The following recording is of the Wilberforce Public Lecture at the Guildhall, Alfred Gelder Street, Kingston-upon-Hull on Monday 24th October, 2005. The lecture entitled, “Challenges Confronting Democracy in Africa, the Sierra Leone Experience”, was delivered by George Coleridge Taylor who has spent his life working towards democracy in war torn Sierra Leone. His previous positions have included Acting High Commissioner during the Civil War of 1968-69 and Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Minds, 1984-86. At the time of this lecture, he held the position of Commissioner of the National Commission for Democracy and Human Rights.
[Applause]. Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the Wilberforce Lectures. It gives me great pleasure to introduce the Chairman of the Freetown Society, Honorary Alderman Dr Patrick Doyle, Member of the Order of the Republic of Sierra Leone. Dr Doyle. [Applause]
Deputy Lord Mayor, your Excellency, Mr Mayor, Councillors of Kingston-upon-Hull and Freetown, ladies and gentlemen, a special welcome to George Coleridge Taylor, and a little apology if I take some time over the introduction. It is for a reason. This is a Wilberforce Lecture, and very appropriate it should be given by someone from Freetown Sierra Leone. There is a co-supinity between the city of Freetown and Wilberforce, in so far as Wilberforce and his colleagues were instrumental in establishing the free colony of Sierra Leone in the late 18th century and, indeed, there is a village in Freetown called Wilberforce. And, shortly after that, one of the first governors of Freetown was another former Hull Grammar School boy, Perronet Thompson. But I want to speak for a moment about another link, and you’ll see the reason why.
The observant amongst you will notice that George and I are wearing the same tie, and that is because we were at the same college at Durham many, many years ago. So, my first memory of George is of a young distinguished orator who, within a few weeks of being at college, we elected onto the Durham Union Committee and later, before graduation, George became president of the Union. So he’s always been a good speaker, and he’s been an academic and a diplomat. But that link between Durham and Fourah Bay is important, because in those days Fourah Bay was a constituent college or affiliated to Durham. The degrees of Fourah Bay were Durham degrees, and amongst an older generation in Freetown they still speak about being of the Durham breed, meaning receiving a Durham degree.
Now, amongst the lecturers at Durham was one Leo Blair, and Leo Blair was instrumental in setting up the law school in Fourah Bay, which is one of the reasons why his son has taken such a close interest in Sierra Leone affairs. In the year 2000, Mr Blair was speaking in Hull, and during that time the then mayor of Freetown, Henry Ferguson, was with us, and regrettably a Yorkshire soldier had been killed in Sierra Leone and Mr Blair unscripted, realising that Mr Ferguson was present, spoke about this and said something I thought important at the time, that he would not stand by and watch the fledgling democracy in Sierra Leone die. And democracy is the subject of George’s talk tonight.
The last time I met George, he had a great shock of grey hair and a great grey beard. He looked, African style, a man of great wisdom, which he is. So I was surprised when I saw him yesterday shorn of his locks and shorn of his beard. I was happy when he said to my colleague when we were on a delegation to Freetown, pointing to me he said, “That man when he was young was a radical in Durham.” It didn’t take much to be a radical in Durham in the 1950s. And then he said, “He brought people like Barbara Castle to Durham,” which was true but, when Barbara Castle came to Durham, she came to speak to the Labour Club, which is true, but she spoke on behalf of the Movement for Colonial Freedom. Just think about that. The Movement for Colonial Freedom, Fenner Brockway’s organisation. Because when George was at Durham Sierra Leone was still a colony of Britain. It had not yet reached independence. This all hangs together, you’ll see in a moment.
Well, you see, the link between Hull and Freetown, which is why we’re here tonight in one sense and why we’re celebrating 25 years of the link, is such that those close observers of Sierra Leone scene realised that matters would implode unless something was done. Any observer of Sierra Leone affairs could see something was going to happen and, throughout the late eighties and nineties, some of us were writing to the then government, people like Baroness Chalker, pleading for intervention, pleading for help and assistance. We received the same message; the place is riddled with corruption, sort that out and we’ll help. Nothing was done and the inevitable followed. However, the Freetown Society even in the darkest of days, we still managed to get rice supplies into a rice kitchen in Kissy, we still managed to get medical supplies through Medicins sans Frontiers into the hospitals in Freetown even when the rebels were in part of the city.
