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Strengthening our Strengths to Neutralize Tribalism

Strengthening our Strengths to Neutralize Tribalism

My heartfelt thanks to those who telephoned me last week after my article, “We Must Be United”, which touch on negative tribalism in Sierra Leone, and was published in newspapers.  One caller, in melodramatic diction, urged me to “make the issue (your) life’s calling”.  Tribalism is a gravely gnawing issue in Africa, yet, it is generally denied, or belied, by nationals, and international bodies dealing with Africa.

“Millions have been killed and millions more displaced in civil wars in sub-Sahara Africa over the past fifty years. This situation has severely retarded development to the extent that despite some $600 billion of aid…..These wars have occurred mainly in countries with two or three overwhelmingly dominant tribes. The basic cause is therefore tribalism – a fact that Africans, multilateral, bilateral and philanthropic donors and students of the African scene have consistently failed to acknowledge…”, writes Cornelius P. Cacho, (World Affairs, May 21, 2008)a retired World Bank executive, with 20 years experience in sub Sahara Africa, and is currently  an active member of the Naples Council on World Affairs.

Among the reasons Cacho posit for not giving priority to ‘tribalism’ in Africa is that Africa’s elites themselves see the term “tribe” as pejorative.  Another reason, according to Cacho, is that “tribalism is regarded as intractable and un-amenable to use in economic development models”. Taking a swipe at the probable largely European/American anointed ‘experts’, Cacho writes: “there is evidence that some who claim expertise on Africa and prescribe policies for the development of African countries don’t fully understand the intergroup dynamic among Africans and its effects on development…”. Well, the British, who colonized large swathes of Africa about a century ago do understand the murky and diabolical depths of tribalism; after all, in their colonialist ‘Divide-and-Rule’ strategy, they effectively played one tribe against the other to better exploit Africa’s agricultural and mineral resources.  Again and again, I state: as we march ahead to celebrate 50 years of our ‘independence’ in Sierra Leone in 2011, let us accelerate the process meaningful independence, which is, vitally, ‘mental independence’. One way we can neutralize tribalism in Sierra Leone is to see the strengths of the two major tribal groups, the Mende-speaking and Temne-speaking peoples, and applaud it, and learn from it, and utilize it as a symbol of national cohesion, and developmental propellant.

The Temne-speaking people from the North, or who hail from the North, appear to almost have a genetic make up that makes them natural traders.

I started getting close to, and admiring, this ‘trading nature’ of Temne-speaking (note: not Temnes!!) from the Northern Province in 1998.  I was a columnist in The Democrat then.  The Ministry of Local Government was resolute that the petty traders who were blocking vehicular and pedestrian traffic in downtown Freetown should be shooed out.  I then moved in to do some investigative journalism on the issue.  I visited all the main markets of Freetown; the City Council officers; staff at the land and country planning ministry.  I spoke with dozens of these traders.  I attended the regular meetings of the main trading group then, the United Indigenous Commercial Petty Traders Association (UCPTA).  I visited their homes.  I saw anew the faith, the intensity, the dogged hardworking nature of these Temne-speaking traders…Aha!!!

I bet most of the elite in Freetown don’t even see them.  And feel them!!  All day long, under the sweltering heat of Freetown, they – old men and young teenage boys; old women and luscious females – are chasing  after cars as they desperately strive to peddle a soap here, a polish there, iced water in sachets over there….In the markets, they sit, almost as if in a prison, sometimes with their infants strapped to their backs, in tiny  often fetid spaces, pushing their way to take over streets where vehicles should pass (and being forced to move back as vehicles honk their horns)  along Sani Abacha Street, ECOWAS Street….in their determined effort to let pedestrians see their wares, and make a purchase….From early morning to after sun set; Sunday to Sunday (except during Islamic holidays; and one or two public holidays), these traders would be bustling and jostling…I was awestruck!! My people!! My hardworking people!!! How proud they make me feel to be a Sierra Leonean!! As I started attending meetings of the UCPTA inside their headquarters in the market close to P.Z. roundabout, I learned that they had to change the language from Temne to Krio, for my convenience – for 98% of these traders were (are) Temne-speaking people (with even the Fullahs, Susus, Limbas, Lokos, Madingoes among them being Temne-speaking).  In a serial in The Democrat,  I published  information garnered on these traders. I championed their cause – that they should not be entirely moved off the streets of Freetown because Freetown buyers are ‘impulse buyers’. ‘We’ won!!!  The government of President Tejan Kabbah was compelled not to drive them off the main thoroughfares of Freetown as they aimed to.

