On the History of Corruption and Tribalism in Sierra Leone
By Sheka (Shekito) Tarawalie,
Freetown, Sierra Leone.
(Excerpts from the ‘Epilogue’ [Out Of Government; Back To My First Love – Journalism; Corruption And The Lebanese Stranglehold; The Tribalism Conundrum; What Life Taught President Siaka Stevens; The Church Can Do Better; Still Wesleyan…] of my book, POPE FRANCIS, POLITICS AND THE MABANTA BOY, to be released on 28th April 2019 by Troubador Publishers of the United Kingdom. I’ve decided to sneak-peek these excerpts mainly to try to put current circumstances into context, and also as a marketing strategy… You’ll get more when you buy the book…)
It would be a herculean task to eradicate corruption and bring genuine development to Sierra Leone. If you are to succeed with the politicians, you have to succeed with the Lebanese merchants and contractors. When former Vice President Victor Foh (later to be charged for corruption in the hajj-gate scandal) deputised for President Koroma in opening a consulate in Beirut in mid-2016, one of the issues potential Lebanese investors raised was that of the ambiguous and unscrupulous activities of the local Lebanese.
Celebrated Sierra Leonean journalist, the late Olu Gordon, termed Sierra Leone’s socio-political state of affairs as ‘Leonebanon’ (that Sierra Leone, a country in Africa, was virtually owned by the Lebanese)... Having transformed themselves from coral-beads street-selling refugees to the wealthiest class through a British colonial bank-loan scheme that favoured them, the Lebanese can today stand up to anybody, perhaps to any government.
In a profile of Afro-Lebanese businessman Jamil Sahid Mohamed under the Stevens administration, popular local historian C. Magbaily Fyle in his book ‘A Historical Dictionary of Sierra Leone’ writes that: “By the end of the 1970s, Jamil was influencing government and ministerial appointments, and he was dreaded, feared or admired, depending on the perceptions of the viewer.”
Cambridge scholar William Reno’s ‘Corruption and State Politics In Sierra Leone’ summarised the situation thus: “Lebanese businessmen from this financial network also organised joint ventures with foreigners to the advantage of themselves and foreign contractors. Politicians acted as partners in these deals…” Things have hardly changed since. The rumours within government circles at our time were that Lebanese contracts (or contracts where Lebanese acted as middlemen) would always be inflated five times the actual cost.
Though late President Kabbah did not categorically name the Lebanese in his memoir, ‘Coming Back from the Brink in Sierra Leone’, he was apparently alluding to them when describing the state of corruption in relation to public officials: “Grand corruption is more serious because it permeates the highest levels of State and public administration, and involves high-ranking government officials, including Cabinet ministers. These people use their positions to defraud the nation of large sums of money and convert public property to their personal use. The illegal trading in diamonds and other precious minerals falls within this category. So is the practice of ‘percentage’ offered by unscrupulous business people…”
Kabbah’s successor, President Ernest Bai Koroma, ascended to power on the twin-mantra of ‘zero tolerance to corruption’ and ‘no sacred cow’. He started on a high by strengthening and giving autonomous powers to the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) established by his predecessor. High-ranking government officials were charged and convicted. But the fight seemed to have lulled as time elapsed, and his success would only be determined by posterity. What was clear, though, was that the Lebanese stranglehold was still very much tight or tightened or tightening on the Sierra Leone economy at the time he left office.
However, my own thinking is that the Lebanese issue would not be solved the Mandela or Olu Gordon way, as things stand now; but rather by a continuous healthy engagement with the Lebanese community itself. Minds and hearts have to be opened on both sides. There are certainly good people among the Lebanese… A good number of them are virtual natives after generations of living in Sierra Leone – though none could be found anywhere during the war. The debate has to be started – and it has to be respectful. For the good of all. For the good of Sierra Leone.
Yet, the Sierra Leone problem will never be solved if the average Serra Leonean politician continues to think North-West as against South-East, APC versus SLPP, or Temne opposed to Mende – for these are the divisions that the unscrupulous have been using to thrive upon and exploit the economy since the departure of the British colonialists.
