Sierra Leonean Reverend Francis Williams is on a tricky mission.
He wants his country to apologise to Israel and restore diplomatic ties severed over 40 years ago.
Sierra Leone broke ties with Israel in 1973 under circumstances many Christians here believe amounted to betrayal of the Jewish state. The Organisation of African Unity (OAU) had asked its member countries to do so in response to that year’s Arab-Israeli war.
The Rev Williams is part of the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem (ICEJ), a global movement of Christians who identify with Israel in its protracted conflict with its Arab neighbours, which believes the difficulties the West African country was currently going through were among the outcomes of that decision.
Sierra Leone was one of the first three countries to sign the document by the OAU binding its members to uphold its position, says the Rev Williams, noting that the move provoked a divine curse.
Prior to 1973, Israel’s over two decades of diplomatic ties with Sierra Leone earned the latter huge infrastructural development, notably the impressive parliament building that stands on Tower Hill, overlooking the rest of the capital Freetown.
A couple of metres away from the House of Representative stands the [Central] Bank of Sierra Leone, one of the tallest buildings in the country, another symbol of the Israeli-Freetown relations.
Along Siaka Steven Street, named after the man who was in charge of the country when it parted ways with Israel, is the Sierra Leone Postal Services building, also built by the Israelis.
There are several other landmark infrastructure across Sierra Leone built with Israeli money and expertise.
ICEJ reckons it embarked on a ‘spiritual mapping’ in 2012 to diagnose the problems faced by Sierra Leone – a state of underdevelopment and poverty characterised by a history of disasters, including a swam of vultures fallen from the sky under a windstorm in 1985, the 1991-2002 civil, and the recent Ebola epidemic.
Quoting verses from the Bible, the Rev Williams said they discovered the explanation to all these woes in the holy book, which ‘forbids’ nations from rejecting the People of Israel.
The investigation also found out that when the Israelis were issued a 72-hour ultimatum to leave Sierra Leone, a senior Rabi collected some soil that he went home to Israel with, the Rev Williams told the Africa Review, citing ‘eye-witnesses’ . He said that was the source of the country’s curse.
“Like humans, countries have souls. And the soul of Sierra Leone is under a curse…It is like when they curse a person in a family, if they do not undo the sin committed, you will not be delivered,” he explained.
Stevens, the first President of Sierra Leone, ruled the country under the All Peoples Congress (APC) party, currently in power.
The Sierra Leone Postal Services building built by Israelis. KEMO CHAM | NATION MEDIA GROUP
And the Rev Williams says since it was an APC government that betrayed Israel, it only made sense that an APC government seeks repentance.
“We believe in recitation. We believe that as long as I hurt you, I should go back to you to seek forgiveness,” he said.
ICEJ is not alone in thinking that Sierra Leone’s woes were linked to its past or that the solution was only through divine intervention.
A group affiliated with the umbrella Christian Council of Sierra Leone (CCSL) recently ended a 28-day fast with a symbolic prayer session.
According to Apostle Victor Luke, that was meant to seek God’s intervention to heal the church and bring its followers together so that they could convince the government to seek divine intervention.
CCSL is not officially a part of the ICEJ’s campaign. But, when asked by a TV host on state broadcaster SLBC, Apostle Luke said they were in support of seeking forgiveness for the past wrongs, which had returned to haunt the country.
“Our conscience has been stricken by God. There is a burden upon us.
“We all cannot sit until things get worse and run away from the country,” he said.
Relations between Israel and Africa have been warming up recently. And Christian leaders want the Sierra Leone government to take advantage of the window of opportunity.
Last July, Benjamin Netanyahu made the first visit by an Israeli Prime Minister to Africa in 30 years. That visit saw expression of warm remarks from leaders of the countries he visited – Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda.
According to the Jerusalem Post, one of Israel’s most authoritative news outlets, the Jewish state was planning a similar summit for West Africa.
The Israeli PM also recently met with a cross section of African leaders on the fringes of the UN General Assembly, among them was Sierra Leone’s President Ernest Bai Koroma.
Back in Freetown, Information Minister Mohamed Bangura spoke of the fruitful outcome of the discussions in New York as well as Sierra Leone’s commitment to the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Most of the countries Israel still doesn’t have diplomatic relations with were majority-Muslim states, notably Mali, Chad, Niger, Sudan, Somalia, Mauritania, Djibouti and Comoros. And this is due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But Israel’s relation with the Apartheid South Africa was also a major factor in the OAU’s position on the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, Palestine, Israel’s arch enemy, maintains its observer status at the African Union (AU) and it has used it to drum up diplomatic support from African countries in their dispute with Israel.
Other reports have indicated that the OAU’s position may have been influenced by a threat from oil-producing Arab countries to impose fuel embargo on countries maintaining relations with Israel after the infamous Six-day Israeli-Arab war.
But, insists the Rev Williams, the call for re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel was hardly about religion. He cited examples of countries like Senegal, 95 per cent Muslim, which restored diplomatic relations with the Jewish state in 1994, and Guinea, over 85 per cent Muslim, which this year reportedly signed an agreement in France to re-establish ties with Israel.
In fact, Guinea was thought to be the first African country to sever ties with Israel in response to a previous war with the Arabs in 1968.
Israel also has diplomatic ties with Gambia, over 95 per cent Muslim, which was declared an Islamic state by its mercurial leader Yahya Jammeh last December.
Laid the blame
Nigeria re-established relations with Israel in 1992 under Muslim head of state, Ibrahim Babangida. Over 20 years later, President Goodluck Jonathan took it to another level with his historic pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 2014.
Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel as far back as the 1980s and that saw some African countries, including Ethiopia, re-establishing ties since then.
“If Egypt, which was the reason for the OAU’s decision in 1973, has re-established ties with Israel, why are we still not doing same,” asked The Rev Williams.
Although he rated cooperation between the two countries as high, Government Spokesman Agibu Jalloh laid the blame for the lack of cooperation at diplomat level on the Israelis.
He said over the years, Israel had not demonstrated interest in Sierra Leone.
“As of right now, as a country we are exploiting the possibility of doing business with Israel. In terms of politics, that has not been tabled yet,” he said.
And with regards to tendering an apology, he said: “That consideration has not been tabled by our Foreign minister. I cannot say yes or no, but it doesn’t feel like Sierra Leone feels that way.”