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Desmond Luke, Towering Politician and Legal Luminary, Dies at 85

March 10, 2021

By L. Gberie

Desmond Edgar Fashole Luke, who died peacefully in his modest home on Spur-Loop, Freetown, last week, had such a varied and storied career that friends and enemies alike found it impossible to pigeonhole him. He was variously successful lawyer, Ambassador, Foreign Minister, Health Minister, (mostly) absentee Member of Parliament, founder and leader of a political party, presidential candidate, “colourful and outspoken” Chairman of the Commission for the Consolidation of Peace (in the endearing words of his friend Peter Penfold, the former British High Commissioner, which appeared in his memoirs, published in 2012), and finally Chief Justice of Sierra Leone.

After studying at Oxford and Cambridge universities in the 1950s, Luke returned to Sierra Leone in 1962 and opened a law office. He quickly gained fame for his courtroom performance, and was soon spotted by a rising politician, Siaka Stevens. In 1969, after Stevens became Prime Minister, he appointed Luke Ambassador to West Germany (accredited to all EC countries). Four years later, in 1973, Stevens elevated Luke to Foreign Minister. But just two years after this elevation, Luke surprised political observers in the country by dramatically resigning after a dispute with Stevens over relations with the two Koreas and the protocol of dealing with visiting Foreign emissaries. It is one of very few resignations on principle from high office on record in Sierra Leone.

Luke returned to his private law practice on Lamina Sankoh Street in central Freetown, where he amassed the largest law library in the country. In 1977, he ran for Parliament and won a seat representing his constituency at Wilberforce, in the west end of Freetown.  Fearful of leaving the outspoken Luke on the backbenches, wily Stevens, now President after passing the Republican constitution in 1971, appointed Luke Health Minister. A year later, Stevens introduced a one-party state after a process that the historian Cyril Foray (another former Stevens’ Foreign Minister who resigned on principle, in his case over disagreement relating to the Biafra War in Nigeria), described as “legal violence. Luke left the government. However, he nominally maintained his seat in Parliament, which after the one-party constitution was merely a rubberstamp instrument, until 1983. Luke was mostly absent from the sittings of Parliament for the duration of his time, travelling most of the time.

Luke returned to his intermittent law practice. He later set up set up the National Unity Movement (NUM) – ‘movement’ because the one-party constitution had banned all political parties – to advocate constitutional reforms. He actively participated in the 1991 constitutional review commission, headed by Dr. Peter Tucker, which President Joseph Saidu Momoh – Stevens’ anointed successor – had established to craft a new constitution for the country. In 1992, shortly after the commission’s draft new constitution had been passed by Parliament, soldiers fighting a bush war against the Revolutionary United Front rebels overthrew Momoh and set up the National Provisional Ruling Council (NPRC).

Luke, though contemptuous of Momoh, never warmed up to the NPRC, and was among the first to call for a return to civilian rule. As a result of his criticism, NPRC leader, Captain valentine Strasser, prevented Luke from travelling out of the country on a number of occasions.

In 1996, the NPRC organised nation-wide elections, which Luke contested, and lost, as presidential candidate of the NUM. Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, a former UN civil servant, became President. The following year, in May 1997, rogue soldiers overthrew Kabbah, sending him and his government into exile.

Luke stayed on in Freetown for a while, working with Peter Penfold and Mohamed Abubakar – High Commissioners respectively of UK and Nigeria – to cajole the junta out of power and restore Kabbah’s government. The two top diplomats were the only foreign heads of embassies in Freetown who had not left in the country by then. As Chairman of the post-Lomé Accord’s Peace Consolidation Commission, Luke had got to know the rebel leaders well. Working with Penfold and Abubakar, he got a tentative understanding from the junta that they would hand over power to Kabbah. Shortly after that, however, the junta announced that no agreement had been reached. The rebels then attacked Luke’s home, destroying it completely. Tipped off in time, Luke fled by fishing boat to Guinea, where he joined Kabbah and his exiled government. Kabbah appointed Luke Chief Justice upon his restoration to power in 1998, a position he held until his retirement a few years later. He lived in his Spur Loop home until his death last week.

I visited Luke there several times during his retirement. On his 80th birthday, I drove there straight from a long road trip from Monrovia, Liberia. I was dusty, almost unkempt, from the trip. But Luke didn’t mind; it was a small, intimate gathering, of family and close friends. I was there for about an hour and half. Luke walked me to my car. He walked without assistance, ramrod straight. We had several times discussed the idea of writing Luke’s biography, but the project had not gone anywhere – in large part because most of Luke’s papers had been destroyed when the AFRC thugs attacked his home in 1997. Luke mentioned that one of his nephews was collecting his old papers.

During my last visit to Freetown, in December, I spoke to Luke but didn’t visit him because of COVID-19 precautions: I was fearful that I might have been compromised during my numerous interactions in Freetown and elsewhere. But I did meet the nephew, for a drink on Lumley Beach. He told me that Luke had deposited many his papers at a private club to which he belonged in London. Peter Penfold, a mutual friend with whom I had dinner in Freetown during that visit, later suggested to me that the private club may be the one he and Luke had belonged to, the Royal Overseas League. 

Shortly after hearing of his death, Penfold wrote me an email on 28 February. I use his words as the conclusion of this obituary, for it captures my feelings about Desmond Luke exactly:

“So sorry to hear of the passing of Desmond Luke – one of the finest Sierra Leoneans I ever knew and had the privilege of working with. What a contribution he made to Sierra Leone: from… being one of Africa’s youngest Foreign Ministers to helping bring peace to the country. I always relied heavily on Desmond’s advice especially, in dealing with [RUF leader Foday] Sankoh and the RUF. He was an energetic Chief Justice, a position he was given by Kabbah, to remove him, I believe, as a potential political rival. He spoke his mind forcibly – an abiding image for me is listening to him berate President Kabbah at his exile villa in Conakry, while we all sat inside, for not being more pro-active to get back to Freetown. I always contacted him on my trips, the last time being last December, when we too met up.”

Dr. Lansana Gberie is Sierra Leone’s Ambassador to Switzerland and Permanent Representative to the United Nations and other International Organisations

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