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A Tribute To The Late Dr. Salia Jusu Sheriff : Former Leader of the SLPP and former Vice-President of the Republic
By Abass Bundu
Dec 31, 2009, 17:28
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Dr. Salia Jusu-Sheriff (fondly called Maada Salia) returned to his Maker on Saturday, December 19, 2009, after spending 80 years with us here on earth. He will be laid to rest at Sefula, Damawulo, Kenema District, his native home, on January 1, 2010. He is survived by his affable wife, Gladys, and five marvelous children.


Maada Salia entered public life decades before I did. As a matter of fact, I was a kid at school at the time. So I am not qualified to say anything about his life during those formative decades. I leave that for others, better qualified, to do. However, I may be forgiven if I feel presumptuous enough to pay tribute to this illustrious son of Sierra Leone, and I start from the time we first met in 1982, when we both answered to the call of President Siaka Stevens to join his One-Party Government, he as Minister of Finance and I as Minister of Agriculture and Natural Resources.


In accepting his appointment, Salia decided on his own volition to declare his assets. To the best of my knowledge he was the first and only Minister to do so. Today declaring personal assets by public officials is a mandatory requirement of the law. Salia in 1982 did so without the pressure of legislation. What does this tell us? It speaks volumes about the man, that indeed he was well ahead of his time!


Maada Salia also served as the Second Vice-President of the Republic in the One-Party Government of President Joseph Saidu Momoh from 1988 to 1991.


Books abound that teach how to build a house or make roads and engines, or how to write a book. But I have yet to come across a book that teaches how to build a nation out of diversity that has deep roots in multilingual, multicultural and multireligious differences, or how to create a decent livelihood for such a diverse people. Tasks like these are mammoth; they become even more daunting for a country whose natural resources are declining almost as fast as its people are relocating to seek imaginary fortunes in the cities.


That represents the countrys socio-economic landscape when Maada Salia joined Stevens Cabinet in 1982. The challenge he faced was formidable. He knew it, sensed it and accepted it. Developing countries everywhere compete with each other to attract foreign investment. This was accepted. And Sierra Leone needed to be more rugged, better organized and more efficient than our neighbours; if we were only as good as our neighbours, there was no reason for foreign businesses to come to us. Salia was acutely aware of this. He knew that to make the country more attractive, we needed to show that our people were more hard-working, more disciplined; that we had good basic infrastructure and a government that was determined to be honest and competent.


This was hard enough. Working under Stevens made an arduous task seem implausible. In many ways, it seemed like a man starting on a journey on an unmarked road leading to an unknown destination. This was so, because by 1982, things had gotten really bad and the public expectation, especially after Stevens had loaded his Cabinet with many high-powered intellectuals, was that the new Government should and would make things better. The challenge seemed interminably awesome. But it was inspiring also.    


Being the extraordinary man he was, it did not take Salia long to show that he was up to the task. He showed himself to be a steady, confident, dependable and consistent policy-maker, qualities that made him a natural in the Ministry of Finance. His pragmatic approach to problem-solving, a good head for figures, and a knack for getting to grips with the basic issues, ignoring the mass of detail, made him shine brightly among his peers. Above all, he was wise and canny. And definitely his presence in the Stevens Cabinet raised a great deal of hope and security, without which we could not have obtained the investment we needed to create jobs to absorb the growing numbers of school leavers and college graduates and prevent massive unemployment. 


Those who knew Salia well were not at all surprised by his purposefulness and tenacity. From a tender age, Salia displayed a gift that is rare among men. Born at Jojoima, Malema Chiefdom, Kailahun District to Karmoh Ansumana Sheriff and Haja Baindu Jusu Ngobeh, he had his schooling at the famous Bo School. From that time onwards, his life was never short of excitement, inspiration and expectation. He accumulated a string of firsts. He was the first in his family to go to an English school; the first in his family to attend the Bo School; the first Bo School boy to earn a First Division in the School Certificate Examination; and the first Sierra Leonean to qualify as a Chartered Accountant. How more extraordinary can anyone get?


No sooner he became a Minister than he set about to introduce the IMF and sound macroeconomic policies into the economy. This led him to introduce a two-tier foreign exchange regime: an official window (Le1.25 to US$1.00) and a commercial window (Le2.50 to US$1.00). Barely a few months passed before the two windows merged at the commercial level. Skeptics in the Cabinet were many, and I was certainly one of them.


