From the Editor’s Keyboard

Nation Building: Why people like Siaka Stevens join OBBA

28 July 2019 at 17:49 | 882 views

By Fayia Sellu, Guest Writer, USA

On the commemoration of the Golden Jubilee of The Government Secondary School, Bo (Bo School), the first President of Sierra Leone, Siaka Stevens, noted that the alumni of that school have played a prominent role in building what is known as the nation-state, Salone, in their various stations in life and urged this role be jealously guarded.

Stevens noted: “...The enviable reputation of the distinguished roles of your products in nation building must be maintained if the school is to count in the nation’s esteem.”

As we continue to yearn for perfection in ‘Unity Freedom and Justice’ or whatever it will take to cohere the territorial entity called Salone, 58 years on since a supposed self-determination from British Colonial rule, a stern look into the health of nation building model institutions like Bo School, should provide a barometer for the country in entirety. As we just in April commemorated another year of independence, one question that should be on our minds is, how are we doing in respect of maintaining nationhood equipments such as Bo School? I could have chosen to write about Connaught Hospital, the Guma Dam built for a capacity of 300, 000 Freetonians or any other colonial legacy, but I am (full disclosure) a Bo School boy, so bear with me. Also, I am going to digress. A lot.

Marathon would be one way to describe the celebrations of 90 years of alumni fraternity with Old Bo Boys Association (OBBA) and 113th of its founding last Easter. Not insignificant also, it was the first the school celebrated with one of its own as the First Gentleman of the country. As they do every Easter weekend, the crowning event packs Bo City to its rafters. Globally, there are replicates of pomp-filled events in local chapters. Yours truly attended both the Bo School and the Albert Academy. However, it is clear which school I would spend a pretty penny recording song for, or travel from California to attend a fundraising dinner and dance in Washington for. The Albert Academy Alumni Calendar was a permanent fixture on the wall in our living room. On it were the illustrious or prosperous Academicians. And you guessed right, then President Siaka Stevens always featured prominently; and yes, my old man was an Academician. Apart from his honorary role as Chancellor of University, the only other educational institution that Siaka Stevens did not attend, but was inducted as honorary member of, was the Great Bo School. By OBBA. The reason? Below is my perspective of why Bo School is so sexy and has successfully wooed every President, save Ernest Bai Koroma.

Eton of West Africa
I am not going to wax all historical on you right now about how the school was founded in 1906 by British educationist Leslie Probyn (could be where Stevens got his middle name) for the sons and nominees of Protectorate royalty that colonials named Chiefs, and whatnot. A brisk internet search will turn up from a Wikipedia entry, all the way to a peer reviewied academic paper on the school. Also, why else do we have self-arrogated rivals and love-hate fans like the erudite Andrew Keilie (of the ‘Graveyard United’ fame...guffaw!)? But on a more serious note, and I daresay say cogent for my case, is recognition that it was not historical accident that the initiative of the school comes after the Hut (House) Tax War which broke in 1896. It was strategic. To target Chieftaincy houses for education, training and the discipline that mirrored the British public school was a programmatic exercise with nation building centered as it main object. Novel at the time was that Government was undertaking the management of the school, a work that was hitherto almost the preserve of the Christian Missionary Society types. With direct engagement, it was obvious that the crop students were going to be prepared for governance of their compatriots, first drafted from chieftaincy ruling houses, then later from sundry citizens from across the country. The school de-emphasized religion, region or tribe and in its stead tried to clear the path for forging of a national identity with the admission number (like in the military) trumping the, as we fondly say, “funny name” your parents gave you. Ingenious!

I remember that while a student at Bo School, I read and kept a copy of the BBC’s Focus on Africa Magazine with a Feature piece titled “Eton of West Africa” talking about my school. I remember that Festus Seiwoh, the longest serving Principal, featured prominently in the piece. It is obvious that the Eton in England is still a hatchery and breeding ground of British elites and that the public schools, widely, via their boarding option(s) provide prepping for not only Britain’s elite class, but also those of foreign origin, especially from the Middle East, but also Africa. Ooops! Getting ahead of myself. Rewind.

