I gave instances of the behaviour of some of the rebel soldiers. One of them stopped for petrol, impatiently drew his gun and shot the garage hand. Others went to the market, fired shots in the air to cause the traders to flee in panic, then helped themselves to the money and wares that had been left behind. Some even went to an infants’ school by my office on the day of the shooting and seized the children’s lunch. Much of the world, I said, would rather see an Africa made up of fragmented states than a united continent.
“That is not what we the Africans want,” I declared, “We want to link up, and common sense dictates that we must link up so that when one is attacked the others will rise up to assist. Whether we are French speaking or English speaking, the sooner we link up the better it will be for all, Sir.”
I gave as an example the many different nationalities of the people who make up the great nation of America:
“If we believe that one hundred thousand Mendes, or two hundred thousand Limbas, or five hundred thousand Temnes can stand by themselves, we will only be fooling ourselves. We have to get together so that in case of any difficulty we will be able to call upon our friends to help us out.”
It was hoped, I said, that in time the Republic of Liberia would linkup with us so that we could begin to lay the foundation for a defence pact that would embrace the whole of West Africa.
Parliament duly ratified the Defence Agreement, but the Opposition staged a complete boycott. Both this and the criticism of the Defence Agreement by Albert Margai in London, showed up the obstructionists in their true colours and exposed their lack of sincerity, for it was in fact Albert Margai who first negotiated for a defence pact with Guinea in 1966. The negotiations took place in the house of a District Officer in Sefadu, but he neither sought nor obtained the full mandate of Parliament to ratify these. As I pointed out to Members: “Albert Margai started this business, and we continued it. And now he is jealous.”
Even with the valuable assistance that Guinea would provide under this Defence Agreement, it was clear to me that the future security of our country would depend more and more on the ability of every citizen to participate actively in defence. Government would never be able to provide sufficient funds to maintain an army and police force of the strength necessary to hold our own against an invasion of any size. In many countries a young man has to undergo a period in the forces, even in peace time, to train him to usefully serve his country if the need should arise. In the dangerous situation in which we were placed, I saw an urgent need for our men and women to be trained for defence.
As things stood, the very sound of a gun shot sent people flying off in all directions in utter panic. Nobody knew what to do and in the atmosphere of terror and disorganisation, an enemy would have no trouble at all in trouncing us. With a sense of discipline drilled into them, with instruction on how to use weapons, with a clear under standing of their duty in the event of an emergency, ordinary Sierra Leone ans would become a formidable obstacle for any enemy to reckon with.
With the army defused and defence provided for, we could turn to face the constitutional problem posed by the putsch. The Constitution had us hamstrung during the crisis. Whenever I thought about the desperation induced by hanging around trying to communicate with the Governor-General while bullets whizzed around shattering the glass and cracking the plaster, I had to call on all my resources of good honour to keep my temper. Even a Governor-General determined to oppose the coup atempt would have been powerless to frustrate it. He would have neither the stature nor the authority to command popular support. Only an elected Commander-in-Chief and Head of State would be in a position to defend democracy against any future revanche. In other words, the coup precipitated the need for a Republican Constitution.
Of course, we had long intended anyway to bring in a republic. Sierra Leone had been edging towards republican status since the mid- sixties. Popular support for republicanism was pretty well universal and the Fashole Luke Constitutional Commission was well advanced in its appointed task of public consultation to determine the most widely acceptable form of republican constitution. Now, however, the process, which we had been unfolding gradually, demanded urgent completion. We felt we needed a republic at once — even an imperfect one which would need modification after further public consultation. As it was, democracy lay exposed to the men of violence. By ushering in a republic at once, we could make Sierra Leone safe for democracy.
On January 25th, 1967, the previous S.L.P.P. Government hadgiven the third reading to a Republican Constitution Bill. The A.P.C., then in opposition, abstained from participating in the proceedings for reasons I have already given. We made it clear that we were in favour of this country becoming a republic, but we found it difficult to participate in voting for a Bill which contained a considerable number of obnoxious clauses which the then S.L.P.P. Government was unwilling to amend.
According to the law which then operated, the 1967 Republican Constitution Bill would have become an effective Act if it was passed at the first Session after the 1967 General Election. It was impracticable for this to be done. Firstly, there had been an interregnum caused by the military seizing power. Secondly, when the civilians ultimately resumed power in 1968, there were far too many more urgent matters to be looked into before the draft Republican Bill was voted upon.
