Dr. Sylvester Ekundayo Rowe
At the 2010 Biennial Conference of the National Organization of Sierra Leoneans in North America (NOSLINA)
Lanham, Maryland, 8 May 2010
Mr. Chairman and Members of NOSLINA:
Ladies and Gentlemen
I accepted the invitation to this event for three reasons. First, because it gives me an opportunity to acknowledge and personally express my thanks to the organization for its laudable initiative to honour individuals, Sierra Leoneans and non-Sierra Leoneans, for their accomplishment and/or contribution to the welfare of the people of Sierra Leone. I think that those who don’t know about NOSLINA do know about the NOSLINA Awards. The second reason is that NOSLINA exemplifies diversity. As you said in your latest message, Mr. Chairman, “NOSLINA brings together people of different backgrounds to create a mosaic of cultures, ethnicities, religious beliefs, educational accomplishments and political perspectives; each with enviable levels of creativity and resourcefulness to serve the greater good.” I have a penchant for diversity. This is why I admire NOSLINA. And the third reason is that I have afforded an opportunity to interact with members this mosaic, this diverse group of individuals and in the process, share experiences and learn from one another.
Just over a week ago, I received text and e-mail messages wishing me a happy independence anniversary. You would think it was my birthday. One of them recalled that the sender remembered the day (27 of April 1961) very well. She had just turned 14. They had celebrated “wildly” she said, when the Union Jack came down and ours [the Green, White and Blue flag] was raised. She added “We had such great hopes for the country.” As I read the e-mail I could not help but remember my own glee of having been the first to announce to the country in a news bulletin that the Lancaster House Constitutional Conference had concluded in London with an agreement that Sierra Leone would become an independent sovereign state (within the Commonwealth) on the 27th of April that year. I remembered that night when tears of joy rolled down the cheeks of my boss, John Akar as he described the awesome flag-raising ceremony. I also remembered how thrilled I was to have been the lead commentator at the opening of the first Parliament of an independent Sierra Leone by the Duke of Kent. I still have a recording of parts of the live broadcast.
Allow me to be provocative for a moment by posing some questions. Well, describe them as silly or even stupid questions: why were we so jubilant and excited about achieving or being granted independence? What is the meaning of independence? Looking back, was independence really necessary? What have we gained as a result of independence? Why according to a public opinion survey in Freetown some years ago we were told that “the people actually wanted to be re-colonized?” Why did 70% of respondents in the survey say they would like Britain to assume trusteeship of Sierra Leone until a so-called political dispensation can be worked out? By the way, I wonder why some of our local journalists still refer to the Brits as “our colonial masters”? Masters! Anyhow, let me go back to one of those e-mail congratulatory messages I received on our 49th independence anniversary. The lady, (a “diasporean”) went on to bemoan the current state of affairs in the country: “It is a pity we have sunk to such depths” she said, “Freetown was the Athens of West Africa. We had the best schools, yes, the best schools. The people I work with [here in the United States] are always amazed at how much I know. I always let them know that I had all my education, complete education, in Freetown, Sierra Leone.” Then she went on to list the number of “firsts” Sierra Leoneans had achieved in Africa. She even mentioned that the first African to receive a Knighthood was a Sierra Leonean. She then concluded her message to me in these words: “At independence we were one of the richest countries in Africa. Now? Well, that is best left unsaid.” But she did say something, and I quote: “I tell you, we are the perfect example of how the mighty have fallen.” Unquote. To some people, this may sound rather negative or perhaps unpatriotic. Of course you and I know that she is not the only Sierra Leonean who expresses her views about state decline in the post-independence Sierra Leone with such candor.
These views are not unrelated to the theme you have chosen for this Biennial gathering, namely “Looking ahead: Towards Sierra Leone at 50 in the eyes of the Diaspora.” First of all I would like to suggest that in looking ahead towards the jubilee of our independence and beyond we must know and understand the past. To use a common parlance, we must know where we are coming from. We must learn from our history – our glorious and unpleasant past, the rivers and bridges we have crossed, the banners we have unfurled and waved, as well as the agony we have endured. The knowledge and lessons of our history should inspire us to meet the challenges that we face today. They should also equip us in laying a solid foundation for tomorrow. This is what I think my friend was trying to tell me in her independence message .In other words we must acknowledge that ‘things ain’t what they used to be’. We were a stable and relatively rich nation. We were ‘the Athens of West Africa.’ We had very good secondary schools. [By the way, I am a Princewalean. Yes, POW, the best school in Sierra Leone. If you have never heard it before, hear and know it now: ‘For searching Sierra Leone far and wide no school can well be found that sends forth truer gentlemen (like me) and stands on firmer ground.’] The idea of seeking inspiration from whom and what we were resonates in the third verse of our national anthem: “Knowledge and truth our forefathers spread, mighty the nations whom they led, mighty they made thee; so too may we show forth the good that is ever in thee…”
We must also understand the not-so bright pages of our past, including our recent past. Allow me to quote from a background Sierra Leonean diaspora material I came across the other day. It was posted on-line in connection with the 50th anniversary of our independence. Please forgive me it’s a little lengthy, but thought-provoking: “After more than 250 years of slave trading, colonial exploitation and post-colonial political manipulation, civil war, and recovering nation, much of Sierra Leone is a waste land of woes and remnants of war coupled with gross under-development. The Sierra Leone people everywhere, having been the least developed country in the world, according to the UN Human Development Indices for most of the past decade or more, has found themselves in a strange situation because within forty years or so since independence we have come from being one of the leading countries in West Africa as was noted by the title ‘The Athens of West Africa’ to where we are now, at the bottom of development, not only in Africa, but the entire world. We have been taught to be self-loathing, to see everything Sierra Leonean as a negative, and taught to believe that Sierra Leone is a country of failure, evil and ugliness… We Sierra Leoneans have become apathetic, complacent, lazy and carefree in some cases. But all is not lost, and everything has its time. We need to put an end to the negative and begin the positive.” Unquote.
