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Sierra Leone News: Pan-Africanism, Education, and Freedom of Expression in Sierra Leone

Ismail Rashid,  Professor of History,
Vassar College, New York
Let me extend my appreciation to the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ) and Teach for Sierra Leone (TFSL) for organizing this lecture in honor and recognition of Olu Gordon, who passed in 2011. Olu, as numerous tributes reiterated six years ago, was a formidable journalist, a brilliant scholar, and a committed Pan-Africanist. I hope that this lecture will be become fully instituted, and an annual occasion for reflections on themes important to Olu Gordon, and crucial for our beloved Sierra Leone, and Africa.
I.Sierra Leone and Pan-Africanism
There are intense and ongoing debates about Pan-Africanism, its definition, origins, its content, forms, and its ultimate objectives. I do not intend to delve into these debates this morning. For our purpose this morning, I would use the definition that Olu Gordon, his compatriots Pan-African Union (PANAFU) and its allied organizations embraced: “the liberation, unity and development of Africa and Africans under a just and egalitarian system.”
In this framework, Pan-Africanism not simply a heritage or an idea, it is our lodestar, and common destiny. It is not catchy sloganeering; it is a measured and veritable conclusion drawn by Africa’s foremost thinkers and leaders based on the experiences, struggles, and aspirations of millions of Africans.
A quick Internet search for Pan-African\ism yields over 2.8 million items, with hundreds of organizations, institutions, groups, and events bearing the name Pan-African. We may criticize the Organization of African Unity, and its successor, the African Union, and the various regional economic communities (ECOWAS, IGAD, EAC, SADC and AMU) for their ineffectiveness, their bureaucratic insularity, and the glacial pace at which they are pursuing continental and regional integrations, but we cannot deny that they are products of Pan-Africanism, which continue to have concrete impact on the lives of Africans.
We also cannot ignore the fact that there is a struggle going to re-define these institutions and to make them more responsive to the concerns and aspirations of the majority of Africans. Pan-Africanism is therefore not a passé ideology, but a living force that continues to permeate the consciousness, politics, and organization of Africans in myriad forms.
Olu always returned to Sierra Leone, from his personal, political, and intellectual sojourns in Nigeria, the United Kingdom and United States. It was borne out of a strong conviction that Sierra Leone was special, and central to the struggle of Pan-Africanism. This lecture builds on this conviction that Sierra Leone has historically played an important role in the emergence of the African Diaspora, from whence sprung seeds of Pan-Africanism, and should continue to play a vital role in fostering Pan-African consciousness, and the integration of Africa.
Despite the periodic mobilization of ‘tribalism’ for political gains, there is much in Sierra Leone’s demographic composition, recent history, and cultural evolution that emblematizes the emblematizes the spirit of Pan-Africanism. The country’s colonial experience should not obscure the flames of freedom from enslavement and racial domination raised by segments of its population. Education, for personal and collective uplift, and an African-owned press, were regarded as crucial to keep these flames alight.
Furthermore, while Sierra Leonean voices may not have been very prominent in the intense debates over Pan-Africanism in the 1940s-50s decolonization era, it was home to some of earliest influential pan-African thinkers and ideas in the nineteenth and early 2oth century. Africanus Horton and Edward W. Blyden stand out in the regards. Marcus Garvey’s UNIA and NCBWA were also Pan-African organizations implanted in Sierra Leone. In the late 1930s and 1940s, ITA Wallace-Johnson, with his West African Youth League and African Standard stood as one of the most prominent Pan-African endeavors of the period. Finally, Pan-Africanism was crucial to the re-democratization of Sierra Leone, and re-energization of West African regional integration in the 1990s and the turn of the 21st century.
II.  Sierra Leone, Slavery and the Making of the African Diaspora
It is common knowledge that the seeds of Pan-Africanism were planted during heinous Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade that started from fifteenth century and ended in the late nineteenth century. Driven by a succession of feuding and capricious slavers from Europe, abetted by various traders and chieftains in West and Central Africa coasts, over 12 million people from Africa were captured, forcibly transported, brutally enslaved and intensely exploited by Europeans in the Americas.
Nearly every human society in history has experienced forms of oppression and domination of the weak by the strong; what distinguished the enslavement of Africans from these earlier forms was its relative modernity (Africans were being enslaved at a time when slavery was dying its Europe), its racialism (black Africans were specifically targeted and enslavement became synonymous with them), and its link to rise of modern capitalism.
The bodies and labor of Africans contributed the most to erection of modern capitalist societies (which many of us admire in Europe and America). Enslaved Africans were simultaneous trading goods, money, insurance, and productive labor. European enslavement dehumanized Africans, sought to reduce them to beasts of burden, and to make the objects of the will of slaveholders. Apart from the damage that it did to people,  slavery — as Walter Rodney points out in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa – sapped Africa of creative and productive energies, setting it on a downward spiral path of economic impoverishment.
