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Was Siaka Probyn Stevens the architect of Sierra Leone’s downfall?

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SIAKA PROBYN STEVENS
Portrait of Siaka Stevens, former President of Sierra Leone and chairman of OAU during the Organization of African Unity Summit. (Photo by Alain Nogues/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Sierra Leone, a beautiful West African country located in the West Coast of the African continent, endowed with vast natural resources and vast fertile soils for agriculture. But the beautiful country has seen pain and sorrow, decades of onerous official mismanagement by corrupt government officials and politicians led to a deeply corrupt system of rule. This beautiful and peaceful country has seen a lot, with its people living in abject poverty, lack of basic and social amenities, one may wonder and ask ‘why a country like Sierra Leone has so many natural resources, but yet still its people are living below US$ 2 a day’

Image credit: visit Sierra Leone

To answer that question, we take a look at the life and death of Sierra Leone’s first democratically elected president Siaka Probyn Stevens, who served as president of the Republic of Sierra Leone for 17 years. We asked the question, “Was Siaka Probyn Stevens the architect of Sierra Leone’s downfall”?

                                  BRIEF BIOGRAPHY

Siaka Probyn Stevens was born on the 24th August 1905 in Moyamba, Moyamba District in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone. Stevens was an ex-police constable and trade unionist. Stevens worked on the construction of the Sierra Leone Development Company (DELCO) railway, linking the port of Pepel with the iron ore mines at Marampa from 1931-1946. In 1943, Stevens helped co-found the United Mine Workers Union and he was appointed to the Protectorate Assembly in 1946 to represent the interests of mineworkers. In 1947, he traveled to the UK to study labor relations in Ruskin College, Oxford, England.

                           JOURNEY INTO POLITICS

His journey into politics started when he helped co-found the country’s first political party, Sierra Leone’s People Party (SLPP) and he was eventually elected to the legislative council. In 1952, Stevens became Sierra Leone’s first Minister of Mines, Lands, and Labour. In 1957, Stevens was elected to the House of Representatives as a member for Port Loko constituency, which he later lost his seat as a result of an election petition.

                          THE RISE OF A DICTATOR

After several ups and downs and disagreements with the Sierra Leone People’s Party, Stevens broke ties with the party in what he said the SLPP was dominated by the Mendes, and later went on to co-found the People’s National Party (PNP). In 1959, he was among a team of delegates that participated in Independence peace talks in London. After the talks concluded, Stevens was the only delegate who refused to sign the agreement because there had been a secret defence pact between the Sierra Leone government and the United Kingdom. On that grounds, Stevens launched the Elections Before Independence Movement (EBIM) after he was promptly expelled from the PNP upon his return from the Independence peace talks.

In 1963/64, he left Sierra Leone for East Germany along with Sheku Magona and Kade Kamara and the All People’s Congress Party was founded. Kade Kamara went to China raised funds for the party. Kade Kamara reportedly secured the money to start the party from the China Communist Party (CCP). The CCP symbol is red, and thus, the APC also used red as their symbol till to date.

 After the death of Sir Milton Margai in 1964, the leadership mantle of the SLPP was passed to Albert Margai the younger brother of Sir Milton Margai. This decision by the party left the northerners and their elites who had hoped that John Kerefa Smart, who was a leading northern figure in the SLPP, would succeed Sir Milton Margai, accused the SLPP of perpetuating “Mende hegemony”. During the tenure of Sir Albert Maegai, he fired two prominent northern figures from the SLPP cabinet, including John Karefa Smart.

After Sir Albert Margai sacking of prominent northerners from the party, he added salt to the injury. At the time the northerners were mending their injury after they’d hoped that John Kerefa Smart would have been the leader of the SLPP, it didn’t happen, and when he came in and sacked him from the party’s cabinet. This action was the easy-path to Stevens’ political thirst. Stevens tapped into his anti-Mende agenda among northerners in the country. Stevens’ APC drew support largely from young men and women from the north who had very little education and means. They accepted Stevens’ “anti-mende” ideology.

         THE START OF A CORRUPT AND DICTATORIAL RULE    

In March 1967, the first democratic elections were held in Sierra Leone. The elections were accompanied by violent clashes in which at least 100 people were reportedly killed. The APC and SLPP claimed victory, which in the ensuing controversy, the army, led by Brigadier David Lansana, stepped in and seized power. Brigadier Lansana was overthrown by a trio of majors; Charles Blake, Mohamed Jumu and Kutumbu Kai Sama, within 48 hours of seized power. The major invited Colonel Juxon Smith to head the National Reformation Council (NRC). The NRC was overthrown in April 1968 by some young disgruntle northerners and non-commissioned officers in the army. These group of non-commissioned officers invited Siaka Probyn Stevens, who was then in exile in Guinea, to return and handed over power to him a few months later.

Siaka Probyn Stevens took power shortly, then the atrocities began. Despite Sierra Leone having accoutrements of a modern state and executive, legislature and judiciary, an army and political parties – these, under the presidency of Stevens were turned into an extension of his power. Senior government officials, military officers, judges were all appointed based on their loyalty to the president, a loyalty that was based on patronage and opportunities to enrich themselves from public offers. 

