Through the Wages Board, my union work took me straight into the political world and the national arena. I came to understand politics as an essentially practical discipline. I learned not to see economics in isolation, but in a broad context of nicely balanced political interests. I became an initiate in the mysteries of confrontation and negotiation, diplomacy and compromise. I got a bird’s eye view of the late colonial political world; I could see the divisions, the difficulties and the options. But the Wages Board, although much of what it did was effectively political, was not an explicitly political organ; nor did it cover the whole range of politics — particularly of mass politics and the politics of national and African liberation, in which I was becoming increasingly interested, increasingly involved. The British Empire was puffing and wheezing its way to decrepitude like an old man running after his hat. Its frayed bunting was caught by the first winds of change. I found myself in the eye of the wind.
In Sierra Leonean terms, this meant being part of Protectorate politics. The neglected majority of Sierra Leoneans in the hinterland of the country were beginning to kick, not just against British mastery but also against the relatively over-privileged status of the coastal Colony area. Tribal antagonism was always just below the surface, and sometimes it broke through to make fissures in Protectorate unity; there was a quasi-tribal element in much of the resentment felt — most of it for no good reason — between the various communities of up-country men. But the crucial issues among Sierra Leoneans were between Colony and Protectorate; issues of how the balance of resource allocation was to be reconstructed to give the Protectorate a fair deal; how political representation was to be divided between Colony and Protectorate in the coming sub-colonial phase of Sierra Leonean history; how power was to be wielded between the two historic communities as independence approached.
My background had made me completely objective where tribalism was concerned. It also gave me a sense of belonging in both Colony and Protectorate. I sympathised with Protectorate aspirations notjust out of regional chauvinism, though I was conscious of being an up-countryman by parentage and birth, but out of a straightforward sense of justice, fortified by political pragmatism. It was a plain fact that the Colony was over-represented in such institutions as the British allowed us. It was a plain fact that the Colony had got the lion’s share of the meagre development the country had enjoyed under British rule. It was equally palpable — at least to most of us in the ‘thirties and ‘forties — that the future of Sierra Leone lay with all Sierra Leoneans. And the people of the Protectorate formed the vast majority. They simpiy had to be brought into the political process if we were to confront the British in unity and get the chance to build a democratic and developed society in the future.
I had got to know the Creoles’ special sense of identity pretty intimately as a small boy. I had come to terms with all the little difficulties of living among them and now felt as much at home in Freetown as in Gbonjeima or Moyamba. It had been tough work adjusting to the diversity of backgrounds I had been exposed to as a child but it gave me a tremendous depth of perspective in beholding my homeland. I think I was lucky to be a member of a fairly small group in the first generation of my countrymen really to feel what it was like to be a Sierra Leonean in the fullest sense; not primarily or solely a Creole or a Protectorate man or the member of a tribe. I used whatever influence I had with friends in Freetown or up-country to make them see Sierra Leone as a national entity. And I found there were many Creoles who saw and welcomed the practical necessity of sharing their destiny with the rest of us.
Even so, with so many conflicting tendencies at work, even the most far-sighted of us knew that national unity would take a long time to construct.
The real work went on underneath the institutional super structure that was gradually taking shape, at a moral and pyschological level, but it is only possible to chart the progress of the institutional revolution. I had a part in the first stage of this: the erection of the Protectorate Assembly. Like the Trade Union Ordinance, this was conceded by the British in response to popular pressure, not out of altruism but out of the necessity imposed by war. In 1944, Governor Sir Hubert Stevenson drew the attention of the Legislative Council to the disproportionately high representation of the Colony vis-a-vis the Protectorate. Everyone was well aware of this already, of course, but it was a convention of colonial government that the Governor’s initiatives were always invested with a spurious air of novelty. The following year an attempt was made to rectify the situation first by the creation of a District Council in each of the 13 districts in the Protectorate, and secondly by the establishment of a Protectorate Assembly of 42 seats which was to advise the Colonial Government on all Protectorate affairs.
The District Councils comprised two representatives from each chiefdom In the district, one of whom had to be the Paramount Chief and the other a member of the chiefdom appointed by the Tribal Authorities over which, of course, the chiefs wielded great influence. The 42 seats in the Protectorate Assembly were allocated as follows:
26 for the representatives of the 13 District Councils (which, in fact, were all held by chiefs), 10 for official members (British Colonial officials headed by the Governor) and six nominated unofficial members, four of whom were to be African. As Secretary General of the Marampa Mine Workers’ Union I was nominated to one of these unofficial seats to represent the workers, or, in official jargon, “re presenting interests not represented on District Councils”.