And, when the new government came to power and decided to intervene, the then High Commissioner, Peter Penfold, who his Excellency told me was made a Paramount Chief, another subject George will refer to later on, Chieftains made him Paramount Chief for the sterling work he did in helping to restore law and order in Freetown and beyond. Peter Penfold came to Hull and met with John McSharry, who’s here tonight with myself to talk about Sierra Leone affairs. Such was the paucity of knowledge about Sierra Leone and the Foreign Office that came here and, to our surprise, a fortnight later we had a telephone call from what I used to call the War Office, Ministry of Defence, and two Military Intelligence Officers came out to see us to ask about Sierra Leone. Quite interesting that.
You see, George has lived through independence, he’s lived through multiparty democracy, a one-party state, military coups, military dictatorship, chaos, civil war, violence even in the heart of the capital, and lived to see the restoration of multiparty democracy. He’s seen it all. But he’s seen it through the eyes of an academic. He’s also seen it through the eyes of a diplomat, having been a member of the Sierra Leone Foreign Office and served as a Special Envoy and served with the United Nations. I haven’t told you what his special field of academic study is. He is a philosopher. A philosopher. So he brings the wisdom of Africa, he brings philosophy, he brings a wealth of experience as a diplomat, an envoy, and as an academic who is not retired – he tells me he’s returning to Freetown soon to continue lecturing at Fourah Bay.
And that was probably the reason why when they were looking for someone in Sierra Leone to head up the Commission for Human Rights and Democracy, to look at and explore reconciliation on the same model as Archbishop Tutu in South Africa, they turned to George Coleridge Taylor and invited George to act as Chairman of that Commission. That, I suggest tonight, is a measure of the man. A man who’s seen it all, lived through it and retained his integrity, retained his model integrity so that he was the man who was given the task of looking at that commission.
I say no more. I invite George Coleridge Taylor to address you on this important subject of democracy in Africa and, when he is finished, he’ll be pleased to answer questions on what he has said and also to answer questions on his role in charge of this commission looking at human rights and democracy in his country. It is my great pleasure to invite George to address you now.
Mr Chairman, your Excellency, the High Commissioner for Sierra Leone and the United Kingdom, your Worships the Deputy Lord Mayor of Kingston-upon-Hull and the Mayor of Freetown, honourable Members of the Wilberforce Committee as well as the Freetown Committee, distinguished – obviously distinguished ladies and gentlemen, please allow me first of all to acknowledge the very flattering, even if not completely accurate, introduction, generously but I’m sure genuinely lavished on me by the Honourable Alderman and Chairman of the Freetown Committee, Patrick Doyle. The generosity of his compliments certainly deserves my thanks. As he progressed, however, I have to confess I did pinch myself for reassurance because back home such copious compliments are reserved for the deceased at funerals.
Actually, Alderman Doyle, I was impressed by your discretion in not disclosing that I have upset the gender balance in my home country by adding nine daughters and no sons to the population. Happily my daughters have redressed the balance by bringing me sons-in-law, one of whom is here present accompanying two of my daughters. On their behalf and in my own name, I express sincere gratitude for the warm welcome and generous hospitality we’re enjoying as the guests of the municipality of Kingston-upon-Hull and the Wilberforce Committee. May I also use this opportunity to acknowledge publicly how gratified and honoured I am by this felicitous privilege of delivering the 2005 Wilberforce Lecture on the kind invitation, again, of the municipality and the Wilberforce Committee. I trust that as we proceed, if any variations should emerge in our perceptions of democracy, they will only help to strengthen the bonds of freedom that have always united our two nations and our two municipalities across cultural divides.
I shall be more than a little gratified if some of my ideas generate or revive some debate that will enhance our perceptions and understanding of democracy and the values that democracy may impart. In making this presentation, it is also my hope and intention to stimulate the interest and sympathy of friends and patrons in Britain, the world beyond, and not least my fellow compatriots. It is appropriate at this point to acknowledge with gratitude the philanthropic inspiration of William Wilberforce, whose lofty motivation for freedom, human freedom, resulted in the act banning the British slave trade. Not content with this achievement, he sought to ensure the safety of rescued victims by establishing the Province of Freedom, which covers present day Freetown and surrounding villages. His partners in this venture, Clarkson, Sharp, Fox, and Grenville also deserve our commendation, but it is mainly to his vision that we owe the Sierra Leone of today.
