Creole marginalisation – taboo subject faced head on in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 18 August 2017 

This article was first published by the Sierra Leone Telegraph exactly five years ago, on the 16th of August 2012 to be precise. Here we are on the 18th of August 2017, mourning the death of over 350 people after a massive landslide on the Sugar Loaf Mountain, caused by heavy rainfall in the capital Freetown.

There is no denying the fact that the roots of this disaster can be traced to the uncontrolled migration of people from the hinterland into the capital since the 1970s, and the pressure posed by overpopulation on the city.

Freetown is the only region in Sierra Leone the creoles have known as their homeland, since the abolition of slave trade.

But since Sierra Leone gained independence in 1961, many creoles believe that their power base and political strength in Freetown – the capital city, have systematically been eroded and taken away by politicians, whose sole objective was to change the balance of power in the capital, as they embark on the path to social and political engineering.

The marginalisation and disenfranchisement of the creoles in Sierra Leone by successive governments, is an issue most politicians in the country are fully aware of, but few are prepared and willing to openly discuss.

There is widespread perception among many in Sierra Leone that the uncontrolled urban sprawl, overcrowding, deforestation, environmental blight and economic decline that have grotesquely changed the character of the city today, is a product of a failed migration policy that is designed to marginalise and disenfranchise the creoles in the last 50 years.

Freetown is a city designed to house a population of no more than 100,000. Today it is grossly over-populated with a population of over 2 million and counting. The city’s infrastructures – water supply, roads, electricity, drainage, housing, education, healthcare, have experienced massive decline that is not fitting of a modern city. To what extent has the marginalisation of the creoles contributed to this catastrophic decline?

A debate – a real and honest debate has begun. Questions are being asked as to how the city got to the appalling condition it is today, and how this unsustainable trend can be reversed.

On Saturday, 4th of August, 2012, a meeting organised by the former Mayor of Freetown – Winstanley Bankole-Johnson and other concerned citizens, was held in Freetown to discuss the way forward.

Speaking at the meeting, social and economic policy analyst and Freetown socialite – Paul Conton, presented a paper – titled; ‘Freetown and the Provinces’. This is what he said:

I know that most of you, probably all, are very concerned about rampant street trading in Freetown, squatting on public land and encroachment on to private land, with all the attendant ills of litter, filth, poor sanitation, unhealthy and unsafe environments, etc.

Looking at Sierra Leone as a whole, the national consequences of overcrowding in Freetown are huge; importation of foodstuffs and other items, large trade deficits and weakness in the national currency. Why are all these people moving to Freetown?

What drives them to uproot themselves only to come and settle in squalid conditions in an unfamiliar environment?

The underlying problem, in my view, is the dual land tenure system. All these petty traders you see roaming the streets of Freetown with scanty trays of trifles on their heads, these are landless people.

The market women, crowding onto Freetown’s streets, obstructing traffic and spreading litter, 95% of provincial origin, these are landless people.

The slum dwellers; in Kroo bay, Mabella and all the others – 95% of provincial origin, these are landless people. The ‘dreg man dem’, waiting in the streets for opportunity of any kind – 95% of provincial origin, these are landless people.

We hear about the provincials based in Freetown, who when they die are given a memorial service here in Freetown before being conveyed to their home towns for burial. These are the well-to-dos, the exceptions.

All these others, all of provincial origin, are simply given a quiet funeral in Freetown and their offspring try to pick up the pieces of their lives here in Freetown, without the benefit of inheriting that small patch of land that they can call their own, a benefit that many of us have enjoyed. It’s not that there is no land where they come from.

There is abundant land, but the system is such that this land is collectivized, not individualized.

Nobody is prepared to sacrifice to develop the land, because ultimately it does not belong to one individual. It cannot be ‘monetized’. Banks would not lend money against it. Its value cannot be maximized.

Ultimately, underneath all the other problems, this is what is driving people to Freetown. These landless people are as much victims of the system as we the people of Freetown are.

The solution to Freetown’s problems lies within our grasp. And fortuitously, the solution to Freetown’s problems is also the solution to the national problem. The national interest coincides with our own interest as Freetonians and Creoles.

