The Charles Margai Factor (Part 2)

15 August 2009 at 22:13 | 616 views

By Oswald Hanciles, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

I continue the second part of this serial with quotes from two of the last paragraphs in Part 1:

“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 favor 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?

There 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….”

What is “Egalitarianism”?

Dear reader, please note two of the key words in the quotes above: “Egalitarianism” and “Conformity”?.

What is “Egalitarianism”?

According to Wikipedia, “Egalitarianism (derived from the French word ‘egal’, meaning equal) or Equalism, is a political doctrine that holds that all people should be treated as equals and have the same political, economic, social and civil rights. Generally, it applies to being held equal under the law and society at large…” Other theorists state that ‘Egalitarianism’ implies equality in material possessions and access to the common wealth of a society.

Egalitarianism is not peculiar to the Mende of Sierra Leone. Egalitarianism can be said to be universal in its roots. Let us go back about 150,000 years to understand what I am pointing out here.

Man was, millenniums ago, a ‘hunter-gatherer’ in dense tropical rainforests. He would hunt for animals like deer, monkeys, elephants, etc.. He would gather fruits like mangoes, oranges, plums… He was nomadic. Like it is with other mammalian species – like the elephant – man had to have a clear ‘leader’ in his society. As humanity evolved, the number of people in each human society grew. Man became sedentary, and agricultural. This led to intense competition among groups. The law and order among groups and nations that we take for granted today was non-existent over a hundred thousand years ago.

A group leader who wants to grow, or grab most of the available resources of the group or another group, or, flaunt his ego, would only achieve his aim by waging war within the group or on other groups. Perennial warfare led to some groups simply becoming extinct. With his budding intelligence then, humanity evolved egalitarianism. The logic could have been this: if we inculcate the culture of equality, no single man would aspire for too much wealth, too much power, and egoistical and acquisitive impulses would be snuffed. Peace would prevail. The society would survive. It worked, for especially humanity who did not migrate Northwards towards Egypt, but stayed in tropical Africa. Over thousands of years, Egalitarianism in tropical Africa was instilled with the culture of “conformity”.

Instilling the ‘Culture of Conformity’

Briefly, “conformity”, one of the most influential forces that society has on a person, is that, relatively, in a group, all members think highly of one another, otherwise chances are they would not be together. From childhood all members of a society are impressed to conform to the culture, traditions, laws and taboos of the group, mainly a ‘tribe’. Members who refuse to conform will have a large number of communications directed toward them from the group. If the deviant members persist to hold their opinions, conforming group members may begin to dislike them. If the deviants are rejected by all of the core group members, they are likely to be ostracized, or cast out of the group.

How does this all relate to the Mende-speaking people in the South East of Sierra Leone within the context of “The Charles Margai Factor”?

About a hundred years ago, nearly all the people in the Mende-speaking South East were subsistence farmers, or hunters, fishermen, herbalists. In terms of material possessions, there was almost no difference between the chiefs, elders, and the most common man. Everybody must follow set ceremonies of birth, puberty, Poro or Sande rituals, marriage, death… Everybody was equal before the law. The Mendes would spend countless hours in a ‘court barrie’ discussing intricate details of a dispute to ensure there is ‘Justice’ in their society. The nuance of the Justice system is seen even in matters involving husband and wife.

With the advent of European colonialism in Sierra Leone, and a flicker of Western-type modernity and capitalism into these societies, some level of inequality reared its head. Those who were clerks or administrators to the new colonialists started having a little bit more material possessions than the subsistence farming majority. And, disproportionately more power. But because of the deep-seated mindset of egalitarianism and conformity, there evolved sixty years ago, and even, after independence, a slightly higher rung of egalitarianism and conformity in the social ladder.

The ‘new egalitarianism’ was like this. You go to school. Or, even, university. You can get a job as teacher, nurse, lawyer…; or, a position in the civil service. In each of those professions, there are modest acquisitions of ‘wealth’ which nearly everybody conformed to. In the civil service, people wait patiently to climb up the administrative ladder. Once there, they steal public funds. Build themselves one or two houses in Freetown; buy a car; and become ostentatious during burial ceremonies ‘back home’ in the provinces. When, it is time for politics, the ‘Culture of Conformity’ mandated a Mende-speaking person to support, naturally, ‘the Mende-speaking Religion’, the SLPP.

Egalitarian Mindset Prevents Indigenous Wealthy Indigenes among Mendes

In nearly all the Mende-speaking districts in the South East, it would be almost impossible to find an indigenous Mende who has accumulated sustainable wealth through business. In all of these societies there it would be impossible to find Thinkers who challenge, or, veer away from the general thinking (APC’s Victor Foh is a rare exception). Almost impossible to find inventors; innovative scientists; imaginative architects, etc. Why? Lawyer is okay. Egalitarian. Doctor is okay. Egalitarian. But a business man? No!! That clashes with the ‘new egalitarianism’ etched into the Mende mind. The Mendes are likely to reject any thinking, or, idea, or way of life not in conformity with established norms. For the Mende indigene to have his business to boom in his home area, he would need the support of his kinsmen. And the majority Mendes would not support one of their kith and kin to grow too big above the group. Today, nearly all the moderately successful businesses in the Mende-speaking South East are owned and managed by non-Mendes. Now, let us link my Mende-speaking hypothesis with Charles Margai.