As a Commissioner for Democracy in the developing state of Sierra Leone, I’m aware that the reputation and image of my country between 1991 and 2002 were derived from its assassination of most of the attributes of modern democracy. The image that many of you may currently hold of Sierra Leone is one of a war-torn African nation devoid of humanity, where amputees bear the scars of political failure. It is somewhat inevitable, therefore, that my choice of topic for this lecture revolves around the theme of democracy in an African environment focusing on the Sierra Leone experience. I actually preferred democracy and an African culture, but it savoured too much of … philosophy and an African culture. I therefore settle for second best.
Challenges confronting democracy in Africa, the Sierra Leone experience. In the first place, although democracy has become a new household word in many societies across continents, there is an obvious need expressed in each of its contexts for further clarification to facilitate acceptance or rejection of democracy in its modern dress. Secondly, I would wish to show that some form of democracy predated the prepackaged variety now advertised, recommended, and prescribed as a universal panacea. It should be helpful to examine and explain the differences especially as a feature among the challenges, and to see whether it is desirable to marry the old and new varieties of the concept into a model of democracy that can be easily digested by African tradition.
The world we have inherited reflects such political and cultural diversity, economic inequity, and intellectual fervour that it is difficult to present any concept in a manner that will be uniformly understood and accepted universally. We may, therefore, start by clarifying the central concept in this presentation, which is democracy. When President Gorbachev veered hesitantly into the open society, he hardly envisaged a lock, stock, and barrel importation of American democracy. Similarly, President Museveni of Uganda, in embracing the new democracy, had to choose between democratic pluralism, liberalism, or no party democracy. In Sierra Leone, the native intelligence of our late President, Siaka Stevens, was never more vivid than when he tired to defend his one-party state by equating it with a democracy in which everyone was participating collaboratively rather than through confrontational parties. The obvious flaw in that presentation is that the collaboration was not voluntary but legislated and compulsory.
There is, of course, the Y2K version made in the new world, patented in Europe, highly priced, and equally prized, and advertised worldwide as a product of the global village with a harmless Irish claim that it, like Guinness, is good for you. Harmless, of course, until you imbibe too much in a distant Palaver Hut. Experience suggests that prepackaged democracy may be inappropriate. It is best unwrapped or adulterated to suit the local constitution and persuasively dispensed in order to be not just acceptable but even palatable. It may otherwise result in a convulsion and, even where the draft is home brewed, too much too soon can be lethal.
The French Revolution and the very local experience of Cromwell’s enterprise are, to my mind, obvious examples of important local medication taken in overdose. Although both events appeared to pursue the identical objective of eliminating aristocratic and olegatic rule, neither was completely successful in that sense, not until the current millennium house has apparently lost its political clout in England. As for France, it is difficult to see fraternity germinating from the guillotine. It is even more difficult to imagine pervasive egalitarian liberty flourishing in the fratricidal environment of the revolution. Objectivity and contextual realities, however, dictate caution in the rush to resolve in less than half a century some of the problems with which the more established democracies are still grappling after centuries of trial and improvement. Did it not take the British generations to grant women the vote? Well, within 44 years, Sierra Leone is already vigorously pursuing a 50:50 gender goal in virtually every social, political and economic department in governance. The Deputy Speaker of Parliament, a distinguished elected lady, acts as Head of State.
Another significant proof that democratic doctrines who are bearing early fruit was the slogan adopted by Bai Bureh, the Temne warrior for his hard tax war in 1898. No taxation without representation. Equally interesting where the perceptions of democracy arising out of that dispute. While the Creole sins of justice supported the slogan as a democratic magazine, the British Administration thought the Creole fervour was misguided by too much democracy. To quote from Governor Cardin’s dispatch of May, 1898, he was, and I quote, “Hampered with a large community of half educated people who have had free institutions given them which they cannot use aright, and the liberty of the press, which has degenerated into licence.”
He goes on,
“Freetown’s sympathy was openly expressed for Bai Bureh and his cause. Prayer meetings were ostentatiously held by the mammies, or market women, for his conversion, and the first of such meetings was inaugurated outside Government House.”
Freetown was a brand new settlement composed of disparate persons from diverse though related cultural backgrounds. A heterogeneous group of interests, bound together by the imperative of survival. For such a crowd to have built a city, organised a municipality however flawed, cultivated a transplanted religion to maturity in an environment already invaded by the powerful rival force of Islam, for them to have established a press free enough to be accused of license and for them to have imbibed democratic principles sufficiently to use them against their tutors, all these attest to the remarkable capability of that new breed, the new Sierra Leonean. Theirs is a potent mixture of receptiveness and innovation. In the context of our discourse, it also testifies to the fact that democracy of a sort had fallen on good ground in Sierra Leone over a century ago.