If government were to fully sanction and enforce the freehold of land in the provinces, requiring, not just allowing banks to accept conveyances as collateral for credit, the entire national economic equation would change.

Ultimately, billions of Leones would be injected through the banking system into the provinces. People always follow money and thousands, tens of thousands would follow this money trail back to the provinces or be persuaded by it to stay in the provinces.

Freetown would get some relief from its ever-growing problem of overcrowding. If the investment is properly channelled, agricultural production would rise and once more Sierra Leone might be able to feed itself.

From day one, Freetown’s founding fathers understood and respected the principle of the private ownership of land. When Thomas Peters and his group of Nova Scotians made plans to come to Africa, they were promised at least 30 acres of land per family (20 for a man, 10 for his wife and 5 for each child).

These were poor ex-slaves, who had not owned anything of consequence in their entire lives. Indeed they themselves had been ‘owned’ by their masters. Even their children were the property of their masters.

So this promise of acres of land, which they could call their own, must have been irresistible. Sadly the promise was never fulfilled in its entirety, and this caused much bitterness among the early settlers.

The larger point, however, is that Freetown, from its very founding, was predicated on the premise of private ownership of property. This was the rock upon which Freetown grew and prospered, outshining all the other communities in Sierra Leone and West Africa.

And then, at Independence, this economic system was joined with a system in which private ownership of property was virtually forbidden. Wise heads at the time warned that it would never work.

When Bankole Bright said, “Freetown is Freetown and the Protectorate is the Protectorate and never the twain shall meet”, it was this issue as much as any other that he was referring to.

Experience, common sense and economic theory all tell us that when you operate two economic systems within one country, migration will occur to the more successful economic system.

The greater the disparity between the two systems, the greater will be the migration. This is exactly what is happening in Sierra Leone. We see the problem in Freetown because we are based in Freetown. But what we see is a consequence, a symptom and a reflection of the real problem.

The real problem lies up in the provinces and in the socio-economic situation that exists up there. It is an age-old problem encountered at some point by peoples all over the world.

The peasants, the serfs, the campesinos, the proletariat – use whatever name from whatever part of the world – all faced the same problem and had to struggle against entrenched power structures and economic interests.

Compare the 30 acres Thomas Peters and his Nova Scotians, ex-slaves, were promised with the average size of a subsistence farmer’s patch of land in Sierra Leone today and the picture becomes clear.

The Creoles could be in the vanguard of a peaceful revolution to change the system. We must battle to change the land tenure system to a freehold system all over the country. In this battle we need allies.

Even the mighty US needs allies when it goes to war. Fortunately there are natural allies for this cause, which we perhaps have not made use of before. Perhaps now is the time we can rally them.

Our less privileged brothers in the provinces are natural allies in this cause. They are the ones who supposedly have ‘family’ or ‘community’ lands in their home areas, but feel compelled to come to Freetown and eventually, years later, discover they no longer have any land to which to return.

So these are natural allies and our strategy in this battle should be to reach out for their support. We also have other potential allies in our donor partners, even including China, whose systems are of course very much based on free market, free hold principles.

Since Independence, creoles have looked inwards at Freetown only, instead of looking outwards, at the rest of Sierra Leone and analyzing what’s going wrong there.

We have kept silent and withdrawn to our own little corner – Freetown, whilst the rest of Sierra Leone has crowded in on us. It’s time to look outwards again, as our forefathers did, and find out what’s going wrong in the rest of Sierra Leone.


  1. The solution to this so-called “Creole Marginalization” problem is extremely simple. It starts with understanding why are people moving to Freetown?

    Answer: for opportunities in the areas of employment, education, healthcare and agriculture. Build the infrastructure in the provinces so there is no need to go to Freetown. Why do I have to go to Freetown to get a passport? Why do I need to go to Freetown to travel overseas? Why do I need to go to Freetown to get an accountancy degree from IPAM.

    The entire government of Sierra Leone is centralized. You cannot do any meaningful thing without going to Freetown. Blaming the poor victims who resettle in Freetown in search of “better opportunities” definitely misses the point.