After the 1968 civilian National Government was transformed into an effective A.P.C. Government, we gave serious consideration to the matter of transforming this country from a monarchy into a republic. We made known our intentions and gave everyone the opportunity of putting forward proposals. We would have liked to hold a general election before inaugurating the new Republic, but the emergency conditions of 1971 made it impossible. We decided to proceed to republican status by the fastest and most efficient route and then, with stability re-established, seek the approval of the electorate retrospec tively. Of course, we were quite willing to stand corrected by the people, though in fact, at the end of the day, our measures got massive endorsement Meanwhile, we made known our intention to Buckingham Palace and the British Government and were advised in due course that the Queen had approved the steps we proposed to take and would relinquish her functions as Head of State of Sierra Leone.
We all felt it was very bad luck that the emergency and general shortage of time forced us to fall back on the 1967 Republican Constitution Bill. We were fully conscious of the fact that it contained a number of undesirable provisions, but I made it clear that it was not our intention to retain these any longer than necessary. I assured the people that my government would not take advantage of the undesirable clauses and that we undertook, wherever possible, to allow these to lie dormant in the Republican Constitution until they would be replaced, in the near future, by a popular Republican Constitution.
Parliament met on April 15th to sanction the Constitution (Amend ment) Bill, 1971. Referring to the shortcomings of the Bill and its obnoxious clauses, I said that in spite of this, it was the opportunitywe needed and we were going to take it. I cannot say I was happy. To have to use a defective, secondhand Bill seemed to tarnish my dream of bringing to my country the full dignity and sense of independence that republicanism represented. I felt I was being forced to sever the last of our colonial bonds with a blunt blade. But politics is a practical craft, or it is nothing. I resigned myself to making the best of a bad job. It was still a great occasion, and a great stride forward for Sierra Leone.
With the amendments to the Constitution approved, one final act remained before Sierra Leone could move to a republican government, the adoption by a two-thirds majority of the House of the Constitution of Sierra Leone. The vote was taken at 12.57 p.m. and at 13.05 p.m. I rose and declared:
“It is my humble duty to announce to the nation that Sierra Leone is from this moment a Republic!”
The whole House, the Members on the floor and the people crowding the galleries, as well as the waiting hundreds packed tightly cheek by jowl in the precincts of the building, cheered and clapped, shouted, wailed and sang, embraced one another, wept and laughed, and fought feverishly to clutch my hand. ‘Shaki the hero!’ they yelled.
“Shaki the hero,” Unity reported, “was dressed in a light blue suit, with pipe in hand …“
Shortly afterwards the Acting Governor-General, Justice C. 0. E. Cole, was sworn in as the first President of the Republic and myself as its first Prime Minister. Two days later, on April 21st, I took office as the first Executive President and Justice Cole reverted to his substantive post of Chief Justice.
“My dear people,” I said, after being sworn in, “I pray God that I may prove worthy of the confidence which you have reposed in me by appointing me to this office. I shall keep in touch with you, the people, all the time because I know that if I keep in touch with you I shall be on the right road.”
I told them that in our changed constitutional position, as indeed in the past, only the wicked and the trouble-makers had need to fear, those who kept on the right side of the law and worked for peace had nothing to worry about and would receive every encouragement and protection from Government.
“We thank all our friends who have helped us up to now and especially the British Government and people with whom we have had close ties for over a hundred years. We mean to remain in the Commonwealth and we mean to establish new contacts and to make friends with all those who want our friendship and treat us on the basis of respect and equality.”
As a republic, Sierra Leone could now well and truly say and mean that she was going to pursue a policy of non-alignment, I said. We lacked sufficient know-how and capital for development and were therefore determined to give every encouragement to those who had these commodities to offer us.
In a later broadcast on the tenth anniversary of Independence, April 27th, I explained in greater detail what the changeover to republican status meant. Although Independence ten years ago released us from the rule of the imperialists, I said, it still left our country under a colonial constitution. Our Head of State remained in London; all our overseas diplomats represented the British Queen and Sierra Leone was the last country in Africa tied to the British monarchy. I declared that it was through no feeling of disrespect for the Queen that we decided to change to a republican constitution, that she remained Head of the Commonwealth, that we intended to continue our Commonwealth membership and gladly acknowledged her as the symbol of Common wealth unity.
“But we believe that the dignity of Sierra Leone demands that all the institutions of government in this country should be in the hands of Sierra Leoneans and based in our country, that our Head of State be a Sierra Leonean elected by those who represent the Sierra Leonean people.”
Parliament had done me the honour of electing me as Executive President for the next five years. It had decided that it was more important to have a President who was working directly in Government for the good of the country than simply a President who appeared only on ceremonial occasions. As President, I said, I was also Commander in-Chief of the Armed Forces. Every member of the army from senior officers to the most junior recruit now owed his loyalty to me as the representative of all the people of Sierra Leone.