The agitation of the citizens including public demonstrations by the mammies, buttressed by a free press clamouring for the right of representation could well have been a story in today’s media. Bai Bureh’s rebellion indeed advocated two principles central to our modern democratic codes. These are, on the one hand, participation through representation and, on the other, responsible citizenship. After all, he did not oppose taxation but only taxation without representation. In the process of cultural or ideological interaction, dominant strains tend to influence the direction in which the weaker ones develop. The British influence within the province did not have a smooth ride, however, because one of the counteracting forces was the indigenous Eurova culture, robust and aggressive in its own right, but in Eurova tradition, culture embraced politics as well as religion and economics and, as the profile of that culture increased among the newly freed settlers, the stronger became their political resistance to management by the colonial rulers.
Taking a backward glance at their various backgrounds, we see a sound and solid system of traditional rule reflecting elements of the cultures represented in the province. The prevalent communalistic social system bonded the communities internally, although this was mostly on tribal grounds. The imperative of survival in hostile and unfamiliar territory, however, united the various groups by the familiar philosophy of united we stand, divided we fall. It is only fair to observe at this juncture that the resistance to colonial politics did not rise to the forefront until the merchants of the Sierra Leone Company, and eventually the British Crown, had succeeded the philanthropists. The philanthropists and the early settlers shared a mutual interest in survival against hostile tribes, unfamiliar territory, and limited resources. Democratisation was not a priority when the imported administration and the traditional system interacted initially because the democratisation process would have caused upheavals in the social, political, and cultural heritage of the transplanted immigrants sufficient to threaten the stability of the new settlement. Transplanting a new religious doctrine in the face of traditional belief systems and the Islamic foreigner was more engaging. The founding fathers of the province were, after all, evangelists with a primary mission of Christianising their flock.
In the realm of governance, the colonial regime was more concerned with peace, stability, and external trade and, since all policy emanated from abroad, provision was only made for the locals to be involved in administration for which sufficient training was provided to make them effective and efficient assistants. The complicating factor was that some of them, like the Nova Scotians, had already experienced foreign models of government, joined the freedom train to escape from slavery, were jealously guarding their new-found freedoms and were ready to experiment with new religions and administrative systems, which they hoped would influence the natives around, the hostile natives around as well as the overseas territories in the region from which many of them hailed. Because of their former exposure, they tried to blend tradition with new political system, which would not only facilitate administration of their small ethnic communities but preserve their ethnic cultures as well.
They formed the seventeen nations at grass roots level on the basis of immigrant groups, but this was an outstanding hybrid of the ancient and modern. Because they revolved around special cults and masquerades, however, the administrators were quite ungenerous with their blessing. As it happened, the emerging local aristocracy was equally disdainful. So much for the peculiar instance of an interaction between the colonial contact and an imported social construct of foreigners of mixed backgrounds simultaneously confronted with unification on the one hand and experimentation with governance on the other.
Traditional administration was retained virtually in tact with the colonial structure superimposed. The traditional African systems were largely uniform and consisted of hereditary chief … [unclear] succession. In its lifelong tenure, absolute power was tempered only by a benevolent paternalism, male hegemony and unbridled domination of women and children classified and administered as chattels by customary law complicated the issue. Within the court barry or palaver huts there were free and frank discussion, and it offered opportunities for critical comments but there was no formal opposition as decisions were consensual. Monitories and individuals would voluntarily conform and suspend their rights in the interest of the community, as without community their identity was incomplete. Transparency and accountability were a non-concept as the culture made no such requirements. Too much probing would erode the mystique of the ruler, such was the culture of the traditional political regime across the expanse of sub-Saharan Africa when colonialism reached its innocence.
Relying on Sierra Leone’s colonial experience and my personal involvement with all of West Africa and beyond, I am led to conclude that, with the possible exceptions of Tanzania which achieved independence without a struggle because of Julius Nyerere’s non-violent philosophy, and the Francophone territories like Ivory Coast and Senegal which were designated overseas France, the African colonies really wanted the colonialists to take leave so that they would revert to old familiar ways without interference. In any case, the colonial hiatus did little if anything to entice the colonists from their ancestral politics. Significantly, it failed to introduce them to democratic norms before presenting them with the package for application. Because they were left dangling between the familiar and the unknown, the easy choice was obvious, back to Methuselah.
