With regard to the holding of a general election before independence, which the P.N.P., the U.P.P. and several other parties had persistently agitated for, I took it that this was a foregone conclusion for Milton Margai himself had only recently, in London, publicly stated that there would be a pre-independence general election for the people to decide for independence or not. In addition to the Premier’s statement on the issue, general elections had been a prerequisite for the granting of independence by the British in the case of other African countries, even in Ghana where Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party was not only unquestionably truly representative of the people, but had been in office only two years at the time, whereas the S.L.P.P. Government would be four years old in 1961, when we anticipated independence, with only one year to run.
There was no doubt in my mind, therefore, that our Premier would stick to his word and the British Government to their precedent, and an election would be held shortly after the London Conference. Although 1961 had been set by us as a dead-line for independence, the date we had in mind and were working towards was December 7th, 1960.
All of us at the round-table conference in Freetown agreed that the main point at issue was the transfer of power by Britain to Sierra Leone and that, as all other views that divided us politically were so small in comparison, we would bury our hatchets for the time being and proceed to the London talks as one united body bent on achieving independence.
This all-party coalition, formed on March 25th, 1960, was called the United National Front (U.N.F.) and was led by Sir Milton Margai. When some of us pressed for further details of this coalition we were told that its main purpose was to present a united delegation at the London Conference and that further details concerning it would be worked out later and communicated to us. I was never given any such details and because of the pressure on us for quick general approval on the formation of the United Front, it was not even possible for us to consult our supporters before taking action.
When we arrived for the first session of the talks at Lancaster House in London, I noticed that whereas the Secretary of State, Mr. Ian MacLeod, had eight advisers, we had none at all. Even the Governor of Sierra Leone and the legal draughtsmen we had brought with us sat with the British delegation on the opposite side of the table from us. As soon as I saw this one-sided affair, I reminded the Premier, sotto voce, about his assurance to me in Freetown that provision had been made for expert advisers to attend us. In a loud voice so that the whole Conference could hear, he declared: “We are dealing with old and trusted friends, so we have no need for expert advisers.”
I was angry and humiliated, but above all confused. Even for the diamond negotiations the Sierra Leone delegation had the advice of a firm of reputable accountants and lawyers. Yet now, when the affairs of the whole country were to be discussed, when the future of our nation hung on the outcome of our negotiations, we had not a single expert on constitutional law and defence matters to advise us. We were expected to pit our own wits against those of the Colonial Office experts.
The Colonial Office then presented a paper on interim constitutional changes which they said had to be tried out for at least a year before independence. This puzzled me. I pointed out that our Premier and his colleagues, during their preliminary talks in Freetown, had agreed that the date of independence should be December 7th, 1960. If the proposed interim constitutional changes were enforced, then this would mean delaying independence until at least April, 1961. Surprisingly this did not seem to worry the Sierra Leone delegation at all; they had nothing to say in support of my argument and accepted the Colonial Office proposal.
I referred to this matter again in the paper I submitted to the Conference, pointing out that:
“Since it is agreed by all sides that Sierra Leone, by her past performance, has always shown a sense of responsibility in constitutional matters, I see no reason whatsoever why we could not now skip the interim phase and go right on to independence and in asking H. M. Government for this advancement, we would be asking no more than the U.K. Goverment is now prepared to give to Somalia which only a few years ago did not even have a legislature. If the rest of the Sierra Leone delegation agrees, I propose that we negotiate on the basis of complete independence by December 7th, 1960, that we leave out the Interim Constitutional Changes, the acceptance of which can only stand in the way of our achieving independence for Sierra Leone by the declared time.
“It must not be forgotten that independence for Sierra Leone is a thing which most people not only at home, but elsewhere, feel is long overdue and anything which is likely to stand in the way of the country gaining independence this year should be avoided, if there is not to be public discontent.”
The next anomaly was in regard to expatriates. In the preliminary talks in Freetown it had been agreed that compensation would be paid to expatriates at independence but nothing was discussed about staggering that compensation. I was therefore astonished when the U.K. delegation produced a paper for our approval which stated that compensation was to be paid to expatriates by installments with interest over a period of about eight years; and I was even more astounded when, defending themselves against one or two stalwarts who voiced objections, they stated that Sierra Leone had asked for this in order to encourage Europeans to stay. Never at any time had such a thing even been mooted during our preliminary conference in Freetown. Such an arrangement would make a nonsense of Africanisation, for the key positions in Sierra Leone would remain in the hands of expatriates for the next eight years or so. In the paper I submitted I stated that I had nothing against expatriates but that it was clear to me that full compensation had to be paid at the time of independence and fresh contracts entered into with those who elected to stay on thereafter.
