The only surviving member of Sierra Leone’s independence delegation to the Constitutional Talks in London, Hector Boltman, now 83, talks to New African about the build-up to independence and the progress the country has made during 50 years of independence.
Q:Can you take us back to the run-up to independence and give us a picture of what the political situation was like in the country?
A: Well, the political situation was normal, mild, not rough. We had only two recognised political parties at the time: the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), which was the governing party, and the official opposition United People’s Party (UPP) headed by Cyril Rogers-Wright. The relationship between the two parties was cordial.
UPP members met regularly with their SLPP counterparts, they shared jokes and views without malice or ill feelings.
Q: You were among the delegation to the Constitutional Talks at Lancaster House in London. The two parties went as a United Front coalition, how did it come about? How did you manage to get everybody on board?
A: It was formed here in Sierra Leone, organised by the then government headed by Sir Milton Margai. I can remember we had two meetings at State House before we left. The United Front constituted various groups of people. The SLPP as the government then had no less than eight ministers. The UPP was represented by Rogers- Wright and myself because we formed the official opposition.
Q:Was the United Front really united, because some historical accounts say that there were several outstanding issues and differences even as you went for the talks?
A: We were united although there were different people in the coalition and we all had our various views and party ideologies. But we went to London for a common purpose. So we all supported the issue for which we went without much politics. We went as a United Front delegation only to ask for independence.
Q: What happened to Siaka Stevens and Isaac T. A. Wallace-Johnson, who were also key players in politics then? They were accused of opposing independence based on certain issues.
A: Wallace-Johnson was an adviser; Siaka Stevens was with the PNP with Albert Margai (the younger brother of Sir Milton). As I said, we all went to Lancaster House with different views but for a common purpose. We all sat according to the groups we belonged to. Nobody opposed independence.
Not even Siaka Stevens. He expressed his views and reservations. He said he wanted election before independence; that was one of the key issues which made him refuse to sign the independence instrument. His other issue was the clause on the defence agreement between Britain and Sierra Leone which he was opposed to. For these two main reasons, Stevens did not sign the independence instrument.
Q: So why did the colonial establishment consider him and a few others as people opposed to the independence movement?
A: Well, his views were recorded. The views of every member were recorded.
He said he was not going to sign based on such and such reasons, and it was accepted.
Q:Let’s turn now to the negotiations with the British government. Were they difficult negotiations for independence?
A: It was not too difficult. In fact most of the leg work had been done by the SLPP government. I remember before we left, a few questions were asked on certain issues and Sir Milton said those issues had been taken care of.
Whatever seemed to the British to be opposing views, had been taken care of. So we just went there as a United Front, with one voice: the voice of the government.
Q: Is it correct to say that Sierra Leone’s independence was achieved at no huge price as compared to other countries?
A: There was no struggle, but I will not say it was cheap. Mind you, before we attained independence, we went to ask for it. We said to the colonial power that we felt we were eligible for independence. And before that time, many other countries in Africa had got independence, which made it easier for us.
Q: What made you feel that the nation was mature enough to take over its own affairs?
A: It was clear that we were mature.
The British had been ruling us for more than a century and a half. So if you say 150 years is not enough to make us feel that we were capable of ruling and taking care of ourselves, then I don’t know when [it would be].
People go about saying that we were not mature enough, and I say only ignorant people think like that. How about the other countries in Africa that asked for independence and it was granted just like to us?
Q:How would you react to allegations that the United Front was made up of elites and politicians who just wanted to get power and so you pushed for independence because you knew you would be the immediate beneficiaries?
A: That’s not correct. That kind of view must have come from the illiterates or from selfish people who wanted to manipulate the illiterate population to believe that we were not yet ready for independence. I was 33 years old then, and I firmly believed that we were mature and ready for independence.
That was why I became a member of the UPP and was in the opposition.
Q:It’s been 50 years since you brought independence to Sierra Leone. How much has the nation got to show for these 50 years?
A: What the nation has to show for the 50 years of independence is what you see before us. Our development progress has been very slow. There has been too much of a selfish and nonchalant attitude on the part of governments.
Some of our leaders have not been interested in the welfare of the nation. They were just after selfaggrandisement.
As a result you don’t see much infrastructural development as you would see in Ghana and other places. Siaka Stevens, who later became president, did well with infrastructure and if other governments which came after him had done the same, we would have made better progress.
Q: So where exactly do you think things went wrong and why?
A: It was on the part of the various post-independence governments. The SLPP did not do much. I have said this many times. Our governments did not do much in pushing the country forward in terms of development. People were just busy grabbing. They were selfish.
Q: So should we say that the politicians failed to deliver on their promises?
A: I will not say all the politicians have failed but some did. Some had good intentions, to turn this country into a paradise. But they did not have the opportunity because of politics and tribalism. Even the media have not helped. You only concentrate on the bad things. Why?
If journalists knew the implications of some of the things they say and write about a small country like this, they would not be doing what they are doing. What about the good side of things, why doesn’t the media show them?
Q: From what you have said here about governance, the media, politics and more – you sound very disappointed at the level and pace of development in the country.
A: Of course, I am totally disappointed.Let’s take a trip to countries like Ghana and Nigeria for example and see the pace and rate at which they are advancing, and you would wonder if they are Africans like us.
Q: So how do you think Sierra Leoneans should mark the golden jubilee; do you think it’s a time for jubilation or reflection?
A: At this time, people must start thinking. We’ve had independence for 50 years and we’ve only been able to come this far. We are advancing in years and we should be thinking of what to do to advance the country in the coming years and not just about jubilation. Let us make up our minds to move forward. This is the time for reflection and development.
Q: If we are to divide the roles between the government and the governed, how do we do it to ensure that what you are envisaging is achieved?
A: Who leads the people? It is the government. What we as a people should be mindful of is for us not to select the wrong leadership. Our decisions in electing our leaders should not be on a tribal or friendly basis. You want to elect somebody who will represent you, somebody you can talk to, and one who seeks your welfare and airs your views. And for those in government, they ought to listen to the people and take action. Governments should not just talk but take actions promptly.
Q: Given all what you have said regarding the pace of development half a century after independence, are you optimistic that there is a bright future ahead?
A: Of course I am optimistic. If we have a good government, we can move mountains. I think we now have a government with foresight. But with all his good intentions, President Ernest Bai Koroma alone cannot change Sierra Leone. That is why we all have to work together and change our attitude. Let’s think progressively and see what we can do for the country, for ourselves, and our future.