Sierra Leone at 50 – How far, how near?
April 18, 2011 – Mr. President, SLAJ, Members of SLAJ, Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen, May I firstly take this opportunity to thank you and all your members for inviting me as one of your Discussants, thereby giving me the opportunity to speak to the People of Sierra Leone on this unique and historic occasion.
May I also extend to the President, The Government and the entire People of Sierra Leone hearty and sincere congratulations on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary [Golden Jubilee] of our achievement of Political Independence from our formal Colonial Masters, The United Kingdom on the 27th April 1961.
We achieved Independence peacefully, quietly, and without having to fight a war, after constitutional talks held at Lancaster House in London, England. I sometimes wonder whether the ease with which we did achieve Independence has affected the way we have conducted ourselves as a Nation since 1961. Of that, more anon!
Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, 50 years is a long time in the life of a human being, and using myself as an example, in 50 years from 1961 to 2011, I have metamorphosed from being a fresh-faced 14 year old schoolboy at the Prince of Wales School, full of hopes, dreams and plans at the time of Independence in 1961, to a 64 year old Grandfather uncertain about the future and wondering what will happen to this country in the next decade or two. It is an interesting coincidence that even before I received a telephone call from Mr. Umaru Fofana inviting me to do what I am doing now, I had decided to do an article to be published in the local press on the occasion of The Golden Jubilee of our Independence.
My decision to do so was ignited by something I heard over the BBC at about 5am on Sunday 3rd April 2011. As I lay on my bed listening to “The World Today” a news programme regularly aired over the BBC I heard General Sir Richard Dannat, the former Head of The British Army, who said he had just returned to Sierra Leone, describe SIERRA LEONE as “A wretchedly poor Country”!! Not a poor country, or even a very poor country – but “A WRETCHEDLY POOR COUNTRY.” I must confess that even though I believe the General meant no offence and was just speaking his mind, I immediately felt a deep sense of hurt, anger, offence, outrage and betrayal all rolled up together, not directed at the General, who had not very long ago contributed to saving our Country from disaster, but at ourselves Sierra Leoneans.
As a fiercely patriotic Sierra Leonean who prefers Sierra Leone to anywhere else in the world, I kept asking myself “Are we really a wretchedly poor Country? And indeed, after 50 years of Independence ought we to allow ourselves to be in a situation where we are perceived by others as “a wretchedly poor Country? After 50years of Independence with our own Countrymen and women superintending our affairs, ought we to be at or near the bottom of the Human Development Index? After much soul searching, I recalled to mind the immortal words of SHAKESPEARE’S Cassius in his play Julius Caesar, when he said,
“Men at sometime are masters of their fates; The fault Dear Brutus is not in our Stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
And that, Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, leads me to the core message of this my contribution today – Since 1961 we have been Masters of our Fate, but what have we done with our Independence, and what have we achieved since 1961? Undoubtedly, there are those who would disagree with me, and they are entitled to their own opinions, but in my respectful submission, we have done precious little with our independence, and we have achieved precious little since 1961.
OUR NATURAL RESOURCES:
Having regard to the description of Sierra Leone as a “wretchedly poor Country”, I now wish to take a brief look at our natural resources just to see why in my most respectful submission we ought not to be in a situation where anyone would even think of describing us as such. Sierra Leone is a relatively small country with a population of not more than Six million [6,000,000] people, blessed with abundant natural resources such as gold, diamonds, rutile, bauxite, iron ore and other minerals; we are further blessed with abundant marine resources such as fish, shrimps, crabs, lobster, etc; we are further blessed with a very rich soil and agricultural produce including Palm kernels, coffee, cocoa, piassava, ginger, etc. We can grow almost anything in Sierra Leone, including vegetables and fruits like cabbage and tomatoes, plantains, oranges, bananas and pineapples. We also have one of the best natural harbours in the world, golden sunshine all the year round, and refreshing rain for about half of the year.
SO WHAT IS WRONG WITH SIERRA LEONE?
And my honest answer is – “THE PEOPLE” – or maybe I should qualify that a bit further, and restate that to be, “THE RULING CLASS” from 1961 to now, and this includes both of The Political Parties who have ruled Sierra Leone since Independence. It has been a litany of “missed opportunities and misplaced priorities.”
It is my very carefully considered and researched opinion that in these past 50 years, we as a Nation [through the ruling class] have not harnessed our God-given natural resources for the full benefit of the People of Sierra Leone. What do I mean?
