Salone News

The Case for National Cohesion

24 January 2019 at 00:44 | 2309 views


By Fayia Sellu, USA

The news of President Bio’s visit to Bombali and Tonkolili districts in the Northern region of the country came to me via the often political-charged lenses of Social Media pundits. Needless to say, there were rampant comments on the optics of (one gets the impression, I did not get to see myself) an extravagant convoy of security detail. In what was usually expected of election year or season mode of political discourse, the whole rationale or message was forfeited to political spin, sadly. What could possibly be wrong about the President, of all of Sierra Leone, visiting what is undeniably the stronghold of the opposition, to make form trump the spirit of the whole enterprise. Considering the rancorous elections early last year, the messy transition in its aftermath and the one-upper versus obstructionist posturing of the principals of the country’s politics—SLPP and APC respectively—one thing is incontrovertible: The country is divided! The question is, how divided? Two propositions:Oxymoronic it may sound, but it is not moronic to suggest President Bio and his New Direction government wage a war for National Cohesion as ardently and vigorously as the war against Corruption. And no, this not the Orwellian 1984 manner of Doublespeak. Second, the Kenyan Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai posits that the wars in Africa are about resources,”who gets included and who gets excluded.” I agree, plenty. The challenge, for Bio, is to work a fine line between the two. Bear with me as I make a thesis of the case for National Cohesion.

The Nation as Imagination
To the extent the peopling, demarcation and cohering of what is today the nation-state formulation, Sierra Leone, is a work more of imagination than anything else, should be common knowledge. From Pedro da Cintra’s imagining of lions on sinewy mountain ranges of the western coastline as they echoed thunder into the rainforest, thru Granville Sharpe’s lofty idea of a “Province of Freedom” for freed slaves, on the 70-something-thousand-square-mile expanse (minus Yenga, maybe?) fielding some 18 ethnic groups, gaining self-determination from British colonial dominion in 1961, one sees a long experiment of the imagination as practice in building nationhood and national identity. The ascriptive “Melting Pot” usually kept for the United States fits perfectly for countries like Sierra Leone with substantial African-descended settler populations.

For temporal convenience, we cannot go back to the Mane Invasion by what became the Mendes, Sapes, or how the warring Themne ethnic group came to control the enviable trade posts on the western coastal shorelines in what is today Freetown. Our pre-colonial history is replete with wars of invasion, conquest and dominance. However, the construct of the nation-state,Sierra Leone, had its seeds planted by British abolitionists who birthed the idea of a place that could house, among others. the Black Poor and ex-slaves roaming the streets, in especially Britain and Nova Scotia, Canada. It is relatively recent. Importantly relevant, is the fact that there was the business angle also. The auspices of the whole enterprise was the Sierra Leone Company (we could liken them to venture capitalists today) which underwrote the project while the British Navy set up a base to provide muscle. Up until it became an official colony of the British Crown in 1808.

Why lavish so much time explaining the conception of Freetown and its settlers? It is crucial to understanding Sierra Leone’s peopling, and is still central to everything about this country.

There are three broad groups that make the bulk of the, diverse, settlers. Among these African descended peoples, there were Blacks who fought alongside the British colonialists against their American ‘masters’ in the Revolution; there were those who resisted British rule in Jamaica (the notable Maroons), went guerrilla, until the British promised them a return to parcel of land they had procured them in Africa, and there were the Recaptives/Returnees, Africans freshly sold into slavery but never making the passage across the Atlantic. Many of the slave ships were intercepted by the British Naval vessels to enforce the Abolition Proclamation as they mostly left the trading posts along the Niger River. Between 1807 and 1864 the number of Recaptives alone brought to Freetown, swelled to about 50,000.

