The Charles Margai Factor (Part 1)

11 August 2009 at 06:29 | 696 views

By Oswald Hanciles, Freetown.

The PMDC convention in Kenema is over. The ‘founding father’, Charles Margai, won the executive elections as Leader of the PMDC again. A super-landslide! In July, 2009, 88% of total delegate votes were dropped for Charles Margai. Flash back: Before the Presidential Runoff on August 19, 2007, at about 10.00 p.m., during a party for his 62nd birthday, standing in his spacious verandah overlooking a two town lot rocky grass front lawn in his residence off Hill Court Road in Freetown, Charles Margai told the admiring crowd of relatives and key party supporters that whatever they would have heard about what party the PMDC would support in the runoff was not true; and he was now telling them and the world that the PMDC would support the “APC” against the “SLPP”; and, adding, in his autocratically resonant style, “Way Charles Margai don talk, nar kneff done cut am”. (Translation: ‘What Charles Margai has said about the PMDC is absolute, and irrevocable. It was a pronouncement that was disavowed by some leading PMDC partisans who claimed that Charles Margai did not consult them before pitching his tent with the APC’). Standing by Charles Margai that night, in light blue fashionable cotton long-sleeved shirt, the hulk-like figure of then APC Presidential Candidate, Ernest Bai Koroma, in his usual dignified way, applauded, his toothpaste grin almost ripping off his ebony black skin. The crowd had erupted!! APC strong men, Victor Foh, in white suit and his typical garish red shirt, bumped, and many swore his high barb bounced a foot off his head. Alpha Khan gave an Americanized thumbs up, grinning. The main reason Charles Margai gave for teaming with the APC was to heal the tribal wounds in the country.

Healing the Political Tribal Wound in the Sierra Leone

That tribal wound is largely political. The Mende-speaking people of the South East, since 1957, would always fanatically vote for the SLPP. Writing in SALONE TIMES newspaper in 2002, I had a running debate with PEEP’s Olu Gordon as I postulated that for the Mende-speaking people of the South East, the SLPP is like a “religion” . In exhorting the largely mainly Mende-speaking PMDC partisans to support the APC against the SLPP in the 2007 presidential run off, Charles Margai was not only perceived as wallowing in tribal treachery, but, he was committing heresy against the ‘SLPP Religion’.

Charles Margai, a Mende-speaking ‘blue blood’ from the South, whose father was one of the founding fathers of the SLPP; who himself was a cabinet minister in the SLPP government of President Tejan Kabbah between 1968 and 2002, and a candidate for the standard bearer of the SLPP only two years earlier, was naturally expected to ‘go back home’ to the SLPP, to support ‘his blood party; the party of his fathers’. Charles Margai’s decision to ‘go APC’ shocked ‘his Mende-speaking people’. And angered them!! In private, they gnashed their teeth at what they described as the ‘betrayal of the Mende tribe’ by Charles Margai. Few would dispute the reality that it was only the PMDC/Charles Margai factor that made it possible for Ernest Bai Koroma to be elected President in 2007. There was another profound unspoken insidious variable in Charles Margai’s pro-APC decision.

Charles Margai Could Have Prevented Tribal War in 2007

Over 95% of those who voted for his PMDC were from the Mende-speaking districts of Bo, Pujehun, Bonthe and Moyamba. These were the districts were many and the most ferocious battle-hardened members of the of the Civil Defense Forces (CDF) of the South East originated from during the civil war years in our country. They were called “Kamajors”. Without the Charles Margai factor, these normally fundamentalist-SLPP ex-combatants would have been one cohesive block, and their fervent loyalty for the SLPP could have transcended electoral realities on the ground, and easily slip into armed uprising against their perceived arch political ‘enemy’, the ‘Temne-speaking dominated APC’. Posterity may judge Charles Margai as helping to heal tribal wounds. Morever, given the raw determination of the Temne-speaking APC who were already yelling their resolve to resist any attempt to cheat them of victory after the APC had won the first rounds of the 2007 elections, and the lurking reality of SLPP-inclined militia with battle skills honed during our nasty civil war, Charles Margai’s casting his lot with the APC prevented a probable armed face-off between the two major tribal blocks in the country. Some would argue that Charles Margai’s decision was motivated more by puerile impulsiveness, and deep bitterness against his SLPP brothers who had denied him the SLPP leadership. Twice!!! Political calculation, or patriotism, was just a guise for the normal emotionalism of Charles Margai, his detractors have claimed.

Is Charles Margai Maturing, Politically?

It could be that at 64 years of age, Charles Margai has finally outgrown political impetuousness. He was seen recently in the SLPP headquarter office in Freetown; and was quoted in local newspapers speaking with political savvy: he will keep his options open as to what party he would align his PMDC with in the face of the inevitability of a runoff during the upcoming 2012 Presidential Elections.

Some of the well-educated partisans of the PMDC were embittered at when during the runoff the APC was desperate for power and the SLPP was more desperate not to lose power, and Charles Margai was the beautiful bride being courted by the two parties; and how Charles Margai should have almost literally gotten the best sweet heart deal in an iron-clad written agreement – in many senior public service positions; but Charles Margai sold the PMDC cheap by gaining only four cabinet positions; and, they are still bitter, that the APC is now treating the PMDC with relative condescending levity, even reducing their four cabinet positions to four. Whatever the grievances some of the PMDC elite have against Charles Margai –especially those in the United States PMDC branches – the 88% ‘over-landslide victory’ he won in Kenema this weekend to be re-elected as PMDC leader proves that rationality has prevailed among the rank and file of the PMDC. Without the charisma, the name recognition, the resonance of Charles Margai, the PMDC will collapse, and die prematurely. Having certified his hold on the PMDC, Charles Margai, may, characteristically, in his monarchial manner, snub his detractors within his party again.

