In the tragic tradition of the developing world, Sierra Leone now stands with vast reaches of its citizens, one-time citizens, and all-around human capital far beyond its borders. In the study of immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries one is reminded that migration from one’s own country was the almost exclusive province of the poor and economically disadvantaged. Hence, there that solemn plea lies, etched on the Statue of Liberty, the crucial words of Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” The middle, upper-middle and higher classes could afford to stay in Italy and Poland, in Greece and Lithuania, expending capital and making momentous contributions to national development. If anything, perhaps the self-exile of the poor and destitute only served to concentrate a populace of economic participants, freeing the state from any sort of social responsibility to the impoverished it would otherwise have had to make provisions for.
In our present epoch, the nature of immigration has shifted, the former contours upended and inverted. Now, developing countries witness their educated masses and middle, and upper middle classes taking flight and leaving for the Western world. After all, with European and North American economies now service based, and in demand of high-skill labor, it is primarily those with a collegiate training that can afford to survive and even thrive in a change of geographical setting. Some pockets, indeed a growing segment, of the developing world, are now enjoying economic expansion, and one could easily look to swaths of Asia, Latin America, and the Indian sub-continent to see this process in action. This has had the effect of reversing immigration trends for a few, or what is indeed more popular – students from those countries acquiring a degree in the West and then returning home rather than staying in Europe or North America. As they see it, with the speed of economic expansion at home, and the sclerotic pace of it in the West, there is far more money to be won returning to the lands of their birth. I know not which is a greater motive – patriotism or economics – but either way, both concerns are being satisfied.
The same though has not been true for Sierra Leone, or at least not at the same rate. Some in the middle and educated classes had left before 1997, but the seismic outbreak of political instability and overwhelming violence accelerated the transfer of the country’s most skilled citizens. Suddenly, there was an exodus of lawyers and doctors, engineers and accountants, and the nation was drained of much of its expertise. The concept of Brain Drain is not a new one, but the example of Sierra Leone did most certainly confer a new and tragic layer upon it. Indeed, it must be stated that Sierra Leoneans have mostly ranked atop the western region of the continent’s most educated people. Theirs was the first university in West Africa, and the decades following were in keeping with a tradition of academia and scholastic excellence. On a visit to The Gambia in 1996, it was with a sense of pride that I learned that a great many of that country’s judicial appointees were in fact from Sierra Leone, with others emanating from Nigeria and Ghana (two other West African countries with a tradition of higher education). Proud though I was, I could not help but wonder what contributions they would have made had they stayed and worked in Sierra Leone, upholding the rule of law, and writing further arguments in support of its supremacy.
At this moment, the departure from Sierra Leone, and its civil and private services, is most certainly many-fold, and the effects of this dearth can perhaps never be properly measured. One could only imagine the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens – had Sierra Leone been of a state and condition to attract its own people and convince them to remain within its territory. Here then lies the focus for a long and necessary argument. The civil war, which now counts amongst the most brutal and barbaric the 20th Century lay witness to, was a crucial catalyst in sending Sierra Leoneans away and keeping them away, but matters had long sunk to a rot before the first shot was fired on that May 25 morning. Our politics, long a combat between the Sierra Leone People’s Party and the All People’s Congress had resorted to no more than an ethnic and tribal squabble…. I imagined I might have closed the previous sentence with, “over the direction of the country”, but I know that would be thinking too highly of the politicians and party bosses who had long perched themselves upon a plane of corruption. As one who has made an academic career of the study of comparative politics, and a constant observer of the principles of government in the United States, I have concluded that the customs of politics in Sierra Leone are atrocious at best and positively wicked at worst. A tradition that demands the competing of ideas, the free and forceful debating of them, and an ethos that grants that the government serve its citizen, not the other way around, are necessary and urgent elements in the civic and national make-up.
Though the constitution grants the very basic liberty of freedom of speech, the exercise of this natural right has long been an act of suicide on the continent, Sierra Leone not excused from the lot. Once again, it is of critical import that people be free, and that they believe they are indeed free. Creativity is only borne out of a climate that allows free expression, and that grants individuals the space to free their minds. It is no puzzle that the industrialized world is one in which citizens are free to petition against their governments, to rally and assemble against their elected officials, to profess and write arguments against them, and to create art that runs contra to the reigning ideology. It is no mystery that it is in the industrialized world that men have explored the cutting edge of technology and science, for the very first principle of human progress demands that people be at liberty to travel to whatever directions their minds and thoughts lead them. A basic knowledge of this has always been shared by the skilled and educated, hence their initial migration to the West, and their subsequent refusal to return to the land of their birth. A free press is an integral pillar in any true democracy, and it has been an established practice for governments and regimes to censor and threaten the media. The social contract includes the proper office of the press for its dual role of monitoring the government and informing the public. The forced collapsing of this significant conduit between a people and their government can only succeed in ushering a period of obscurity and ignorance, with citizens unaware of the truth, and the government at liberty to fail in its critical responsibilities.
A challenge to this democratic ideal has been the rise of China, a country which has displayed a certain utility of the authoritarian model. China now has a growing presence in Africa, and Sierra Leone in particular, and while the West stipulates aid on certain conditions of democracy and human rights, the Chinese have not made such demands in their granting of assistance. This therefore, could only encourage a closer relationship between the countries on the continent and China. Yet, the Chinese model of a strong-armed government, and even worse, a one-party state, must not be subscribed to by African nations, or for our specific focus, Sierra Leone. Such a design of government and the nation-state will only eventually create an atmosphere in which people rise up in violence for the rights they have long been denied. The Arab Spring proved just how it is that authoritarian regimes are brought to a close once the people have decided to not suffer any more of them.
A redefining of the principles that bind a people and their government is needed in Sierra Leone. It must be held that in the nation-state, democracy is the finest form of government known to man. That in a democracy, the individual is endowed with natural rights and civil liberties, that among them are freedom of speech and assembly, and that these liberties cannot be held victim to the caprice of the state. That the military serves under the command of a democratically elected government, and far from imagining itself a power unto itself simply because it keeps the national arsenal, the military is instead firmly under the command and direction of a civilian government. That the rule of law and the constitution are the only firm arguments that can sustain a nation even during its most traumatic chapters and that no one is privileged to enjoy exemptions from them. It is in such a climate that a people can lay claim to their land and their country, to its future and its governance. These are the customs that would lead its citizens to wear that title proudly, and invest a stake in their own history.
Find out more about Darren George: Visit his blog http://themusingstranger.tumblr.com/
Courier Magazine, Country Report: Sierra Leone, Dossier: Migration. Issue 187, July-August 2001.
National Public Radio, Emma Lazarus, Poet of the Huddled Masses. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6359435 , October 21, 2006.
Nelli, Humbert S, The Business of Crime: Italians and Syndicate Crime in the United States. 1976, Oxford University Press.
Singer, Alan, A Brief History of Immigration to the United States. http://people.hofstra.edu/alan_j_singer/294%20Course%20Pack/6.%20Immigration/115.pdf , Hofstra University