Independence Day in Sierra Leone
Deutsche Welle - Foreign Reports - International politics

Independence Day in Sierra Leone

“Happy Anniversary!” – this was the slightly confusing greeting that filled the streets of Freetown on Wednesday. The Sierra Leonean capital was as hot, noisy and gridlocked as ever, but thousands of green, white and blue national flags fluttered above the dust-coated traffic jams, and the fierce rows among motorists and street peddlers somehow did not have the same edge as usual.

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It was Independence Day again, but this time the annual celebrations were “times ten,” according to young TV host Vickie Remoe, who co-presented the parade in the national stadium on the big day. “Sierra Leoneans are always looking for a holiday to celebrate, but it’s bananas,” she told Deutsche Welle. “Usually people don’t come home for Independence Day, they come home for Christmas, but a lot of people didn’t last year so they could be here for this.”

Parallel wars

This amplified patriotism is apparently solely down to this year’s round number – this was the 50th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule, won peacefully in 1961. A Sierra Leonean old enough to remember the early years of the republic could easily weep for what has happened in that half-century – the country was a prosperous little democracy for almost six happy years until the string of military coups, counter-coups and dictatorships began in 1967. Now it is the twelfth-lowest ranked country in the world on the United Nations’ Human Development Index.

Power struggles over the country culminated in one of Africa’s most horrific civil wars ever, lasting from 1991 to 2002. The war was instigated by the Revolutionary Unit Front (RUF), a militia of radical students reportedly backed by Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, and became infamous for its images of child soldiers and indiscriminate amputations.

“People from all regions of Sierra Leone got together under one evil idea to de-stabilize our country and plunder it and terrorize our people,” Soccoh Kabia, a minister in the Sierra Leonean government, told D

eutsche Welle. “You have that situation throughout history. It happened in Germany in the 1930s, where a group of people took over society and led it in another direction.”

But Kabia also makes a more contemporary parallel – with Ivory Coast, another one of Liberia’s neighbors. The minister says that while Sierra Leone never saw the same regional divides, Ivory Coast narrowly escaped a similar fate. “I wish them well,” he says. “We also went down that road. They are lucky in that it hasn’t degenerated into all-out civil war. They will recover from it, and look back and say, well, we escaped a worse fate.”

The value of accepting defeat

The key to democratic stability is knowing how to lose elections. Peter Sorie Mansaray, a Sierra Leonean expat living in Germany, is the interim leader of the newly-founded Berlin branch of his country’s ruling party, the All People’s Congress (APC). He says Sierra Leone made a huge psychological breakthrough when the last government, led by the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), did not contest the 2007 election result won by the APC’s Ernest Bai Koroma.

“In Africa it is seldom that an incumbent government loses an election and honorably steps down,” says Mansaray. “In Ivory Coast, Gbagbo lost the election but did not want to give up. In Sierra Leone, we thank God that the situation was very democratic – the new president was inaugurated by the ex-president very peacefully – and I think that is a very good lesson for Africa.”

Not that Mansaray takes this fledgling democracy for granted. Sierra Leone might appear relatively stable, but he knows that so much depends on education. “The democratic process in Sierra Leone has passed the first test,” he says. “But democracy in Sierra Leone – I would term it between fragile and stable. It’s not 100 percent. We still need to educate the masses about their rights. Democracy can only exist where people are literate and can understand what is going on.”

Literacy equals stability

Education is in a shocking state in Sierra Leone. Over a thousand school buildings around the country were destroyed during the war, leaving two-thirds of children without a school to go to. President Koroma is doing what he can to change this, but these efforts still leave an estimated two-thirds of the adult population illiterate.

Miriam Mason-Sesay is country director for the UK charity Educaid, which began working in Sierra Leone in 1996. The tireless and passionate British high school teacher has helped to build a three-storey secondary school in the outskirts of Freetown that provides free education to 600 local children.

“Originally, we were paying kids’ school fees, and it was quite a meaningless activity,” she says. “When we came round to visit we would find a hundred kids in a class, maybe the teacher was there, maybe they weren’t. If they were there, the only resource they had was themselves and their piece of chalk.”

Poor but free

But Sierra Leone has many other needs that are just as urgent – healthcare is still extremely basic, unemployment is massive, and there is little hope of outside business investment until infrastructure like the power supply, the phone lines and the roads are vastly improved.

In the face of all this, Mason-Sesay is singularly unimpressed by all the “Golden Jubilee” euphoria. “What does that independence mean? Independent of what?” she wonders. “There are still one in four kids dying under the age of five. The statistics are so terrible that it doesn’t feel like a very real independence. The individuals don’t feel much independence. They don’t control their own destiny.”

Not that such thoughts stopped most Sierra Leoneans from partying till dawn on Wednesday. There was palpable pride in the fact that they weren’t just celebrating fifty years of independence, they were celebrating nine years of successful democracy – a worthy achievement in the light of events elsewhere in Africa.

“The question we must ask ourselves now is, ‘What are we doing with this freedom?’ “, concludes Mansaray. “It’s a matter of taking stock of the last fifty years. What has happened in Sierra Leone? Where are we now, and where do we want to go?”