These are the discovery of one of the world’s largest diamond; the deadly twin disasters of mudslide and flooding; and the religious visit that almost set the country alit.
Among the many memorable moments within the last 12 months in Sierra Leone was news of the discovery in March of a 709 carat diamond by a Christian Pastor. The precious stone, which was eventually named ‘Peace Diamond’, was finally sold to a British firm called Graff Diamonds on December 4. It fetched $6.5million. The ‘Peace Diamond’ provoked a lot of controversies.
First among the people of Kono, the eastern diamondiferous district where it was found, there were claims and counter claims over the rightful ownership. Some people from a powerful ruling family claimed the land from which the stone was discovered fell in their concession.
Meanwhile, the man widely known to be the owner, Pastor Emmanuel Momoh, was having not just to deal with the dramatic change in his life as a potential millionaire, but he was also trying hard to protect his claim to the gem.
As for the government, growing interest, both locally and internationally, was proving difficult to manage, amidst high expectation from citizens on how the proceeds from the diamond will be used.
The first auction in Freetown fetched $7.8million, but the government rejected it on the grounds that the offer didn’t meet its reserved price. The diamond would be subjected to several displays in international diamond markets, from Brussels in Belgium to Tel Aviv in Israel, to New York in the United States. It was eventually sold at an auction coordinated by the renowned diamond firm, Rapaport Group.
After its sale, it soon emerged that the controversy surrounding this diamond was far from over. The government later announced that the man considered as the rightful owner was in fact not the owner.
The National Minerals Agency, which regulates the mining sector in the country, said Pastor Momoh had illegally engaged in mining while his application for licence was still under review. The pastor was told he would be given only 40 percent of the proceeds, with the rest going to the government. It is not clear what happens to the other parties who also claimed ownership.
On September 21 the renowned Zimbabwean Islamic scholar and preacher Mufti Ishmail Musa Menk arrived in Sierra Leone for a landmark visit. He hosted what was later described as the largest religious gathering of its kind at the National Stadium.
But the three-day religious journey ended in a sad tone after a Christian leader badmouthed Mufti Menk and Islam, prompting fears of religious unrest in a country which boasts of the best record in terms of religious tolerance.
Rev. Victor Ajisafe, who founded one of the largest churches in Sierra Leone, the Sanctuary Praise Church, was angered by alleged comments he said were attributed to Mufti menk at his Stadium program.
The pastor, in a vitriolic sermon captured in both audio and video and widely circulated on social media, attacked Islam and the Zimbabwean scholar. He remarked that Islam had no place in the history of Sierra Leone and accused the country’s first and only Muslim president, the late Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, of joining Sierra Leone to the Organisation of Islamic Conference.
The sermon, which the pastor later retracted and apologized for, provoked angered among especially Muslims. And the government quickly reacted by detaining him and shutting down his church temporarily. He was charged with hate speech, under the country’s Public Order Act.
Pastor Ajisafe, after several negotiations, would later be freed. He released a video apologizing for his comments, which he said had been provoked by wrong information he’d received. Mufti Menk also issued a video calling on Sierra Leoneans to forgive the pastor in the spirit of unity.
Mufti Menk’s arrival in Freetown preceded a major natural disaster in the city, about two weeks earlier. On August 14, following a heavy downpour in parts of the country, a part of a mountain in the west end of Freetown cracked and fell. Officially nearly 500 people lost their lives in the incident that happened in the colonial village of Regent. Hundreds of houses in the community of Mortemeh, located at the foot of Mount Sugar Loaf, were buried by huge rubbles when part of the mountain erupted.
Survivors spoke of explosion at the top of the mountain. Horrible scenes dominated images from Freetown as bodies and body parts of the victims were collected from underneath rubbles, in gutters and in some cases in nearby water bodies. With support from the international community, a major rescue operation was mounted to recover bodies. And on August 17, a mass burial, attended by Presidents Ernest Bai Koroma and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of neighboring Liberia, was conducted. Many people, particularly the civil society and NGOs, believe that over 1000 people lost their lives in that incident, contrary to the government’s figures.
As 2018 beacons, some of these issues that dominated 2017 are expected to drag into the New Year. We haven’t, for instance, heard of the response of Pastor Momoh to the decision to effectively usurp his diamond. Victims of the Mudslide are still crying for help from the government, despite promises to help them restart their lives. And the government will have to remain vigilant to protect one of the best legacies of the country, religious tolerance, in the face of endless unrests elsewhere in the world.