On this day, 51 years ago, in pronounced celebration and frivolity, Sierra Leone officially announced its independence from British colonial rule. It is a time of great celebration for all Sierra Leoneans, cramming the streets of the Capital, Waterloo, Leicester and all along the beaches of the Freetown Peninsula. Since the cessation of hostilities in 2002, commentators are optimistic about the future of this West African nation. Following his government’s successful intervention during the civil war in the 1990s, Tony Blair congratulated the country on its efforts to restore parliamentary elections, reconcile peace and demilitarisation and its burgeoning economic growth. Indeed, yesterday’s successful conviction of Charles Taylor, the former head of Liberia, for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the Hague at the UN Special Court has given many Sierra Leoneans a particular cause for celebration. What has not been highlighted, however, are the concerns of social stagnation, of the unresolved tensions following the war that still act as a canker in this troubled state. A fragmented youth community and an inability to foster cohesion has put these steps towards progression into serious doubt; Di rod geht plehnti galohp [Krio], the road has a lot of bumps. Still.
Since 1787, when the Freetown Peninsula was settled for freed slaves and Black Loyalists fighting in the American War of Independence, this portion of West Africa has been affected by British policies of uniform social integration and forced cooperation. No attention was given to the social rife that existed between many of the ethnic groups situated there. Hemming in an abundance of differing, contrasting and often contentious societies into European-styled communities was a melting pot waiting to broil over.
British colonial rule imposed itself in what came to be seen as a ‘humanitarian mission’, a quest to absolve its own involvement in slavery and to play a crucial role in ‘civilising’ through social betterment and ‘legitimate’ trade. Colonial authorities went to much effort in destabilising traditional indigenous enterprises in place of European commercial interests, most notably those within the rural/agrarian sector. In the course of my research for my dissertation [A. Mackenzie, Colonial Conservationism; A Study of the Sierra Leone Forestry Department, MA. diss., University of Durham, 2011], I came to the conclusion that concerns of social development and cohesion were second to those of economic prosperity and the furtherance of European ideals of capitalism; entire populations were systematically removed from their forest environments and their forest practices regulated and subsumed under Western commerce. Depopulated, nomadic and pushed to work in palm oil plantations and alluvial diamond mining industries, the British had created a seething population embittered towards the government, economic infrastructure and one another.
Officers of the Sierra Leone Forestry Department parade before a forest reserve, 1942, Author’s Collection.
Even today, realising the relative wealth of mineral resources in the country, there has been a strong emphasis into building up the economy of Sierra Leone. The activities of iron ore extraction conglomerate, London Mining, together with its rival, African Minerals, have given commentators hope that the economy will develop further; minerals predicting to contribute the equivalent of 35%. The environmental consequences notwithstanding, what these early optimisms fail to show is the effect it will have socially. In 1961, the dawn of independence shined brightly on the new fledgling nations of both Sierra Leone and Singapore. Despite both nations becoming independent at the same time, Singapore is fast becoming an economic powerhouse facilitated by its entrenchment in the tertiary sector, far surpassing its colonial and jungle roots. Once crowned the ‘Athens of Africa’, Freetown is anything but.
In particular, the events of 1991-2002 demonstrate the cataclysmic consequences of a fragmented society. The civil war that engulfed the neighboring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia was totally detrimental to their social-economic structures. However, rather than the widely acknowledged influence of Charles Taylor, illicit diamond trading and the resource war, the main impetus for the bloodshed, Paul Richards argues, was one of “an archaic rural structure that reduced many young people to sweated labour, penury and despair.”1 With most emphasis being placed on stripping environmental resources, very little was done to incorporate young people. School allowances were axed, teachers pay docked and the entire educational system suffered in both standards and classroom attendance. Disenfranchised, underfunded and under-schooled, the youth of Sierra Leone, citizens of the poorest country in the world, were none too predisposed for arming up and exacerbating the border dispute further.
Despite the conflict, Sierra Leone has still failed to learn from its agrarian folly. There is still very little effort being made to quell feelings of youth frustration and social alienation that gripped the districts 11 years ago. The picture is different of course in Liberia, with much emphasis being placed in reequipping ex-combatants with agricultural knowledge and agrarian sentiment, dispelling the anarchic streak which would have otherwise sent young Sierra Leoneans into conflicts in the Ivory Coast and the coup of Guinea-Bissau. With ever escalating problems in the Municipal of Freetown, from corruption, youth unemployment, to the threat of Chinese anglers, the slumbering mass of discontent is likely to arise once more in the country, with very similar consequences. Dohti wata sehf kin oht faya [Krio], in the absence of something good, anything will do.
1 P. Richards, “Where next for Sierra Leone after 50 years of independence?” Guardian (6 May 2011).