigie G. Bai Koroma: I was living in a Campama in the Island of Copressa which was burnt down by the officials on the 27 February 2015, which caused my relocation to the city Bissau where I am presently based as a teacher. I later joined the Sierra Leone Community where I am giving assistant to the members especially on issues concerning the Islands because I have been living in these Islands for some period and I was a teacher in the Sierra Leone community school in Copressa Island. I was part of the members of the Sierra Leone community sent to the Islands to meet with our people who were affected by this predicament and we held meetings with them. Present at these meeting were PRO of the APC Women’s wing – Guinea Bissau Mrs. Isatu Wapo Sesay and the Secretary General of APC – Guinea Bissau Mr. Abdul Malik Kamara.
In March 2016, the Guinea Bissau government asked all the fishermen to move out of the campamas and relocated them to different stipulated areas; they seized their fishing nets and burn down the campamas where the people were very stubborn to move out. When the Bissau officials responsible for this operation arrived in the Island of Caravella where Sierra Leoneans are mostly based, I received call in the city Bissau from Caravella, then I gave the phone to Mrs. Kadiatu Kamara commonly known as ‘Auntie kay’ and she listening the caller who was crying out that they should come to their aid as the official responsible for the operation had arrived in Caravella and they had started the burning. Immediately Auntie kay called Mr. Nasiru Den who was at the time in Banjul, The Gambia to assist our people as the government officials have started burning their campamas in Caravella. Mr. Mohammed Nasiru Deen immediately called the secretary general Abdul Malik Kamara and gave him instruction to contact some officials in Guinea Bissau government and explained what was going on in Caravella and immediately the burning stopped upon his contacts.
Actually the seizing of the prohibited fishing nets and burning of the campamas in the different Islands affected all the nationals that re engaging in fishing such as Malians, Senegalese, Ghanaians, Guineans from Conakry and Bissau Guineans too but Sierra Leoneans were more affected because they are more populated in the Island and the fishing industry in Guinea Bissau.
In May 2016, we went to the Islands to propagate APC because the majority of Sierra Leone community in these Islands supports APC. But unsurprisingly most of them expressed disappointment of the Sierra Leone government based on the fact that when they were calling for supports during the events of seizing of their fishing net and burning of their campamas and their sufferings in the Islands there were no one to help them or advocate for them.
They also said they called the Sierra Leone Embassies in Banjul and then in Conakry and no one paid attention to their plight. It is like Sierra Leone government did not car for them on the grounds that the Guinea Bissau government burnt down their campamas last year and they did it again this year and nobody cares about them. They also said that over 4000 Sierra Leoneans are presently residing in Guinea Bissau and since President Ernest Bai Koroma came to power he had never paid attention or visit Sierra Leoneans residing in Guinea Bissau they expressed.
In the case of life in these Islands, it is completely horrible and deplorable as most of them are living in makeshift camps called campama, most of them are suffering with their wives and children, some had died and some are suffering. The islands are many and you will not know all what is happening in the farthest Islands. I personally know how it looks like because I had once lived there and always visiting them as part of my responsibility to the Sierra Leone community alongside Mrs Isatu Wapo Sesay, Auntie kay and Mr. Abdul Malik Kamara.
We had several meetings with the military officers and government officials in some of these Islands, the information was Sierra Leoneans has no proper representation in Guinea Bissau and recognized leadership to advocate on their behalf and to dialogue with government. They advise that we must try hard to make sure we have a proper representative in the country in order to solve such problems in the future.
However, it could be recalled that the burning and seizing started immediately when Sierra Leoneans and other nationals had paid their residential permit, boat tax and other local taxes etc. So when the operation sizing and burning of campamas started this led to the massive exodus of most of the Sierra Leonean fishermen from Caravella to moved and relocated to neighboring Islands some went farthest to an Island called Casheck between Guinea Conakry and Guinea Bissau.
In Casheck, the information that are coming are very horrifying and disturbing as our people are living in a traumatized situation, there were no hospital, proper sanitation and our people are dying of serious sickness while other are suffering tremendously. The Sierra Leone community in the city of Bssau had heard about the plight that they were living in Casheck but the problem is that the Island of Casheck is completely offshore and is a very farthest than others.
The way forward now for Sierra Leoneans livng in Guinea Bissau according to Mohammed Kamara, the representative for the Sierra Leone Fishermen Association in Guinean Bissau is that our community in Guinea Bissau first of all try to organized and we need a proper and recognized representative/consul because we already had a very good working force on the ground. According to Mr. Sanitgie G. Bai Koroma, we need Sierra Leonean government to come to Guinean Bissau for a fact finding, sightseeing and investigate properly what is really going on in this country with its nationals. As for some of us participating in the social medi, we can write stories based on what is happening here but other journalists are out there in Serra Leone are waiting to pick up these stories and blow them beyond proportion without checking the facts of the matters.