Together, these Africans and African descended peoples formed a tributary culture, language and identity alternately called Creole or Krio. That Krio or Creole language is the lingua franca today imbeds a testament to the transactional nature of the cultures and peoples whence it emanated. As a patios, it bears the traces and residues most of the contact languages it encounters prying an ever burgeoning lexicon. One needs look no further than the language itself to know that, though English was the main sperm of Western languages to impregnate our Krio, it still bears traces of other Western languages with which it has transacted over the centuries. Why else do we say “boku” for plenty, as in French “beaucoup” or “Sabi” to know as in “Sabes” in Portuguese or Spanish? The first caucasians the coastal Themne may have encountered were the Portuguese, so every white person is “am Poto.” The same way every motorcycle is a Honda. In fact, the Creole or Krio identity, as a project of integration, rather than exclusion, is not without its own craters. There is a strong argument to be made that the Fullah Town and Fourah Bay peoples are part of the Recaptive group that were so recently uprooted, and owing to their not crossing the Atlantic, were able to keep their culture by way of Hunting and Ojeh, Gelehdeh secret societies as opposed to their more Westernized counterparts who would opt, say, for the Masonic Order. The former two sections are not listed as ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. We just crowd them into the Krio column. I would have also added the “indigenous” or country peoples bring verbatim their descriptions or expressions in the various tongues to Krio, wheely-neely, where they don’t know or can’t find English equivalence. But again, who is to say who is indigenous or who got here first? First off, the Western Canon version of our history is mostly transactional, per se. It is vastly mute on the probable indigenous peoples like the Bullom, Gola, Vai or Krim, anecdotal at best, of the other ethnic groups, while giving a decent amount of play to the two “invading” dominant groups, the Themne who dominate Northern and Western, and the Mende who dominate the Southern and Eastern Sierra Leone. Like most histories are about great men, these warrior kings are offered narratives in relation to their spheres of influence, relevance or recalcitrance to the colonial project. King Tom (obviously not his name) was, maybe, so amenable to Western contact and trade to have become the proverbial “Uncle Tom” whose real name did not matter; less so Pa Daimba or King Naiambana. There is so much room to exercise your imagination. I am Kissi, both maternal and paternal. I am a direct descendant of Kailondo the famous Kissi warrior (after whom Kailahun district is named), but so are all the Banyas who pass for Mende, just like the Pujehun Chieftains, the Jah and Kaikai clans, are not Mendes,( duh?), they are Fullahs! Insert Themne and change the region(s), you will get similar results. I have direct bloodlines running into Lofa County in Liberia and Geukedu in Guinea. I am a truly Mano River Union citizen. Same can be claimed by Madingos, Susus,Fullah, Vai etc. Legend has it that we are related to a group carrying the same name in Kenya...we were the ones who went looking for, some say sea, others say salt. It is exasperating!

Protectorate Vs. Colony
When the idea of the British practicing a Indirect, as opposed to the French model of Assimilation colonialism is bandied about, it is not just cliche. It was an actuality that had far-reaching implications for the destinies of subjects in colonies like Sierra Leone. Like elsewhere in Africa, the self-arrogated ‘burden’ of civilization starts with establishing a company, the prospectors, if you like. Between 1787 and 1808 when a full-blown colony was declared, The Sierra Leone Company kept the flame of the “Freetown” dream alive, to much travail and failures. By the latter date when the British Crown decided to consolidate its holdings, the picture was somewhat clearer: It would train its colonial flock as model for the project of civilizing the rest of what was shaping up to be British West Africa. Focal to this enterprise was the establishment and support of the Christian Missionary Society which went on to build schools and offer the basic foundational education for those that would be trained, first as administrators, and later abroad (Great Britain) to study in the various professions. This move registered relative success in the 19th century, and before long, the colony had a ready crop of administrators to export to other parts of British Dominion in West Africa. At its hilt, this mechanism produced men like Bishop Ajayi Crowther and Africanus Horton; men who went to far-flung places in Nigeria and Ghana to propagate British civilization.