As can be imagined, the four small voices of the unofficial Mrican members, the only people in the whole Assembly who truly represented the interests of the under-privileged masses, stood a pretty slim chance of making themselves heard or of achieving anything that was not in the interests of the Colonial officials and the 26 elected chiefly members who supported them. The establishment of the Protectorate Assembly certainly brought the different tribal chiefs together, which was an achievement for the Colonial Government and roundly applauded by the chiefs themselves, but the Assembly as constituted was far from being the representative body that we had been agitating for. In creating it the Colonial Administration had failed to take into account the changed relationship that had developed since the war between the new educated element and the chiefs. No longer did the Protectorate people automatically accept the chiefs as their spokesmen.
With education and the spread of progressive ideas, many of us recognised the handicap of relying on what boiled down to yes-men of the Colonial regime acting on our behalf. The time had come when those of us who understood the true needs and aspirations of the masses, who lived and worked in close contact with them — who, indeed, were of their number but who were educated enough to negotiate terms on their behalf — should do so directly and have the courage to present their case as it existed, without any apologies, embellishments or side-tracking, however much it displeased the authorities to hear it.
Our persistent agitation for more realistic representation naturally angered the Paramount Chiefs who were understandably jealous of their traditional rights as unquestioned rulers in their provinces. That a group of men should emerge among their subjects whose progressive ideas threatened to undermine their authority was dangerous enough. That those men sought to voice such ideas personally, as representatives of the people in the Assembly, rather than let the Paramount Chiefs speak for them in the customary manner, struck at the very roots of traditional chieftaincy and was something totally unacceptable to them.
Chieftaincy has played and must continue to play an important role in African life, for it is part of our tradition and the very basis of our society. In the past it was the chiefs who kept law and order among their subjects, who administered justice, meted out punishment and established a code of behaviour. The Colonialists did as little as possible to interfere with the status of those chiefs who showed a willingness to co-operate with them. They respected them and handled them with kid gloves, for it was very much in the interest of peaceful and effective government to have them as allies.
The chiefs could be relied upon to carry out government policy, for they knew that however little their traditional authority may have seemed, on the face of it, to have been affected by the advent of the Colonial Government, that Government would not hesitate to remove any chief who worked against it. So it paid both the chiefs and the Colonialists to rub along together, and the Colonial Government was as disturbed as the Paramount Chiefs when the educated minority threatened to change the old order of things.
But for the war, no doubt this young and progressive element would have been put smartly in its place, but the time had come when the Colonialists could no longer afford to turn a deaf ear to reason, from wherever it came, and when the chiefs, if they hoped to survive at all as rulers, would have to adjust themselves to a changing society.
Unfortunately for the chiefs, the backing they had relied upon for so long from the Colonial Administration was showing definite signs of sagging. They knew they stood a poor chance of holding out alone. For a time they tried, desperately hard, and the gap that resulted between them and the educated element became so wide that at one time it seemed that reconciliation was out of the question. Eventually, of course, they had to come to terms with reality. With the awakening of political consciousness among the masses and at a time when the tendency was to kick against authority in general, to have obstinately clung to an out-dated system would not only have exposed the sterility of chieftaincy, but have invited disrespect and even ridicule from the people.
On the other hand, to combine their great knowledge of traditional matters and the innate wisdom passed down to them from their ancestors, with the modem-type wisdom, acquired through improved educational facilities, of specialists in technological, scientific, eco nomic and political spheres who seek to develop a nation, is to enrich our heritage, to enhance progress and to make for national stability. So long as chieftaincy operates as an arm of the national government, projecting that government’s policy and undertaking at local level the settling of disputes, advice on problems and the general promotion of peace and harmony among the people in its provinces, it cannot fail but provide a most valuable and welcome service to Sierra Leone.
As far as the youth of today is concerned, there is a tendency the world over to reduce everybody to one level, to knock the pedestals from under the feet of traditionally respected and revered personalities and to regard as passé and archaic a preference for old-established and well-tried principles. I hope this is a passing phase; if not it is a tragedy. To belittle those in positions of authority, be they parents, teachers, chiefs or Heads of State, is to belittle one’s own self to a degree where one’s very soul is relegated to the gutter. Fortunately for Africa this anti-social trend has not as yet gained much ground among our youth and lam sure that the traditions of chieftaincy that played no small part in our children’s formative years have done much to preserve our sense of value and respect for our elders.
