One of my proudest moments was when I received my honorary D.C.L. from the University of Sierra Leone. I know a lot of honours are empty but there are others which can mean a great deal to the individuals who receive them, either because they are the landmarks of life or because they commemorate efforts and achievements which are important in themselves.
I’m not a man to overvalue paper qualification tions. I’ve known too many good men and women who made do without them and achieved great things for their families and their country. Nor do I greatly favour intellectualism for its own sake; I’ve fought all my life for democracy in Sierra Leone and do not ever want to see it replaced by technocracy.
All forms of elitism are dangerous and educational elitism has little more merit than any other kind. But education itself is a precious thing to me. I love learning with the sort of pride of possession we reserve for the things we get the hard way. I believe education will help transform the future of the people of Sierra Leone for the better. And like most people who did not get the chance to go to University, I am fascinated by the academic world and treasure the short experience of higher education I was eventually able to enjoy in Oxford.
On a personal level, the honour the University of Sierra Leone granted me commemorates the sacrifices made by the people back home to enable me to become the first member of our family to receive any formal education. On a broader plan, the Doctorate of Civil Law is an emblem for me of the chance I have been given to contribute to the history of the government of my country. It was not, of course, just a personal honour. It was the University’s tribute to what the A.P.C. Government was doing for Sierra Leone, particularly in the educational field. A milestone in the history of Sierra Leonean education had been passed on February 12th, 1969, when the University formally came into being with the fusion of its two older constituent bodies, Fourah Bay College and Njala University College. My degree was granted at the first Congregation; so it was also a gesture of salute from the new institution to mark its foundation.
Fourah Bay college was founded as long ago as 1827 by the Church Missionary Society for the purpose of training teachers and missionaries. It has a long and illustrious history and has been a profound source of inspiration not only to Sierra Leoneans but to our neighbours in West Africa. Yet up to a few years ago most of our undergraduates opted to read law and medicine, particularly the former. In fact there are so many lawyers in Sierra Leone today that I sometimes marvel how they all manage to keep in business! A certain snobbery used to attach to these two professions; however mediocre their performances might have been, lawyers and doctors were placed rungs higher on the social ladder than the most skilled technicians or teachers.
It is only comparatively recently that the message seems to have got through that, if we are ever to acheive economic independence, we must have our own scientists, engineers, agriculturists, architects, chemists, laboratory technicians and men and women in all branches of technology. In this day and age, society has come to rate a man according to his expertise and the size of his contribution towards his country’s economic progress, rather than by the eminence of his forebears, his faultless diction, his social graces and manicured finger nails. Intellec tual snobbery is often used to mask a lack of real understanding. “Blessed is he that knows that he doesn’t know,” I said at the inaugural dinner of the Association of Technologists in December, 1968.
For several years pressure had been brought to bear on Government to found a new college in the Provinces to provide a more down-to-earth education than that provided by Fourah Bay College; which was beginning to be regarded as an ivory tower, out of touch with the hard realities of the nation’s most urgent needs. What was wanted was an institution offering technological and agricultural education which would produce manpower capable of undertaking the transformation of rural Sierra Leone. It was with this objective in mind that Njala University College was eventually established in 1964.
The symbiosis of Njala and Fourah Bay in a national university and the award of my Doctorate gave me a chance to reflect on education and also, because the D.C.L. is a degree with which universities generally honour practicioners of the art of government, about the principles on which I would continue to act at the head of my country. I had been thinking about these things for a long time, but I did not want my thoughts to crystallise into dogma. I did not want my reception into the groves of academe to turn my head and make an unlikely ideologue of me!
Education has always been of deep concern to me and the longer I live the more conscious I am of how little of the vast resources of knowledge available to mankind I have been able to tap in spite of my avidly searching mind. I have the greatest respect and admiration for true scholars, those men and women whose minds are absorbed in productive thought and ideas, who seem unaware of their outstanding scholarship and who, because of their natural intelligence, are above the petty jealousies and rivalries of so many of the so-called intellectuals. To my mind, a man should regard his education as a tool not so much for furthering his own personal ambitions, but rather for use in benefiting the community in which he lives. As W. and A. Durant so aptly put it in their book The Lessons of History: “Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment and enjoyment of life.”
That is why I have always tried to use my influence on educational policy not only to make our schools more numerous, more widely accessible, better staffed and better equipped but also more socially useful. This means a practical curriculum of the sort reformers were already advocating in my childhood and which was to some extent applied in the Albert Academy. We need to stress most and develop most the skills which will help build up sufficiency and prosperity for our people in the coming generations.
The emphasis on the practical is also at the heart of my political philosophy. “Dis nor to question of book, nar sense,” I have often said to people who have brought their problems to me. If Sierra Leoneans and Africans generally have a characteristic genius, it is a talent for pragmatism; a way of evolving the best means for ajob within the available resources. We construct our solutions on the basis of experience. We are prepared to modify or transform them as necessary. We are not an ideological people by nature and by and large foreign ideologies have borne scant fruit in African soil. I acknowledge my own broad allegiance to some very general political, social and economic doctrines — to democracy, to socialism, to pragmatism, to utilitarianism— but I have always tried, never to be a slave to dogma and I subscribe to these schools of thought only because — and only as far as they seem to me to correspond to common sense.
During the term of office which began in 1968, I hoped that we would establish the national consensus that had eluded Sierra Leone for so long. Perhaps it was naive of me but I hoped my own political philosophy of pragmatism and open-mindedness would give everybody a chance to contribute constructively to national life and that we could satisfy every reasonable point of view. I forgot that some people are in politics purely for the naked pursuit of power and will never be satisfied even with the most broadly based policies unless they have direct access to power and privilege and patronage themselves. I failed to reckon adequately with fanaticism, which no pragmatism can ever reconcile. And I had no adequate formula to overcome the triablism that so eroded our national morale. The result was that my Premiership was scarred by bouts of opposition violence despite my search for consensus policies. More than once, my life was in jeopardy. More than once I narrowly escaped assassination.
The essential background which makes these terrible events s is Sierra Leone’s gradual progress towards republican status. When Albert Margai attempted to force a republican constitution on Sierra Leone in 1967, he was rejected by the whole country because the people were simply not ready for it, and it was mainly for this reason that I opposed him at the time. By 1970, however, more and more of the people began to speak in favour of a republican form of government. Those of us who represented our country abroad often suffered serious embarrassment at international gatherings by reason of our continuing to have as Head of State a representative of our former colonial masters. National pride was also stung by the humiliation of having to submit papers to a foreign monarch for approval and signature, and by the fact that ambassadors accredited to our country, as well as our own envoys sent abroad, had first to be sanctioned by the British Queen. Was this, people began to ask, true independence? When our sister state, The Gambia, became a republic in April, 1970, it seemed to crystallise opinion. It was the general feeling that if we did not follow suit at an early date we would become a backwater among the progressive African states.
“Of all the African states which have gained their independence within the last ten years,” I declared at our third Party Convention in May, “only Sierra Leone still retains elements of the monarchical system. I do not propose to go into the reasons why former governments of Sierra Leone did not move over to total independence. Suffice to say that it is for us to make the decision here and now.”