    • I concur with your view wholeheartedly. I am a product of the hinterland and currently residing abroad. Concentrated development, which often define many African countries’ economic initiatives, most often marginalizes the majority of its citizens who live in the provinces. Their schools are underfunded, substandard, despite the students’ zeal, eagerness and thirst for knowledge.

      Furthermore, due to the lack of a structured civil service system and the prevalence of nepotism, educated individuals from the provinces often times are relegated to menial positions. As long as Freetown continues to be Sierra Leona’s center for economic activity, the marginalized native population will continue to migrate there in search of better opportunities.

      In the United States, no matter how remote a community is located, government ensures that residents are able go access services to ensure that basic needs are met. The moyamba/Shenge road is the perfect example of governmental negligence. Road has been in disrepair for over 10 years even though 50% or more of the fish consumed in the country is from there.

    • Absolutely on the mark. I am surprised someone is tying land tenure system to the congestion in Freetown.

  2. I will respectfully disagree with the writer stating, “creole marginalization” was the hidden agenda by other tribes moving to Freetown. The British, who initiated the infrastructure and landscape of Sierra Leone built all essential government buildings in the city of Freetown and as such it becomes the dream town for all dream chasers. Its not like all Mendes and Temnes… saying hey! there’s too many creoles around the capitol lets make sure they don’t populate the main capital.

    Yes, I agree that over population played a key role in disease outbreaks and natural disasters. Deforestation however to my opinion, is the main cause of the landslide that occurred. May Allah protect us from such calamities in the future and grant the victims heaven for they have suffered enough.

    Freetown will continue to face over population until the government itself start to separate its ministries. Honestly I see no reason why the ministry of agriculture, Transportation, defense, and many more doing in the city. I personally hope that one day even the state house itself be moved to the provinces. Don’t care where.

    This is the solution and Tribal excuses is just another way Africans avoid facing the facts. Creoles can move to another isolated town and call it their own and lets see if the rest of the tribes will follow them again for “marginalization.”

    But move all these branches of government to different towns and see what will happen. There is the solution to future Sierra Leone. Call that my dream.

    • I think that you should read about the land laws in Sierra Leone, because your statement that Creoles should pack their things, leave their houses and land that they have paid for, and move elsewhere, clearly shows that you do not understand the land law.

  3. In response to Mr Mann’s question:What formula are you going to use to relocate people from Freetown? My contribution is to revisit the drawing board of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah immediately after the civil war ended in Sierra Leone regarding the arrangements he made about the rehabilitation of refugees in the country:

    i. Truth and Reconciliation was set up to give opportunity to all affected persons to forgive and forget so that communities can move forward with their lives.

    ii. All educational institutions in the country were rehabilitated and most villages received brand new school buildings.

    iii. The plans also followed that those villages where houses were destroyed were to be rehabilitated so that people can start their lives.

    iv. Internal refugees from different localities were to be relocated to their villages, rather than settle on the mountain top around Freetown.

    Unfortunately, Tejan Kabbah’s term of office came to an end and gave birth to Ernest Bai Koroma – who then abandoned Kabbah’s rehabilitation plans for Sierra Leoneans. This has resulted into all the calamities we are beginning to see now.

    Therefore when we go back to Tejan Kabbah’s drawing board, and embark on applying those rules accordingly, we will begin to breath fresh air.

    Your brother
    Mohamed Sannoh

    • Sannoh,
      From what you posted, it is clear that there is a framework (and I am sure there are multiple other documents) for real human, social and economic rehabilitation and development of the country. A book titled “Democratization and Human Security in Postwar Sierra Leone” is also very informative.
      Unfortunately it seems like achieving any specific goals is limited to the government of the day. With the latest tragedy, I hope that different Sierra Leonean interest groups from within and outside of the country can add pressure on the current and future governments to take steps toward creating a better society. This must never happen again.

    • You got it right. The overcrowding PROBLEM in Freetown was neglected by the outgoing administration. They did not follow through with the plan their predecessors handed over to them.

      The excessive mass exodus from the provinces to FREETOWN IS PRESIDENT KOROMA AND HIS GOVERNING BODY’S FAULT.

      Poor judgement – APC MY PARTY.