In spite of Milton Margai’s assurance to me regarding a defence agreement, it was clear that vital and far-reaching agreements on defence matters had been arrived at between the Governments of Britain and Sierra Leone, without the knowledge of and prior consulta tion with the people of Sierra Leone. The British Admiralty would retain and operate, in peace and in war, the existing naval fuelling base, the Boom Defence Depot at King Tom and the restricted use of Freetown anchorage. As a non-Government member of the delegation I was not supposed to know all this, let alone give my views on it. I had been told that I was only expected to discuss and endorse the general principles brought up at the Conference, that the details were a matter for the two Governments. How could I Sit there and remain mute on matters that were of the greatest concern to me and my countrymen whose representatives at the Conference appeared to have been gagged?
I made it clear to the Conference that I was not personally opposed to any United Kingdom proposals for defence arrangements on independence as such, but what concerned me was whether a Govern ment which had spent over half of its normal life would be a proper body to consider and ratify such a vital matter which was likely to have far-reaching repercussions. “My view on this issue is,” I said, “that any Government or Legislature which is to give a decision on the issue should be a Government of the people’s most recent choice, and the full details of all that is involved should have been thoroughly explained to the whole country, if it is not to appear that Sierra Leone is to get independence with strings attached.”
This matter, to my mind, was of such a serious nature that it was more essential than ever that a general election should be held before the transfer of power, so that the people would have a chance to accept or reject a Government that proposed to offer a part of Sierra Leone to a foreign power as virtually a war base. It was obvious that agreement between the two governments had already been reached and the signing of the pact would be a mere formality provided the existing Sierra Leone Government remained in power long enough to guide the agreement safely through the Legislature after independence and get it ratified. It was in the interests of both parties concerned that the S.L.P.P. Government should cling on to the reins of government at all costs. The last thing either of them wanted was a general election.
There could have been no shadow of doubt in the minds of all attending the Conference that I could not possibly associate myself with the decisions taken at the Conference. I had raised objections both verbally and otherwise and made my stand abundantly clear at the conclusion of the paper I submitted, stating:
“Lest it should be thought that I am actuated by personal interests in making these and other suggestions, I may say that it would be the easiest thing in the world for me to do. To come here and fall in with other views and keep quiet on vital issues on the understanding that my interests would be well looked after on our return home. .. .1 have very strong feelings on the points which I am bringing before this Conference and I am quite ready and willing to sacrifice my personal interests for them.”
Even though my own party members, as well as others I knew to be in sympathy with my views expressed, did not speak out in support of me, I still felt sure that when the time came to sign the final agreement such men would find it impossible to go against their consciences and sell out for their personal gain. On the final day, when the press and television teams were admitted to the Conference room to record the signing of the historic document, I still believed that Albert Margai and others would withhold their signatures.
But one by one they dutifully signed their names, smiling as they saw before them not a constitutional agreement regarding their country, but a ministerial portfolio, a plum government post, a reward for being a good boy. Of course that had been part of the bargain: Milton Margai had insisted on leading the U.N.F. and becoming the first Prime Minister of an Independent Sierra Leone, and had promised the Opposition party leaders admission to the Government immediately after the Constitutional Conference in return for their unqualified support at the Conference. I pushed the paper away from me in disgust and refused to sign, declaring my reasons for doing so.
There were several who criticised my behaviour, among them two of my colleagues in the P.N.P. Gershon Collier, a member of the P.N.P. Executive who attended the Conference, wrote in his book Sierra Leone — Experiment in Democracy in an African Nation:
“It was left to Siaka Stevens… to provide the only discordant note at an otherwise very peaceful and unemotional gathering… He himself had taken the most active part in all the discussions and negotiations that had preceded the establishment of the United National Front. . . . When Stevens left Freetown for the London talks, we all naturally assumed that he was going to support the general position as he had not up to that time given any hint of dissentient opinion. … Siaka Stevens stoutly an nounced, when it came to his turn, that he would not sign. He then proceeded to enumerate his reasons, the details of which he had circulated to the press beforehand. These reasons were not in any way new. They were in fact the same matters of P.N.P. policy that had been conceded by the P.N.P. when agreement was reached on the formation of a national coalition.”