At this time, anything beyond current Waterloo was the Hinterland, the Frontier and later the Protectorate. Elaborate and deliberate was the slow process of consolidating power over what was the Protectorate. The colonial operatives in Freetown signed treaties with the Kings who were thenceforth referred to as Chiefs. Most of the Chiefs construed these treaties as instruments of friendship or cooperation and provided men for what was essentially a ragtag militia that came to be known as the Frontier Police as a show of goodwill. The denture of these treaties with regard to jurisdiction or authority were either not understood or had no apparent implications for the authority of the local leaders. The British were not in any particular hurry to capitalize on or enforce the sections that usurped the powers of the traditional leaders. They still exercised full authority over their subjects and were fully consulted on matters relating to their territories. But that time would come. One such leader, Bai Bureh, the Temne Chief of Kasseh, was to etch his place in history as the most kanterkerious when the British got around to instituting the house or hut tax in what he considered his dominion. For proper context, it should be understood that besides the treaties with local leaders and training the militia-like Frontier Police and building access to direly needed agro-based products for export to their factories, the Brits were not awfully concerned with day-to-day governance most of the hinterland. It must be noted that it is not coincidence that it was after the Berlin Conference overseen by Otto Von Bismarck in 1884-85 that the Hut Tax war broke in Sierra Leone. That conference also called the Congo Conference partitioned and shared Africa into blocks of influence with the primary interest being trade of Africa’s resources among Western powers. Arbitrary and disregarding for hitherto known geospatial and ethnic actualities like the Hutu-Tutsi differentials, or that, say, my ancestors lived in Kissiland before they were divided in border people in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the colonialists proceeded to protect and defend their apportioned territories right away! The British accordingly declared the Protectorate officially 1896.

We were taught the kindergarten song “Bai Bureh was a warrior/ He fought against the British/ The British made Him Surrender…” What most of our anecdotal history eludes is that the then Governor, a military veteran of the British Empire’s repressive governance in India and South Africa, imposed an unreasonably high tax of ten shillings on four-room huts and was resisted across the Protectorate with a petition signed by 24 chiefs. Governor Colonel Federic Cardew’s men fired the first shot in February 1898 and engendered a brutal war that saw hundreds slaughtered on both sides.There was the notable hacking into pieces of a innocents like Johnny Taylor a Creole trader. Bai Bureh, a war strategist, got reinforcements from the Kissi war chief Kai Londo and the Limba Chief Suluku and held sway the more sophisticated British troops until they employed ‘the scorched earth’ policy that raised everything, including whole villages, farms and farm-sheds to the ground. Cardew insisted on an unconditional surrender of Chief Bureh, November that year, whence he was exiled to Ghana, then the Gold Coast, to send a strong message about the colonial government’s insistence that Protectorate people pay for their administration. That’s in addition to providing free labor for things like road construction. Another minimized fallout of that war is the animus between Creoles and their Protectorate compatriots. There was a Southern front to that war, led by the Mende, where the majority of the casualties were Creoles who were resident in those areas as traders and administrators.

By far the most ominous of revolts faced by the colonialists in West Africa, Sierra Leone’s Hut Tax War was also to be followed by the labor riots circa 1955 that symptomized similar anti-Creole (deemed agents of the British) sentiments and also emanating non-chieftain-based political representation in the likes of Siaka Stevens. Informed probably by these events, the British took several measures that reinforced the divide-and-rule/indirect rule formula in their colonial spheres. They were invested in the process that saw the crowning of chiefs (even installed a few of their own) and instituted the dual governance structure of the District Councils headed by a British Commissioner and a Native Administration headed by the local chiefs with both colonial laws and customary laws allowed to cohabit, so long they met their tax and other obligations. When it came time for the Legislative Council to be formed on a national level, the colonial authorities installed and promoted the parallel system with a separate Crown Colony from the Protectorate. Of the lessons learnt over the years, one of the very useful in governance was deferring to the Paramount Chiefs on matters of customary law and governance. It so happened that these were more than likely to be inclined towards a conservative mode of governance, with consultations and consensus favored over simple plebiscite. This structured division was useful to the British in the negotiation leading to independence, by which time, they had made substantial inroads and had won the favor of many of these local leaders that populated the Protectorate Legislative Council. The founding the Bo Government Secondary School for the sons and nominees of Chiefs in 1906, and many in its image across the country later, were all steps aimed at reaching out to the local leaders and their people, molding them into ways that would make them amenable to colonial diktats, mostly.

