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Desmond Luke: A Profile in Courage

1 March 2021 at 14:53 | 7053 views

Editor’s Note: Freetown lawyer and politician Desmond Luke passed away over the weekend. Here is a profile of him we published in January 2011.

By Lans Gberie, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Desmond Edgar Fashole Luke, former politician and Chief Justice, lives quietly in a modest home on Spur-Loop, Freetown. He doesn’t give interviews, and his views are not sought after these days. He staunchly shies away from politics, and seems to follow events mainly in the local papers or on the radio and TV. When I visited him at his home on a Sunday afternoon, the TV in his spacious sitting room was showing a high-pitched African American televangelist, TD Jakes. Luke said Jakes was one of his favourites. He mentioned another favourite of his, another American and a big television personality with the word ‘Reverend’ prefixed to his name. I was stumped. Luke cares about Christian television evangelism?

Yes, he said, in his mellifluous Oxbridge accent. “Religion has always interested me since I was a student at Oxford back in the 1950s,” Luke said. “It didn’t come late, not a kind of retirement discovery.”

When I went to see him, Luke, (photo) was getting ready to travel to the UK; he was packing his suitcase in the living room. That explained why he took sometime to come to the door when I rang the bell. He still has, at 77, the same assured and somewhat aloof English public school manner, unsurprised and immensely knowing. His head has now all gone grey; but his looks are still rather dashing, a Sidney Portier lookalike. He was wearing loose flannel pants and a grey pygama shirt. “Yes, yes, yes. We should have some time to talk,” he said, as he led me to the sofa in the sitting room.

The sitting room had an anonymous, almost perfunctory, feel to it. There were no pictures, no shelves with books, no mementos from Luke’s long public career and extraordinarily interesting life. There were stacks of newspapers on the table, and a bible on the coffee table by the sofa.

This, of course, is not the house that Luke, aristocrat, a collector of memorabilia (even from his days as a celebrated sportsman – cricket, hockey, tennis, high jump, everything – at Kings College, Taunton, an English public school), has always lived. That house is further down the Loop, and was thoroughly vandalised, looted and destroyed by soldiers of the Armed Forces Ruling Council (AFRC), in 1997. Luke used to have the largest law library in Sierra Leone, at another house on Lamina Sankoh Street (which also hosted an excellent restaurant run by Luke’s long-term partner, Monica), in downtown Freetown. That house, too, was vandalised and torched (the same day as the Nigerian High Commission building) by the AFRC, the library looted, the books burnt or sold in the black market. Few of the country’s political elite endured this kind of wrath from the depraved junta. But then none of them were as outspoken against the junta, while still in the country. Luke was a particular target.

On the face of it, this is something of a surprise. In 1996, under the banner of his National Unity Movement (NUM), Luke had contested the presidential elections that brought Ahmad Tejan Kabbah to power. He lost; and his party, for some years the most vibrant because the most outspoken against the National Provisional Ruling council (NPRC) junta, became something of an awkward political presence, without representation in parliament. Luke’s presence on the political scene was so assured, however, that when the first peace agreement – the Abidjan Accord – was signed in November 1996, he was made Chairman of the newly-created Commission for the Consolidation of Peace. Then, a few months later, the AFRC coup happened. Luke, though no great friend of Kabbah at the time, was immediately one of the most prominent voices condemning the coup and calling for the reinstatement of Kabbah.

“I felt that this was the most destructive of coups,” Luke told me. “We’d gone through a most traumatic transition from one junta rule, and then we had this peace accord. A rather very promising start after all those awful years. The coup was simply unacceptable, and the international community reacted with particular revulsion. Not a single government recognised the junta.” Luke was very instrumental in mobilising international opinion against the AFRC, by condemning the junta in many interviews with the international media, in particular the BBC.

Early Celebrity

Luke, of course, is an unusual kind of politician in Sierra Leone: immensely courageous, self-less, principled, with an easy aristocratic disdain for material acquisitiveness. To talk to him, to be close to him, is to have a sense that money doesn’t really matter much; that such things are really needed only for the “work of the world” (the quote is from Joseph Conrad, whose inner nobility seems distinctly reflected in Luke).