“There were those, however, who believed that Siaka Stevens found the courage to assume his posture because he was fully aware that he stood little chance of personally deriving much advantage from the arrangements of the United National Front. The plum of a cabinet portfolio, as he might well have seen it, was beyond his grasp and he was not, at the time, a member of the Legislature…”
Certainly when I left for London I was fully prepared to support the general position had the assurances I had been given been honoured; but Ifound out all too soon that I had been duped, that the promises made by the Premier in Freetown were utterly worthless. I lost any confidence in him and became highly suspicious of his all too ready acceptance of anything the British Government offered. Why did we have no advisers? Why the evasiveness over the defence agreement when it was as good as afait accompli? Why the staggered compensation for expatriates when this would mean an excessive burden on the limited exchequer and a block to Africanisation? Why the change
heart over the pre-independence general elections? Why, in fact, should an exception be made by the British in the case of Sierra Leone when a general election was not only timely but the country was crying out for one? As Collier so rightly remarked, the reasons I gave for not signing the final document were not new; they were matters I felt strongly about and had fought for all my political life. To have sat dumbly at their demise without protesting would have been completely out of character and I would be branded for ever more as insincere and an opportunist
Albert Margai, leader of my party, who did all right for himself in the new U.N.F. as Minister of Natural Resourses, found it’significant’ that I first adopted an objecting attitude soon after the Conference decided that there would be no general election before independence. “It is not unlikely in my opinion,” he is reported to have said in the Daily Mail of May 26th, 1960, “that Mr. Stevens would have signed the report if there was a possibility of his becoming a Member of the House before independence.”
Of course I would have liked a seat in the House. Any politician would, at any time. But in my case, never at the cost of my principles and convictions, of exposing myself as a hypocrite. I have a tempera mental aversion to jumping on band wagons. Certainly, I could never join one for selfish ends at the cost of the nation.
Before leaving London I had printed 10,000 copies of a pamphlet entitled Why I did not Sign the Conference Papers which I brought back to Freetown with me and distributed to people all over the country. I was boiling over with indignation, dictating straight from the shoulder without roughing out a draft, almost without pausing for thought I gave my reasons in plain down-to-earth language. “If you do not agree with me, I bow,” I concluded. “If you agree with me, then you must use every possible constitutional means to protest — by letters to the press, by peaceful demonstrations, etc. We must get UNCONDITIONAL INDEPENDENCE. Sierra Leone belongs to all of us, we have the right to know when we are being committed. The British Government has given us the ‘goat’ of Independence but they are holding the ‘rope’. We must press for the rope…”
I arrived home by air about a fortnight before the rest of the delegation as they travelled by sea. I held my peace for two weeks after their return so as to give them a chance to tell the people what took place at the Constitutional Conference, but when nothing happened I myself called a series of meetings, starting with a mass meeting at the Recreation Grounds in Freetown on June 19th, explaining the whole position from the preliminary round-table talks to the conclusion of the London Conference and the stand I took.
There was a massive response to the call I made for a general election before independence and I soon realised that if we were to succeed in forcing this issue, organisation was essential.
On July 9th, seventeen of us met at the house of Aihaji Gibril Sesay in the East End of Freetown and a decision was taken to form a mass movement to be known as the Elections Before Independence Movement. At a mass meeting of the Movement at the Queen Elizabeth II Playing Field on July 17th, a resolution was passed by over fifteen thousand people from all walks of life, calling on the British Government to take immediate steps to bring about a general election before independence in accordance with the practice adopted in most other formerly dependent territories.
I think most supporters of the E.B.I.M. shared my vision of the Movement as the nucleus of a political party. There was no other meaningful opposition to the United Front, despite the nationwide clamour against the incumbent regime and the shameless manipulation of the independence settlement. The need for a party embodying our opposition to the Margai Government was glaringly obvious. But we felt restrained by caution and a lingering desire for national unity. I discussed the situation endlessly with my close comrades— men like S. I. Koroma, now first Vice-President; C. A. Kamara-Taylor, now second Vice-President; and S. A. T. Koroma and S. A. Fofana, who later were to become members of my cabinet. We all came from modest backgrounds and had trade union or co-operative affiliations. We all had the popular roots and organisational and managerial experience that convinced us that a genuinely popular mass political party was a possibility in Sierra Leone. We knew that we could create such a party as the S. L. P. P. had never been and never even tried to be — a party of the people.
