The crisis that shook Sierra Leone’s political foundation forty-five years ago

Mohamed Kutubu Koroma

Mohamed Kutubu Koroma

3 February 2012

Mohamed Kutubu Koroma

As the people of Sierra Leone brace themselves for a presidential and general elections taking place in November, 2012, questions have been raised as to whether the polls will be free, fair, transparent and non-violent. Recent political violence does not inspire much confidence.

But the people of Sierra Leone and politicians must revisit their political history, if they are to avoid making the very same mistakes, which precipitated and gave succour to the culture of political violence and cycle of retributive justice that dictates how power and the rule of law are administered in the country today.

The political leadership of Albert Margai which started in May 1964, following the death of Sir Milton Margai, and the elections which took place on March 21st, 1967, offers one such lesson.

Sir Milton Margai

Between May, 1957 and May, 1964, when the first general elections were held in Sierra Leone, which ushered in parliamentary rule, and when Sir Albert Margai was appointed Prime Minister in succession to Sir Milton Margai, the people of Sierra Leone enjoyed stability, peace and much national progress.

There was plenty of hope for the citizens with the availability of job opportunities, quality education, better health care, free flow of commerce, effective transport and communication networks. Political tolerance, the rule of law and civil liberty reigned supreme.

But Albert Margai’s ascendancy to political leadership, marked a turning point for the country’s budding post-independence democracy and history of the nation.

Albert Margai rightly or wrongly was seen as promoting tribal bigotry, especially by the  Creole intelligentsia, who saw him as being pernicious to their parochial interests.

Albert for his part, did nothing to assuage the growing resentment, and the way he proceeded to sideline them in the political scheme of things, confirmed their worst fears about him.

His style of leadership and brand of politics, opened up deep cleavages in the society, as well as rising tribal bigotry and inter-regional tension.

Siaka Stevens, the practitioner of Machiavellian politics, seeing the rift that was opening up between Albert Margai and the Creole intelligentsia, was quick in exploiting this to his political advantage.

He established an alliance with the Creole intelligentsia to campaign against Albert Margai’s leadership.

The Creole intelligentsia who were in control of the country’s judiciary were able to use their position to erode Albert Margai’s powers. They took to political activism from the Bench, where they enacted laws instead of restricting themselves to the strict interpretation of the Constitution.

Sir Albert Margai

Albert Margai wanted to remove power from the constitutional monarchical form of government, where the executive authority of the nation was vested in Her Majesty the Queen of Britain, through her “GOVERNOR GENERAL”.

Although power was delegated to the Prime Minister and his cabinet, with parliament made up of elected members representing their Constituencies, Margai wanted to declare Sierra Leone a Republic, with a very strong central government and a sovereign head of state restricted to ceremonial duties.

The Creole dominated establishment saw this as power grab and to that end, used their clout and influence in the judiciary to erect a ‘Jersey barrier’, against what they considered as Albert’s fundamental abuse of power.

The opposition APC party, led in parliament by Siaka Stevens, in collaboration with the heavily dominated Creole bar association and the academic staff at Fourah Bay College, which had become the hotbed for anti-SLPP politics, took the Republican proposal to court.

His Lordship – Justice Christopher Okoro Elnathan Cole found for the plaintiffs. Albert Margai lost his fight for Sierra Leone to become a Republic.

It has to be said that, with his parliamentary majority, Albert Margai could have gone ahead unilaterally to impose his Republican proposal. But as a Lawyer by profession, his first obligation was to uphold the rule of law.

In that regard, he had no choice but to subject his proposal to the judiciary, which made an interlocutory injunction, and a gagging order imposed on parliament, preventing the matter from being discussed.

But this was widely seen as an unprecedented move by the judiciary, which must at all time, be unencumbered by partisan politics.

Albert also toyed with the concept of a one party rule. Again, as it was in the case of the republican idea, he was rebuffed by the political class. 

Albert by now was thoroughly convinced that members of the Bench were openly hostile to his administration, and were allowing themselves to be used by the APC party for political purposes. His battle with the Creole dominated Judiciary intensified.

