Soldiers on the streets of Sierra Leone during the protests Soldiers on the streets of Sierra Leone during the protests 

Sierra Leone: Bishop Paganelli calls for dialogue, calm in wake of protests

The Apostolic Administrator of Makeni Diocese, Bishop Natale Paganelli, encourages Sierra Leoneans to put the common good of the country first and to embrace peaceful dialogue after days of deadly anti-government protests which left several people dead.

By Vatican News staff writer

In the wake of recent deadly anti-government protests in Sierra Leone, the Apostolic Administrator of Makeni Diocese in the northern part of the country, Bishop Natale Pagaganelli, s.x. granted an interview to Vatican Radio in which he speaks about the need to address rifts in the country and for all sides to take the path of dialogue and reconciliation.

Reports on the 10 August unrest in the capital, Freetown and other areas in the north said at least five police officers and 20 civilians were killed, as hundreds of protesters took to the streets in frustration at economic hardship and a perceived failure by the government to cushion the impact of rising prices.

Speaking to Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ a day after the protests, Bishop Paganelli described what happened on that day as an “unfortunate situation and very sad for the country.”

The Titular Bishop of Gadiaufala said as many are aware, there was a civil war in Sierra Leone that lasted for ten years and practically ended in 2002. “After twenty years exactly, we are again in trouble but we need to consider that the country is unfortunately divided in two: the north and the western area, including Freetown is dominated by one party, the APC; while the south and east by another party, the SLPP. This is the origin of the conflict in Sierra Leone because it is a fight for power, for control of the country,” the bishop said.

"I hope," continued the Italian-born Xaverian Missionary, that “we will be able to break this wall, to dialogue, to look for the good of the country, using the phrase of the social doctrine of the Church, to work for ‘the common good’ and to reach an agreement between the two parties.”

Tensions exacerbated by the rising cost of living

Commenting on the economic hardship citizens are facing, Bishop Paganelli said “of course, the situation became very difficult with the increase in the cost of living which every country is facing, including my country Italy.”

However, the bishop said, “in a poor country, when the price of rice (the staple in Sierra Leone) goes high up and parents cannot afford a bag of rice for the family, it becomes a problem. Also, youth unemployment is another big problem but till now no government was able to solve this problem, because there are no factories in the country.”

In addition, the bishop said he believes that the main reason behind the unrest is the political confrontation between the two main political parties. He noted that the protests only occurred in Freetown and in the north.

“From the information I have, there was no protest in the south and east of the country. You understand that people in the south and east suffer like those in the north, why not protest there? Because of the division, (the) political division of the country,” he said.

Ways to address grievances

Amid reports of the rising death toll from the protests, Fr. Mayaki asked the bishop about what he thinks is the most effective way to express discontent and ways to prevent protests from turning violent on the part of the government.

The bishop began by explaining how the government recently decided to ban all demonstrations. Recently, he said “the government decided to practically forbid all manifestations, and the UN representative in the country told the government that they cannot forbid manifestations. Of course, not violent manifestations but the people have a right to tell, to express their concerns. For that, there is, in my opinion, mistakes on both sides. Sometimes the police use too much force and the people use too much … too aggressive, not with guns, but with stones, sometimes cutlasses.”

"But for me," continued Bishop Paganelli, “we need to find somebody who is able to call the stakeholders of the country to sit down, to find a solution to the terrible problem. Because you can change one government with another but the situation remains if we are not able to start a very deep dialogue between the north and western area and the south and east.”

The role of the Church in resolving the crisis

Asked about what role the Church in Sierra Leone can play in this situation, especially in the context of the protests and even in the wider context of religious tolerance, the Apostolic Administrator of Makeni Diocese, who is also the current president of the bishops’ conference expressed hope that they as pastors and clergy will remain united first and foremost and then use this unity to bring others together.

However, he began by expressing concern about what he described as very disturbing statements and declarations made by some members of the clergy on social media, especially on WhatsApp.  He said those declarations are not compatible with our faith. They are “not Christian, not evangelical and not acceptable from a priest,” he said. “You can be a supporter of one party or another, but we cannot write against the other side. We priests, we bishops must be the first persons to work for the unity of the country because for us, our baptism, our faith in Jesus Christ is more important than our ethnic or regional belonging. We need to find a way as a Church to prove that it is possible to work together, to love each other, to support each other, despite our ethnic group, our region and so on.”

As a second point, the bishop said, “since the president is Catholic, as many others in his government, we could call the Catholics from the government and the Catholics from the opposition. As pastors, to call them in a meeting to talk, because we cannot separate religion from our actions or from what we do. We are Catholics everywhere. If I am in power, I am a Catholic in power, I am a Catholic president in power. If I am Catholic and, in the opposition, I am a Catholic in the opposition. But we need to implement (put into practice) our Christian values. We are a small group, we are 5%. The Catholic Church is not a big group but we have a good reputation, we can add our voice and help the country build a better future. But if we are divided in the Church, what kind of message are we sending to the people of Sierra Leone?” the bishop asked.

Promote the common good

Asked about what message he would like to send to Sierra Leoneans, Bishop Paganelli said the “message is to put the good of the country, the common good first, for everybody, not for the north, not for the south, not for the east, not for the west. We need to fight for the good of Sierra Leone because I cannot understand, a rich country; because we have a lot of minerals, (arable land for) agriculture, we have timber (but unfortunately timber has disappeared), we have fish, we have a lot of things, how is it possible to characterise Sierra Leone as a poor country?” he asked.

The bishop continued saying “we have few people who are rich, very rich, it is not possible, it is an injustice, structural injustice.” For that reason, said Bishop Paganelli, we need to “work together for the good of the country because there is enough wealth for everybody. I believe a good administration - I am not talking about this present government or the past government - I am generally speaking about a government that assures a good life for everybody. But of course, we have to go in a democratic way, respect human rights, respect of the life of everybody because the report I have is 19 dead, 12 civilians and 7 police officers. It is not acceptable. These are too many deaths. We need really to work together and to find a way to dialogue between the two regions of the country, (between) the two political parties because it is the only way out of this (situation) and later on to find a way to implement a democratic system in Sierra Leone, because the independence, the autonomy of the three powers (the three arms of government) is not so clear yet, not only in Sierra Leone but in many countries. For that, I believe that democracy is working when the three powers are independent, are autonomous, only then can we say there is a true democracy, if not, it is not possible.”

Bishop Paganelli went on to invite everyone to renounce violence and find more peaceful ways to channel grievances. “My invitation is to be calm. With violence we do not go far, ten years of civil war brought only destruction, no benefit for the country."

For that reason, said Bishop Paganelli, “let us not go back, let us look to the future with hope.” As Christians, he said, “we are men and women of hope but at the same time to implement in our lives a true, honest and sincere relationship between all of us, starting inside the Church.”

In conclusion, he urged citizens to continue in the path of the religious tolerance the country is enjoying.

"Thank God," he said, “there is religious tolerance, we have no religious conflict, if not it will be a tragedy for the country.”

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19 August 2022, 14:58