To illustrate with a few examples; in colonial times there was no attempt to interfere with the hereditary succession of the permanence of the tenure, except in rare and extreme cases of dispute. Again, the practice of giving and receiving gifts officially was not interpreted as bribery or corruption. It was a traditional or customary protocol which everyone observed. Contribution to the communal pool was generally proportionate to earnings and voluntarily made and therefore disbursement, which was invariably at the discretion of the chief, raised no need for accountability.
The benefits of governance; work, food, shelter, education, were amply provided to meet the modest needs of an agrarian society of subsistence farming families. Polygamy and the extended family provided adequate labour and food for all. Education was transmitted through rights of passage in traditional societies. Health services were dispensed through the traditional medicine man and, since they knew no better, he was adequate for their needs. Besides, since most illnesses were attributed to spirit influences, there was little more to be expected or accomplished health-wise. All the same, health facilities were provided and those who were exposed made use of them.
In the area of human rights men, women, and children had their entitlements culturally assigned and communally accepted in a society firmly held together by communalism in which interpersonal or intra-group relationships provided the contextual framework for their world view and belief systems. Individual rights were secondary to the group’s welfare. Perhaps because they knew differently they wanted no more. If they were cursed at all it was through heritage and culture, which together induced voluntary compliance.
In the area of elections, access was restricted and participation was elitist. They were unfree, unfair, and certainly undemocratic. Politics were essentially consultative and consensual, facilitating tranquillity within communities but paradoxically instigating competition and inter-communal rivalry, jealousy, and conflict. The colonial regimes impacted only superficially on the psychological foundation of the traditional systems, and provided few practical examples to induce widespread or deep-rooted changes. Not only were the new settlers excluded from participation and decision making, but clear-cut residential and cultural suppression welcomed only a handful into an elitist foreign culture, which alienated them from their masses. So, how were they to practice the free and fair elections prescribed by modern standards? As for accountability and transparency, they were scrupulously observed by the colonial administrators, but only to the colonial headquarters and not to the local citizens. Again a glaring lack of practice for their successors.
On the vexed question of life presidency, hereditary life chieftaincy would require much more than a new constitution to expel the tradition. It is too firmly entrenched in the psyche, implanted by the fireside chat and the storytelling sessions. The palaver hut was the civil society legislature, small but all-inclusive. It encouraged conformity by the minority coupled with a respect for their rights and concerns. Checks and balances were in fact non-concepts since the chief combined in himself the duties of legislative executive and judicial leader. Emerging from this background of inherited culture and unprepared for the democratic exposure by the colonial experience, it is possible to explain and understand the similar postures of post-independence African regimes.
I hasten to say, however, that my presentation is not intended to offer any excuses for the present trends. It makes a strong case instead, first for adherence to contemporary norms with the same tenacity that the entrenched traditions inspired. Secondly, when past experiences are challenged by new regimes, together they present a stronger case for revisiting some treasured morals and their underlying assumptions. We may well discover that new lamps for old can be a profitable exchange. Moving from the colonial experience into independence and the modern era of global politics, the African constituency cannot even claim the inclusive certificate of participation, yet they’re expected to graduate. Well graduate from nothing into what?
What are the fundamental imperatives of modern democracy and how do they challenge the capacity and propensity of our leaders to respond positively? If we regard democracy as a way of life rather than its popular perception as a political ideology, we must admit initially that there are inherent difficulties in changing or modifying one’s way of life, especially one grounded and firmly rooted entrenched tradition. This is not an African peculiarity, but the relative exclusion of the Dark Continent has accentuated its conservative character. Preliterate and semiliterate societies are known to be particularly conservative in the sense of resistance to cultural change.
You may recall that I have referred earlier to certain major benchmarks which define a democratic culture today. Popular participation or government by the people is fundamental. Elections are widely accepted as a convenient mechanism of actualising it but, for the conservative African, it challenges the idea of hereditary succession. On balance, however, properly conducted elections provide opportunities for new and hopefully refreshing leadership particularly when the citizenry has been disenchanted. The people’s right to choose is thereby validated while the competition itself evokes new ideas on governance.
