April 27, 2021 marks sixty years of Sierra Leonean independence. There will be a celebration of freedom, nationhood, history and patriotism in the country on the day. Some of us Sierra Leoneans, both at home and in the diaspora, will once again – as we do at this time of the year – reflect on what freedom has meant for our nation. And as before, it will invoke all sorts of complex emotions.
For me, the Sierra Leone story is one of abuse: A nation that was founded in exploitation and that continues to be trapped in a cycle of abuse. We’ve gained independence, yet remain dependent on aid; and are now trying to work out how to live in a globally interdependent world that places us at the lowest level of priority. Our planet is beset by monumental challenges – fair access to economic resources and ethical governance – and these all seem magnified several fold in Sierra Leone. The sad irony is that we are a nation rich in natural resources; and once provided succour for freed slaves repatriated back to Africa.
We know that Sierra Leone existed as a colony of Britain for the sole purpose of making Britain richer and advancing the goals of Empire. But then there was independence, sixty years ago- and self-government. It should have been smooth sailing after that, right?
History has shown however, that all too often, conflict follows de-colonisation. There was mismanagement and corruption after the British left, by our home grown leaders. Ethnic strife festered amongst people across the nation. A civil war lasting 11 years paralysed the country, leaving over 50,000 dead. A vulnerable nation, weak in basic infrastructure, succumbed to Ebola in recent years. It is a small wonder that the covid-19 pandemic has not wreaked more havoc than it might have, given the state of the nation’s health system.
Today, the British influence may exist mainly in the structures that were left behind. China has now rapidly moved in as the dominant power. As an example, China has sent almost 7,000 tons of food aid to the country recently, in the face of the pandemic. The relationship is of course, ruthlessly transactional, with China obviously, wielding far more bargaining power. China seems to have been given carte blanche in commercial fishing, which environmental activists say is destroying our coastline and tourism potential. Chinese companies have secured the largest iron ore concession in the country. The trade-off is said to have been the construction of roads through underdeveloped areas. China appears to have the largest grip on fish and timber that’s produced in the country.
It is in this context that a Diaspora Sierra Leonean like me ponders independence. Many of us fled during the war, and many of us are economic migrants who came to western countries seeking economic freedom and a better life. We provide an important source of resources for our extended families back in Sierra Leone. We work hard, and the money we send home can often be the difference between life or death. And we continue to ask ourselves: How has Sierra Leone’s independence worked for us these last sixty years ?
Has it even been a good thing?
Thinking about the future, how can we make a greater contribution moving forwards so that Sierra Leonean’s can enjoy the freedom and benefits that being independent should bring.