Stevens saw the army as a threat and quickly monopolised it. Therefore, the army was used to suppress the very citizens it meant to protect. Recruitment in the military was based on political affiliation. Human Rights Abuses were on a rapid high. Increased in smuggling of the country’s exports by Stevens and allies was like drinking water. The unemployment rate  rose to the highest level in the country’s history, thus undermining the economy.

In 1971, Stevens directed the state-owned National Diamond Mining Company (NDMC) to took over the British left Sierra Leone Selection Trust (SLST) in a way he and his allies could easily smuggle the country’s diamonds for their selfish gains.

In 1973, under the new constitutions, the first elections were held. The polls were disrupted by violent clashes, the opposition SLPP boycotted the elections, which gave the ruling APC party all 85 seats in the House of Representatives. In 1978, a referendum on a new constitution culminated. The new constitution allowed a one-party state, with the APC as the only legally permitted party. The results of the newly culminated constitution saw 97.1% of voters said to have voted for the new one-party constitution, an implausibly high total that could have only been obtained by massive fraud but the ruling APC. Following the election, all opposition members of the House of Representatives were ordered to join Stevens’ APC or lose their seats. Those who opposed the imposition of the one-party state were either executed or forced into exile. Stevens saw himself as the “Pharaoh” of the nation, thus the name “Pa Sheki, Pass ar die”

Stevens ambition to become popular, he decided to host the Organisation of African Union (OAU) summit in Freetown. The move was attempted to be blocked by the then Bank Governor Philip Sam Bangura. Governor Bangura told President Stevens the implications of hosting the summit, he told President Stevens that the country was not ready to host such a huge summit, financially and economically. Two days after the disagrrement with former President Siaka Steven,  Governor Bangura was reported death alledgely committing suicide, many Sierra Leoneans at the time claime President Stevens ordered his execution. The summit was held in Freetown hosting hundreds of delegates from the other African States, costing taxpayers’ money millions of dollars and left the country bankrupt and crippled the economy. A year after the summit, the government was unable to pay workers. The country’s health care system, educational system, security sector, and institutions left deteriorated at a faster rate.  

Sierra Leone produced US$ 300-450 million worth of diamonds in the 1980s, which were smuggled from the country through Liberia and Ivory Coast. This, thus benefitted Stevens and his compatriots leaving the majority of the country’s population in extreme poverty. A large part of the country’s economy was controlled by the Lebanese who collaborated with politicians by Stevens’ approval. Unfortunately, for many Sierra Leoneans, the diamond industry was controlled by a Lebanese national and Stevens’ business partner and best friend Jamil Said Mohammed. Jamil Said Mohammed was allowed to control the global diamond market in Sierra Leone. He was also given access with Stevens’ approval to the country’s main source of cash. The monies gained from the large sales of diamonds were benefitted by Stevens and his corrupt allies, leaving the country’s economy to deteriorate at a faster rate. By the time he retired from office, Stevens had embezzled more than US$ 500 million of the country’s money, leaving just only US$ 190 million into the country’s foreign reserves.

            WAS THE END OF STEVENS’ CORRUPT AND DICTATORIAL RULE, THE START OF THE CIVIL WAR?

After 18 years of corrupt, lootings, Human Rights Abuses, dictatorial rule, Stevens had the opportunity to develop the country but instead uses his power to deteriorate and crippled the country’s economy. He handed over power to his handpicked Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh, who had no experience in government. Stevens left the country’s economy on the brink of collapsing and the state itself had shrunk significantly. Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh tried to restore the country’s peace, economy, and national cohesion but was unable to restore such due to his inexperience and the starting of the bloody civil war in 1991, just five years into his presidency. The bloody civil war that killed over 60,000 people, may have never happened without the interference of Charles Taylor, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso and Muhammar Ghadafi. Ghadafi provided the rebel group RUF training, Blaise Compaore provided the RUF additional fighters and Liberia’s Charles Taylor provided funding and fighters in exchange for diamonds. The war lasted for eleven years, which crippled the country’s already failed institutions and economy.

See References: William Reno countries at the crossroads, CIA Sierra Leone Handbook, War and state collapse: the case of Sierra Leone by Lansana Gberie, and Wikipedia

WAS SIAKA PROBYN STEVENS THE ARCHITECT SIERRA LEONE’S DOWNFALL?

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Abu Bakarr Jalloh

Abu Bakarr Jalloh is a writer, editor, and storyteller. He was born in Bo, Southern Sierra Leone. Started his primary school at the Bo District Educational Council Primary School, Abu Bakarr Jalloh was the top pupil from primary one to three. In 2005, his family relocated to the capital Freetown where he furthered his primary education at the Holy Trinity Primary School, Kissy Road. Abu Bakarr Jalloh became a force to reckon with throughout his primary 4-6 at the Holy Trinity Primary School. In 2008/2009, he enrolled at the Ahmadiyya Muslim Junior Secondary School where he started his JSS 1-3 and he went on to top the list of the best student in the 2011 Basic Education Certificate Examination and also 7th best student in the whole of Port Loko District.

In 2011/2012 he attended the Government Municipal Senior Secondary School where he attained his West Africa Senior Secondary School Certificate Examination in 2015. Abu Bakarr Jalloh is now a student of the Njala University, Njala Campus pursuing a degree in Bsc Agricultural Economics.

He is a very brilliant writer, editor, and storyteller that is passionate about telling Sierra Leonean stories undiluted using a mobile phone. He is also keen on highlighting national issues affecting Sierra Leoneans.

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