‘Prince Charles’ to ‘King Charles’

That Charles Margai walks, talks, and carries himself with kingly haughtiness could be because he was born a ‘prince’, and, today, with the ‘king’ dead, may think that he is the rightful heir to the ‘Margai Kingdom’. Charles Margai’s father, Sir. Albert Margai, was the first provincial person to become a British qualified lawyer in the 1940s. Sir Albert built a roaring legal practice. He was equally successful as a politician, and within the budding SLPP, eclipsed his elder brother, Sir. Milton Margai, who was Prime Minister in the early 1960s, by wining a leadership election within the SLPP. He stepped down for his elder brother, because among the Mendes, a junior brother can hardly be leader over his elder. By that time, Sir Albert had built a palatial residence on Regent Road in Lumley in the affluent West End of Freetown, on ten acres of land; with a floodlit tennis court; and outhouses that housed over a hundred relatives and hangers on – who were being fed day, often would eat European style breakfast, from freezers one would see in normal supermarkets. Every day in Sir Albert’s house was like a feast day. There were over a dozen Mercedes Benz cars around; and two brand new white Cadillac cars (with prestige equal to Hummer jeeps today). This was the domestic environment Charles Margai grew up in – with dozens of servants always around. Charles Margai’s father, Sir Albert, was charismatic, with a resonance that equals that of the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and Barack Obama, enough to earn him the sobriquet “Albert Margai of Africa” when he went to the 1966 OAU conference. Given the accident of such illustrious birth, would a rational being not show understanding for the aristocratic hauteur of Charles Margai? Especially when Charles Margai has shown that he is not only blue blood, but, also, almost literally, a warrior?

Charles Margai, the Warrior

In the 1970s, as the APC used political skullduggery to coerce SLPP partisans in the South East, Charles Margai was one SLPP candidate who mobilized the youths, with he himself wielding a pistol, and challenged Siaka Stevens – winning a seat in Parliament in 1977. Shaki feared Charles Margai. Shaki imprisoned Charles Margai. Shaki used a parliamentary technicality to ensure that Charles Margai would never seat in Parliament. Charles Margai could have fled the country then, and even if he had decided not to practice as a lawyer in a part of the world where he had entered the Bar (Ireland), he would have lived in absolute comfort from the earnings of his father’s considerable property in the United Kingdom, where several of his siblings were practicing as lawyers. He stayed in Sierra Leone. In Bo. He thrived there. He became the ‘People’s Lawyer’ – offering free legal service to many of the impoverished people in his area who were facing the travesty of justice which is the norm in our country. His popularity soared. His earnings spiked. He built a mansion in Bo Town. Ah yes, he enjoyed life!!! But, the political bug continued to bite him.

The SLPP Standard Bearer in 1991

When the APC Head of State, General Joseph Saidu Momoh, announced the end of the APC One Party rule and the birth of multiparty democracy in 1991, it was only Charles Margai who had the courage to step out, and step up, with huge sums of his own personal money, to begin to tour the country, to mobilize the SLPP party faithful to coalesce behind a party that had been ‘murdered’ during 23 years of APC rule.

As clearly the soul of the SLPP, the man who resurrected the party in 1991, the most famous of the SLPP leaders, why did the SLPP elders gang up to deny Charles Margai the SLPP leadership in 1996, in favour of Tejan Kabbah, a complete political nonentity, a man who had not only abandoned the party, but, during three decades of working in the UN, completely turned his back on Sierra Leone?

Why did the SLPP chieftains did a repeat of 1996 in 2005, and robbed Charles Margai of the SLPP leadership, in favour of Solomon Berewa, a dour bureaucrat, a lackluster lawyer, a horrible public speaker, a man who only legally became an SLPP member in 2002, a man who was as charismatic as Mother Theresa, and absolutely devoid of Mother Theresa’s Moral Authority?

Profound Mende-speaking Variables

I would hazard answers to those questions in subsequent articles on this serial. I will give you a hint here. T here is a chronic conservatism among the Mende-speaking people who formed the base of the SLPP support in the South-East. There is a rabid egalitarianism which abhors any semblance of monarchy – hence their vehemence at the regal pretensions of Charles Margai. There is an irrational impulse to hammer conformity among all indigenes of the South East. In many ways, Charles Margai in his utterances and actions challenged deep-seated mindsets of these people, especially the elderly. They reviled him. Even, hate him. Understanding the dynamics of what I postulate here would get us not only to understand the profound psychology of the people in the South East, and their political thinking; but, it would also get us to understand why there are few entrepreneurs among these people; few prosperous business people; few inventors or scientists…- they have a plethora of conservative ‘book people’ who need ‘liberation’. I would examine the the meaning of ‘the Charles Margai Factor’ and how Sierra Leone can gain from it, if Charles Margai continues to ‘evolve’ with meaningful “Positive Change” in sync with the ‘APC Change’ of President Ernest Bai Koroma.

(To be continued)