It must be highlighted that the Legislative was first set up in 1863 and became progressively enlarged in 1924 and 1951, before it became the House of Representatives in 1956 covering the geographic and ethnic totality of the country. While the wedding was going on between the Colonial “masters” and the Country people, the Colony Creoles were wary of the development and were ever more vociferous in their objections to colonial rule. Their resistance to the British took the form of newspaper articles, pamphleteering and trade union revolts. There were some like I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson who saw grassroot revolt against colonialism as the way to go. He used the West African Youth League to become a thorn in the flesh of the colonial government. The Creoles having the requisite education, sophistication and elite power, were worried, given their history with them, and the sheer arithmetics of popular votes, to be joined together with the Protectorate in a single governance arrangement. They wanted self-rule and a separation from the Protectorate, a move the British stoically rejected. For some (un)known reason(s), the British kept the status quo of division right up to the Lancaster House negotiations that handed us our independence on a proverbial ‘silver platter.’ The Governor-General was still in place and the Prime Minister was not given the Executive powers at all levels. Siaka Stevens did not sign that independence document and was incarcerated as Sierra Leoneans danced and launched into a dizzying array festivities marking the occasion. Siaka Stevens wanted elections before independence.

There is the common mythology that the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) is more elitist and conservative as opposed the All People’s Congress more grassroot-oriented. There is something to their genealogy that puts some merit, at least with regard to their founding and the characters who imprinted the process, to that. The SLPP, it is known by many, was started by Paramount Chief Farama Tass, other Paramount Chiefs and Protectorate elite such as Sir Milton Margai who were able to forge an alliance with Colony elite like Rev. Etheldred Jones, also known as Lamina Sankoh, in order to form a ruling coalition in the immediate pre-and-post elections era. This modus of consultations and coalition-building was not far removed from the way the colonists administered most of the protectorate, deferring to the Chiefs who enjoyed executive powers to a substantial extent. It even offered some of them sacrosanct slots on the legislative council, and the deciding votes often as to what party could form government. This arrangement, it could be said, was in deficit of full representation of all peoples of the entire citizenry. There was disaffection aplenty as demonstrated in the popular uprisings and industrial actions that took place in the 30s, 40s and 50s. Overall sporadic, these strike came to a head in the 50s in especially the Northern Province and Western Area, the seat of government, Freetown. Among other reasons attributed to this pattern was the fact that Colony peoples took exceptions to plan to fuse them with protectorate peoples, while the North was the least developed part of the country given their history. For example, the railway lines ran from Freetown to Pendembu in the East, while it stopped only at the Marampa Mines in the North. The British were obviously interested in produce to supply their industries mostly from the South and East of Sierra Leone and infrastructure and development like roads and schools were inclined to epitomize such biases. Siaka Stevens was both a product and a direct beneficiary of the North-West disaffection with colonial authority and its governance mode.

Siaka Stevens was able to cut his political teeth as a trade unionist representing, of all places, the Marampa Mines. A platform like the Mines and General Workers Union offered direct representation, absent the consultative layer of the chiefs. In about the most precarious industrial environments at the time, Stevens was able to manage both the agitations of miners and negotiations with authorities. Of the more radical elements, all initially in the SLPP, Albert Margai included, who broke rank to form the People’s National Party (PNP), Stevens it was that proved most recalcitrant. He saw himself as short-changed by the refusal to hold elections before the negotiations for independence. His Elections Before Independence Movement was what he married with the aspirations of some Northern elites Like Sorie Ibrahim Koroma, S.A.T Koroma, Bash-Taqi, Sheik Gibril Sesay and others to birth the All People’s Congress. The role of disgruntled Western area elite looking to forge alliances with the North, if not for anything else but sheer numbers, such as S.A.J. Pratt, cannot also be minimized. Post-independence, Stevens was to seal that marriage when he won parliamentary seat for Freetown West 2 constituency, and in 1964, the Mayorship, being the first person of Protectorate descent to ever score such a feat.