He proceeded to curtail their powers and strength. The very first casualty was none other than Sir Samuel Bankole Jones, who was forced out as the second Sierra Leonean Chief Justice, after he had succeeded the retired Sir Salako Ambrose Benka-Coker.

Sir Samuel Bankole Jones was one of a few Africans who were already on the Bench when the white Jurists were gradually being phased out. One such prominent Jurist was His Lordship – Justice Arthur Dobbs.

Sir Samuel had a distinguished career on the Bench, which started as a police magistrate and eventually on the High Court as a Judge.

In the course of events, not only did he serve as Chief Justice, but acted as Governor General on several occasions, when the substantive holder Sir Henry Josiah Lightfoot Boston was on vacation in the UK.

Sir Samuel Bankole Jones was knighted in 1965 by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, and along with his dutiful wife – Mrs. Mary Bankole Jones, sailed to England personally to receive the knighthood from the British sovereign head of state.

He was also a member of the panel of distinguished Jurists, appointed to investigate the air crash that claimed the life of Mr. Dag Hammarskjold – the Secretary General of the United Nations, near Ndola – present day Zambia in September, 1961.

Albert Margai reassigned Sir Bankole to the Appeals Court as president, thus reducing his political power and influence.

His next victim – Justice Christopher Okoro Elnathan Cole, who was in line to succeed Sir Samuel, found himself completely removed from the Judiciary when he was posted to the UN as envoy, where he replaced Gershon B. O. Collier, the first permanent representative of Sierra Leone and a very close friend of Sir Albert.

By recalling his friend Gershon from New York and installing him as Chief Justice, in time for the hotly contested general elections, Margai thought he had strengthened his political base within the Creole dominated establishment.

But the appointment of Gershon was met with uproar from the Creole intelligentsia, who saw his move as cynical and political interference in judicial affairs.

Whether it was politics of desperation or otherwise, Albert Margai made a surprise announcement very close to the general elections, about a coup plot led by the Northern officer corps of the army, which included John Amadu Bangura, who was the second in command, Mohamed Sheku Tarawally, and other Northerners.

Siaka Stevens

Siaka Stevens shamelessly sought to make political capital out of a potential national security threat, by playing the ethnic card.

He accused the SLPP leadership of marginalizing the Northerners in favor of the southeasterners.

By so doing, Stevens sought to sow the seeds of ethnic discord, amongst the gullible and undiscerning citizens of the country.

Meanwhile, Borbor Kamara – a functional illiterate and Ibrahim Bash -Taqi, ratcheted up the disinformation and misinformation campaign against Albert, with lies and distortions of facts and realities, aimed at creating distrust, hate and a powerful anti-Albert frenzy.

Albert on his part, had his own secret agenda and strategy as to how best to stay in power, against the wishes of the majority of the voters.

The principal foot soldiers in his ‘diabolical scheme’ were; Peter Leonard Tucker – Secretary to the Prime Minister and head of the civil service; David Lansana – army chief of staff, and Samuel Berthan Macauley – the Attorney General.

Each had a key role to play in attempting to retain Albert Margai in power, no matter the consequences.

The first actor in the scheme was Peter Leonard Tucker, responsible for ensuring that the electoral officials will do everything to achieve their objective: Albert’s re-election.

Tucker convened a meeting of all Electoral Returning Officers, where he prevailed upon them to ensure SLPP’ victory.

Whilst Albert and his henchmen were plotting his re-election, he made a strategic political blunder – much to his eternal regret, when he foolishly engaged Kutubu Kai Samba and others in a fierce battle for the ultimate control of the SLPP’s leadership.

He had denied four of them the official party symbol to contest the election, thereby leaving them no choice but to contest as independent candidates.

Albert had scored a temporary victory when on nomination day, he and five other SLPP candidates were returned unopposed and declared duly elected.

In effect, he went into the elections with a six seat advantage over the APC party and the independents.

Tuesday March 17, 1967, was the date declared for general elections to be held for members of parliament, and March 21, 1967, was slated for the election of paramount chiefs.

And on March 17, 1967, the atmosphere in and around Freetown was that of heightened apprehension, because of the political tension whipped up by both sides.