About my first term at Bo School? Disaster! I lost just about everything, had to “taxi” (‘burrow’ someone else’s property) stuff to wear home, including a safety pin supported pair of flip flops.There were emissaries involved as I stayed at the neighbour’s place, letting my mother know I had returned. Eventually, I got what felt like a quarantine treatment: my head was shaved and the few items of clothing and bedding that were in my portmanteau were boiled just in case I had brought those ‘strangers,’ lice, bed bugs, ticks etc. After that first fall term, my mother was billed to travel, emergency, to the U.S. to take care of my father who had fallen seriously ill. No question, I was going to be pulled out of Bo School and made to live with a relative. I stoutly refused! The hassle of getting a different school, one term in, played favorably for me. Why would an 11-year-old mummy’s boy want to risk a repeat of what tantamounts to affectionate but constant fraternity house hazing and military boot camp, all wrapped in one? Sacrifice. Every alum of the school knows that the first term is normally the worst. Once you tough it out, things may not get significantly better, but like every other ‘greener’ or ‘rustic,’ you just get better at catching hell. You see, no matter your means, looks, and intelligence, forget tribe or region, you are going to catch hell. Together! More as a freshman, but for the first three years (forms 1-3) when you are considered the ‘labor force’ assigned all the cleaning and fetching chores. The rod and all its relatives were not spared in the bid to chisel the ‘Manners Maketh Man’ into you. The idea is to breed a fine gentleman of even the downright spoiled brat or the stupendously rebellious.

There are boundless bonding opportunities inherent in the traditional 100% boarding formulation that provides for a student body’s governing its affairs. All the ‘towns’ (Dormitory buildings) London, Paris, Manchester and Liverpool, have two teachers in the living quarters annexed to both sides of the building. They are called Town Masters and nominal at best. They hardly get deferred to for anything concerning day-to-day living affairs. There are the blockheads, police officers, sanitary officers, food managers, up to prefects titled ministers for discipline, education, sanitation and so on. There is a certain regimentation of affairs. Morning wake up, the rush to morning chores, getting to the queue ( for lunch and dinner, by seniority from highest to lowest form) breakfast, march to school for devotion, where we recite both the Lord’s Prayer and the Al Fathiha, with the regular spice of a featured speaker or performance of sorts. There is the observing of siesta after lunch before a window of time for games, showers, etc. and then prep, study time after dinner. All this is mandatory, whether you were born with a silver spoon or in a mud hut, you get to do them. Together.

Newly renovated, I see pictures of President Bio in the Dining Hall which come across as somewhat glamorously quirky. That building and its sidekick, the bell ensconced on the left side of its frontage, have done things to my tummy that have nothing to do with food. Kondoh, as our food is called, is a no-go area for analysis. There is no Kondoh problem maggie sauce, ‘Kaindah’ and other seasoning accoutrement cannot fix. Jekyll and Hyde, is one way to view the schizophrenia of good-evil offered by the two. For five years they offered invitation and hosted the filling of my tummy. I won’t say there that there were not times that the sound of that bell did not make me get a feeling that could equal those who say they feel butterflies, after waiting with bated breath for it to announce the next meal. Then there are the tummy-quakes and abdominal volcanic eruptions. You know, when your belly boils out of fear of not knowing your fate, or because you know it, and it’s not going to be pretty! Spot roll calls, however routine, are anything but ‘routine.’ There is something that always comes up once we pack that ‘depot’ of a hall by way of mass capital punishment called “drilling.” First off, any off hour ringing is a trigger, and such betweeners could be anytime of the day, even 3am. Once the bell starts ringing, you have the almost impossible five minutes to materialize at the hall from wherever on campus you are. Note you, no flip flops, shorts or wife beaters, cut offs and such allowed. After the five minutes, better start ‘frog-jumping’ from anywhere you could see the dining hall. On arrival you get to receive some more ‘drilling’ before allowed to enter the hall. It is impossible to miss all the opportunities offered to fall foul of the law. No need for creativity, but it comes in handy for slippery customers, as there always are wont to be. Such punishment dodgers may just get themselves holed up in that ‘depot’ at lunchtime on Wednesday or Friday when the boys’ favorite dish, soup or black-eyed beans (Torway), respectively, is served along with their trap. “Forms three downward...” we know exactly what we got to do. You can sleep through your admission number during roll call at 2 or 3am. You are 11 years-or-so, with all that hassle, absent, and get punished for that later. Oh, and it could turn into a ‘drilling’, anytime...Someone defecated in the garden or someplace....it never ends.

