April 27, 2021, marks what should be a celebratory milestone as Sierra Leone enters its Diamond Jubilee. Interestingly, as the country is known for its diamond, this year’s celebration should be seen as something of value, very high value indeed. In this piece, an attempt would be made to examine the journey since independence to ask whether Sierra Leone has managed to build a nation.
Much talk about sovereignty and nationhood went on during the pre-independence years, but most of these were divisive in the main, rather than integrative. In those years, the British strategy was to appease the “Protectorate” after the brutal “hut tax” war, which angered indigenous peoples as to why they should pay a tax on their properties which they had either built themselves or inherited to a Colonialist in Freetown. The Creoles, who were at the vanguard of British colonial administration, were caught up in the crossfire as they tried to obey their “masters” commands to enforce and collect the tax. They were killed in droves and their relationships with the people of the protectorate worsened as they were seen as antagonistic to the indigenous ethos. So it was that in the pre-independence years, the talk of nationhood tended to at first move in the direction of separate states of Colony and Protectorate or otherwise coalesced as to a differentiation between the tribes of “upcountry” people against the more “enlightened “Creoles of the Western Area.
In the event, the political and, to some extent, social discourse tended to shy away from building a single sovereign nation, and the context of regionalism was created. The extent that regionalism remains a viable and visible concept in Sierra Leone’s present-day politics show how deep-rooted the problem was at its inception. Thus, the broad contextualization of politics between the North and West versus the South and East took its foothold from a culture of separate existence, working against the greater morality of ideology and social integration.
Sierra Leone, therefore, went into talks about independence with a confused and divided loyalty. Lancaster House played host to a small but highly vituperative nation and the discourse ended in furore with the then Siaka Probyn Stevens, one of the founders and doyen of the All Peoples Congress, which went on to be the dominant political party in the ensuing 60 years, walking out of the talks because of intractable ideological disputes about power arrangements and the conceptuality of gaining independence without (economic) freedom.
Independence and nationhood
The problems of integrating the disparate tribes, sections and regional interests continue to challenge Sierra Leoneans from the period immediately following independence and throughout these ensuing 60 years. The rudimentary dynamics of politics created such discourse that the progress of political activism resulted in the main agents losing control of ideology and instead conducted political thought based on fealty, genealogy and region.
Political observers have been quick to point out that Sierra Leone has, over the years, made it very difficult to claim for itself “sovereign nationhood” but instead operate an “informal federalism.” You hear much about tribal hegemony, about the distribution of public offices by tribe or region or otherwise confer dignity to the tribe from which the Head of State belongs.
Despite the many hiccups along the way, Sierra Leone as a whole has been able to chalk up some notable achievements. Sparing the brief interregnum and a protracted civil war, prolonged mainly due to rent-seeking from conflict minerals, the country has been comparatively peaceful. In 1967, Sierra Leone experienced the first-ever change of government through peaceful means via the ballot box in West Africa and the former British colonies. This epoch was short-lived but later on corrected by a return to civilian rule in 1969.
Sierra Leone is also credited with achieving a sustainable religious balance, avoiding religious conflicts that have disparaged other countries such as Nigeria, and enjoying tranquil existence between its two main religions through greater understanding and tolerance.
For a brief while, Sierra Leone was a net exporter of rice, its staple food and second largest producer of gemstones, a top producer of iron ore and bauxite and one of the highest grades of rutile in the world. A country rich in natural resources, the scope to diversify its agriculture was well advanced at some stage with cash and food crops grown and produced across a range of varieties. Over the years, production of these products became diminished due in part to world price fluctuations and economic sustainability, lack of technological input and a characteristically artisanal nature of operations. Nonetheless, as recently as four years ago, one of the largest gemstones ever recorded was discovered in Kono District.
The country had done well in human resource development, registering gains in many fields of science and the arts ranging from its sons and daughters in international institutions and foreign corporate entities to the establishment of Fourah Bay College, one of the first Universities in Africa, south of the Sahara which ultimately became known as the “Athens of West Africa.”
Incidentally, it was the APC Government led by Dr Ernest Bai Koroma, which embarked on a massive road and infrastructure building program backed by a resurgence of the mining sector that dragged the country from its backward spiral of “mis-development” and seeming resource curse that precipitated the war years.
Sierra Leone’s challenges are various and multi-faceted. Aside from its inability to build a solid and cohesive nation, the country suffers from “identity rationalisation.” Its political sphere is toxic because of its vengeful nature and the recent cull of public officials and tribesmen from the North and West has to some extent set the pace for a cycle of revenge and retribution. This toxic political landscape supports a hostile environment for national identity negating any politics of integration based on ideology and thought. These challenges would further divide the nation and reduce any tendency at sovereign nationality.
The issues of laws and the conflict of traditional, customary and national laws remain one of the country’s most complex challenges. Areas of disadvantage still exist, rights of women to inheritance of family lands and assets are still being conflagrated by tradition, the Creoles remain to be identified as “non-natives” and hence are barred from owning or acquiring land in the Provinces, in some parts of the North, women cannot aspire to Chieftaincy, etc. Until these disparities are resolved, Sierra Leone would still be unable to make of itself a nation of sovereign unity.