Born in October 1935 on Rawdon Street in Freetown, Luke’s upbringing was privileged. The Luke family was high-achieving, High-Society: education in the best schools and universities in England was taken for granted by the Luke clan, as was the eventual rise to the top of the colonial service in West Africa. A branch of the Luke clan was perhaps the wealthiest family in Fernando Po (now oil-rich Equatorial Guinea), and another was (though black) part of the wealthy elite in Spain. The Luke clan owned massive plantations in Fernando Po (a few years before Luke was born, the League of Nations had censored Sierra Leonean-born Liberian President King for helping to ship forced labour to the plantations at Fernando Po, though the plantation owners were themselves not the focus of the investigation. As it happened, Graham Greene was cajoled into taking a trip to Liberia by the Anti-Slavery Society to investigate the forced labour scandals; he passed through Freetown on the way there in 1935, the year that Desmond Luke was born: that creates a certain context).

The Second World War delayed Luke’s travel to England for school: he attended the Prince of Wales Secondary School in Freetown for two years, before proceeding to Kings College in Taunton, Somerset, in pleasant south-west England, in 1949. The school, in that English way with these things, was respectable: two of the younger sons of Haile Selassie, exiled to England after Mussolini invaded his country, went there. Luke was a celebrity at the school: a leading sportsman who got mentioned in national papers like the London Times and Daily Telegraph for setting records in several sporting events. The 1954 (the year that Luke left for Oxford) edition of the school’s magazine, The Aluredian, dedicates over a page to Luke’s sporting prowess, and carries two pictures of him, one among the hockey team, and the other among the cricket team. The Headmaster’s report mentions Luke by name; and the magazine reports Luke reading his last term paper, “The Conditions for the Expansion of Islam.” The Aluredian quaintly notes that the paper was “concerned about the position in Negro Africa,” and stated that the paper “set a standard for the future that will be hard to maintain.” Luke, in other words, was not just a remarkable sportsman: he was also a very good scholar. The magazine wished Luke the very best “as he leaves for Oxford...”

Someone had recently recovered this magazine and given it to Luke: it was now the only memorabilia from those times that Luke possesses: the AFRC had destroyed all the others. “You see,” Luke avoided that issue altogether, “my interest in the great world religions has always been there, right from the beginning. I was also interested in Hindu spiritualism.”

At Keble College, Oxford, Luke studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics, the famous PPE. He graduated in 1957 but decided to stay for another year to study West African medieval history under the radical leftwing historian Thomas Hodgkin. African independence was approaching: indeed Ghana would gain independence from Britain that year. And Hodgkin (and some other radical British intellectuals; Basil Davidson was another), who later wrote Nationalism in Colonial Africa, was helping prepare for this by looking more sympathetically at the African past, arguing – pace Trevor-Roper – that Africa does have a history beyond the European contact. In 1959, Luke moved to London; two years later, he went to Cambridge to take a law degree.

“I was at Cambridge in 1961 when Sierra Leone gained independence,” he said. “I remember celebrating our independence with friends at a pub in the University. It was an immensely joyous moment. We were very optimistic; none of us, in our worst nightmare, would have seen all these coming, coups, rebels, economic meltdown. Our failing as a nation is truly extraordinary.”

A Grand Contrarian

Luke returned to Sierra Leone immediately after completing his studies at Cambridge, in 1962. In Freetown, he opened his own chambers, and practised law until 1969, when he was appointed Ambassador to West Germany (accredited to all EU countries) by Siaka Stevens. From there, in 1973, he was appointed Foreign Minister. Two years later, he dramatically resigned. The reason for this now seems as remote and bewildering as it was deeply felt by the brash and earnest Oxbridge sophisticate at the time. It concerned the North/South Korea dispute. At the time, Sierra Leone maintained relations with both countries, but they didn’t have embassies in Freetown. The South Korean Embassy in Monrovia, Liberia, covered Sierra Leone; North Korea wanted to establish a mission, but it wanted Sierra Leone to sever relations with the South. The South had recently sent a new Ambassador, who was due to present his credentials to President Stevens in Freetown. On hearing about this, North Korea immediately sent its Finance Minister to Sierra Leone to prevail on the government not to receive the new South Korean ambassador.