For three centuries, from the arrival of the Portuguese in the mid-fifteenth century to British in the early eighteenth century, various societies in Sierra Leone were drawn into the maelstrom of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Bullom, Sherbro, Limba, Temne, Mende, Vai, and peoples from all linguistic groups in Sierra Leone were captured and sold into slavery. The cultural and genetic traces of these Sierra Leonean groups abound in the Americas, and in many of those who returned “home” from the late 18th century onwards.
Africans resisted captivity, enslavement and racial denigration in Africa, the Americas and Europe, bequeathing Pan-Africanism one of its core elements – the long struggle for freedom from all forms of racial oppression and dehumanization. The fight would take many forms in many different places over the centuries, from defense of religious and cultural practices, recreation of African communities, violent protests and revolution, agitation for repatriation to mobilization for full citizenship.
The people of Haiti, from 1791 to 1804, achieved one of the unprecedented feats in the history of African resistance against slavery, defeating their French slaveholders, as well as three great European powers of the day, France, Spain, and Britain. Of the so-called great modern revolutions of the eighteenth century (which includes the American and French revolutions), the Haitian Revolution was the most far reaching and most complete in over-hauling an oppressive system. [I wonder whether we learn about this in our schools in Sierra Leone. But, surely, we do learn about the Maroons of Jamaicans, who fought the British to a standstill and had to be deported to Canada, and eventually to Sierra Leone in 1800].
In line with Haiti and later Liberia, Sierra Leone was one of the vital nodes in the circularity of trans-Atlantic enslavement, the creation of an African Diaspora, the repatriation of Africans to their “African” homeland, and re(creation) of new forms of freedom. While in Liberia, the new forms of freedom would produce a perverse political and social order in which the indigenes would be dominated by repatriated Africans; in Sierra Leone, British colonial rule forced a different script for the returnees.  While the country would continue be a beacon of “antislavery,’ but its inhabitants had to continue their fight for independence and freedom the next 150 years.
What is germane to us in this lecture are two crucial pillars around which Africans in Sierra Leoneans would anchor this fight – education and the press. The earliest European style educational institutions — primary, secondary and tertiary in Africa — were first established in Sierra Leone. Yet, this mainly colonial missionary education, was never conceived as an instrument to free Africans, but to entrap them with the confines of a Eurocentric Christianity, culture, and economic system.  For all its limitations, this education also contain the potential to open up the minds of individuals to new forms of resistance, new possibilities, and to provide them with the language to articulate these possibilities. And, it did.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Sierra Leoneans had founded newspapers like the African Interpreter, the Advocate, the Artisan, Weekly News, which ran stories and editorials that were deeply critical of colonialism and racism, and supportive of the rights of Africans.
Most important, Sierra Leone became one of the sites where a systematic discourse of anti-racism and Pan-Africanism was being produced. Africanus Horton and Edward Wilmot Blyden stand out in this regard. Blyden, in particular would articulate some of the core ideas that would animate Pan-Africanism well into the 20th century; the idea of Africa as home, the profundity of the African personality, the triple heritage of the African continent, and Pan-Africanism as a [providential] destiny.
But these two men are also equally important with regards to issue of education. Horton proposed a Pan-West African university that will educate Africans in the humanities as well as the sciences. Blyden proposed a revolutionary curriculum for the university of Liberia that will expose students not only non-racist classical education, but will draw from the well-spring of African languages, cultures, and experiences.
As I mentioned earlier, it was not only Pan-African ideas that fermented in Sierra Leone, some of the prominent Pan-African organizations of the early 20th century – the Universal Negro Improvement Association of Marcus Garvey – of which Adelaide Casely-Hayford was a staunch member – and the National Congress of British West Africa (which provided a vehicle for the anticolonial and anti-racist politics of elites from the Gold Coast, Nigerian and Sierra Leonean. For both organizations, the press was a vital instrument. Garvey’s Negro World was one of the most widely distributed newspapers in the world – to the point where colonial authorities – and even the Liberian government sought to limit its circulation.
ITA Wallace Johnson, the West African Youth League and the African stand (Pan-Africanism, mass politics, and socialism)
*Despite his incarceration during the war years, ITA Wallace left a legacy of radical anti-colonial and pro-people journalism that pushed boundaries of press freedom.
*However, there is guarantee fruits of victory can always be protected.