There was a time when we had The Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board, which was set up to buy produce from local Farmers and Cooperatives and EXPORT same abroad, with the foreign exchange coming back to us – what happened to it? It is said that it was sabotaged by the setting up of other Private Businesses to compete with it. Suffice it to say that as a Nation we no longer export produce and that activity is now in private hands with precious little benefit accruing to the people of the Country. There was a time when we had The National Diamond Mining Company [otherwise known as DIMINCO]; we had the Sierra Leone Selection Trust [SLST] – both engaged in the mining and exportation of diamonds – what happened to them? Well, don’t ask me, but suffice it to say they do not exist any longer, mainly because of the selfishness and greed of those who were supposed to be superintending our affairs as a Nation. When will Sierra Leoneans take full charge of our God-given natural resources, and when will we stop giving away our wealth in return for handouts from those who are always ready to exploit our naivety, ineptitude and inadequacies?
I submit to you Ladies and Gentlemen, that unless and until we as Sierra Leoneans decide to harness our own resources for the benefit of our people we will remain “a wretchedly poor Country”, going around the world with a begging bowl, leaving others to plunder our wealth.
To this End, I would recommend that the report of The Jenkins-Johnston Commission of Inquiry dated 17th March 2008 with particular reference to The Recommendations thereunder BE MADE PUBLIC, so that members of the Public will know what is available to the Government for the improvement of our situation so far as the mining industry is concerned, but on which NO ACTION has been taken so far.
I quote Recommendation 17 in full:
“We recommend finally that in all future policy decisions touching and concerning Mining of all types in Sierra Leone, it must always be borne in mind and must always be reflected in all concessions, contracts, leases, and licences granted to ANY PERSON to mine in Sierra Leone, that the precious mineral being mined, be it diamonds, gold or any other, BELONGS EXCLUSIVELY to the people of Sierra Leone present and future, and that the People of Sierra Leone are entitled to benefit from their God-given natural resource as much as possible instead of being handed a pittance from the minerals mined here, with the Investor carting off the Lion’s Share every time. There is need for a radical change of Policy in this regard.”
It is also well known and internationally acknowledged that Sierra Leone possesses substantial marine resources, which is why every night hundreds if not thousands of Poachers enter our territorial waters to steal our fish, shrimps, etc with no-one to stop them. Boats come here from as far afield as Russia, China, Korea, etc. to plunder our continental shelf and go away, while there is hardly any fish in the local markets for our people to eat. It is a well-known fact that those who are supposed to monitor such activities are often in the pay of the trespassers and criminals who even have the audacity to come here with factory-ships all of which operate to our detriment.
After 50 years of Independence, is it not time we take full charge of our resources and make sure our people benefit from them? Are we not tired of begging?
It is my submission Ladies and Gentlemen, that after 50 Years of Independence it is time for us to assert ourselves as a Nation, it is time for us to rely on ourselves and to stop crying down ourselves and our compatriots and to rely on Foreigners for everything. Every day you hear the Sierra Leone Ruling Class praying for and calling for ”INVESTORS”. – Investors are not Philanthropists but Businessmen, and they come here to make a profit for themselves and their Shareholders, not to help us solve our problems. There are a lot of things we can do for ourselves for which we do not need to rely on Investors, and it is my plea to all Sierra Leoneans on this day that we need to be self-reliant as far as possible. We need to believe in ourselves and to stop thinking that Foreigners can do everything better than we can.
Let me now look briefly at a few other areas where in my view we have not helped ourselves much over the years.
It is a well known fact that medical facilities in Sierra Leone leave much to be desired. I speak from personal experience as I had to rush out of the Country in January last year on the advice of my doctor for a procedure which is really quite a simple one but which was not available here, and as a direct consequence of that procedure I had to undergo a major operation immediately, and may have died if I had not been in a position to go to Britain.
After 50 years of Independence ought we not to have proper medical facilities in our Country? Nowadays you hear every other person with a medical problem going to GHANA for treatment. Ghana achieved Independence only 4 years before we did, but they have now left us far behind. With the very small population we have, coupled with the vast natural resources at our disposal, ought we not to be in a position to provide proper medical facilities in our Country? Quite recently, I know of someone who was rushed to the Connaught Hospital in the middle of the night, but there was not a single doctor available, and he had to be taken to a private doctor in his home for which service he had to pay quite a substantial sum of money. But what if he could not afford it? As we all know His Excellency The President launched Free Medical Care for Pregnant and Lactating Mothers and Children under 5 years – A most laudable venture indeed! But what is happening on the ground? Most of the time the medicines are not available and the women have to buy them outside the hospitals, which in my view defeats the intention of the Scheme.
