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The ‘Tribal Card’: Not ‘wise’ option for Any Governing Party in Sierra Leone (Part One)

By Oswald Hanciles

Dr. Abubakarr H. Kargbo, the Chairman of the National Commission on Democracy (NCD) oozed with contempt for our political class when I interviewed him on January 20, 2014, in his office in Freetown: “We don’t have political ideologies in Sierra Leone. Our political psyche is tribal and primordial! Our system is patrimonial…”

The view of Dr. Kargbo have been given empirical credence by a study done by a Social Anthropologist, Dr. Nathaniel King; titled, ‘Citizens’ Perception of Sierra Leone’s Ethno-Political Divide and Diversity Management’; a Max Planck Research Associate; dated, 3rd September, 2013; that the people of Sierra Leone surveyed arrived at this consensus that tribalism…:  “…is mainly caused by politicians…”; “…. has become entrenched in leadership and politics in the country….”

According to Dr. King’s survey, the view of ordinary Sierra Leoneans on the two main parties is sad: “Sierra Leone’s two leading political parties, All People’s Congress (APC) and Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), are mainly tribalistic…” Tertiary-educated mega star musician, Emerson, could have read Dr. King’s work before coming out with his latest song or ‘sermon’, ‘Kokobeh’ – in which Emerson  appears to be  singing or sermonizing for Sierra Leoneans generally as being fed up with the intense competition between SLPP and APC, without it necessarily resulting into  accelerated development in the country.

If Dr. King’s aforementioned study is to be given credence, it should be food for thought for our politicians of all hues.  Sierra Leoneans make “tribalism” number three in their rung of most deleterious problems, or, “diversity management”. According to King (which is echoed in Emerson’s ‘Kokobeh’ song), “the strongest point of diversity mismanagement in Sierra Leone are mismanagement of differences between rich and poor, mismanagement of the gap between urbanity and rurality, and mismanagement of the chasm between the center of power and financial resources, which still remains in Freetown, and many parts of the interior which are marginalized….”

In a jingle being aired regularly on many local broadcast radio by Dr. Kargbo’s NCD (produced with passion by the eminent intellectual of the School of African Studies, Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, Dr. Desouza George), the point is brought out that “tribalism” is principally responsible for the shameful paradox of Sierra Leone – a rich country, but saddled with poor people –and the ignominy of ‘those immigrants who entered Sierra Leone a few decades ago as hewers of wood and carriers of water being today the super rich people, lording over indigenous Sierra Leoneans’.   In spite of such patriotic media thrust, Dr. Kargbo’s NCD is financially malnourished.  It could be that the politicians in the executive and legislative branches may not like the fact that he could be trying to rob them of their principal ‘winning political weapon’ – “tribalism”. After all, if successive   generations of politicians  in different political parties (or,  military juntas)  have successfully played the ‘Tribal Card’ to win legislative and parliamentary elections or gain power in the center, why should they now be convinced that it is a bad thing?  Except, of course Thinkers and writers like us give them the ‘psych’ electric shock’ to jog them out of their selective acute amnesia (or, ‘forget-iasis’) and severe lack of foresight….

Sure enough, our Sierra Leone’s recent history teaches us that a political party or group can play the Tribal Card to gain power; but, to maintain itself in power, the Tribal Card is a slippery ground to skate on; or, if a party has used the Tribal Card to gain power and maintain itself in power for a decade or more, it would end up losing power with cataclysmic consequences for the party, and country.

Prof. Jimmy Kandeh’s ‘Politicization of Ethnic Identities in Sierra Leone’

I now make reference to a 1992 Paper written by today’s Prof. Jimmy Kandeh (a tenured professor in a top university in the US with over 25 years experience), titled, ‘Politicization of Ethnic Identities in Sierra Leone’ (Source: African Studies Review, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Apr., 1992), pp. 81-99; published by African Studies Association; Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/524446):   “The ethnic selectivity and bias of cabinet appointments under the SLPP, especially during Albert Margai’s premiership …., was also an important contextual factor in the politicization of northern and, more specifically, Temne, identity. Although there were more Mende than Temne ministers in his predecessor’s cabinet, Temne representation in Albert Margai’s cabinet was cut in half from four to two ministers. Notable among the ministers replaced by Albert Margai was John Karefa-Smart who, although not Temne, was supported by northern elites in his bid to succeed Milton Margai as prime minister….”