The elections went ahead with both APC and SLPP bracing themselves for the unexpected, though general expectations throughout the country – of an APC victory, were high.

At the end of balloting, the results started to trickle in gradually, as the Electoral Commissioner announced those seats won by the ruling SLPP first. But as the day closed, it appeared that none of the parties had scored an all out knock-out victory.

The decisions of the four SLPP renegades who contested the elections as independents, will be crucial as to which party will form the new government.

It was however not a litmus case, because the electoral requirement back then for victory was – one single seat majority. Albert Margai had to deploy his wits and chicanery to survive.

Then came his second political foot soldier – Attorney General – Samuel Berthan Macauley QC, who had wanted to change the electoral rules in the middle of the contest, with flawed legal opinion he proffered to the Government.

In a letter written to Albert Margai on March 21, 1967, the Governor General – Sir Henry Lightfoot Boston, signified his intention to declare a winner and to appoint the Prime Minister. 

Berthan Macauley went over to Government House on the morning of March 21, 1967, to advise the Governor General not to proceed with the appointment of a Prime Minister, as the Paramount chiefs elections were ongoing.

The Governor General rejected that opinion, on the grounds that the chiefs had no role to play constitutionally, in deciding which party had won the election and who effectively is appointed Prime Minister.

Foot soldier number three – army chief of staff – David Lansana also drove to Government House to prevail on the Governor General not to proceed with the appointment, citing the fluidity of the situation and his inability to control the chaos that might ensue.

The Governor General was not impressed by Lansana’s arguments either, and accordingly, he invited Siaka Stevens to Government House, authorizing Stevens to form a government.

Siaka Stevens had apparently won the elections, in what became a precedent in African politics, when for the first time in living memory – an opposition party was able to unseat the ruling government through the ballot box and in accordance with the legitimate aspirations of the people.

Trouble in Paradise

The political intrigue at Government House took a twist, when Thomas Alexander Leington Decker – the professional head of the ministry of information and broadcasting, instead of going to Broadcasting House with the letter of appointment of Siaka Stevens as Prime Minister to be announced, he detoured and headed for Flagstaff House – the official residence of the army chief of staff – Brigadier David Lansana.

Armed with the letter of appointment, David Lansana dispatched Samuel Hinga Norman to hold the Governor General, Siaka Stevens and others present at Government House in custody.

Hinga Norman

Siaka Stevens, the newly appointed Prime Minister and a group of his senior aides were at Government House where he was being sworn in to office, when suddenly Samuel Hinga Norman – a Lieutenant in the army and ADC to the Governor General, acting on the instructions of his boss David Lansana – the army chief of staff, halted the ceremony and placed all the participants under house arrest.

The army chief had instructed Norman to hold them in custody until his arrival at Government House.

Surprisingly, at the chief of staff’s residence were David Lansana, Peter Tucker, Maigore Kallon, John Kallon, Ella Koblo Gulama, Sheihk Batu Daramy, Abu Aiah Koroma (father of Mrs. Sia Koroma – the current president’s wife), A.J.Demby, Berthan Macauley, and a few others whom I cannot quite recall.

David Lansana left his Flagstaff House residence and headed for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Studio at New England ville – Freetown, where he announced to a bewildered nation, the proclamation of “MARTIAL LAW”.

That remarkable and somewhat sad announcement not only ended what can be described as an exciting and promising beginning of Sierra Leone’s democratic culture, but the start of a cycle of political recrimination, retribution and violence.

It had cast the die for what was to come – a thirty year one-party rule by the APC and a bloody civil war, which lasted for ten years – taking the lives of more than 200,000 people.

Counting the cost of voting

And as the people of Sierra Leone today brace themselves for a presidential and general elections taking place in November, 2012, the question on everyone’s lips is whether the polls will be free, fair, transparent and non-violent.

Recent political violence does not inspire much confidence.

The people of Sierra Leone and politicians must revisit their political history, if they are to avoid making the very same mistakes, which precipitated and gave succour to the culture of political violence and cycle of retributive justice, that dictates how power and the rule of law are administered in the country today.

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