Model for Nationhood
No, this is not the Bo School chapter in my memoirs. This blinker of an account can blinker (pun intended) your view of Bo School as a hell-hole experience. Aside from the drudgery and sacrifice or discomfort, there is much that is fun besides the obvious—mobility up the ranks, from plebeian all the way up to the almighty Prefect with perks aplenty. The campus was big on sports infrastructure and paraphernalia from basketball to cricket. There were debating, current affairs, quizzing, scouting, French, Latin, theatre, religious and various clubs and societies, where personal talent and expression is nurtured and promoted. Who says we can’t have our very own homegrown Michael Jackson or Boy George at our variety shows, complete with hairdo, and fitted. Or that yours truly would not break bounds with friends to perform Right Said Fred’s “I am Too Sexy” flashing a bare chest under an open jacket to screaming girls at Saint Andrew’s Secondary School, knowing fully well my prefects are in the audience and there was punishment back on campus awaiting all the fun. Just saying. There is also that other underrated tool to survive and thrive in tough environments: Humor. Discipline, crime and punishment, bullying and cruelty even, are not unknown in Bo School. What sets us apart is our ability to bond, cohere and forge an identity with camaraderie that is invaluable in engaging difficulties and externalities (ask our ‘rival-aspirants’). Akin to the traits one could approximate with nationalism or patriotism. Enviable.

One OBBA @ 90 t-shirt captures much in essence; a composite of words specific to a language peculiar and intelligible to only us. It is mostly used to prime over the rough surfaces of the tough lives we live, with all its frolicsome and exciting compartments. It hard to use the outhouses in the school and not smell like you just took a bath with faeces. So? Well, the whole business of using the toilet becomes making a ‘deposit’ at ‘Swiss Bank.’ The beautiful thing about that environment is that it does not only produce cynics who can deal/cope with their suffering with creative phraseology, but it also produces managers and real problem solvers. I particularly remember a prefect in charge of sanitation, Hassan Lahai, who took his job seriously enough to ensure that the toilets were clean and treated with carbolic acid. Boys are out there managing the affairs of other boys, while they are all teenagers (well there are exceptions of grown men now and again). It prepares you for managing or dealing with people and problems in the universe. You learn respect, delayed gratification and loyalty needed aplenty in the real adult world. So, here’s the point. I feel more belonging to Bo School than Albert Academy, not for how many years spent at either school. Rather, it is the unique fraternity and bonds built at a former institution. Do people feel the same belongingness to Salone?

The fruits of that experiment bore good results for benefactors (the British), providing a crop of elites when they were trying to piece together a representative council for the assortment of ethnic of hinterland peoples called the Protectorate, of its territory that would become Sierra Leone, from Legislative Council, later fused with Colony peoples to form the National Assembly. The Colony peoples, some of its elites at least, were staunchly opposed to having one governance arrangement with the Protectorate. What that would have meant for nation creation or building would only now be left for conjecture as the Brits did not countenance that objection. I’ll come to that later.

There is something of a success story in the fact that to date, 58 years after the British left, this model social technology has engineered among its products some of the most prominent Sierra Leoneans, cutting across party, regional and tribal lines. Before boasting the current President, Julius Maada Bio, it had given us four Vice Presidents: Sorie Ibrahim Koroma, Salia Jusu-Sheriff, Joe Demby and Victor Bockarie Foh and numerous distinguished public and private citizens. Common to all four Veeps despite their varied stripes, is that they are team players, loyally served their bosses and country, and did not allow vaulting ambition that is common to No 2. men(women are sadly yet to hold these positions) to lead them into acts of blatant power struggle. When presidents, starting with Siaka Stevens, opt or are offered the honorary membership of the OBBA, prime among their motivations for joining is the superbly exemplary cohesive force of its membership and their role in governance and national service.

Time to get it right?
I was watching Charlie Haffner on AYV TV talking on Wake Up Sierra Leone on independence day. Many things just clicked. He was talking about leadership, and his letter to the Queen, indicating that other countries have institutions that identify and groom leaders. Remember that Focus on Africa magazine? I kept it for years! As a PANAFU member, I remember that Haffner offered his Telem Center on Dundas Street for our weekly meetings in the 90s. The culturalist and artist in Haffner would not let him fixate on the ideologue view that anything (Neo) colonial is bad for Africa, allowing him to engage our history, creatively, even if cursorily. I know that (as most PANAFU members do) he adores I.T.A Wallace-Johnson, just as much as he reveres Sengbe Pieh. On the eve of our 58th year since independence, we saw mucho sound and fury over which of both national heroes to name the Juba Bridge after. Quite unnecessary, the affair is indeed symptomatic of the APC-SLPP one-upmanship politics that thickly colors everything today, leaving no space for the national or nationhood. It determines whether on independence the stands at the National (or is it Siaka Stevens, again?) Stadium are empty or not. Exactly. Hands down, I prefer the “Education is a right and not a privilege” approximal theme, in line with government’s flagship Free Quality Education program, of the procession at the Stadium sponsored by JMB Women, than the ladida of masquerade devils that are usually the menu. I respect, support the position of the Bio government that until the 20% GDP threshold is reached with regard to local generation, state funds will not be spent to celebrate independence. With the current atmosphere of hardship (de gron dry), another chance of handouts from government would have come in handy. But seriously, we have to look at where we tripped before falling to this place where most Sierra Leoneans would agree that we have little to celebrate, as the only country in the sub-region, if not in Africa, where 60s independence political parties still have a stranglehold on rulership. Haffner, the current Monuments and Relics Commissioner’s letter to the Queen (by the way, HRM visited The Bo School when she was in the country in 1961) was hearty and recounted the basics of power transfer going into independence, and since.

