Sierra Leone, Africa 60 years later: desire for justice, democracy and development
Posted On May 8, 2021
Fr. Luigi Brioni, who is working in Sierra Leone, West Africa for more than sixty years reflects on his extraordinary experience and the contribution of his missionary life for Sierra Leone and for all the church. Fr. Brioni studied theology in the United States and worked here from 2000-2003.
Sixty years ago, on April 27, 1961, the British colony of Sierra Leone became an independent nation, one of the few African states to obtain its sovereignty without revolution or bloodshed.
The new government was chaired by Prime Minister Milton Margai, while Queen Elizabeth would remain a formal head of state until 1971, when President Siaka Stevens proclaimed the country a republic totally disconnected from the United Kingdom.
It was evidently not easy for the Sierra Leonesi to become independent and manage the new national reality for the good of all. First of all, there was an urgency to bring together the Freetown Peninsula Colony with the Protectorate (which included the rest of the country), and to harmonize their diversity of laws and traditions. The Creoles of the capital Freetown, who made up the majority of intellectuals, evidently wanted to dominate politics, while the rest of the country no longer accepted being subjugated to anyone. So, for several years, politics struggled to take off towards an effective commitment to the common good.
With our schoolchildren
As a “good missionary” I had followed the events of Sierra Leone from Parma; I was a young Xaverian and I gladly shared the hopes of my confreres to soon see that country position itself at the forefront of the new independent nations of Africa.
At that time Sierra Leone had some decent possibilities for development, such as a clear legislative structure (even if too English in style for an African country), iron and diamond mines, the ocean rich in fish, great possibilities for agriculture, and forests of precious wood. Furthermore, the dozen tribes that make up the population were beginning to understand the need to be united in a national family.
Despite all this, the problems were not lacking. Above all there was the almost total absence of prepared leaders capable of assuming national ideals and commitments; the school system was still limited to large centers such as Freetown, Bo, Makeni, and Magburaka; laws, traditions, and tribal interests took priority over the new national structures born with independence; the Creole intelligentsia of Freetown continued to control both the government and the bureaucracy; the infrastructures of roads, bridges, electricity, and commercial exchanges were still too poor to hope for a miracle like that of Italy during the first years of the second post-war period. In the first ten years of independence, thanks to the legislative and economic legacy left by Britain, Sierra Leone continued to do quite well even if it did not move quickly. The laws and services worked fairly regularly. I remember clearly, and with pleasure, that when I arrived in Sierra Leone, the pride of being the least militarized nation in all of Africa was still alive! Maybe that wasn’t quite true, but military spending at the time did not exceed 2% of the national budget.
Then in 1967 the coup d’état began, one after the other, until the victory of the APC (All Peoples Congress) party and its leader Siaka Stevens who would remain at the helm of the country for about 20 years. Stevens had achieved his political prominence with the mining unions, and had founded his own party, the APC, to which he had given the sun of the future in the red of love … or violence, as it actually happened. .
When I arrived in Sierra Leone in July 1968, there was still a lot of political tension in the country, so much so that at the airport I and two other passengers were greeted by soldiers with rifles drawn.
Unfortunately, Stevens’s political management of the country was becoming more and more dictatorial every day; the parliament did nothing but slavishly approve his decisions, even going so far as to modify articles of the Constitution without a real debate. So too nepotism and cronyism were increasing everywhere; national values and structures became more and more fragile, and the waste of finances more and more evident.
Stevens’ pride then led him to invite the OAU (Organization of African Unity) to gather in the capital Freetown for the Pan-African meeting. It was a huge waste of public finances, mainly used to cover the costs of villas he had built specifically for the heads of delegation. According to many, that enormous expenditure of money – there was talk of around $ 200 million at the time – was the official start of inflation, corruption, and many national disasters.
In 1985, now old and tired, Stevens, who had declared the APC a single party, imposed on the country as his successor a man who was absolutely loyal to him, namely the army chief of staff, Joseph Momoh. In fact, Momoh became a puppet president and this was one of the fundamental conditions for the outbreak of war civilian in 1991.
It was difficult, even for us missionaries who have been present for years in Sierra Leone, to foresee that civil war – a conflict that would last 10 years, would have produced destruction of all kinds everywhere, and above all it would have hurled itself with unprecedented brutality against so many innocent people.
It is difficult for us to calculate the casualties of the war, but it is easy to estimate that the dead were more than 10,000; there were countless amputations of arms and feet and the recruitment of child soldiers was widespread. Statistics also tell us that 90% of the population has had to flee home for at least some time. Truly, that period was the most tragic experience for the country and a time when it was forgotten by the rest of the world.
Even the Catholic Church had its victims: four sisters of Mother Teresa were killed in 1999 in Freetown … almost as a joke! Seven Xaverian sisters were held hostage by the rebels for two months; the Archbishop of Freetown was taken prisoner and so badly humiliated; various Xaverians and Josephites were held hostage for days, while churches, parish houses, and schools were destroyed on a large scale. Furthermore, all means of transport of the missions were destroyed or stolen. Many of our people wondered, “But why all this suffering? Why are we abandoned by everyone and also by God? “
However, we cannot forget the goodness of so many people, Christians and non-Christians, who during the war, despite their own poverty, helped fathers and religious to hide and have some food. Our truest thanks go to them, even now.
One of the best known aspects of our civil war was the recruitment of children – even those as young as two – to become full members of both rebel militias and the army.
Father Vittorio Bongiovanni, who lived the war in first person and often risked his life in his numerous encounters with loved forces, tells us this sad episode:
“Among the child soldiers there was also a little girl named Fatimata Kamara. The rebels had snatched her from her family in her village when she was only two years old. I met Fatimata at the end of the war, six years later, in the camp of child soldiers in Makeni and immediately decided to take her back to her small village near Yele, about 70 km away. To free her, I asked Fatimata for her name in her village and that of her parents.
To my question, “What is your mum’s name?”, She replied, “Mum!”. And then to, “What was your mom like?”, She replied “Great”. “And your dad?”, “Great!”. Thus, he did not even remember anything about the village. Finally, and only providentially, I learned the name of her village. Then I gave her to a teacher in those parts of her to take her back to her parents. Arriving in the village, the teacher met a woman who was going to wash clothes at the river. This she, seeing the child, she began to shout: “This is my Fatimata!” And she fainted from her emotion.
Finally in 2002 the gift of peace arrived for the whole nation. The then President Kabbah, who was so committed to national reconciliation, made an official appeal: “Let us forgive and forget this war.”
Father Vittorio again confides in me that he commented in the cathedral on the presidential words cum gran salis and that, although we are not able to forget, we need to imitate Jesus, who on the cross prays to the Father to forgive his crucifiers.
In the last twenty years we have seen a positive change of mentality as an immediate effect of the war, even in children, who otherwise easily use violent words towards their peers. Another good effect of the war was an awakening of consciences about human rights, of freedom of opinion, of the condemnation of rampant corruption, while not always managing to produce changes in the national reality.
At present, after ten years under the presidency of Ernest Koroma of the APC and three under that of President Maada Bio, Sierra Leone remains one of the poorest countries in the world. At the same time, there is everywhere a desire for justice, democracy, development against all physical and moral violence.
The Church remains at the forefront, with catechesis and works of charity, so that the Sierra Leonese themselves become the main architects of a future development that will increasingly unite the nation in peace. Peace, in fact, remains the most heartfelt desire of all the friendly people of Sierra Leone.