That’s the kind of diplomatic chutzpah no one can associate with the demented and bankrupt and starveling North Korea of these days. The Finance Minister came with a cheque (or perhaps several cheques), and he, going by his country’s template, immediately contacted the Central Committee of the ruling All Peoples Congress (APC). He had read well. Sorie Ibrahim Koroma, the scheming and fanatical Vice President, was on hand. The North Korean promised to build a Town Hall for the government as well as provide assistance to the Central Committee. All this was done behind the back of the Foreign Minister, who was completely ignored. In blissful ignorance, Luke scheduled a meeting with the South Korean ambassador to present his credentials to Stevens. The poor South Korean arrived, and a meeting was duly scheduled. The North Korean deferred his exit from the country and waited. On the morning that Stevens was to receive the South Korean, he was in his office with Luke when SI Koroma arrived. He immediately informed Stevens that the Central Committee had decided that the South Korean was not to be accredited. Stevens was chair of the Central Committee, and he feigned to be ignorant. Luke protested, but Stevens told him he would have to find out first. Meanwhile the poor South Korean had been ushered into the waiting room at State House. Two hours later, he was still waiting. Exasperated, Luke told Stevens he would have to inform the ambassador that the meeting would be rescheduled, which he did.

“I was furious,” Luke said. “Nothing happened in the government or the APC without Stevens’ approval. He was simply messing around with everyone, and this was unacceptable. The next day, I brought him a draft of my resignation letter, stating that if he can’t trust me, his Foreign Minister, on a matter as basic as receiving foreign ambassadors, then there was no point in me serving his government.” Stevens was bemused: he simply didn’t see how anyone could resign over such a petty matter. To his surprise, Luke submitted the letter the next day and packed out of the Foreign Office.

In 1977, Luke contested his Wilberforce seat as an Independent; SI Koroma mobilised all the APC against him, but the APC candidate lost so badly he forfeited his deposit. Wily Stevens, now planning to introduce a one-party state, saw dangers in having Luke on the back benches. He quickly appointed him Health Minister. Luke accepted. “You see, I would say to Zainab Bangura: you’re not the first to be removed from the Foreign Ministry and sent to Health. Cyril Rogers-Wright was the first. It is about service to nation, not hierarchy in government.” Luke was, by all accounts, a hugely successful and popular Health Minister. But a year later, shortly after Stevens introduced a one-party state, Luke left the government. He remained in Parliament until 1983, but he was hardly in the country at the time. “Parliament was nothing. I was travelling all the time. The APC tried to get me out with the provision that an MP should not be out of the country for 30 days at a time. But every time they realised I was back on the 28th day,” Luke said, smiling.

After 1983, Luke became a single opposition voice in the country. He later set up the National Unity Movement (NUM) to advocate constitutional reforms, and was part of the 1991 constitutional review commission. Then the National Provisional Ruling council (NPRC) coup happened. Luke was a very prominent critic of the regime, and was on a number of occasions prevented from travelling out of the country by the NPRC.

I had got to know Luke at about this time. He had liked what I was writing in the Concord Times, and he invited me for lunch at his restaurant on Lamina Sankoh Street. Every other day after that, I would meet Luke at the restaurant and we would have lunch and drinks. It might be said, though this will be unfair, that this was as much an attraction for the young journalist as the inspiring conversations with the veteran politician and activist. It might have been mutually beneficial. Any time the Concord Times had problems with a good front-page story, the editors would simply urge me to visit my friend Luke, and in no time we would have a great story, with Luke volunteering detailed and cogent criticisms of the junta. He was the only prominent figure in the country to do that at the time.

Luke contested, and lost, the 1996 elections under the banner of NUM. Then the following year, rogues soldiers staged a bloody coup overthrowing newly-elected Kabbah and ushering in what they were pleased to call the Armed Forces Ruling council (AFRC) junta.