I hope the educated elite and ‘power elite’ in Sierra Leone would give life to my published suggestion of an ‘Ethnic Commission’ to neutralise the ulcerous tribalism in our country. (The SLPP leader and Prime Minister between 1964 and 1967 that Prof. Jimmy Kandeh mentioned above   happens to be my biological maternal granduncle – Sir Albert Margai). Sir. Albert Margai was the apex of the leadership that stoked the flames of ‘Mende Tribalism’ in Sierra Leone. The Mende ethnic jingoism was buttressed by a form of intellectual sense of superiority by the Mendes.  For about a hundred years right up to the time of the Independence Era in Africa, the Creoles (or Krio) were the undisputed leaders in nearly all realms of Negroid intellectualism and professionalism in Sierra Leone – the doctors, judges, engineers, etc. The first non-Creole medical doctor was Dr. Milton Margai, and the first Non-Creole lawyer was his paternal brother, Albert Margai – that was in the 1940s. The British colonialists focused on establishing the initial, and best, secondary schools in the Mende-speaking South/East of the country. By the time of independence, the Mende-speaking South/East provided most of the educated elite, and ordinary educated people, to govern the country. In the civil service, the Mende-speaking peoples (the Mendes, who militarily conquered smaller tribes when they invaded this part of West Africa about 200 years ago, evolved into a civilizing influence, and  potent ‘colonialists’, successfully assimilating all the  minority tribes – Sherbros, Gissis, Vais, a few Creoles – in their South/Eastern region) were a vastly disproportionate number among non-Creoles.  That head start into modernity in Sierra Leone of the Mende-speaking peoples bred in them arrogance, which was epitomised in 1964 by the Mende-speaking Prime Minister, Sir. Albert Margai (His biological root could really have made him a Kono, also assimilated by the Mendes).

Within a short period of grabbing the reins of prime minister powers from his deceased elder brother in 1964, Sir. Albert Margai swiftly and recklessly put his ethnic jingoism into play – with ‘Young Turks’ like Peter Tucker being made Head of the Civil Service (where there had been established a ‘conveyor belt’ system that would only allow a civil service boss to reach that peak when way over 50 years of age) when Peter Tucker was not yet 40 years of age. That, of course, angered and alarmed both the Creole and Temne (Northern) elite!!

Even with about 50% population, and military and administrative advantage….

Let us reflect on Prof. Jimmy Kandeh’s (who hails from the Mende-speaking South/East) researched work on the period again: “…. The death of Milton Margai in 1964 led to a conspicuous erosion in leadership tolerance of the political heterogeneity of society. Whereas the military maintained a semblance of autonomy under Milton Margai, it was excessively politicized by Albert Margai. By rapidly Africanizing the officer corps of the military, Albert Margai sought not only to reward his supporters but, more specifically, to create a Mende-dominated army. At the time of Milton Margai’s death in 1964, 15 out of the 50-member officer establishment of the army were British officers. By 1967, only 3 British officers remained, with most of the outgoing officers replaced by Mende officers….”.

I did my graduate thesis in FBC, University of Sierra Leone (1978) on ‘The Sierra Leone Military’. That informed me that by 1967, 74% of the officers, and 65% of rank and file, in the Sierra Leone Military were from the Mende-speaking South/East.  The 1967 parliamentary elections was a disguised form of ‘tribal war’ – pitting the Temne-speaking and Creole-dominated North/West (in which the APC won ALL the parliamentary seats) against the Mende-speaking South/East (in which the SLPP won about 98% of parliamentary seats).  The Governor General (representing the Queen of England) recognized the APC Leader, Siaka Stevens, as the winner of the 1967 elections, and had him sworn as Prime Minister.  The Mende head of military then, Brigadier David Lansana, arrested the Siaka Stevens and his key supporters, and declared Martial Law. The largely Temne-speaking crowd outside State House refused to capitulate to Brigadier Lansana – and went wild in anger. When it appeared as if the country was descending into anarchy, Mende-speaking military officers – Majors Jumu,  Kai-Samba, and Blake – arrested Brig. Lansana; and, to pacify the Temne-North, brought in a Creole from England, Col. Andrew Juxon-Smith, to head the first military government in Sierra Leone.  After a military coup against Juxon-Smith’s NRC junta, the APC’s Siaka Stevens was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1968.

From 1967 when the SLPP lost power, they didn’t get it back until 1996 – 29 years after!!! The lessons to be learned there are: the Tribal Card, tribal jingoism, tribal extremism, tribal arrogance of the Mende-speaking people led by Sir. Albert Margai (SLPP) united the Creoles and Temne-speaking people of the North, and was countered by their own Tribal Extremism.

(TO BE CONTINUED!!)

  • George Walker

    did give me something to think about