However, one finds vitally important one discordant chord struck in the letter, the Saika Stevens factor; the fact he refused to sign the independence agreement at the Lancaster House talks because of objection to the defense pact it contained between Britain and Sierra Leone. Also, that Stevens, Wallace Johnson and others were arrested by Premier Milton Margai, in the run up to the events of April 27th 1961. There is a lot of our history that could be understood better with the benefit of classified files entombed at the Home Office in London. In the absence of that we can only give tainted historical perspectives, at best. When the British left in 1961, there obviously was an unfinished business of nation building. There is perceived a privileging of areas in Southern and Eastern Salone with development projects enhanced with the advent of railway transportation in 1897. For the North to be the main front of the Hut (House) Tax did not make it especially attractive for development projects during the era of the railway boost. At the narrow 2 ft 6 in gauge, it was already clear that the railway was planned as a feeder railway. It was routed only where there were produce for the factories in England, that meant all the way to Pendembu in the East, Makeni for feeder to Marampa Mines, and also all the way to Kambia for produce too. Governor Cardew’s ruthless tactics in the Tax War, including the Scorched Earth policy, did not endear the colonial administration to Northern peoples. That seething disaffection in the North, and an equally strong rejection of the idea to fuse them (Colony) with Protectorate in one legislative/governance arrangement connived to provide nexus for a North-West alliance at the crest of which Siaka Stevens rode to State House.

As a teenager, I first read “What Life Has Taught Me,” Steven’s memoir subtitled “A Political Career of Dr. Siaka Probyn Stevens and Nation Building.” The work hardly has a companion in the area of crafting a narrative that’s both a memoir and political history, thanks to among other enablers, his intellectual ghost writers. When we talk about the legacy of the first Executive President and the longest serving Head of State, it is not that the most important street in Freetown, or that our national stadium are named after him, or that he put his portrait on a national currency that is (thanks to his misrule and aftermath) out of circulation. It is that he wrote his DNA of political narcissism and the politics of revenge into the bloodline of our politics that it is going to take a generation or two to cleanse.

In brief, Siaka Stevens’ is tale is a tragic irony of a trade unionist, grassroot politician, who turned out to be an opportunist of the worst order, populist autocrat, who destroyed the country’s foundations of democracy, instituting all manner of repression he railed against in opposition, and became a monster. However, after Stevens had cultivated the seedbed for enough dissent in the country as to foment what would turn out to be our civil war, starting with the APC’s internal dissent by Forna and the Taqis on to widespread popular resistance by students, he ran to an institution like the Bo School that was the only remaining clamps holding the nation together. That the Salia Jusu Sheriffs and the Sama Banyas who eventually made the inevitable move to carry the APC symbol under the one-party system were Bo School Boys was no accident. What takes the wind out of my analytical sail is not that Momoh and Kabbah after Stevens also kept engaging with the nation-building role of Bo School or that Ernest Koroma did not particularly find use in Bo School banking on crowding his Magburaka Boys School acolytes around him; it is that as a son of a Paramount Chief and a full-blooded OBBA product our current president, the first ever alum to hold that office, is not exactly ‘killing’ at national cohesion business at the level fate and destiny seem to have prepared him for.

If anyone should unify or cohere this country, it is President Julius Maada Bio. At the last independence day celebration, H.E. said something like, maybe we may just get it right now as a nation. We are waiting!

NB:I should shamelessly plug this. I recorded this song “OBBA 4 Unity” here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F0TvY8K7txE The song was, let’s say, not soup du jour. Sierra Leoneans are not mightily into national cohesion music these days, I consolatorily suspect.

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