*APC hijacked and debased the legacy of Pan-Africanism and socialism
IV. Pan-Africanism in the 1970s and 1980s
Emphasis students, education and the press (Tablet, For di People, Positive Action]
After the hijacking and debasement of Wallace Johnson’s Pan-Africanism by the APC, it took student radicalism and youthful exuberance at the university campuses days to revive its once more – and to use it to resist oppression at home and elsewhere in Africa. In the early to mid seventies at the Fourah Bay College and Njala University College—inspire by their counterparts in Liberia — brothers Gilbert Cleo-Hanciles, Olu Gordon, Murray James, Sam Tumoe, John Langba, Peter Turay – took up the gauntlet. {Unfortunately some of the brothers, already crossed over, and others still living, fell by the way side and become choked up with wanting personal riches, in the quest for the transformation of our society for the benefit of the majority of our suffering people]
By the end of the seventies some brothers saw the need to develop and transcend beyond youthful exuberance, student radicalism and nationalism to take the bold path towards a Pan-Africanist outlook. Again Cleo Hanciles, Olu Gordon, Peter Turay, etc played major and key roles in the formative years of the revival of Pan-Africanism in Sierra Leone. The Movement for Progress in Africa (MOPA) was born and formed. It was at this stage that students and youths map out the strategy to embrace and learn from the workers plight and struggle. This culminated in the workers uprising in the early eighties that threatened the then corrupt, repressive and backward one-party All Peoples Congress regime.
It was out of this resolve, commitment, perseverance and reluctance to be stifled by fear, that in the early eighties, that once again brothers including Gilbert Cleo-Hanciles, Olu Gordon and others decided to form and launch a full bloom Pan-Africanist movement, the Pan-African Union, Sierra Leone (PANAFU-SL). The objective was Pan-Africanism, the complete and total emancipation, unification and development of Africans and Africa, using our vast natural resources. Our motto is Liberation, Unity and Development.
In the early to mid eighties the Movement metamorphosed into a level of internationalism, and started coordinating and working with other Pan-Africanist organizations, movements and parties within the African continent and the Diaspora. At this time with the need and desire to inform, educate and organize, the Pan-African Union, Sierra Leone reawaken the works and teachings of great sons and daughters of Africa such as Edward Blyden, Isaac Theophilus Akunna Wallace-Johnson, Kwame Nkrumah, Ahmed Sekou Toure, Amilcar Cabral, Constance Commings-John, Titina Sillah, Adeline Casely-Hayford, etc. The vision of a just, humanistic and egalitarian society under scientific socialism has now become paramount in all our works and teachings. Brother Olu Gordon participated in all of these transformations and development of the Pan-Africanist movement in Sierra Leone
V.  Sierra Leone, ECOWAS, and the revitalization of Regionalism
In an article I wrote in 2008. I argued the Sierra Leone civil war despites its destructive and traumatic consequences, was a seminal Pan-Africanist moment. It became a catalyst for revivifing Pan-West African regionalism.
With the support of the Economic Community of West African ECOWAS, of Sierra Leoneans mobilized against violence and around new democratic norms to start the rebuilding of their country. Sierra Leoneans recognize the tremendous sacrifices and contributions of their fellow West Africans in rescuing their country from the abyss of war.
As a result of its involvement in the conflicts in Sierra Leone, and Liberia, ECOWAS expanded its mandate from economic integration and cooperation to maintaining regional security and well as fostering democratic government. It is an ideologically and structurally different organization from what its founders envisaged in 1975. Recall, the lead it also took on mobilizing support across the region and continent in combatting the EVD in the MRU states between 2013-2016.
Sierra Leoneans, especially the press need to become strong advocates for ECOWAS and its activities.
Sierra Leone Press, Education and Pan-Africanism
If Olu were alive what would he have articulated as the charge of the media in Sierra Leone in relationship to Pan-Africanism, education and press freedom.
First, he would advocate that journalists and media practitioners continue to defend and protect the enlarged space and freedom of expression that they had won in mid 1990s, after two decades of restriction and repression from the APC, NPRC and AFRC regimes.
Second, he would counsel the media to be pro-people, and to be one of the unrelenting vehicles through which social justice is pursued, and as collective concerns, interests and aspirations of Sierra Leoneans are voiced. In short, he would push for a national democratic press, one in which the welfare of the majority of Sierra Leoneans and Sierra Leone is paramount.
Third, Olu would press the media to be instrument of education –constantly reminding Sierra Leoneans about their history, politics, and society. He would ask you – his fellow practitioners - to fight ignorance, easy clichés, false and fake news, and above all, sensationalism in your reporting and commentary. Refrain from stoking “tribalism” and “tribal politic.” Our different linguistic and cultural heritages are the products of people’s geniuses and historical experiences, not elite weapons to fight each other during elections.
There are many issues that require in-depth investigation and reporting as well as serious commentary in Sierra Leone. One glaring one is of course, our dysfunctional educational system.
Fourth, Olu would push the media in Sierra Leone to be steadfastly Pan-Africanist; to situate its coverage within an African worldview; to be supportive of progressive Pan-Africanist organizations, pro-active in countering anti-African and anti-black prejudice; and to project a positive image of Africa and peoples of African descent.
Today, every person in a dark-hue skin, whether or not their ancestor was enslaved, carries with them the irremovable badge of racial denigration.
Wednesday 07, 2017.

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