The tragic seeds of this tribalism/regional menace were sown in the mysterious death of Sierra Leone’s first Prime Minister, Sir Milton Margai, of the SLPP. There is yet to be a finer gentleman of a Sierra Leonean leader (the only one to have ever died in office, successful coups inclusive). He wholesomely galvanised a disparate nation and carried it upon his shoulders. With a national appeal combined with his symmetry with the British (of whom he had his wife), Margai got Sierra Leone’s Independence delivered on a silver platter on 27 April 1961. But after presiding over celebrations of the country’s third Independence anniversary, Margai passed away the next day on 28 April 1964.
Siaka Stevens, as then-Leader of the Opposition, had this to say as a tribute to ‘the father of the nation’ in Parliament the following day: “Sir Milton Margai died in action. We shall not forget him and no history of Sierra Leone will be complete without a word about his continuous service. We shall miss him and we shall miss his tolerance. He has helped us and has well directed our affairs. He achieved unity among us; during a time in our history, in fact, he was the only man who could give unity to our country…”
In came his brother Albert Margai, chosen under very controversial circumstances by two Creoles (Governor-General Henry Lightfoot-Boston on the advice of Attorney General Berthan Macaulay) – a decision that was petitioned but later dropped through ‘pressure and persuasion’ by 35 Members of Parliament, including three Ministers. The younger Margai had a little over two and half years to complete his elder brother’s term and face the electorate.
Despite being a thoroughly educated man (the first Sierra Leonean lawyer from the provinces, then known as the Protectorate, and trained in London), Albert Margai only succeeded in planting bad seeds of tribal politics, and had himself to blame when his party lost the 1967 elections. Even though Governor-General Lightfoot-Boston had recognised the APC victory and thereby appointed Stevens as the new Prime Minister, Albert Margai’s close friend and tribesman who was army chief, Brig. David Lansana (aided by then-Lt Hinga Norman, who would later become Deputy Defence Minister in the SLPP Government of President Tejan Kabbah some thirty years later), staged a coup to try to keep the SLPP in power. But junior officers did a counter-coup, and through another counter-coup Siaka Stevens was restored to power about thirteen months later after going into exile in neighbouring Guinea. That was how Sierra Leone’s cycle of coups and counter-coups was put in motion. Margai’s infamous introduction of the 1965 Public Order Act which successive governments have used to clamp on the media only made the tribalism slur uglier.
And this was how Siaka Stevens summed up, in his ‘What Life Has taught Me’, the leadership of a man with whom he worked very closely since their days in the SLPP to their break-away PNP (of which Margai was head) before the former founded the APC: “While stuffing his henchmen into the power-centres of politics, he was cramming every vacancy in the civil service and armed forces with fellow-tribesmen. Margai’s retreat into a tribalism more divisive and a sectionalism more acute than any previously practised even by the SLPP, was the worst thing that had happened to Sierra Leone since Independence. When we needed unity most, Margai set us at each other’s throats. When we most needed to set tribalism aside, Margai exploited it with frantic ruthlessness… Large numbers even of his tribesmen rejected his divisive policies and voted for us.”
Stevens’ views on Albert Margai’s short reign were echoed by David Dalby, then of the School of Oriental and African Studies (London). Welshman Dalby, who started his long and illustrious academic career at Fourah Bay College as lecturer, wrote in the ‘New Society’ magazine (UK) of 6 April 1967 an article titled ‘Sierra Leone on the brink’ and stated, among other things, that: “The defeat of the ruling SLPP was not unexpected, and certainly not undeserved, and it is to the credit of the people of Sierra Leone that they should have achieved the first democratic change of government in post-colonial Africa. It is even more to their credit that they should have achieved this in the face of Margai’s desperate efforts to remain in power.”
Albert Margai, who died of a heart attack while visiting a niece in the US, did some pretty good stuff as Minister of Finance in his elder brother’s government, like establishing the central bank and changing the legal tender. But he would best be remembered for his prediction (of course in retrospect) of the war in Sierra Leone. Having seen how Siaka Stevens’ APC (the Lebanese as part of the make-up) had predatorily strangled the economy, Margai, living as an exile in the UK, came to the conclusion that: “If the Stevens government does not do something to elevate the lives of the have-nots, the poor, they would one day rise to demand from the haves, the rich, their own share of the economy.”
It came to pass under Shaki’s successor…