5.26.2012

Politicizing Ethnic Identities in Sierra Leone

            Initially I drew no parallels between Sierra Leonean politics and the various ethnic groups that comprise nation. The civil war was not founded upon ethnic grievances and ethnicity is rarely cited in election campaigns. However, after examining Sierra Leone’s ethnic groups mapped out and comparing it to where the various political party ‘strongholds’ are, parallels can be drawn between the two.


Sierra Leonean Ethnic Groups Mapped (via Wikipedia)
As noted by Jimmy Kandeh, many sub-Saharan African states have politicized ethnic identities in order to secure elite domination rather than allowing politics to be a means through which minority ethnic groups can (some) gain political power.1 Although Sierra Leone’s politicization of ethnicity is not as salient as in other sub-Saharan African countries, such as Rwanda, it nonetheless exists.

Sierra Leone is comprised of around sixteen various ethnic groups. The two main ethnicities are Temne, who tend to live in the Northern region of the country, and Mende, who are primarily based in the Southern and Eastern regions. Both the Temne and Mende each constitute around 30% of the population, while the third largest ethnic group, the Limba, account for 9% and are close allies with the Temne and also based in the North.2 The rest of Sierra Leone’s ethnic groups comprise the rest of the country’s ethnic makeup, with the formerly politically-dominant descendants of the resettled slaves, the Krios, comprising around 6% of the population and based mostly in Freetown and its environs.3 The Sierra Leonean political system requires a 55% majority to win an election; therefore, if the two dominant ethnic groups in Sierra Leone – the Mende and Temne – were to collaborate, they would always be assured victory. However, both groups have historical (political) animosity towards each other which prevents their collaboration and necessitates them to form alliances with the smaller ethnic groups to assure their victory. Clearly this ethnically-dominated political environment favors almost exclusively the Mende and Temne, while essentially guaranteeing that none of the smaller ethnic groups will ever take political control.

Because of the historical animosity4 between the Mende and Temne, Sierra Leone’s main political parties tend to be split along these two ethnic lines. Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) is largely considered to be a Mende-dominated party, while the All Peoples Congress (APC), created by Siaka Stevens, is considered a Temne “alternative” that aimed to “…put an end to Mende political dominance” and emancipate northern Temnes from Mende rule.5 Therefore, the APC ‘stronghold’ is often considered to be in the Northern Temne-dominated regions of Sierra Leone, while the SLPP (and more recently the PMDC) ‘strongholds’ are considered to be the Southern and Eastern Mende-dominated provinces.

Some Sierra Leoneans recognize the ethnic/political divide in the country and are calling for an end to tribalism in (and outside) of politics. Alfred Sorie Kargbo, a Sierra Leonean in the diaspora, argues that “What tribe a person is, or which region is he/she from, should never be a matter of concern in Sierra Leone politics…again. Tribalism, sectionalism and regionalism have not benefited Sierra Leone a bit[,] instead [they] have put [sic] us apart, created marginalization and abject poverty.”6 Instead, Kargbo argues that Sierra Leoneans should look past ethnicity when it comes to politics and learn from the mistakes of the past (i.e. the war) in order to create a nation that serves Sierra Leoneans and not people of a specific ethnic group.

It is unlikely that the politization of ethnicity will disappear anytime soon; however, with the emergence of the relatively new political party (as of the 2007 election), the People’s Movement for Democratic Change (PMDC), the power and politics of ethnicity may soon be shifting as the Mende-majority see some of its constituency being pulled away.

The politicization of these various ethnic identities is just one example of the many effects colonialism has had in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone as we know it (obviously) did not exist before it became a British protectorate/colony. However, post-independence it became necessary for ethnic identities to become politicized for elite survival in high political offices. As the previous statement by Alfred Sorie Kargbo said, ethnicity should never matter - yet unfortunately it does because colonialism had made it matter.  However, I remain hopeful that Sierra Leone will be one of the first African nation-states to begin to de-politicize ethnicity and place a greater emphasis on its shared Sierra Leonean identity for the benefit of its own people.



1 Jimmy D. Kandeh, "Politicization of Ethnic Identities in Sierra Leone," African Studies Review, 35, no. 1 (1992): 82.
2 Republic of Sierra Leone, "Ethnic Groups," Last modified August 8, 2008.
3 Ibid.
4See Jimmy D. Kandeh, "Politicization of Ethnic Identities in Sierra Leone," African Studies Review, 35, no. 1 (1992): 81-99.
5 Ibid., 81, 91.
6 Alfred Sorie Kargbo, “Who Do You Think He Is? A Leader of a Tribe or Sierra Leonean?,” Sierra Express Media, May 19, 2012.

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