Charles Margai’s Father Grew Too Big

Maybe, we should go a little bit more back to Charles Margai’s father, Sir Albert Margai. Sir. Albert soared too far above the common egalitarian level by being a lawyer. ‘Worse’, he zoomed into the clouds by being, relatively, stupendously wealthy!! The ‘worst’ was yet to come for the egalitarian-minded Mendes.

As Prime Minister, Sir Albert Margai, spoke of a ‘vision’ of accelerated development. And, as if in an Olympic race, Sir Albert stimulated massive marketing agricultural expansion through the SLPMB. He rushed through the construction of water treatment plants, and airports, in several districts. Internationally, with a natural gift of the gab, and charismatic presence, accentuated with a keen intellect, Sir Albert earned accolades among his heads of government peers. Sierra Leone at the time Sir Albert was Prime Minister had one of the fastest growing economies in the world; with a middle class which had about the highest standard of living in West Africa. Wow!! ‘Fearful’ that was, for the egalitarian-minded Mende in the SLPP then. What compounded the fear of Sir Albert was that he exhibited what was completely reprehensible for the egalitarian-minded: arrogance. Sir Albert was contemptuous of those who would not share his vision, scornful of those he perceived as encumberance to his drive for rapid progress. He started seeing himself like ‘king’. It certainly is not genetic; nonetheless, through breeding osmosis, Charles Margai manifests too many of the traits of his father.

It was not the Temne-speaking SLPP leaders (who had legitimate grievances, because their Temne kinsman, Dr. John Karefa-Smart, had been sidestepped after the death of Sir. Milton Margai in 1964, and not elected Prime Minister) who were the most vehement in their opposition to Sir Albert in 1967, but, rather, the egalitarian-minded Mendes within the SLPP – lawyers L. A. Brewahs and Kai-Samba; SLPP ministers: F.S. Anthony and Salia Jusu-Sheriff – who solidified the opposition against Sir Albert during the 1967 elections, and prevented him from perpetuating his power.

Egalitarian-minded SLPP Elders Rejected Charles Margai in 1996 and 2002

Come 1996, and the SLPP elders, steeped in the mentality of egalitarianism, recoiled at ‘anointing’ Charles Margai; which could mean endorsing his claim as Sir Albert Margai’s ‘heir’. They also feared that Charles Margai would actually do what he was saying: that is, cleanse the country of rampant corruption; and overturn the ‘new egalitarian level’ of civil service predators. Maybe, more than his father, Charles Margai spoke to these SLPP elders – who he apparently perceived as being retrogressive; stuck in the past – with utter disdain.

You would be shocked to know the depth of this egalitarian thinking among the Mendes when I reveal here that the man who first suggested to Tejan Kabbah to contest the leadership of the SLPP in 1996, and who proceeded to lobby the SLPP leaders to have Kabbah as SLPP leader, was a maternal cousin of Charles Margai – late Alusine Deen, former SLPP ambassador to China. (In a perverse twist of fate, the family of Alusine Deen were humiliated by the SLPP when during the funeral service of Alusine Deen at the King Memorial Church in Freetown, there was no official statement from the SLPP, though Deen had been a close friend of President Kabbah; and, in the funeral rites in the Margai family homeland, Gbangbatoke, Banta Chiefdom in the Moyamba District, there was only Deputy Minister Theresa Koroma unofficially representing the SLPP). Now, you get the answer to the question which I quote at the opening of this piece. What should Charles Margai do now?

The ‘Mende Challenge’ Facing Charles Margai

Charles Margai has to understand the dynamics of what I postulate here. He has to wage war against this Mende-speaking ‘Monster of Egalitarianism and Conformity’; and give hope of replacing it with a ‘Neo-neo Culture of egalitarianism’ that would mean equal access to state resources of health, education, financial capital, but one that is tinctured with capitalism to stimulate the productive drive of individuals. He must carry the majority of his Mende-speaking people along for him to ever be taken really seriously by the other major tribal and political block in the country, the Temne-speaking North. The “Positive Change” that is the motto of Charles Margai’s PMDC would remain a theoretical abstraction except Charles Margai can firstly pry his kinsmen, especially the now more open-minded youth, away from the rigid conformist bosom of their elders.

Otherwise, Charles Margai would remain a sidekick of Ernest Bai Koroma’s APC; a useful political tool to keep the South-East divided just to accentuate the electoral chances of the Temne-speaking dominated ‘Northern Province dominated APC’. If President Ernest Bai Koroma’s APC rule could mean morphing Mende-speaking people into an inferior group in the public sector of the country; if APC rule would mean stymieing the growth of the burgeoning Mende-speaking ‘contractors’ (who depended largely on small government contracts) and pauperizing them; if APC rule would mean that even in the forte of the Mendes (the quest for quality educational) would mean that the Mendes would be discriminated against in the award of government scholarships, then, Charles Margai’s avowed aim of healing tribal wounds is sure to become ironic. “Charles Margai” could symbolize the fuel that would turn the smoldering tribal fires of Sierra Leone into a tribal conflagration.

(To Be Continued)