Our disagreements were many and varied. And soon they became the butt of public gossip and speculation, venting the immature nature of our body politic. There were many, in and out of the Government, who considered our disagreements as personal; they were unable to decipher disagreements that were based on policy differences from the personal. Disappointingly, this was true even of persons one felt had sufficient intelligence to make the distinction.


I will give just one illustration. One evening a Cabinet colleague invited me to his personal home at Juba Hill, Freetown. By the standards of the time, it was very posh. It was my first visit there. My host, an able and persuasive engager, and also a notable skeptic of Salias financial policies, disclosed for the first time how much he admired my stance which, he said, had convinced him that together we could form an anti-Salia political alliance. I listened attentively. But the more I listened the more it became clear that my host wanted much more than an alliance against Salias financial policies.


Now, our meeting was taking place at the very height of the Ndorgborwusu uprising in Pujehun; a crisis that had claimed many lives and had destroyed many villages. Stevens was visibly shaken. He feared the worst and that the rebellion might spread beyond Pujehun if not quelled quickly. As it later turned out, that rebellion became the precursor to the 11-year rebel war the RUF waged from 1991 to 2002.


Maada Salia and my late friend at Juba Hill were the two political heavyweights frequently mentioned as the main interlocutors in the conflict. My friend did not conceal his antipathy and accused Salia as the clandestine instigator. So the alliance my Juba friend wanted from me that evening was double-edged: first and foremost, as an ally against Salias financial policy but, more importantly, as an ally against Salias meddling in the crisis in Pujehun. I had no problem with the former for which an alliance was unnecessary as my stance was already publicly known. But that was not my Juba friends purpose for inviting me. His real purpose was to find a helper in his not infrequent personal attacks on Salia. I told him I did not see myself as a useful ally as I practically knew nothing about the crisis, having just returned from abroad after sixteen years absence and was still creeping, so to speak, on the political canvass.


My Juba visit propelled me into inviting myself into Salias home at Riverside Drive the next day. He received me well. I also had the opportunity to meet his distinguished wife, Gladys. Salia always displayed a disposition to discuss and argue. When I put it to him that he was privately being accused of promoting rebellion in Pujehun, his coolness was disarming. He meticulously undressed himself of all the accusations, and did so with scarcely a rancour or bitterness. He said he had a legion of relatives and friends in Pujehun who persistently wanted him to get involved and protect them. But violence was not in his political armoury. That night I left Salias home firmly convinced not only of his innocence but that he and my erstwhile friend at Juba Hill were diametric opposites. The one did not believe in the use of violence, the other was not as shy.


Let me move on to 1991, the year the new democratic Constitution (Act No. 6 of 1991) was enacted. This Constitution returned the country to multi-party governance. Soon after the Constitution came into force, Salia withdrew from the APC Government and began in earnest the process of publicly resuscitating and registering the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP). Before this, there were those who entertained the belief that merely by serving as a Minister and later as Vice-President under the APC, that was sufficient to turn Salia Red. However, when the moment of reckoning came, the gentleman made it pellucidly clear that he was not for turning and that he remained as Green as ever.


As a matter of fact, throughout his cohabitation with one-party rule, Salia had been the silent caretaker of the SLPP. By so doing, he quietly, privately but resolutely kept hope alive of a return to political pluralism that was then under merciless assault from the heavy hand of one-party triumphalism. This was no mean feat. Siaka Stevens was not only the founder of one-party rule in Sierra Leone; he made sure that none other than the APC Party was licit and even outlawed political opposition as an assault on the political validity not only of the government in power but of the State itself.  


Keeping alive the spirit of political pluralism was Salias seminal political contribution to the struggles of our time, the struggles for democratic reconstruction and development of Sierra Leone. This was Salias other memorable service to this country. It inured to the benefit not just of his Party, the SLPP, but of the nation as a whole. Salia was not just a major stakeholder of the SLPP, he was also an eminent elder statesman. This is why many find it more than disheartening that successive Governments seemed to have displayed something smacking of an uncaring attitude, if not downright neglect, towards a man who had given so much service to the nation and made so much personal sacrifice. Were the question posed: what did successive Governments do for Salia throughout his illness from 1996 until his death in 2009? I dont know the answer, and I wonder how many do?"


This seemingly uncaring attitude towards Salia also confirms that even after 48 years of independence, we are still not out of the learning curve of how to respect and care for our elder statesmen. Just think about the treatment meted out to Albert Margai, Siaka Stevens, Joseph Saidu Momoh and even presently Ahmad Tejan Kabbah after they left office. Compared to the respect Nigerians show to their former leaders, we simply do not know how!          