The SLPP at independence and under Sir Milton Margai, was nationalist in outlook, but steeped in patronage especially with the Chiefs and in lockstep with colonial authorities—the Queen literally wined and dined with the premier. The APC was quite the opposite. It is indeed true that beside the ostensible “Comrade” prefix some diehards still carry, the APC founders actually looked to China and North Korea for seed money and ideology, initially. The British may have sent Siaka Stevens to Ruskin’s College to study trade unionism and placate him, but his eighteen years as Head of State and his legacy, like the National Stadium and Youyi Building, show clearly that he found camaraderie more with Communists than the West. Today as we look at the APC, one still finds the anachronism regarding not only its Victory Song, or the fact that the likes of Osman Yansaneh are still running things as scribe, but like the towering portrait on the wall of the conference room at its headquarters, the party is still in the image of Siaka Stevens. In spite of the changing times and political dynamics. It is no secret that to win elections in Sierra Leone one has to pitch tents or corral the majority of the support of at least one of the two most populous groups in the country. This historico-spatial actuality sees the Themne dominating its Northern and Western regions and the Mende dominating the South and Eastern regions. It is no doubt that the two most entrenched parties in the country have fashioned their political bases along the lines of such natural divide. We are perhaps the only African country to have gained independence in the 60s which still has our politics dominated by independence-era parties. So entrenched are these parties to Salone politics, that even when interloping junta regimes emerge, like the NPRC and AFRC of recent memory, they are colored by SLPP and APC elements, respectively, and vice versa.

That North-West Nonsense!
When the current political dispensation announced a cabinet and appointed a minister for the North-West province, I was taken aback by this manner of continuity in governance. I could not recall any such thing, first, in the political imagination, much less as an actuality under Ahmad Tejan Kabbah as president. What could possibly be the rationale for a North-West province other than the loud play it had during Ernest Bai Koroma’s tenure? So also one finds very confusing the reasons for the adding to two new districts Falaba and Karina to the existing ones. I looked at census data from 1973 to date, and they stand counterfactual to any possible reason for further real or imagined divisions to hitherto districts or provinces. Particularly instructive are census figures with the population distribution by administrative districts between 1985 and 2004, almost two decades apart. Especially because half of that period covers the civil war years and its demographic shifts. The results varied in a minus-one-to-one percent range, excepting outliers like Western Area Urban that saw 2.18 percent increase and Kono district that fell by 4.34 percent. The 2015 census registers unprecedented increases in population percentages in many districts, especially in the North. At the expense of failing to call the data sexed up (one sees no major event to account for that exponential growth, except that in peace years there will be more births than deaths, with Ebola and Mudslide having a negligible effect), there was still no striking need to demarcate two new districts in the North. One is only tempted to see what the Americans call gerrymandering, in which politicians demarcate districts to concentrate their support in certain areas and maximise constituency representation. Maybe that will help with the inexplicable fact that the APC dominates in parliament, but failed to get the majority of the votes in presidential elections.

These theories aside, and no matter how far-flung the districts are, I don’t look forward to the exercise of imagination, that will find transference into a South-East province, ever. Efforts must come from alternate direction of building more bridges to cohere our nation in both the political imagination and practice. The North-West phenomenon evokes Siaka Stevens’ political DNA. But even Stevens was quick to advance National Cohesion as the ethos for his one-party dictatorial Republican constitution in 1978. It was a leaf borrowed from a playbook made vogue by leaders like Kwame N’Krumah, whose Convention People’s Party, immediate-post-independence, saw it as a best way to keep Ghana united. Overly critical of Kabbah’s Government of National Unity idea since the Second Republic was ushered by the 1996 elections, I have since had a rethink. Even before governance, ending the war, peace-building and other imperatives conspired to push Kabbah to broaden the base of political inclusion, he had understood and negotiated ethno-regional dynamics from jump. There is no denying the fact that had Thaimu Bangura and People’s Democratic Party (PDP) not pitched tents with the SLPP in the second round of those elections, forking over a considerable chunk of the Themne votes, Kabbah would not have had the push over the line, defeating John Kerefa-Smart in the runoff. That was the only time we have come close to breaking the spell of SLPP-APC music-and-chair(s). Every other significant party, barring the two principals to a qualified extent, are built around cult personality and have followed their leaders out of politics or to the grave—a fact that did not hurt Kabbah’s task of fishing opposition actors for jobs in governance. So bad is the state of, a) the lack of strength in the party as an institution, across the board, and b) that Salone politics is almost entirely about who has access to state jobs and resources; one never finds any party which has its National Executive as a full time occupation, ironically, especially, when they are in power and can have lucrative elsewheres to work. The idea of a North-West anything was totally irrelevant in the political lexicon or imagination in 2002 when Kabbah swept the polls in a landslide victory. There were jobs and contracts for the Boys (and sadly, much less for “Our Better Halves”) and Girls. I finds it difficult to fall for the histrionics about how deep ethno-regional veins run, because I saw an SLPP government which recognized its Kambian roots and appointed a Northerner to ascend to the presidency on its ticket. Kabbah at some points, either via the “Unity” or “Technocrat” train, packed his cabinet with more Northern-descended people in more consequential positions, than people from the South and Eastern parts of the country combined. If there were murmurs, who heard or cared?