It is worth noting that in societies where literacy and civic education are yet to be developed, these gaps constitute formidable obstacles to political stability and national development across the African continent, and particularly in Sierra Leone, where for more than a decade education were put on hold to make room for a gruesome conflict. There has been a glaring need for human resource development through formal and informal education, skills training, and raising of civic awareness. Neglect of female education merely accentuated the problem. One of the most hopeful signs of our national recovery today is the robust ongoing programme known as Sababu, which offers girls free primary education while it aims at providing a school in every community nationwide. As a government initiative, it is highly commendable and addresses an important human rights gap in our democratic agenda.
As a challenge, human rights requirements extend beyond an agenda perspective, although the dimension of gender violence mostly against women, economic and social discrimination as well as political exclusion place the gender issue high on the list of democratic challenges. The same disabilities apply to the youths and children, as these groups are culturally regarded as goods and chattels in spite of their numerical predominance in our societies. It is gratifying that the human rights dimension is being addressed thanks to the actions of those affected in support of government’s efforts to effect legal, social, and other remedies. Sierra Leone, in particular, has established two separate ministries to cater for women and gender, sorry, gender and children as well as youth and sports.
As another item on the democratic menu, human rights can easily be perceived as an intrusive interference in the process of government. The prescriptions in international instruments like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW, the Convention of the Rights of the Child, CRC, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Bill of Rights and other related international covenants, these prescriptions often contravene customary laws, cultural practices, and even religious beliefs. Governments are then confronted by almost irreconcilable dilemmas, compounded by external pressures to conform or suffer economic depravation. This in turn incurs the wrath of the people.
Because the human rights problem invariably involve encounters with the law and the justice system, it is vital that the system be sanitised. The courts are, after all, put in safety valves for diffusing violent conflicts.
They are thus vital to the survival, security, and stability of the state. Meeting the challenge of injustice in a democracy requires:
a)education about rights and responsibilities,
b)insulation against temptation through adequate provision for the justice system, and,
c)equal access to justice for all.
Corruption is an obvious and primary choice when identifying issues of governance. For countries receiving aid, the twin requirements of accountability and transparency are paramount. Governments must be transparent as well as accountable to both donors and beneficiaries. Add to this the fact that in traditional rule these concepts were neither existent nor considered necessary and you have a new challenge. The first step in meeting this challenge is to recognise its devastating effects on development and on the lives of the citizenry. The strategy of name and shame only discourages the most sensitive potential offenders, but beyond this massive sensitisation is required to raise a corrupt-free society to whom corruption will be anathema.
Given the growing trend towards modern democratic principles and practices around the continent articulated mostly by the young and adolescent generation and the urban middle class, three rational inferences may be drawn. First that our traditional system of governance has been less than fully democratic. Second, that there is a conflict of values reflected in the competing perceptions through the generation gap, the older folk wrapped in nostalgic reminiscence over the days of conservative privilege and calm stability. The restless young, on the other hand, anticipating the changing scene, agitating for speedy succession, convenient constitutionary views, new men, new systems and a transfer of power without delay and, if necessary, without transition. I refer to transition as a process in which the old is not regarded for immediate replacement by new visionary structures, but one in which the traditional serves as a solid foundation for the construction of a new edifice. In making a case for transition, I am advocating for evolution in preference to revolution. This is an argument for partnership and building of bridges across ideological rifts and age divides.
A third inevitable inference is that a shift from traditional conservatism to a more liberal and open system of governance is not realising in our reincarnated nations. The evidence in support of this assumption is abundant and clear. The development is progressive and therefore to be welcomed, but if the strategies and the pace of change are unplanned, unrehearsed and too speedy, the result can be destabilising and even catastrophic. The process has begun in Sierra Leone, free and fair democratic elections, constitutional rule, governmental reforms, new revitalised security forces, a growing sense of patriotism, awareness in all sectors of the community of the human rights and civic responsibilities of the citizens, the revitalising of local government. Taken together, these testify to the palpable changes that are overtaking us, but it is not always like this.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, none would have dared to arrest a minister or dream of taking the government to court. Free political association and free critical speech were risks that few could afford to take. Corruption flourished unchallenged and unchecked, and these are safe and prudent not to insist on your rights or press your claims against certain categories of persons. It was easy for the older folk to accept such a situation because our traditions facilitated it. The absolute ruler was indigenous to our culture. It provided stability but opened the door to possible abuses. So also the hereditary succession as against a stipulated five-year term with a possible two term limit. The stark truth is that our traditional practices, especially the political context, did not prepare us adequately for the kind of democratic culture which we are now inheriting.