“The task of that army is to defend the State and Nation of Sierra Leone under its duly elected Government. This,” I declared, “is a task which I, as Commander-in-Chief, will ensure is carried out by the armed forces.”
I assured the people that the change in Constitution did not endanger any of the democratic rights which we in Sierra Leone had been proud to preserve.
“I have been elected as President for five years,” I said. “The present Parliament will complete its term of office in 1973 when the next parliamentary election will be held. You will therefore continue to be represented by a government each one of you has helped to elect. Our system of justice, which protects the freedom of each individual, will be maintained as before. We also have a Vice-President, Mr. S. I. Koroma, who is also Prime Minister. He will lead government business in Parlia ment, but I as President shall remain the Head of the Cabinet and the Government.”
The Government, Ministers, Members of Parliament, civil servants, public officials and armed forces had, I said, been elected or appointed to serve the interests of every citizen of Sierra Leone, irrespective of tribe or class.
“They are the servants, not the masters, of the Sierra Leone people. We are all in office not for the sake of our personal ambitions but in order to make this a better country to live in.
We are your representatives. We must devote ourselves to the public welfare, not to private careerism. We must set an example to the whole nation by living humble lives, leaving the money-making, property-owning, big houses and cars to those private businessmen whose ambition it is to become rich. We are elected and paid by the ordinary people of Sierra Leone, entrusted with the responsibility of leading them to a better way of life. We must show that we are fit for this responsibility.
• . . Let us build our new Republic of Sierra Leone into a nation worthy of its people,” I declared, “worthy of taking its place in the new progressive continent of Africa.”
When I accepted the office of Executive President, I swore that I would faithfully and truly discharge the duties of the office of President of the State of Sierra Leone according to law and that I would support and uphold the Constitution of Sierra Leone as by law established.
I doubt if anybody who has not themselves held such high office really appreciates the weight of responsibility that falls on the shoulders of a Head of State. Whatever action you take, whatever decision you arrive at, whatever words you utter outside the intimacy of your own home, can affect the lives of every man and woman in the country. The first thing I had to learn to do, therefore, was to draw a very definite line between Siaka Stevens the man and Siaka Stevens the President, so that the very human emotions of the first did not at any time encroach upon and influence the bounden duties of the latter.
This in no way means that I believe a President must aim to become a heartless machine. He is very much a human being and must needs always remain so. But there are times when I have been faced with the most appalling issues requiring my decision, when pressure is brought so strongly to bear on my personal feelings, that it would be only too easy to shirk the duty of the President according to the law and to allow the actions of the man according to his sentiments to take over.
One case in point was the death sentence passed by the Court Martial on Bangura and three other officers as a result of their part in the abortive coup. I am fully aware that many people were shocked when these sentences were carried out and that even today, much speculation goes on as to what prompted me to allow the law to take its course. There is even a fantastic rumour circulating that I had actually decided to commute the sentences to terms of imprisonment but that certain strong party members had forced me to change my mind. Let me put the record straight here and now. No single person, nor even the demon strations in favour of the death sentence that filed through the city, had any influence whatsoever on the action I was obliged to take. For me it was a dreadful act. I had to wrench myself out of my own character.
I had to shed all the personal feelings and sympathies and emanations of spirit which had accumulated in my own progress as a human being and, in particular, in the course of my acquaintance with the condemned men. But it was not in a personal capacity that I was asked to sign the death warrants. I still felt the moral responsibility in a deeply personal way. But I was able to act out of a sense of duty to my office. The limits of the law very properly restrict the power of a democratic head of state, but — thank God! — they also help him do his duty.
To view the whole thing dispassionately, and leaving personalities out of it, these officers were out to get rid of me not because I was a man they disliked called Siaka Stevens, but because I headed a government which they, or their backers, wanted to oust. Because of their actions, several people lost their lives and the Constitutional Government was all but overthrown. They were tried, found guilty of a crime punishable by death and so sentenced. The sentences were passed on to a Committee on the Prerogative of Mercy which recommended that the law should take its course.
These recommendations were then referred to me as Head of State for confirmation or otherwise in the normal way. I confirmed them not in my capacity as Siaka Stevens the man, the injured party and one-time friend of the chief accused, but as Executive President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, of the nation whose people I had sworn to serve. The peace and security of that nation had twice been threatened in the short space of five months and it was my solemn and avowed promise to the people to do all in my power to guard against any future attempts of this kind. There was no question where my obligations as President lay.