      I BELIEVE THEY MAYBE TRIED TO RELOCATE THE ‘REFUGEES’ but “encountered resistance”.
      Is it because of lack of incentives to go back to their respective beautiful villages and towns, that they decided to stay?

      Can someone please explain to the world why the overcrowding problem in Freetown was not addressed by the outgoing administration? What happened? There were efforts made I was told. Boy o boy the resistance was immense.

      Many people including SLPP and APC MEMBERS are GUILTY OF THE RESISTANCE BECAUSE THE HAVE BUILT ON GOVERNMENT reserved land also.


  4. 1) Maybe we would get deeper insights and reach a common middle ground if we retitled the article. I think ‘creole marginalization’ could be discussed separately.
    2) Once again, incidents of 14 August 2017, validates this article in its call for a sensible and structured migration. Let’s create smart cities, change archaic land laws and make the entire country ‘ liveable’
    3) let’s begin to call a spade, a spade and transcend petty politics for sustainable development. We owe it to our children.
    4) The process of rebuilding is not an event and can be done if we are selfless. President Kigame has done it. A good practice to model.
    5) let us take informed actions and now!

  5. Mr. Joe Kassim,

    Please respect the forum. It is a place for civil discourse and not for raining insults at folks that you may disagree with.

    If you are also pushing for people to be relocated from Freetown, then please answer Mr. Mann’s question: What formula are you going to use to relocate people from Freetown?

    • I am sorry if I offended the sensibilities of anyone. I did not mean to insult nor is this debate about tribes.

      I get the impression that whenever the issue of overcrowding in Freetown is raised some people get quite hot under their collar. This is a very serious matter and must not be taken lightly.

      My proposal is for both decentralisation and devolution of power to become the new governance framework for Sierra Leone.

      This must be coupled with sound local economic development plans for each of our regions of which local business development, entrepreneurship, job creation, skills training, housing, health and education must be central. Not forgetting the provision of water and electricity.

      There is no short term or quick fix to the problem facing Freetown.

      Politicians from all sides must come together to discuss this proposal and agree the way forward. Thank you.

    • Solutions to Freetown over crowding:-

      1. Create employment in the provinces e.g. infrastructure, construction, agriculture, manufacturing.

      2. Relay railway service to surrounding towns and Freetown as outlets for products & produce.

      3. Access to land tenure in the provinces.

  6. Patricia,

    What formula are you going to use to relocate people from Freetown? And who qualifies to remain in Freetown? So all of a sudden Sierra Leone becomes a nation where internal migration is restricted, a nation where if you are not of a certain tribal you don’t qualify to live in the capital city? Thank god your solution will never come to fruition.

    My sister, you cannot solve a scientific problem with arcane tribalistic solutions.

    • Wow o wow James you are truly backward. You think this is about tribalism? This is about saving the motherland Sierra Leone.

      You sound so much like someone who is benefiting from the crap Sierra Leone has now become. And with a mentality like yours am afraid Sierra Leone will ever remain in the pre historic state that it has become.

      You criticise but yet bereft of any solution. If you are going to criticise someone for putting forward ideas as to how to solve the most pressing Freetown faces, then make sure you are intelligent enough to come up with your own workable solutions.

  7. Land tenure? Creole marginalization? The writer is implying that folks from the provinces should return to the provinces and leave Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital to the Creoles. Laughable to say the least. Would that really be the solution to environmental degradation in the Western area?

    Yes, Freetown is overcrowded. But how many cities in Africa are not overcrowded? Even cities in western democracies are overcrowded.

    Yes, there are land tenure laws in Sierra Leone. But do they really stop citizens from owning land? I know creoles living in the provinces, Bo and Kenema to be specific, and owning homes and land.

    Probably, the writer should think about relocating to the provinces if he really believes that is the solution to environmental abuse in Freetown.