At the Queen Elizabeth II Playing Fields three months later, on October 17th, the Elections Before Independence Movement was declared a fully fledged political party to be called the All People’s Congress (A.P.C.) with the red rising sun as its symbol. It was the first party to be led entirely by northerners who were nearly all commoners with the interests of the working class close to their hearts. Our main objective at that time was to bring about a general election as soon as possible, but we declared ourselves to be dedicated to creating in Sierra Leone “a welfare state based upon a socialist pattern of society in which all citizens, regardless of class, tribe, colour or creed, shall have equal opportunity and where there shall be no exploitation of man by man, tribe by tribe or class by class”.
A few weeks after the formation of the A.P.C., on November 1st, 1960, we won by sizeable majorities of 707 and 314 votes, two of the three contested seats in the Freetown City Council elections, and lost the third seat by only 27 votes. For such a young party to gain such a victory in the most articulate part of the country was a true indication of the lack of confidence which the people had in the coalition government, and we lost no time in capitalising on the fact. Encouraged by our success, we travelled throughout the country, undaunted by the hostile attitude of many of the Paramount Chiefs and the threats made against us by the now somewhat desperate S.L.P.P. supporters. One thing soon became abundantly clear, if a general election were held, the A.P.C. had a very good chance of winning it.
The Government realised this, too, for no longer did they regard us as a mere embarrassment and inconvenience. Our activities were carefully noted, reported upon and exaggerated; an intolerant and aggressive attitude was adopted towards us and we were subjected to all forms of victimisation. Before many weeks had passed many arrests were made of both leaders and supporters of the A.P.C. Far from intimidating us, however, this treatment encouraged us, for it assured us of the very real threat we posed as an opposition party. Only a man with his back to the wall who is unsure of his survival will resort to such desperate tactics.
In February, 1961, I went to London to put the demands of the A.P.C. for elections before independence before the British Govern ment. With reference to the Colonial Office argument that the London Constitutional Conference had agreed, with one exception, that there should be no elections before independence, I submitted a paper expressing surprise that the British Government should have seen fit to take directions on such a vital matter from a Conference consisting overwhelmingly of Ministers of the Government and Paramount Chiefs who, to all intents and purposes, were also servants of the Government. To us, I said, it looked very much like an accused person being asked to sit in judgement over his own case.
A Labour Member of Parliament, Mr. Robert Edwards, drew the attention of Members of the House of Commons to the ‘state of unrest’ that existed in Sierra Leone which was due to become independent on April 27th, and to remark that he had received a resolution from the Sierra Leone Council of Labour, a non-political body, threatening passive resistance. The Colonial Secretary admitted that a campaign had recently developed under the auspices of the All People’s Congress in favour of a general election before independence, which had resulted in a number of arrests, and that certain leading members of the A.P.C. had been charged with offences, but he added that these events in no way implied a general state of unrest or any change in the general support of the country for independence, and that the charges were made against the party members in accordance with the ordinary processes of the law.
On March 16th, 1961, I was served with warrant no. 612 by the Metropolitan Police, E Division of Bow Street Police Station charged as follows:
“On warrant granted at Freetown, Sierra Leone, on 6th March
1961, endorsed by K. J. P. Barraclough, Esq., Magistrate at
Bow Street Metropolitan Magistrates’ Court on 16th March,
1961, [ stand charged with the offences of (1) libel, (2)
Sedition, (3) Conspiracy.”
The application for my extradition was heard on March 23rd, but adjourned on condition I returned to Sierra Leone. My counsel gave an undertaking that I would return to Freetown to answer the charges levelled against me and I was remanded until April 1St on my own bail of £500. I agreed for a senior police officer to accompany me to Freetown and to hold my passport until my arrival there.
By now the Coalition Government had labelled the A.P.C. a terrorist organisation and professed to believe that it was financed by an outside power for the purpose of further subversive activities in Sierra Leone.
Three leading members had been charged with incitement, tried by ajudge alone, convicted and sentenced to a term in prison. Soon after my return to Sierra Leone, I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson, C.A. Kamara-Taylor and myself were charged with sedition, criminal libel, conspiracy and incitement. A few days later the entire executive of the party were charged to show cause why we should not be bound over to keep the peace and to be of good behaviour. The atmosphere was very tense and there were odd outbreaks of violence among the less responsible and less tolerant among all parties concerned. Some of my supporters broke up a meeting of Mendes on the grounds that independence was a natIonal issue and not a tribal one. This prompted the Mendes to form the United Front Volunteers, an army of about 1,300 civilians bent on defending the country against the A.P.C. ‘terrorists’.
