Fire brand proponents of pan Africanism like Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah in their over-zealousness saw independence as a panacea for the development of African nations. He was often heard at the height of his many oratorical moments saying…’ Seek ye first the political kingdom and all others will follow.’ However the challenges faced at independence heavily put this assertion into question.
Sierra Leone was lucky to have gained independence without tears unlike other African countries like South Africa. Our 48 years of existence as an independent state has been a very chequered one, replete with Chinese box challenges and lost chances. Some of the chances we lost have been because of the warped priorities dictated by the politics of divisiveness, intolerance, violence, frivolous levity, impunity and unbridled corruption.
An assessment of Sierra Leone at 48 demands a strange wedlock between objectivity and subjectivity. Whichever way the scale balances, will depend on one’s own socio-economic political and biological make up. This author incidentally is a couple of years older than mother Salone. So I hope my compatriots will understand when my emotions trip into sentimentalism.
Quite interestingly the Government is attempting to re-kindle a sense of patriotism and nationalism. Over the decades government after government have pointed out the Sierra Leonean’s unpatriotic attitude and have coined various slogans to draw focus on it. President Ernest Koroma’s own version is Attitudinal Change. A Secretariat has even been set up called Attitudinal and Behavioral Change Secretariat under the direct supervision of the Presidency. This shows some amount of political will to attack headlong a long lasting bane in our society. An interesting challenge is the very abstractness of the concept and where to begin. I strongly believe the whole program can be rolled out better by example and not by speeches and legislations. So sorry to drag you to the present…you see I am still recalling the launching of the Pride Week which started in earnest on Monday April 20, 2009. Ironically on that day, because of the cocaine trial, many pedestrians were molested and courses diverted in the most unacceptable manner by the security apparatus.
Now let us go back to Madison. I can feebly remember as a primary school kid of the time honored Union College Practicing School at Bunumbu on Independence Day 1961 when we lined up along the routes from the school down to the college area. Each pupil had a Sierra Leone flag and a drinking cup in national colors. I can’t quite remember who was coming to visit – was it the Queen, Sir Milton – I really do not know. All I know is, we were smartly dressed and sang songs. We kept waiting under the scotching sun sweating and hungry but definitely happy even if we did not understand what independence meant. At the end of it all we were refreshed and ran home with our cups and flags.
When you look at Sierra Leone at 48 from the point of view of development in general anchored on good governance, elections, violence and human rights, there are hardly many things to smile about. Suffice it to say that elections in Sierra Leone even before independence, have one way or the other largely been violent, impinging on peoples’ rights. The main characteristics of over four decades of our life as a country have mainly been replete with unsavory incidences especially at elections. From the onset however we should take note of the fact that Sierra Leone has two electoral Systems – the traditional form of governance that revolve around the paramount chieftaincies; and the modern form centered on the presidency and parliament.
The immediate post independent period saw some four years of relative calm. The euphoria that followed independence still lingered on. The new currency the Leone was introduced in 1964. The Leone was two to one British pound. The dollar was not heard of at the time. Kids were motivated to go to school – at least the corn meal and bulgur wheat were served. In any case one (1) cent could purchase the fat peppered akara that was enough to fill the small stomach. Kids never looked forward to week ends. I can remember being chased for several weekends to go back home and told there was no school. That was the time primary school kids knew all their members of parliament and ministers by name according to constituencies and ministries respectively. I can remember names – important names like RGO King, MS Mustapha, JCO Hadson Taylor, Salia Jusu Sherriff, Manna Kpaka, MNCO Scott, SI Koroma, Yembe Mansaray, Sir Milton Margai, Dr Siaka Stevens, Sir Albert Margai, and etcetera. Today, pupils do not even know the names of their teachers!
The first Prime Minister Sir Milton Margai’s four years’ rule mainly prioritized putting structures in place to reflect the newly won independence and have a smooth transition. The post Sir Milton era, taken up by his brother Sir Albert had quite a few political wranglings that finally culminated in the formation of the All Peoples’ Congress.