For instance, the pictures in Makoni Times website and are not representing anywhere or incident in Guinea Bissau Islands and are all fake nobody in Guinea Bissau social media had sent out such a horrible and terrifying pictures to any media. What caused all this was the fact that Sierra Leone government has no proper representative here in Guinea Bissau to come to their aid when such problems concerning its nationals occurred. Most of the Sierra Leoneans at that time were in serious anger the only outlet they have to vent their grievances was at some of the social media. Some of the social medium and their participants carried out information which the Makoni Times capitalized such as ‘Over poor diplomatic ties…. Guinea Bissau Government orders the deportation of over 4000 Sierra Leoneans and another article ‘Xenophobic attack: Sierra Leoneans blast Ernest Bai Koroma and the APC Government.’ These are some of the articles which the Times newspaper in Sierra Leone also captured or culled from Makoni Times and published without properly reaching out for the facts of the matter. So the way forward is for Sierra Leoneans to have an Ambassador or consul to represent its nationals in Guinea Bissau.
Other stakeholders who contributed immensely to this investigation are Mrs. Kadiatu Kamara (Auntie Kay), Mrs. Isatu Wapo Sesay and Mrs. Mariatu Sankoh.
In another development and encounter with Mr. Hassan Conteh to shed light on these issues this is what he had to say.
Mr. Hassan Conteh (entered Guinea Bissau in 1990 and integrated into the society) taught English in Guinea Bissau for couple of years and later doing business. He became interpreter in 1996 for English, Portuguese and French.
Hassan Conteh: He said since he came to Guinea Bissau and integrated in the society he had been very instrumental up-to-date with the Sierra Leonean community and he had investment in the fishing industry and employed several Sierra Leonean fishermen with the dear help of Mr. Samba Kamara he was able to established and registered his own fishing company with 4 trawlers in Guinea Bissau.
The burning of campamas is a very lamenting issue for all local fishermen from the different nationalities, including the Bissau Guineans and Sierra Leoneans been the highest population in this industry for their livelihood.
Before the burning, Guinea Bissau government as at then gives a prior advice for everybody to evacuate the stipulated zones, for the following reasons:- Health reason, which include poor sanitation and clean drinking water; Political reasons which are eminent.
During the time the incident took place, five Sierra Leoneans came from the Island called Caravella to plead to an of the Sierra Leone community Mrs. Kadiatu Kamara, and she immediately forwarded the matter to me as one of the elder. The same day of receiving the report on this incident, I contacted personnel at the Fishing Ministry Mr. Thomas Preira. The bitter issues on the situation on the ground that I put to him based on the health, pregnant women and suckling mothers and children are suffering out there in these Islands, he asked me to write a letter on behalf of the Sierra Leoneans which I did and addressed it to the Ministry of Health, PS Fishery and the Residence Minister of the Islands and their local authorities.
Immediately to the effect of this distribution of letters, the Sierra Leoneans were granted an opportunity of periodic stay of one year. After this period, another three months of grace was given to them to vacate these zones and it was during this time I advised them to respect the authorities and the law and to moved to the stipulated areas given to them, failing to abide by the law, then Guinea Bissau government left with no option but to execute the action leading to the seizure of prohibited fishing net and the burning of local hurts and makeshift camps. While the burning was going on they called me but my responds was there is no alternative now.
However, according to Mr. Hassan Conteh, it was a shock that Sierra Leoneans have no government interest in these issues on the event of the seizing and especially the burning of the campamas, this is a blatant lie, It is worth mentioning for our citizens, especially local fishermen in Guinea Bissau to respect authorities and the law of the country they are plying for their livelihood.
On many occasion, our Sierra Leoneans fishermen were using prohibited fishing net that are not authorized by the Guinean Bissau government but they do insisted in using it, there are other issues concern in which Sierra Leoneans are in conformity with the authorities of the country, and these are some of the issues in which I personally intervened as an elder and stakeholder I the Sierra Leone Community.
The way forward for Sierra Leoneans in Guinea Bissau is that the hopeful future would be bleak if the Government of Sierra Leone would not intervened by installing an official representation, that is, of Honorary Consul who will serve as an eye of the government for future collaboration vie-a-vie securing interest of our nationals. I therefore, personally, would like to crave the indulgence of our able Ambassador Sullayman Bassiru Daramy to act swiftly.