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Sierra Leone: How Independence Was Won

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Sierra Leone: How Independence Was Won

SierraLeone gained independence from Britain on 27 April 1961. The golden jubilee of that glorious day is this April. It has been an eventful 50 years, and as the nation celebrates, New African devotes this special commemorative report in honour of the people. Prepared by Edward Kargbo.

Like many African leaders at independence, Sir Milton Margai, Sierra Leone’s first prime minister, knew what was coming. He saw the urgent need for national cohesion after the deep divisions that had marred the run-up to independence.

There had been tensions between the “countrymen” (people from the inland “protectorate”) and the Krios in the Western Area who had had a better relationship with the colonial administration, probably because of their education and adopted European lifestyle.

The taste and smell of politics during the run-up to the “independence conference” at Lancaster House in London (known locally as the Constitutional Talks) became unpleasant as rivalry among various political parties and interests became blatantly spiteful. But the time for independence had come. The British were ready to go and nothing could prevent the green, white and blue flag of the new Sierra Leone from replacing the Union Jack.

When Sir Milton led the nation, which was once called Romarong by the indigenous Mende people to independence on 27 April 1961, he was keen on reunifying the people.

He was a man who did not know tribe or region. A medical doctor, he had worked in different parts of the country, made good friends, and gained the admiration of the people and their British colonisers. Sir Milton wanted to see a nation that was strongly united.

In his independence message on 27 April 1961, he made this clarion call to the people: “I ask you to deal fairly and honestly with your fellow men, to discourage lawlessness, and to strive actively for peace, friendship, and unity in our country.”

Sir Milton’s message sounded more like a priest’s homily to a congregation on a Sunday morning. For him, being a leader at that point in time was more than just holding the country’s highest office. He believed that the basic life principles of “honesty” and “fairness” in human relations were crucial to the growth of the nation.

At sixty-six at the time, Sir Milton knew and acknowledged that independence could not bring “sudden change”. What was important was the fact that the people were “now in complete control of [their] destiny”.

Unfortunately, the polite and conciliatory Sir Milton did not live long enough to actualise his dreams of making the country a place to be proud of. He died in 1964 – barely three years into his reign. It was then that his younger brother, Sir Albert Margai, controversially took over as premier and succeeded in trashing Sir Milton’s dreams of a united and development-driven Sierra Leone.

According to several accounts of history, the young Margai exuberantly turned everything upside down firing some influential members of his elder brother’s government; and creating ethnic and regional divisions, in the process causing the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) to lose popularity.

These ugly developments subsequently cost the SLPP the tightly contested 1967 elections. The SLPP’s loss gave way to the opposition politician, Siaka Stevens, of the All People’s Congress (APC) gaining power. But the joy of presiding over the first peaceful transfer of political power in Africa from ruling party to the opposition was thwarted within hours, when the Royal Sierra Leone Military Forces under Brigadier David Lansana [loyal to Sir Albert] staged the country’s first coup d’état.

However, within 24 hours, senior military officers divested Brigadier Lansana of his command of the army and later instituted the National Reformation Council (NRC). It took another 13 months and another coup d’état, this time staged by noncommissioned officers, before Siaka Stevens could regain the premiership.

Stevens’ APC, to whom Sierra Leoneans turned for succour after Sir Albert’s disappointing leadership, unleashed what some have called “a reign of terror” and hardship on the people – the very same people that Sir Milton had admonished to be loyal, honest and fair.

Since then, the country has come a long way – through a series of coups and a bloody rebel war. It has been an eventful 50 years for a country that is abundantly endowed with natural resources (diamonds being the chief endowment), and yet remains poor.

Sierra Leone’s 11-year rebel war (1991-2002), occasioned by bad governance and selfishness, has had a heavy toll on the already poor infrastructure and economy.

Eight years after the devastating conflict, the government of President Ernest Bai Koroma is still faced with serious challenges: reconstruction, unity, fairness and honesty – the same things that Sir Milton preached at independence. Divisive politics based on ethnicity and regionalism is perhaps the newest and toughest challenge facing Sierra Leone today.

Politics and elections have become a serious source of tension and division along regional and ethnic lines.

From the opposition viewpoint, the Koroma government’s “discrimination” against the people from the south-east of the country is too blatant. This is certainly a claim of bias that the APC has refuted numerous times. The government argues that the president’s appointment of prominent opposition politicians from the SLPP and other south-easterners from the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (a breakaway party formed by Charles Margai, son of Sir Albert) should be enough reason not to believe the opposition’s ethnicity and regionalism claims.

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