In order to substantiate this, let us briefly examine one or two major requirements of the democratic process, the modern democratic process, and compare or contrast them with the traditional system of our country and continent. My contention is that our traditional practices may not have been in complete consonance with modern democracy, but there was little to prepare them for the transformation. About a decade ago at the Wilton Park Special Conference and Good Governance in Africa, the following were listed as essential elements of good governance:
1.Multiparty democracy, implying a government and opposition established on the basis of free and fair elections
2.A non-political military
3.Freedom of the press
4.Protection of human rights
5.An efficient, transparent, and accountable public service
6.An enabling environment for private enterprise.
A vital component which looms large as an amazing gap is good citizenship. Because the all powerful traditional ruler symbolised a cohesive sense of community, little was done to establish the mechanisms and institutions necessary to sustain the honorary house democracy presented at independence. Consequently, the reversion to one party rule was virtually a psychological necessity, and no wonder it enjoyed almost total acceptance across the continent for the best part of four decades. Trapped in this parochial history on the one hand and spurred on by prospects of visionary liberalism on the other, the case for consultations and consensus in strategising our collective destiny derives new and compelling urgency. Fortunately consultation and consensus are integral elements in our traditional communalism.
While our traditional ruling systems did not provide for plurality of parties and a formal opposition, the colloquium in the palaver hut of Court Barry provided a heritage of exchanging opposing views, accommodating minority opinions and conducting community governance for communal benefit. It can only be hoped that in charting our way forward we can draw from this rich reservoir of accumulated experience. In our simple agrarian subsistence economies where exchange was dictated by a need, supply and custom, accountability and transparency were undebated values mainly because they were considered irrelevant. In modern trade and commerce regulated by complex theories and sophisticated accounting systems, precision in terms of accountability and transparency is of the essence. However, the open nature of customary transactions conducted under rules informally acquired and uncritically accepted by all might well be the exemplary guide in our efforts at transparency and accountability.
In a brief time-restricted presentation it is not feasible to cover adequately all the layers of comparison and connection between complex customs, traditions, and values on the one hand and the largely unfamiliar and untried descriptions of the modern democratic process on the other. Accepting the need for change is itself a challenge. The ultimate goal of a peaceful and stable democracy in Sierra Leone forged out of frank, sincere discussion and constructive planning is certainly worth the sacrifice of some traditions.
Let me now remind you of some of the cardinal values and rights that inform and animate our culture and traditions and which can beneficially contribute to the construction of a conceptual framework for remodelling post-conflict Sierra Leone. Respect for and acceptance of authority have sometimes been regarded as sycophancy or denial of the individual’s rights, but while its observance leads to stability and tranquillity, the breech only causes anarchy and eventually self-destruction alive in the well known phrase in philosophy that is nasty, brutish and short as a familiar outcome of anarchy. Kinship and the sense of communal belonging also distinguish the African, including the Sierra Leonean. Social scientists claim that the African fulfils his individuality as part of a community, therefore, he or she is willing to make considerable sacrifices for the survival and progress of the community.
Kinship is close, loving, caring, and supportive. The demands of the extended family, for example, are accepted not as a burden but as communal responsibilities, each for all and all for each. This quality of shared expectational responsibilities and commitment to a common civic cause if applied to the nation must constitute the ultimate in patriotism; caring for and sharing with one another. Our modern understanding of democracy revolves around good governance, which in turn promotes the management of the state and its institution for the benefit of the citizens. In the words of the motto of the Freetown City Council, salus populi suprema est lex. Loosely interpreted, the delivery of the goods and services needed by the people is the essence of democratic state craft.
Without development, of course, this obligation cannot be discharged and, since the needs gap is most crucial and glaring in most African countries, they are correspondingly in greatest need of development. Democracy and development are thus mutually supportive in so far as development increases wealth and opportunities for the citizens to provide a better life for themselves, whereas a stable and functioning democracy provides a conducive environment of peace and security for business confidence, which in turn facilitates investment and the production of wealth. Of course, economic activity is no longer an internal matter for any nation. The dynamics of infrastructure weaknesses, manpower depletion through AIDS, malaria and branding poverty compounded by the inequities of external trade and finance have internationalised salus populi for Sierra Leoneans. Economic democracy has brought in a whole new set of role players: the International Community of NGOs, donors, and other well wishers as agents in good governance. Without them survival is often problematic, and this has been particularly true of post-conflict Sierra Leone.
