Sierra Leone | Safe to Speak


It's more than 40 years since Sourie Turay spent a gap year working on  Sierra Leonean civic education with Talabi Aisie Lucan. Fresh out of Bo School in 1972, twenty-year old Turay had an enviable position being part of  Lucan's working group in a trailblazing Social Studies Curriculum Unit. Lucan—as a grand, 90-year-old national treasure, rates her storied publication “Civics of Sierra Leone” among her success stories.

Social studies teachers used her book to teach citizenship to a generation of  Sierra Leoneans. But what it means to be Sierra Leonean--civics isn't just dry theory stuck on the pages of dusty books. It comes alive in individual and collective experiences of, and, attitudes to society, citizenship, politics, laws and government.

A British worker for twenty-five years, Turay, did a stint at the Prudential Assurance Company,  served as an aviation insurance and contract specialist at Lucas Industries, and risk and insurance manager at Medway Council before retiring in the late 2000s. Here, he shares emotional stories of culture, leadership, election petitions and real life civic lessons.

Sewa News: Who had strong cultural influence when you were growing up?

Sourie Turay: I was born in Bo, Sept. 1952, in a family that eventually grew to twenty-one with me at No. 9.  My father named me after his eldest brother who brought him to Sierra Leone.

Because he came to settle among a host population, where he gained enormous recognition and respect, he had a heightened sense of justice and fair play. He lived his life straddling cultures, his Mandingo one and that of the host's population.  He would tell me repeatedly to speak the truth as I know it. He would say, 'your truth could be wrong but what matters is that you will not sin for saying what you genuinely believed.'

About a month before my father died, he and I were counting money and placing them against each of the rate demand papers of his several houses. At a point, I saw him frantically searching with his hands on the floor because his sight had diminished. I eventually asked him what he was looking for and he told me a five Leone note he had misplaced. I told him it was lying there and asked him why he had not asked me. His reply was, 'I  know you don’t steal,' and that he must have misplaced it. He died a month later. I can safely say when I have been tempted to steal, his words would ring in my ears.

My interest in politics and its legality started  back  in 1962.  In those elections, all I knew was that petitions against SLPP [Sierra Leone People's Party] candidates had failed on the back of the infamous "Rule 19."

The only petition that succeeded was that against Samura Sesay who had won for the APC  [All People's Congress] against Barthes Wilson. I would spend my lunch money to buy the Daily Mail just to follow the case, when as you can imagine I could barely read, let alone understand. Sesay lost the petition and Shaki [Siaka Stevens] got Barthes to cross carpet to APC and he got the symbol. Samura Sesay ran as an Independent and lost woefully.

 My interest in our land tenure goes back to 1973, when in a constitutional law lecture I came in contact with the Buck case, where a group of Krios took the government to court to prevent independence as one country. They lost and, in my view, rightly, but then, my mind questioned the morality of fighting another to insist we are one and then turn round and effectively make them second class when it comes to land. I also found the Akar case totally gripping, because our government had removed citizenship from somebody who had it at independence. He had done nothing wrong beyond being mixed race over which he had no control.

Sewa News: Who had a world changing view on society in later years?

Sourie Turay: I left Bo School in 1972 after A-levels [General Certificate of Education Advanced Level] and taught for a year at CKC [Christ the King College]. During which time I was one of the team working in the Social Studies Curriculum Unit headed by Talabi Lucan. I entered Fourah Bay College in 1973; read law, philosophy and history with African political systems in my final year, graduated in '76, and taught for a while at the Prince of Wales School in Freetown before moving into the civil service as assistant secretary in the Ministry of Lands and Mines. I left to join the National Insurance Company where I worked until I proceeded to the U.K. and qualified as a Chartered Insurance Practitioner with an LL.B. (bachelor of laws).

I am not a practicing lawyer because when [my father] knew I wanted to be one he forbade me from doing so because he said lawyers lie and they drink. I had to convince him before he died, so I settled for a compromise to do law but not be a practicing lawyer.

The history of Sierra Leone and any change that has occurred cannot be laid at the door of one man/woman nor can we blame a particular era. We are God's best loved country, because if we were not, the efforts we have put in its destruction could have destroyed it 10 times over.

I find not one single person or leader who has come out clean right from the very beginnings. Some of the things I say would be very controversial but let me hazard it anyhow:

Thomas Peters, who led his people to Sierra Leone caused trouble because he believed they promised him the position of deputy to Governor Clarkson and it did not materialize. The rupture between the governor and governed started at that point and he was done for stealing barely a month after arriving in Sierra Leone. The first self-governing Freetown City Council was disbanded because Mayor May and others stole money.

Fast forward to independence and Sir Milton Margai, revered by all. Well, at independence you could be Sierra Leonean either through your father or mother. To get at John Akar, Sir Milton changed that a year later, in 1962, and that restriction stayed on our citizenship laws until Kabbah [Ahmad Tejan-Kabbah] changed it in 2006. Sir Milton locked up or banished opponents: Paramount Chief Tamba M'Briwah and  Paramount Chief Bai Koblo. Sir Milton was mute on the Sanusie Mustapha rice scandal.

Sir Albert rolls in as the greatest libertarian leader and the one who started giving meaning to tribalism. Within a year of coming to power for instance, the intake into the officer corps of the Army was more than 80 percent south-eastern. To his credit and perhaps being a lawyer, most of our post-independence case law is owed to him because he used the courts and they were free and independent.

What can I say about Shaki? He gave physicality to the divide we have today and wrecked the country at an accelerated pace. The less said about Momoh, the better. [Major General (Ret.) Joseph Saidu Momoh (1937 – 2003) was the president of Sierra Leone from Nov. 1985 to April 29, 1992]

Kabbah came in when we were right on the floor and had tremendous goodwill which he, in my opinion, squandered. He started off bringing in people as if time had stood still since the SLPP lost power. He could have done better if he did not appear so aloof even from his ministers and that brings us neatly to the present.

I find it difficult talking about Ernest [ President Koroma] because he is not only a friend and brother. I have a direct line of communication through which, if I feel strongly about something, I can make him know. That said, the government under him behaves in an almost "Mafioso" fashion with the bulk of people around him showing scant regard for the worsening conditions of our people. He took over a country free of debt and we are gradually getting overburdened with debt and little to show for it. His team is like a hybrid of the Momoh regime, where govt officials stole with no regard for the consequences and there is brutalization by a compromised police force. This last aspect is the bit I find most objectionable. It is bad enough for people to struggle without having to live with the constant fear of a police force out of control.

Ernest still has four years to go and he can change things. It is not the economy or infrastructure. None of those will mean anything if we are not a nation and if he is not careful, he will be remembered as the only leader since Shaki to leave behind a nation near water-tight split between the North and West on the one hand and the South and East on the other!

Sewa  News: What's in the future?

Sourie Turay: Martin Luther King once said, “I refuse to accept despair as the final solution to the ambiguities of man.” Sierra Leone is a country in perpetuity and I have said that we are God's best loved country. No human effort will succeed in destroying it. There are little movements in the direction of recognizing that we cannot succeed divided. That is the key. A nation that calls itself one will educate its children and care for its people's health. It will enhance communication links. A people who are one need very little government because they can realize their own potential in an enabling environment.

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