Well, well, well! Frankly, I don’t think it is a question of being negative. It is not that we have been taught (by whom? I would like to know) taught to see everything negative, nor is it merely the problem of trying to re-brand Sierra Leone. What is apparent in the quote is an acknowledgement of the fact that once upon a time Sierra Leone was relatively great, full of promise. However, somewhere along the way something went wrong. We have dropped in so many ways.
As I see it, we must recognize or be mindful of both the good and the not-so-good of our past and immediate past. The purpose of looking back on what had been described as the “negative” is not merely to decry, moan, groan and develop an attitude of continual despondence and negativism. On the contrary, it is to ensure that in pursuit of our current and future objectives we should avoid the same mistakes, the same pitfalls of the past. The lessons of history are a source of preventive therapy in our quest for a healthy and prosperous nation.
Ladies and gentlemen, I know that the very thought of it evokes awful nightmares. I know that in the spirit of reconciliation (‘ow for du?) we should not, so to speak, indulge in recanting the horrors of the eleven year rebel. However, whether we like it or not it is a fact. It is a blot in the pages of those glowing chapters of our history.
The worst thing that happened to Sierra Leone since independence was the protracted and terrible rebel war. Take note that I did not say civil war. Even if we do not want to speak about it, its devastating impact, its scars are still visible in virtually all aspects of our nation. Whatever its root causes – the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) came up with a host of them – the fact is that the rebel war ruined our country. The most important lesson we should learn from the war is that for poor countries like Sierra Leone the days of violent and bloody revolutions are over. Such revolutions make us poorer. They diminish our nationalism and make a mockery of our status as an independent sovereign state. From what we have experienced, and as we look ahead to the 50th anniversary of our independence and beyond, we should declare that never, never again should Sierra Leoneans take up arms, misuse our resources, including diamonds, in exchange for weapons, and in collusion with foreigners, mercilessly kill our own kith and kin including innocent children, on a spurious manifesto of eliminating corruption and establishing free education. Ladies and gentlemen, you know exactly what I am talking about.
In Lome I had the privilege of having the pledge of ‘never again’ incorporated into the Preamble to the Peace Agreement. It reads: Determined to establish sustainable peace and security, to pledge forthwith to settle all past, present and future differences and grievances by peaceful means, and to refrain from the threat or use of force to bring about any change in Sierra Leone.” Unquote. [Thanks to the leader of our delegation, Attorney-General Solomon Berewa, my formulation of the pledge was strengthened by his addition of the word “any” before “change.”]
My second proposition in the looking ahead to towards Sierra Leone at 50 is for us to know and understand the present. By this I mean we should try to know as much as possible, the current state of affairs in the country. Individuals or groups, including those in the diaspora, could find such knowledge useful in devising ways and means of contributing to the overall development of Sierra Leone.
Speaking of understanding the present situation brings me to something which I strongly believe deserves serious consideration. No, it is not corruption. What I would like to underscore here is the dependence syndrome that pervades Sierra Leone society. We are an independent nation. We are proud of it. We have cut the chains of colonialism. To paraphrase the American Declaration of Independence, we have dissolved the political bands which had connected us with another to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle us. Of course this does not imply isolation, nor does it preclude international cooperation or even foreign investment and assistance. After all we live in an interdependent world. However, and I have no doubt you will agree that we have been too dependent, much too dependent on foreign aid. In most cases such aid comes not just with the proverbial strings/conditionalities attached, but also with a heavy external debt burden.
The dependence syndrome has apparently, and unfortunately I must say, crawled into our electoral process. As in many other Third World countries our elections are not considered free, transparent and fair unless they are observed, sometimes supervised or bankrolled and certified by foreigners. In recent years, our national elections have been heavily subsidized by donors or “the international community”. Then, as you and I know, further external donor subsidy is required to have a run-off Presidential election. Perhaps the drafters of the 1991 Constitution assumed that we could afford the expenses involved to go back to the polls in 14 days to elect a President because no candidate had received at least 55% of the valid votes in the first election. [Paragraph 42 (2) (e) (f) of the Constitution refers] In this connection I always picture a poor voter with a baby on her back and having had only one meal for the day, standing in a long queue, under a hot sun, waiting to vote. Then two or three weeks later she is expected to go through the harrowing process again. It is interesting to note that voters in the UK, a developed country that did not have to rely on foreign donors for this week’s general election, will not be going to the polls again in a run-off election. The question is why Sierra Leone, poor Sierra Leone? Many of us see this dependence syndrome in our electoral process in the context of the consequences or economic impact of the rebel war, in the same way as others (Western countries, in particular) are inclined to attribute all our problems in the Third World to one thing, namely corruption. Whether or not the syndrome is war related, I think it deserves serious attention.