One singular event that impinged on our political history was the SOWETO students’ revolt against the racist regime of South Africa. The fever caught across Africa and Sierra Leonean students, led by the then Fourah Bay College President Hindolo Trye started a student strike against the repressive regime of President Siaka Stevens who ordered the colleges closed. This sparked off nationwide student strikes with the slogan – No College No School. Many public buildings were burnt down across the country. Student leaders were arrested and detained. Even teachers were not spared. This author was bundled up from the Albert Academy (the then Presidents Alma Mata.) together with Mrs Bailor a few other teachers and the principal of model Mr. Taylor – we were arraigned before the president at state house. This was a period when the government had strong ties with communist states like Cuba, China, Russia and Libya. The Paramilitary at the time were trained in Cuba and Libya. Quite a lot of greater democratization ensured by the independence constitution was eroded. At the time the only opposition were students and the Tablet News Paper. The guys at this press were fearless young graduates whose slogan was Say the truth and damn the consequences. They were never friend to the police especially the paramilitary Internal Security Unit (ISU) which people derogatorily referred to as “Ar go soot you” because of their trigger happy outlook. The name ISU was changed to SSD Special Security Division. This again was ridiculed and referred to as Siaka Stevens’ Dogs. This was a turbulent time for the press which drove a lot of journalists off the profession. The Tablet Press was ramsacked and the Editor and some other outspoken journalists were chased out of the country.
Issues of human rights were not yet in our diction. It is worth noting that from 1973 to 1977 Sierra Leone was a de facto one party state.
The one party rule continued never mind the lukewarm opposition from Fourah bay college. Another closure of college was ordered when the then Mayor’s car was burnt on FBC campus as a way of disgust with the regime. President Siaka Stevens remained fully in control undaunted. He continued to appeal to his communist friends for support. By 1984 a lot of physical structures were built like the Aberdeen Bridge, The National Stadium (first named Siaka Stevens Stadium but later renamed by the Junta), Youyi Building, and Police Headquarters. At a point we even had a fruit juice processing factory called Mabole and the Magbass sugar factory. You might not have liked Siaka Stevens’s autocratic style but he was the man for the period. His reign did not witness too much tribalism and regionalism. His nick names were Bandele and Pass ar Die…please do not ask me what they meant. Though he gained national popularity, he was feared by many. Many people saw him as a unifier. He had a very biting sense of humor. But in terms of good governance those were lost years. The rebel war was nurtured during this period. The non observance of Human Rights and the down ward trend of the economy made people very disillusioned. Disgruntled elements whose voices could not be heard fled the country and did studies on communist ideologies with strong beliefs in mass mobilization and popular Movements. Some went to Libya and studied the Green Book and came back with explosive ideas about governance and peoples’ participation. Characteristic of this period was student riots and open civil confrontations with state security apparatus. So much pressure was piled on President Stevens that he had to hand over power to the then Military Head Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh. His Presidency was validated by the 1985 Presidential Elections for which he was the sole candidate. Since people just wanted President Stevens to go, the new President received a high level of unprecedented support. The 1985 elections were non violent but very restrictive. There was only one Presidential Candidate and even the candidates for the Parliamentary elections were those vetted by the APC. Calls for the reintroduction of a multi- party constitution were made. President Momoh attempted to democratize one partism but it never bore fruits. The 1981 constitution had a lot of contentious clauses which if removed will leave the APC high and dry. Citizens almost lost hope of any solution to Sierra Leone’s political problems.
By 1991 what seemed like an empty bluff by Foday Sankoh was to become a reality – Sierra Leone was at war which turned out to be a most horrible and inhuman one. Prosecuting the war became a major survival priority. With a Major General as Head of State many Sierra Leoneans thought the war would soon end. At first the government talked about flushing the rebels and similar expressions. This was not to be. The rebels adopted terror tactics of driving fear into people by causing mayhem, arson, amputations and murder. The 1992 military coup changed the whole chemistry of the war. The Civil Defence factor crept into the war jig-saw puzzle to protect civilians.
By 1996 a lot of pressure was piled until the military handed over to the newly elected President Kabbah. The war was officially declared over in 2001. President Kabbah’s priority was establishing government authority through out the country. He could rightly be referred to as the Father of Modern Sierra Leonean Democracy. The period saw the laying of the foundation for the rule of law, the observance of human rights and efforts at good governance.
President Koroma’s less than two years rule so far have seen a mixed bag.
His greatest credit so far is meeting some of his election promises especially that of the provision of electricity for Freetown and the boosting of the agricultural sector. The period’s low side is the many incidences of disregard for the rule of law and human rights.
Indeed as a country we have come a long way but we still have a lot more distance to cover. If you ask me we are yet to get the right party to bail us out of our present economic, social and political malaise. The recent uncalled for violence between the two main political parties with still lingering bickerings do not seem to have an end in sight. Our 48 years as a nation have been replete with challenges and lost chances. We started our life as an independent nation with the SLPP and APC. At least 40 per cent of politicians have served both of these parties. At our 48th birthday we might as well think hard on whether a third party is not required to forge national unity and peaceful co-existence. As we celebrate our 48th ‘In’- dependence hang loose but please do not spill over – never mind the IMF or the World Bank. Remember that if you ride on the back of the lion you will definitely end up in his mouth.
By S. Beny SAM