    • Yes relocation IS one of the solutions to this overcrowding problem. There are too many people in Freetown FULL STOP.
      Too much people have migrated to Freetown and live in slums… that right?
      It would be better if low cost housing is built in areas that are low risk areas so that they move to a safe place. Up country is best because there is a lot of unused space there. We have to find a way to sort this problem out. There is no point getting irate once up country is mentioned. This is not to marginalise people from the provinces. We all went to school together and we all have friends from every tribe. We are all Sierra Leoneans and we must find safe areas for our less fortunate copatriots to live. In fact less people in Freetown will enable the authorities to clean Freetown – now it is almost impossible – too many people cluttering the area.
      Frankly I hope relocation happens so the slums and very hilly areas can be cleared. I doubt it will happen though as politicians who should implement this think only about their votes so prefer to keep people in slums and dangerous areas on the hillside.

    • Sophia, if you have 90 percent of the population living in Freetown, that is a problem. Developing the Provinces and changing the land law will solve the problem.

      Freetown was bought for the Creoles. However, other tribes have been living there and it worked out fine until the war broke out and millions from the Province settled in tiny Freetown. There may be a handful of Creoles in the Province, but nothing compared to the millions of people that moved to Freetown in the last two decades.

  8. This disaster will be the first of many incidents if something is not done and fast. Massive houses have been constructed illegally on other hillsides in Freetown. In fact it is an eyesore.

    What the Lands Minister needs to do now is get people out of these areas asap – from the ‘pan body’s shacks to concrete buildings.

    The president needs to change the land tenure laws in the provinces as a matter of urgency so people can start owning land there. If all those families who died in this mudslide disaster had built their houses up country, they would be alive today.

    Freetown is now busting at the seams, so government should urgently take the bold step to evacuate people from the hillsides and allow the land laws all over the country to be the same as in Freetown.

  9. This is an excellent article, raising many issues, all of which not only should be addressed, but MUST be addressed if Freetown and Sierra Leone as a whole are to move beyond being a by-word for blight, misery, squandering, victimhood and embarrassingly avoidable catastrophes to be felt generation after generation.

    With all due respect, we the citizens and diaspora really do need to grow up, take responsibility and turn the dialogue into self-less action, holding people to account where need be. It is absolutely ‘do-able’ and many countries around the world (with higher populations and far less natural resources), can attest to real change with the removal of apathy, selfish parties and those who disproportionately benefit from the current status quo.

  10. The article/presentation by Conton does mention important factors that contributed to the plight of the Sierra Leone capital. To address the issue requires a greater look at several important factors and not just from the perspective of a “creole marginalization” context. In that regard, few questions I had raised previously in a different forum were:

    1. Why since Independence has there not been a push for change in land-ownership laws ? Is it too late to address it now?

    2. Is it time for Sierra Leone to abolish the role and function of paramount chieftaincy all-together for a more broader representational (or more inclusive) local governance structure?
    From my research previously the role of the paramount chief is closely tied to guardianship of land in the provinces (I stand to be corrected)

    3. Is there a role for public education on promoting national identity rather than regional and ethnic identities? As far as I am concerned the plight of any one man, woman, child of any cultural affiliation in Sierra Leone is the nation’s burden.

    4. Is there a need for Sierra Leoneans to continually engage in the debate about land rights and to confront the political establishment toward an overhaul of the current laws in place?
    There are so many other questions which need to be addressed candidly on a national level.

    However over the years what we have seen is that as resources seem slim in the country there is a tendency for people to grab whatever they can and assume a position of comfort with disregard for the rest of society. Even the so called well-to-do Sierra Leoneans are guilty of this. Then comes the ever ugly vice of blind allegiance to ethnic, tribal, cultural and even political affiliations.

    The plight of Freetown and to a larger extent the plight of Sierra Leone is one that has been brewing for many years, most likely since the dawn of independence, because of the lack of initiative on the part of the Sierra Leoneans who run the affairs of the state, to envision a better and greater society.

    Either they are too selfish, excessively unqualified to run a country or just plain incapable of being entrusted with anything such as the affairs of a state.

    • Well stated Mr. Monya-Tambi, with this type of approach we can learn a lot from each other.

      Please fellow Sierra Leoneans, let’s stop attacking each another with insults and molestation on the social media.

      Sierra Leone is for us all, because the economical, social and cultural contributions are coming from every corner of our country. Long live our beloved Salone!

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