Since 1998, I have been relatively close to the UCPTA, which split by 2000; so that today we also have the Sierra Leone Traders Union (SLeTU). They see me as ‘one of their own’.  A few years ago, I went to the upstairs office of the SLeTU Southern Province regional office in Bo Town.  There were about fifteen males in a wide hall in a white building right inside a market.  I greet them effusively in my patchy Mende language.  Only one person responded.  I later learned he was the only Mende-speaking person in that group of traders in the Mende-speaking heartland of Bo.  Another strength of these Temne-speaking traders – adventurous, led by faith, courageous, as they are seen dominating the trading sector in nearly every district in Sierra Leone.  Moving in from the North, these Temne-speaking traders over the past sixty years have integrated themselves into societies in Bo, Kenema, Bonthe, Moyamba, Kailahun (with the males marrying Mende-speaking indigenes as wives; giving birth to and schooling their children in these lands; buying land, building houses, setting up impressive businesses; becoming councilors, and even, ‘chief-makers’…); learning the Mende language to amazing fluency, and joining the local secret societies of the Poro and Sande. These Temne-speaking traders are the ‘Jews…of Sierra Leone’…or, in Nigeria-terms, they are ‘the Igbos of Sierra Leone….’.

I now restart the process of popularizing the struggles of these Temne-speaking traders, and their essence – as a potent symbol of Sierra Leone’s independence. (Because of their trading prowess, Temne-speaking women, and youth in early teenage years, are far more independent than Mende-speaking women and youth).  Some of them over the past twenty years have grown from hawking a dozen handkerchiefs on the streets of Freetown to being importers importing goods from Hong Kong and Dubai.  Just a few of them! Given the time and energy these traders expend in trading, there has been very little growth in their wealth over the years.  They start as petty traders, and one generation to the next, they would remain petty traders.  Here is where government, political parties, Civil Society activists, scholars, our development partners, should try to do research, and in an interdisciplinary way, understand the dynamics of these Temne-speaking traders – in order to inject new knowledge (not necessarily ‘classroom knowledge’) into them to stimulate rapid financial and managerial growth.

In 2003, one of my close Civil Society activist friend, Temne-speaking Councilor Ibrahim Kamara, started the Osusu Finance Company, based right in the heart of the market at P.Z.  It soared, floundered, and fizzled out in mysterious circumstances. The concept was to harness the considerable cash that daily flows into the pocket of these multitude of petty traders, and instill a sense of compulsory savings.  That it fractured within a year or two after its inception could have dented the confidence of Sierra Leoneans, who under normal circumstances, are burdened with a sickening inferiority complex. Again: for the 50th Anniversary celebrations, it is time we revive such ideas, and ensure that they flow. Over the past three years alone, there have been some six banks – largely those with roots in Nigeria – that have opened offices in Sierra Leone.  Good as this may be for African Unity, the reality is that sustainable democracy, and national stability, can best be built when we ensure that wealth is spread more widely, and firmly, among people who are voters in Sierra Leone.

These Temne-speaking traders, ubiquitous in Sierra Leone, can also play an efficacious role in stimulating that ‘unity’ which President Ernest Bai Koroma is calling for today.  These traders are independent-minded!!  They don’t pound the pavements daily crying to government to provide jobs for them – even their youth who would have attended secondary school.  They create their own jobs with tiny capital as low as Le10,000 (some $2).  They have faith in ‘national unity’ – since they dare from the Northern Province, move into, and settle among, Mende-speaking people in the South-East.  They are forcefully aware that whatever sales they make daily, whatever wealth they generate over time, is not much affected by  a Temne-man (or a  Mende man) being President. Their experience during our rebel war years between 1991 and 2000 taught them that any political convulsion would mean tremendous loss for them in their wares which would be looted, and the sales they would lose as they desperately strive to eke a living daily.  These Temne-speaking peoples ought to be the champions of social and economic growth and stability in Sierra Leone – for they have so much to gain when there is stability; and so much to lose when there is anarchy.

As I nudge you to confront and mellow down a national disease, it is my hope that you will make contact with me so that we can strategize.  Be warned!!  Those who belie the gravity of the tribal discord in Sierra Leone – in spite of the starkly polarized voting patterns in the country over the past fifty years  – must be nudged out of their frozen amnesiac thought patterns.  Those who forget history, please note, there are lurking dark forces among the Temne-speaking and Mende-speaking; and in 1967, 1977, 1997, there were sparks that could have led to full-scale civil war in our country. We should not allow tribal extremists, tribal jingoists among Temne-speaking and Mende-speaking peoples, to pour fuel on the embers of our tribal sentiments. We must energize ourselves through recognizing the strengths of each of our major tribal blocks.  There are, of course, strengths among the Mende-speaking people too. But, there is just so much you can write about in a single article.  That is coming later….  For now, I plead with my compatriots that all the developmental strides being made by President Koroma’s government – road construction; completion of the Bumbuna Hydro electric dam; billions of dollars investments by mineral mining companies; new banks, etc. – would be rubbished if we don’t learn to build on the strengths of the two major rival tribes, the Temne and Mende.

Oswald Hanciles, Freetown

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