“I worked with the Nigerian, British and other foreign diplomats to convince the junta to hand back power to the elected government,” Luke said. “My views on the junta were, of course, very well known. They were a despicable lot. But the foreign diplomats convinced me to go, alone, and have a final negotiation with the AFRC. It was a very charged moment. I met with Johnny Paul Koroma and his gang for several hours at night. We made offers to them to leave – cash, study abroad, amnesty etc. The talks went well. As I was leaving, Paul Koroma came to me, furtively, and told me that since he was head of the junta, his own cash payment should be bigger than the rest. It was like that. Disgusting.”

Luke got a tentative understanding from the junta that they would handover power to Kabbah. Shortly after, however, the junta announced that no agreement had been reached, and its thugs attacked Luke’s home. Luke fled, by fishing boat, to Guinea, joining Kabbah and his exiled government.

Chief Justice

Nigerian troops and the Civil defence Force (CDF) unseated the junta in February 1998, and Kabbah was restored to power. Before they left Guinea for Sierra Leone, Kabbah approached Luke to be his next Chief Justice. He was going to sack Justice Beccles-Davies, for the offence of swearing-in Johnny Paul Koroma. “I wasn’t convinced this was a good reason to sack the Chief Justice,” Luke said. “It was both unfair and rather frivolous, and I told Kabbah that. I’m almost convinced that had Kabbah been in Beccles-Davies’ position, he would have done the same thing.”

Kabbah and his then Attorney-General Solomon Berewa, however, insisted. Luke had become close friends with Kabbah in Guinea, and so he told them he would seek help with the Commonwealth to provide an experienced Chief Justice. Kabbah and Berewa, of course, weren’t interested; they had plans to try dozens of people for treason and “collaboration”, and doubtless they felt that because of the personal suffering that Luke had had at the hands of the junta, he was likely to support the trial. Luke insisted that a foreign judge may be more appropriate at that point. He had personal reasons as well. Luke’s father had acted as Chief Justice, and the experience wasn’t a very pleasant one. Then his cousin, Livesey-Luke, who would later become Chief Justice of Botswana, had to leave Sierra Leone after falling out with the manipulative Siaka Stevens.

Luke flew to London and met with Commonwealth Secretary General Emeka Anyaoku. By the time he got there, however, Kabbah had already phone Anyaoku and told him to convince Luke to accept the job. The meeting, in other words, ended even before it began. Undaunted, Luke flew to Botswana to ask his cousin, Livesey, for help. He was there when someone telephoned to congratulate him on his appointment – now announced on the radio – as Chief Justice of Sierra Leone. Kabbah had calculated well: Luke’s sense of honour and service to the nation meant that he would have to accept, and he did, returning to Freetown shortly after.

“Within weeks of my taking the job, I had to haul Berewa before Kabbah for interference with my job,” Luke said. “Berewa was sending magistrates and judges summarily on leave, telling others to do this or that. This was not his job. He was Chief Prosecutor for the government. I told Kabbah that a permanent solution to this kind of thing was to separate the position of Attorney General from that of Minister of Justice. Stevens had created this problem back in 1978, with the one-party thing. Kabbah agreed in principle.”

But there was a looming problem. Luke was approaching 65, the retirement age for judges, when he was appointed. He discussed the matter with Kabbah, and Kabbah promised to revise that upwards: meaning that the retirement age would be pushed to 70, a far more reasonable thing. By that time, however, the vindictive Berewa had gained great ascendancy in the government: in 2002 he became Vice President, and that year, Luke was retired.

Private Life

Luke now mostly passes his time at his home, travelling from time to time. When in Freetown in August last year, I dropped by to see him. He had been to a “fellowship” – born a Methodist, Luke had become a Pentecostal. I was intrigued. All the same we spent hours together over red wine. He spoke at the time – more in sadness than in bitterness – of the wasted opportunities of Kabbah’s government. In December a few months later when I dropped by to see him, his views about Kabbah had somewhat mellowed. There was, in his voice, a sense of disappointment over what had become of the dream of independence, the pathos of the continuing delinquency of his country. “We haven’t fulfilled the aspirations of independence,” he said. “We haven’t succeeded. Can we?” He would, in this mood, adapt Oscar Wilde to say, as the country approaches its 50 years of nationhood: That the waste of the past 50 years has been a mistake. But to waste the next 50 would be sheer carelessness.