Paramount Chiefs, Trade Unions, and The Siege of Eastern Police Station | Fantasy History 5

In the summer of 2000, Vitabu interviewed Banja Tejan-Sie in London over several weeks. Born on August 7, 1917, Tejan-Sie died August 8, 2000, aged 83. He was the last governor-general of Sierra Leone. Excerpts from the interviews will appear in Fantasy History to enhance the backdrop on political events before and after independence in 1961. 

Lamina Sankoh founded the People’s Party in 1949, which was aimed at uniting up-country men and the Creoles in Freetown. Membership of the party was highly intellectual. Sankoh later became a convert to the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), where he served in its executive. I was one of those who helped to convert him to the SLPP.  

By 1955, the government was practically in the hands of its Sierra Leonean ministers.  Albert Margai was then minister of education and in his capacity as minister of local government; he was saddled with quite a basketful of problems. 

I held the fort in our chambers and, as vice president of the SLPP, I had the duty of informing the government what was happening to paramount chiefs, whose loyalty to the SLPP was being questioned by white political officers or district commissioners as they were called. 

From time immemorial, there have been rulers in African societies. These rulers have either been hereditary tribal kings or leaders who have become so by virtue of conquest. 

The British created other leaders called Paramount Chiefs, when suzerainty was proclaimed over the hinterland of Sierra Leone and tribal areas were divided and boundaries laid down by British administrators. The areas and sizes of these chiefdoms varied from place to place and from tribe to tribe. 

The occupiers of the office had grossly misused chieftaincy, for years. Many a chief had been deposed by the British administration. There was corruption, extortion and unlawful imprisonment. These evils were much more pronounced in the Northern province, where subservience to Islam tended to dampen any manifestation of rebellion. 

By the fifties the trade union movement was also well organized. Thanks to the courage, resourcefulness, and devotion of I.T.A. Wallace Johnson.  He infused into a budding trade union movement a sense of mission. His vast experience of political and propaganda acumen yielded great dividends in that he was able to inspire into men like Marcus Grant, courage and determination. Marcus Grant was an active member of the Sierra Leone Youth League founded by Wallace Johnson. Grant was a devotee of Wallace Johnson, who’d taught him the strategy of agitation and its methodology. 

One would have thought at a time like this the trade union movement would have co-operated with the government and look forward to Independence in the very near future. Marcus Grant was then secretary of the Artisans and Allied Workers Union. This included most public employees on daily wages as some workers  in the private sector. Margai was local government, education, and social welfare minister, and Siaka Stevens was then minister of lands, mines and labor. 

In February 1955, a strike was called in support of a claim for a 75 percent wage rise in government rates of pay. There were seventy-six casualties, including seventeen deaths among civilians and one fatality with sixty other casualties among the police. The casualties occurred at the Eastern Police Station, where a huge crowd had gathered intent on stoning the station, which was then heavily beleaguered. 

Reinforcement of the army arrived on the scene and in spite of repeated warnings for the crowd to disperse, stones and missiles were thrown. The army opened fire and the causalities were inevitable. Meanwhile, even before the riots got underway, Dr. Milton margay, then Leader of Government Business (a kind of quasi prime minister) appointed five of us to negotiate and find a means of averting the strike.

The negotiation team set up to broker a deal with the trade union movement included three government ministers, Albert Margai, Sanusi Mustapha, and Siaka Stevens. As vice president of the SLPP, I was also included. We held one or two meetings but we could not get any agreement because of the intransigence of both Siaka Stevens, the minister of labor, and Marcus Grant, leader of the strike. 

It seemed at the time that Stevens and Grant had developed a kind of mutual animosity. Stevens offered four percent increase and this was categorically rejected by the union leaders. 

We were getting frequent intelligence reports from the police that there would valence if the demands of the workers were not met. At a final meeting held in Albert Margai’s office, we pleaded with Stevens to yield to the demands of the workers. He flatly refused. There was already stone throwing in the streets. Traffic was disrupted. Streetlights and bulbs were destroyed and cars overturned. While at the meeting, the senior assistant to the colonial secretary walked in. He bluntly informed us that from information received, our own lives were in danger. The rioting crowd was already demanding our deaths. He added that it would be better if we made no attempt to go home. The riots continued into the next day, when the tragic incidents at the Eastern Police Station took place. 

A commission of inquiry was ordered by the government under the chairmanship of Herbert Cox. The ten percent increase demanded by the Trade Union was agreed upon. The workers got what they actually asked for. The blame for the death and misery lay squarely on the shoulders of Siaka Stevens and Marcus Grant. They both arrogantly stuck to their guns and because of the stubbornness of Stevens in particular, the government under an African executive, suffered its first defeat.


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