We, the youth of yesterday, had no intention of belittling or undermining the chiefs of the Protectorate when we insisted on a more realistic representation of the people. We were most anxious to work in harmony with them, but we could not afford to humour them at the expense of progress. It was in an effort to shorten the gap that had developed between us, to work for a united and progressive society of chiefs and people in the Protectorate and, at the same time, to continue to agitate for fairer representation, that I helped to found the Sierra Leone Organisation Society (S.O.S.) in 1946. That same year saw the revival of the Protectorate Educational Progressive Union (P.E.P.U.) which had become inactive several years after it was first formed in 1929. The aim of the P.E.P.U., which was founded and financed by chiefs, was to spread education in, and generally work for the progress of, the Protectorate. These two organisations having similar aims and embracing both the educated element and the chiefs of the Protectorate, did much to draw the two together.
Membership of the Protectorate Assembly had made me a politician ‘and no bones about it’. As with the Wages Board, it was from the jetty of trades unionism that I had been launched on the ocean of national politics. It was a new and heady experience to have a whiff of direct responsibility for the long-term future of my country. I could not let that opportunity slip. No man with any guts or gumption could. My participation in S.O.S. was an attempt to make something of my chance, to create an organisation that could formulate long-term objectives and campaign effectively for them. It was more than a lobby, it was a pressure group. It was more than a pressure group, it was a proto-party.
In the S.O.S. we lost no opportunity to keep the British Government au fait with Protectorate affairs. We pointed out that the common people of the Protectorate, as taxpayers, should be entitled to even more representation than the natural rulers of the country and that we objected to tile monopoly of representation which the chiefs held in the Protectorate Assembly and elsewhere. We proposed that in the reconstituted Legislative Council which was being contemplated, each Province should be allowed to elect at least two persons from among the progressive and literate element to represent their interests in that decision-making body, and that these elected members should auto matically become members of the Protectorate Assembly. As a result of our agitation, some concession was granted us when in October, 1950, the representation of the educated elite in the Protectorate Assembly was increased to six seats.
With the people of the Protectorate now asserting themselves and demanding more and more say in national affairs, it was clear that revision of the existing constitution was necessary in order to meet the requirements of the situation. Proposals for this revised constitution were formulated by the Governor, Sir Hubert Stevenson, and published in October, 1947. These provided for a total of 24 seats in the Legislative Council, 14 of which were to be held by Africans, to be composed of eight official and 16 unofficial members with an African majority of fourteen against two within the unofficial majority.
Of the 14 Africans, four were to be elected directly by voters and represent Colony constituencies, nine were to be chosen from among the elected District Council members of the Protectorate Assembly and one from among the African nominated members of the Assembly. In view of the fact that the Paramount Chiefs dominated the Protectorate Assembly which was to nominate the nine Protectorate members to the Legislative Council, it was pretty certain that those nine seats would be filled by chiefs or their reliable conservative supporters.
If only the Colony elite could have swallowed their pride, animosity and suspicion, if only the Paramount Chiefs could have overcome their eagerness to please the Colonial Government, in short, if only both parties had put the interests of the country before their own personal concerns, what an opportunity was afforded them, through the proposed unofficial African majority, to work as a united front for our early political independence. But alas, the carrot that was so temptingly proffered rotted before their very eyes, for neither was brave enough to grab it himself, humble enough to assist the other in reaching for it, nor far-sighted enough to recognise the mutual benefit assured them if they approached it hand in hand and shared the eating of it. However good the proposals looked on paper, therefore, the position would be little changed in practice and the Colonial officials, faithfully supported by the Paramount Chiefs, would still reign supreme in the new Legislative Assembly.
But in spite of this, most of the people in the Protectorate welcomed the proposals, for they saw in them at least a step in the right direction. It was better to have a more proportionate representation by our own people, even if this was not yet by direct franchise, than to suffer the humilitation, frustration. and injustice of our affairs being handled by those in the Colony whose only interest in us seemed to be in delaying for as long as possible the day when our people would claim their rightful heritage and take their places in the political, professional and administrative arenas which had for so long been denied them. The new progressives in the Protectorate, of course, would never be content until universal adult suffrage was introduced into all parts of the country and members of the Legislature truly represented the common people; but in the meantime our main concern was to see that the precious bit of ground we were likely to win if the proposals were enacted did not grow moss or disappear from beneath our feet altogether. However slow our progress had to be, however formidable and trying the odds set against us, we were confident of our ultimate success, for we were determined, uncompromising and, above all, patient.
I felt I was not only a politician, but a pretty practical one. My apprenticeship in the Protectorate Assembly had brought me fairly fast to the threshold of political maturity. Looking back on those days, though I often felt frustrated with impotence before the bland and impassive Colonial regime, I think it was a good thing, from one point of view of my political training, to have so much responsibility and so little power. Power without responsibility corrupts. Responsibility without power educates. I bore a heavy load of duty as a union chief and a popular representative. Whenever my busy schedule gave me time to think about it, I felt inadequate. The more aware I was of learning fast, the more I sensed that I still had a long way to go.