This talk about North-West, from perception or mythology to actuality and materiality (complete with a province and minister), may have started finding footing in the voting patterns of the elections which brought to power Ernest Bai Koroma, at least during the first rounds. Before Charles Margai rallied his People’s Democratic Movement for Change (PMDC) to take Koroma over the line, there was, roughly, a North-West as opposed to South-East dominance in favor of the APC and SLPP, respectively. On ascent to power, Koroma had the good sense to appoint members of the PMDC, mainly southerners, into his cabinet. Heck, he even took the SLPP leader in the House of Parliament, Hon. Momoh Pujeh, on his first overseas trip to the United Kingdom. Promising! But events after that laid the pathway to a negative trend that only exacerbated in Koroma’s last term, the rise of TOLONGBOISM and the ossification of a North-West mentality. All verging on Maathai’s idea of resources and the fight for them as the bedrock of Africa’s wars.

In Lieu of a Conclusion
Sierra Leone is a relatively small country of 7 million people to have a double-digit ethnic register. Luckily among its blessing are not only it vast deposits of minerals. but a people with inter-tribal/ethnic, inter-religious and regional marriages, connections and living arrangements that could be the envy of most African countries. Yes, we had a civil war for over a decade; yet, not one time did it ever degenerate into a tribal/ethnic/regional conflict. There is obvious gravity to asymmetry in the colonial legacy of access to regional development, especially education, from the Crown Colony to the Protectorate, one cannot belabor. However, the British had national cohesion in mind when they set up the Government Secondary School Bo (The Bo School) for the sons and nominees of Chiefs (across the country) and modeled it after the prestigious Eton in the UK in 1906. Full disclosure, I attended selfsame school. With the admission number, 5994, I am technically senior to Joseph Saidu Momoh (6285) who became an honorary member while there in 1990. Why is this necessary? As an all-boys, 100% boarding school, the culture inculcated in students is like a never-ending boot camp and leadership training. One is able to be subject to, observe, navigate and ascend to authority, all while a teenager. The fact that apart from being Chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone, presidents like Stevens and Momoh felt compelled to join the ranks even as honorary members, speaks to the unifying role Bo School has played over the years. It’s a fact that it has stocked Sierra Leone’s ruling class with leaders of every political, ethnic or regional stripe. How’s this for example? Vice Presidents: Sorie Ibrahim Koroma, Salia Jusu-Sheriff, Albert Joe Demby and Victor Bockarie Foh. The manners of men The Bo School has bred are varied and have their indelible prints on whatever we accept as our history and heritage. Looking for an equivalence one finds none in our country. Maybe there was an attempt, belatedly, to replicate the Bo School when Magburaka Boys High School was established in 1946, but one is constrained to state that the effort lacks the diversity, range of alumni and historical particularity. A connivance of factors got me to that point. Could it possibly be coincidence that Ernest Bai Koroma, a Senior Prefect while at latter school becomes president, alums of that school get the most enviable jobs in government, and the school’s motto—ONWARD—roughly translates into Tolongbo, which becomes the rallying mantra of such government?

There is a strong tendential for provincial thinking in both governance and retirement choices that could be no fault of the actors involved—they just can’t give what they don’t have. That bring us to the now. The current president, Julius Maada Bio, is the first alum of Bo School to be president of the country. He checks many boxes regarding the ethos and role that school has played; son of a paramount chief, has lived and worked in the North and Western Area regions, though he hails from the South. I can only pray that when he speaks of setting a commission for Peace and National Cohesion, he means it, because to whom much is given, much is expected. Fate and time have colluded in making him the man capable of the job of unifying Salone.

The route he decides to take is totally his prerogative as Executive President of Sierra Leone.