That takes me back to the Shakespearian quotation that “the fault is in ourselves, and not in our Stars.”
There are many other areas I would have liked to touch on, but I think I will leave those for the discussion, – such as Education, the serious deterioration of standards in the Schools and Universities; the non-improvement of the Airport as compared to Banjul International, or Kotoka International, Accra, and Abidjan Airport; rampant corruption, and the lack of electricity and water supply in many parts of the Country not least in the Capital City, Freetown.
At Independence we had a functioning Railway from Water Street, Freetown to as far as Pendembu in Kailahun. Those among us who are old enough will remember that there was a railway track along the Street now known as ‘OLD RAILWAY LINE, TENGBEH TOWN” leading upto Hill Station, where the Expatriate members of the Colonial Establishment used to live. What happened to our Railway? It was phased out, for reasons which are not clear to me, thereby depriving ourselves of an excellent opportunity of transportation of People and Goods, especially produce from the Provinces to Freetown which has not been replaced. Another missed opportunity? Another misplaced priority?
When I started practice in 1974 there was Sierra Leone Airways which used to fly from Hastings Airfield to Bo, Kenema, Yengema and Bonthe. There was also the direct flight from Freetown to London and back, with Sierra Leonean Air Hostesses on board the Planes. What happened to all of that? Now there is absolutely no internal flight within Sierra Leone. At present People as well as Goods have to be moved by road ONLY, there is no transport by rail or by air. Another missed opportunity? Another misplaced priority? Far from making progress, have we not retrogressed and gone backwards?
There was a time when Fourah Bay College known as “The Athens of West Africa”. Classical Scholars among us will know that the name “Athens” signified the origin of knowledge, wisdom and enlightenment, which in turn tells you the kind of respect which was accorded to our Country at that time as it was not only the Headquarters of the Colonial Establishment in West Africa, but even after Independence Sierra Leone in the form of Fourah Bay College used to be a magnet to which Students from other West African Countries were attracted.
As a student at Fourah Bay college [which was then affiliated to The University of Durham,] from 1965 to 1969, under the enlightened leadership and direction of distinguished Scholars like Dr. Davidson Nicol; Prof. The Rev. Canon Henry Sawyerr; and my own Professor Dr. Eldred Jones, I know the very high standard of Education and Discipline that we enjoyed at Fourah Bay College, not to mention the available facilities like Constant Electricity and Water supply; three(3) Square Meals a day; a well-stocked Library, and the list goes on.
What happened to all of that? I need not tell you what is happening today because you all know. Poor Standard of Education, Examination malpractices, Cultism and violence on campus, etc. etc. Once again, what is happening to our “Athens”? Another missed opportunity?
In Conclusion, Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, my final message to all my compatriots on this Golden Jubilee of our Independence is as follows:
After 50 years of Independence, it is time for us to wake up out of our national slumber; It is time for us to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps; It is time for us to be self-reliant, to know what is good for us and to stop relying on Foreigners for everything; It is time for us to treat each other with respect, and to applaud the efforts of others and not to cry them down even when they are trying hard; It is time for us to ensure that we harness our natural resources to our full benefit and to stop allowing “So-called Investors” to take away our God-given wealth giving back to us only a pittance; It is time for us and for the Ruling Class especially to love our Country more than our pockets; It is time for Sierra Leone to take her place in the top half of the Human Development Index, alongside Countries like Malaysia and Singapore with whom we were once at par; It is time for us to stop being a “wretchedly poor Country”, and to stop BEGGING all the time; It is time for Sierra Leone and all Sierra Leoneans to work with sincerity and commitment for ourselves and for our children and grandchildren yet unborn. And it is time for us to stop attempting to reap where we have not sown.
HEARTY CONGRATULATIONS to all Sierra Leoneans on this our Golden Jubilee of our Independence, and may our eyes be truly open from this day forward! LONG LIVE SIERRA LEONE !
May God Bless all Sierra Leoneans! Thank you for your kind attention.
by J B Jenkins-Johnson Esq, Legal Practitioner
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