One did not need the gift of clairvoyance to foretell events. “We must prepare ourselves to meet any situation,” I warned the Executive of the A.P.C. at the conclusion of an emergency meeting I had called. “Return to your homes and wait. Do not try to resist arrest when the time comes. Our defeat is not a dishonourable one; it is a very temporary one, a mere set-back. There is no reason for any of us to feel humiliated, downhearted or embittered.”
A day or two later, on April 18th, a state of emergency was proclaimed and the entire Executive of the A.P.C. were detained. Later other supporters of the party in various parts of the country were rounded up, making the total number of those arrested 43.
It was my first taste of prison life. The Superintendent in charge of the Central Prison in Pademba Road, Thomas Decker, admitted me efficiently and with seeming detachment, but not unkindly and not, I felt, unsympathetically. He indicated to Wallace-Johnson and myself that we should follow him across the courtyard. Instead of being led to one of the four block of72 cells, which I had expected, he branched right towards the hospital and directed us up the stone stairway to the main ward. Opposite the entrance to the ward was a single solid cubicle measuring about lOft x 1 2ft which was probably normally used by the medical officer or the duty nurses.
There were windows in three of the walls and two beds in the room, mine along the wall opposite the door and Wallace-Johnson’s at right-angles to it, against another wall. The door was closed upon us and we balefully took stock. Wallace-Johnson, who had had experience of this sort of thing during World War II, gave a grunt of approval. It was not quite up to Ritz standard, he confessed, but infinitely superior to a straw mat on the floor of a small cell which he had shared with several others.
We were certainly given preferential treatment. Thanks both to the Medical Officer, who recommended that our diet be supplemented by such foods as butter, bacon and salad, and also to Decker who made sure we got these extras and other perks besides, our confinement was not so irksome as it might otherwise have been.
On April 26th, the eve of Independence, the Prime Minister sent me a bottle of brandy. Whether this was to celebrate the nation’s freedom with or to drown my sorrows in for the loss of my own freedom, I knew not, but it was a thoughtful gesture and made me think of Edmund Burk’s recommendation of magnanimity in politics as being “not seldom the truest wisdom”. I promised myself that if ever the wheel of fortune brought me to a position of power again, I would try to show a deeper kind of magnanimity.
I resolved on reconciliation and decided that I would never punish a man merely for hostility towards me, only enmity to my country. I do not believe in turning adversaries into enemies. I do not believe that political dissent can ever of itself be a crime. And ever since my own taste of prison I have tried to tolerate and absorb all shades of opinion in Sierra Leonean politics, including those which have differed from my own views and as far as possible to bring them into the political process. Of course there are always some who out of pride or principle or perversity refuse to join in peaceful poltical evolution.
When they prefer self-exile, conspiracy or terrorism and refuse to be reconciled despite all the opportunities democracy affords, there is little one can do. But to victimise opponents who are willing to work within democractic constraints to express and canvas views of their own is always wrong.
I was fortunate to be well treated in gaol. But not well enough to make me wish the same experience on anybody else! Still, I got a lot out of it. The comradeship of an old campaigner like Wallace-Johnson was reward in itself for suffering the injustice and frustration of confinement.
I always felt his adherence to the A.P.C. was a pretty impressive accolade for the party. I was proud to have the friendship and support of the man whose record as a friend of the people of Sierra Leone and a campaigner for unity and independence was unrivalled in length and consistency of service. He added an extra ‘something’ to the credentials of the A.P.C. All of us who were privileged to be his colleagues in the party prized his companionship. The A.P.C. was a fitting culmination to his lifetime’s search for a political organisation that could express the unity of Sierra Leone and the needs of her people.
More generally, I got valuable experience of life and politics and knowledge of myself from prison. I got to know myself pretty well in the long hours and days and months of enforced inactivity. I had a chance to reflect — a sort of stocktaking of my life. I emerged not only with the conviction of inner freedom which enormously strehgthened me for the struggles which were still ahead, but also with an unshakeable certainty that the A.P.C. had the right solutions for Sierra Leone. I seemed to know that, however long it took, the principles we stood for were sure to prevail.