By the time Salia withdrew from the APC Government, I had myself already given notice of my own disaffection. This I did through my contribution to the Parliamentary debate on the 1991 Constitution. On that glorious day I made my valedictory. So forming an alliance with Salia under the banner of the SLPP came truly effortlessly. It was born of the belief that with him at the helm, our country would at last get a government that was committed, efficient and honest and the people would be made to understand that economic and social progress and prosperity are not things that simply happen as the natural order of things; rather they are the products of untiring effort, vision and dedication from an honest and effective government that they elect. From the vantage position of the Executive Head of ECOWAS at the time, I could clearly see which West African leaders were succeeding and which ones were faltering and why.


Salia offered me the leadership of the SLPP. I never asked but I imagined he must have acted in consonance with the wave of opinion within the Party then, particularly among prominent Northerners, that it was time the Party had a Northerner as leader. A prime mover of this advocacy was my late teacher at primary school, the Honourable Sewa Bockarie Marah from Koinadugu. Marah, who had grown physically much too overblown for his own good, agreed to join me in my weekend joggings along Lumley Beach whenever my travels in West Africa brought me to Freetown. While jogging along the Beach one morning he asked that we stop to engage in a very intimate conversation. He urged me to offer myself for the leadership of the SLPP. I muttered something but did not give a definitive reply.


Hardly a day passed before Salia in turn made his offer. I told him I could not accept. Indeed how could I have accepted such an offer from a man who himself was not only a very worthy leader of the SLPP but had worked all his life for the Party and had tirelessly and selflessly been the symbol and embodiment of the Party throughout the years of APC one-party rule? To have accepted would definitely have misrepresented me as a self-centred and self-seeking persona. It was also clear to me that age was not in Salias favour. So I turned his offer around. We agreed that he would be the leader and I his running-mate. And all this happened before the overthrow of the Momoh Government by the NPRC in 1992.


Thus seen, but for Salias unfortunate illness, he would have been the unchallenged leader to take the SLPP to the abortive Presidential and Parliamentary Elections of 1992 as well as those of 1996. Salias illness became the countrys worst enemy, for it robbed it of a truly worthy leader. Salias towering personality, superior intelligence, discipline and ingenuity would have more than substituted for the paucity of the countrys natural resources. His vision was of a state that would not simply survive but prevail by excelling in working against seemingly insuperable odds to move Sierra Leone from poverty to prosperity. I believe he would have succeeded in transforming this country into becoming the Singapore of West Africa, thus dramatically changing the course of history. What a great loss Salias illness had been!


This pairing with Singapore is not a product of idle intellectualism. On the contrary, it is inspired by the many similarities between Sierra Leone and Singapore at the point of decolonization in the 1960s. Circumstances and natural endowment in Singapore could not have been less favourable.  Located on a sandbar with only a natural harbour as natural resource, Singapore at independence in 1965 had a polyglot population of a little over 2 million of which 75 per cent was Chinese, nearly 14 per cent was Malay and about 9 per cent Indian. It adjoined Indonesia to the south with a population of over 100 million (now nearly double that), and Malaysia to the north with a then population of over 6 million. By far the smallest country in South-East Asia (640, Singapore seemed destined to become a client state of its more powerful neighbours, if at all it could preserve its independence.


By the sheer extraordinary persona and vision of its leader, Lee Kuan Yew, today Singapore has succeeded in establishing First World standards in public and personal security, health, education, telecommunications and transport. It has also trained its people and equipped them to provide First World standard of service. By superior performance, it has overcome the initial hostility of its neighbours and its own internal ethnic divisions. The Singapore of today is Lee Kuan Yews abiding testament: annual per capita income has climbed from US$400 in 1959 when he took office as Prime Minister to US$12,200 in 1990 when he stepped down to upwards of $35,000 today. It is the high-tech leader of South-East Asia, the commercial entrept and the scientific centre of the region. What an extraordinary legacy this is!


I was privileged to know Mr. Lee in the 1970s when I worked as a senior staffer at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London and undertook missions to Singapore on numerous occasions. I therefore know I can easily compare Salia with Lee and say without reservation that had Maada Salia enjoyed a robust health when it mattered most and had he taken over the mantle of leadership in 1996, he would have been to Sierra Leone just like Lee was to Singapore, showing his people how to move from the status of Third World to First.  And today Salias legacy would have been no different!


By Allahs Will, this nation has lost Maada Salia to Eternity. Let us all pray that his soul shall rest in perfect peace!

© Copyright by Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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