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, the lessons of the past and the current situation that I have just highlighted lead me to suggest that as we approach the jubilee of nationhood we need to launch another independence movement. Such a movement should be aimed at achieving the highest level of economic independence, a movement that will strategically deal with the current dependence syndrome; a movement that encourages more creative means of establishing and maintaining self-sufficient institutions at the national and local levels.
Although historians and political scientists cite the 1898 Hut Tax resistance under the leadership of Bai Bureh and Momoh Jah, as well as the 1955 general strike and riots as part of our “struggle” against British colonialism, our first independence movement was, relatively speaking peaceful. The new independence movement I am advocating for achieving economic independence or economic self-sufficiency should be a violence-free movement. As I said earlier, the days of violent and bloody revolution in poor countries like ours should be considered over. Another armed conflict will send us back to another generation of poverty. It will concurrently increase our dependence on foreign donors.
The new independence movement should be based on respect for and harmonization of our diversity. This includes in particular, regional and gender diversity. Moreover, the movement must eschew political intolerance, something that breeds violence. In spite of their differences the political parties of the pre-1961 movement found it necessary to form a United Front to pursue with vigour the common objective of attaining self-determination and political independence.
Is it not possible to pursue the common objective of economic independence in the same spirit and with the same resolve?
I thank you.
Dr. Sylvester Ekundayo Rowe (photo) is a former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Sierra Leone to the United Nations (1999 to 2008). He joined the Mission in 1997 as an adviser after a distinguished career in the United Nations Secretariat spanning three decades, where among other assignments he had served as Head of UN Radio and Television Services; a speech writer and Spokesman for the President of the UN General Assembly (1984-85), and Counsel in the UN administration of justice system – the Joint Appeals Board and the Administrative Tribunal, and member/Chair of specialized examination boards for recruitment and promotion of entry level professional staff in areas of media and political science. Before his appointment in the UN Secretariat he was Programme Planner and one of the most celebrated professional broadcasters in Sierra Leone in the early and mid 1960s.
As Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative his areas of responsibility included disarmament, peacekeeping, human rights, counter-terrorism, sanctions regimes, and reform of the UN Security Council. He coordinated preparation of periodic reports to the Security Council on Sierra Leone’s Diamond Certification System aimed at ending the trade in conflict or so-called ‘blood diamonds’ He served as Sierra Leone’s representative in such bodies as the UN Commission on Human Rights, and the Committees on Peacekeeping Operations, Palestinian Rights and Decolonization. He also played an active part in the drafting of the International Instrument on Marking & Tracing of Small Arms and Light Weapons, and the new International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and served as Chairman of the UN Disarmament Commission in 2005, and the Preparatory Committee for the first Review Conference on implementation of the UN Programme of Action on the illicit trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons.
A member of the Government delegation to the peace talks with the RUF rebel movement, Dr. Rowe was one of the negotiators and drafters of the 1999 Lome Peace Agreement ending the eleven-year rebel war. Earlier, he had initiated the establishment (and later coordinated the operations) of the historic Radio FM 98.1, which was instrumental in the restoration of constitutional order in Sierra Leone following the military coup in 1997. Under a UNDP consultancy, he prepared an “Information and Communication Policy for Sierra Leone – a blueprint for a new partnership between the People, Government and the Media”. His principal recommendation was the establishment of two statutory bodies, namely the present Independent Media Commission (IMC), and the National Telecommunications Commission (NATCOM). In 2007 he received the national award of Grand Commander, Order of the Rokel, in recognition of his distinguished service to the nation in the fields of communications and diplomacy.
He is a graduate of Syracuse University, and the Graduate and University Center of the City University of New York where he received his MA, M.Phil and P.hD degrees. He was Visiting Professor at Long Island University (C.W. Post Campus) New York in 1998 and subsequently Adjunct Professor in the same University and at Fordham University in 2009. He has lectured and written on various issues pertaining to Sierra Leone in the areas of peacekeeping, disarmament, security, international humanitarian law and transitional justice. They include: “ECOMOG – a model for UN peacekeeping” Africa Law Today (The American Bar Association Section of International Law, October 1998); “Sierra Leone: the search for peace, justice and reconciliation” in Globalism: People, Profits and Progress (Kluwer Law International Publishers and the Canadian Council on International Law, 2002); “Sierra Leone: Pre-war and post-war security” Disarmament and Conflict Prevention” (UN DDA Occasional Papers #7, May 2003); and “The tragedy of child soldiers: international law and prospects for prevention” (Association of the Bar of the City of New York on African Affairs, June 2004).
A member of the American Society of International Law, among other professional bodies, Dr. Rowe occasionally serves as judge in the international law students annual Jessup Moot Court Competition.