The flip side of this coin, however, seems equally problematic. They invariably come obsessed with esoteric interests, well intentioned but disparate, and frequently out of tune with local aspirations, traditions, and culture. The NGO factor thus becomes a psychological challenge, potentially destabilising.
A rationalising strategy by governments, therefore, is necessary for the following reasons:
a)to determine and prioritise the nation’s needs and values since it is governments, rightly or wrongly, who carried the blame for failure,
b)to compile and prune lists of agencies and align them to those needs, and
c)to supervise and monitor their operations. Furthermore, to preserve national sovereignty and encourage self-development, direct execution of projects must give way to national execution.
And, in case there are NGO members here present, I’d like to repeat that. Furthermore, to preserve national sovereignty and encourage self-development, direct execution of projects must give way to national execution. Ownership and direction of national development by government and the people will actualise the fundamental democratic principle of active participation. It facilitates also capacity-building and offers a chance of developing partnerships between government and private enterprise, as well as with external agencies. Partnerships are important to counteract the popular perception of democracy as a struggle. Its vocabulary suggests conflict and confrontation between civil society and government, opposition and government, employer and employee, the old versus the young, the judiciary executive and legislative locked in a struggle of checks and balances, with the media as hostile watchdogs over them all. Such perceptions flow often from distrust of governments which, unfortunately, are justified by past experiences.
There is a need to address the causes of this distrust, but frantic external efforts to establish civil society in its present form as a source of a new and alternative government ignores the fact that the existing ills are incubated within the same society from where they are injected to pollute the body politic and spread bad governance. On this theory, in order to remedy bad governance, we must also address its causes in civil society.
I would now like to recommend to humanitarian and other benefactor agencies to pay greater attention to and invest more in democratic citizenship, which I mentioned earlier, if their goals are to be achieved and sustained. Democratic citizenship entails love of country, respect for constitutionality, law and order, national symbols and institutions. It requires active participation in national affairs because it is based on a positive perception of the state and a genuine desire and effort to make its systems work. Democratic citizenship accepts its responsibilities with its entitlements, and cultivates a symbiotic relationship with government from which it hopes to benefit.
A democratic citizen is cultivated through changes of attitude from dependency to self-reliance, from welfare expectation to innovative entrepreneurship, creating private wealth but respecting the sanctity of public property. Above all, the democratic citizen is not solely concerned with his or her own rights but is equally committed to recognising and protecting the rights of others, thus renouncing the policy of exclusion. The resultant policy of inclusion facilitates and encourages partnerships in national endeavours and should be embraced. It bridges divides of gender, age, class or tribe, and is invaluable for uniting groups, not as a strategy for adversarial alliances but as a mechanism for collaborative pursuit of common national goals.
Adversarial exclusion saps the potential energy of developing states and, ironically, democracies provide fertile ground for such confrontational encounters. Democracies can be divisive, adversarial, and confrontational, and in the hands of an impatient, post-conflict population, as in Sierra Leone, full of distrust and high in expectation. The prospects could be explosive. Properly guided and cultivated, political partnerships unite government with civil society, public and private enterprises, majority and minority parties, civilians and the security forces, external agencies such as the NGOs with government, and the media in partnership with all of them for achievement of national objectives. Ideally this situation should reflect our traditional values whilst propelling us into a future of peace and prosperity.
As Sierra Leone moves from war through peace and democracy to development, let me use this opportunity to recommend to all role players the following:
As I conclude, fortuitously on this 68th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, which is today, there can be no more fitting celebration, no better way of saying happy birthday than by appealing to citizens and nations alike to inculcate a more visible democratic culture within their organisation. In the home, the nation, and the international community, may we all resolve to conflict resolution by the good old traditional African way of consultation and consensus. May the ideals of democracy find a conducive home and flourish abundantly in our various environments. While I recognise the pervasive disillusionment within many existing nominal democracies, I urge you to remember the many benefits that derived from the democratic culture and so hard won by so many. Democracy should be much more than a mere slogan, but for good measure let me leave you with one slogan: Let us endeavour to make democracy our way of life.
Mr Chairman, your Excellency, your Worships, distinguished hosts, and friends of Sierra Leone, for your patient attention and endurance, your hospitality and friendship, I say on behalf of all the Sierra Leonean visitors and in my own name, a very sincere thank you. [Applause]