In the summer of 1983, I needed to make three business visits to Freetown, capital of the Republic of Sierra Leone. The country lies on the west coast of Africa, just a few degrees north of the equator. Pat accompanied me on two of my visits. Freetown is a city of over one million people, who should never go hungry because the fish in the adjoining ocean contain more than enough protein for everyone.
At the center of Freetown is a superb natural harbor, said to be the third largest in the world. There are many beaches with fine white sand and the potential for a successful tourist industry. The country has plenty of diamonds and other minerals. (Note: The recently released movie, Blood Diamonds, with Leonard DiCaprio is an accurate depiction of the atrocities in Sierra Leone.)
It is also a place where agriculture should be thriving. In other words, there is every reason for Sierra Leone to be rich and prosperous. Yet it is one of the poorest countries in the world. It languishes at the bottom of every league table used to measure decent and civilized standards. Why should this be?
Freetown was first settled in 1787 by the British who populated it with newly freed American slaves, hence the name Freetown. Incidentally, Sierra Leone is Spanish for Lion Mountains. When viewed from the sea, the local mountains are said to look like the head of a lion. Freetown grew quickly. From 1808 onwards, the Royal Navy made Freetown its headquarters in its fight to end the slave trade. Africans on many of the slave ships intercepted by the Royal Navy often chose to settle in Freetown, which tended to be safer for them than returning to their various places of origin. And so the population grew.
At the time of the founding of Freetown, the event was marked by the planting by the resettled American slaves of the famous Cotton Tree which dominates the center of Freetown to this day. Pat and I sat under the Cotton Tree on our visits.
Originally a British colony, Sierra Leone became an independent republic in 1971. The first president of the republic of Sierra Leone was Siaka Stevens, who we met on our visits in 1983 when he was nearly 80. He died in 1988, shortly after having turned over the presidency to his chosen successor. The history of Sierra Leone over recent decades is a tale of assassinations and multiple coups. It is a tale of civil war and atrocities. It is a tale of small boys with machine guns and no respect for life. Many people in Freetown today are recovering from having had limbs chopped off. Crime in Freetown is at an all time high. This is what happens when a society abandons the rule of law and nobody is more to blame for this than President Stevens. He survived many attempts to remove him from power by meeting violence with greater violence. He was guilty of corruption and of massive mismanagement of the economy. He made a rich country poor. Under his regime, many innocent people were brought to trial on false charges and then executed. He was determined to wipe out his political opponents. He was feared. He received us in Sierra Leone’s equivalent of The Oval Office. He was absolutely charming, particularly to the ladies.
Let me conclude with a story that shows just how impossible it was to obey the law. We were leaving Freetown on a flight to London with Sierra Leone Airlines. As we were arriving at the airport by taxi, I removed all foreign currency from my wallet, leaving in there only Bank of Sierra Leone notes, worthless outside that country. I pushed all my foreign currency into my socks so that the soles of my feet covered the banknotes. As we passed through the airport, we were stopped at least a dozen times by police and customs officials. They all reminded us that it was a crime to take foreign currency out of the country and demanded that we turn over to them any foreign notes in our possession. I told them that I only had Sierra Leonean currency left. Some of the more aggressive officials checked my wallet to confirm this. Finally I boarded the plane. After takeoff, I decided that I deserved a strong drink for having run that gauntlet at the airport. I ordered what I wanted and tendered Sierra Leonean currency. The airline staff would not even accept their own currency. They insisted that I had to pay in pounds or dollars. After reaching into my socks, I did so. I then noticed that all the other passengers on board were drinking. Had they all paid for their drinks with foreign currency, which they also had smuggled through the airport check points? They most certainly had. When everyone has to break the law in order to survive, anarchy can truly be said to have arrived. Bob