Looking back to get a better view of the future. That is the wisdom. Enjoy this interview but without forgetting for a second that it was first published in June 2012. Someone fished it out and thought it would be a great idea if it was republished by Intervention. Why not? The original interviewer is Gibril Koroma who published the interview in Patriotic Vanguard. Of course, it is the same Sierra Leonean academic, Dr Yusuf Bangura, who taught Political Science at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria decades ago.
PV: What are those basic things about you now?
YB: My name is Yusuf Bangura. I recently retired from the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development in Geneva after working for 22 years on a range of research projects. My last major assignment was the coordination of the Institute’s flagship report Combating Poverty and Inequality: Structural Change, Social Policy and Politics, which was published in 2010. I have worked on diverse subjects in the field of development, covering numerous countries and regions around the world. Before joining UNRISD in 1990, I taught political science at the Ahmadu Bello University in Nigeria for eight years and at Dalhousie University in Canada for a year. I was also a visiting researcher at Uppsala University and Stockholm University in Sweden from 1988-1989.
My basic training was in international political economy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where I did my undergraduate and doctoral studies. I wrote my PhD dissertation on the declining role of the pound sterling as an international currency and the political economy of decolonization in Africa. I left Sierra Leone in 1971 when I was 21 years old. I attended Samaria primary school and Prince of Wales school in Freetown, and did my sixth form at the St. Edward’s Secondary School, also in Freetown. Before proceeding to the LSE in 1971, I taught English and Geography for a year at the Services Secondary School at Juba. I’m married to Kadiatu (formerly Mansaray), and we have two children: Mariama, who is 29 years old, and Bangali, who is 20.
PV: You grew up in Sierra Leone in the 50s, at a time when life was not so bad, I guess. Please share with us how things were in Sierra Leone in those days.
YB: I have very fond memories of life in Sierra Leone in the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up in an environment where hard work was admired and rewarded; and the basic institutions for progress, such as schools, hospitals, public utilities, and the bureaucracy functioned very well, even though their social reach was limited. It was relatively easy for children from poor backgrounds with access to these services to make progress and eventually join the ranks of the middle class. Most of the friends I grew up with believed that we had a bright future. We also believed that we had a capable state that would help us realize our dreams.
Let me give you one example that I believe changed the trajectory of my life. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Sierra Leone government had what was called a “National Scholarship” award for students with the best grades at the GCE “A Level” examinations. Recipients of these scholarships were entitled to study at any university in Britain or any other country in the Commonwealth. This was a great incentive for students to focus on their studies and travel abroad. The names of successful students would be announced on the radio and the newspapers, turning such students into celebrities among their peers. I decided in my second year at sixth form that I should compete for the award. I scaled down most of my social engagements, including my participation in the very popular “Common Entrance Outing” organized by Freetown’s youth at the fabulous beaches of Lumley, Godrich, Laka and Number Two River. And it paid off. It confirmed the argument in one of the most fascinating non-fictional general books that I’ve read Outlier: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell, about the value of hard work, or what he called “the 10,000 hour rule”, as opposed to simple talent, to understand success.
The other interesting thing about the scholarship award was that the Sierra Leone state had the infrastructure at the Ministry of Education to help students handle their applications to foreign universities and provide guidance about how to live in foreign countries. The ministry handled all matters related to passports and visas and we were given an allowance to help us settle down in the first month of our arrival in Britain. There was an “Education Attach�” at the Sierra Leone High Commission in London that handled student affairs. It paid our fees to the universities and transferred our subsistence grants to our bank accounts every month without any of us having to go to the High Commission to pressure officials to make the payments. I was a beneficiary of this caring and efficient state for seven years. If you did well in your undergraduate studies, the state would extend the scholarship even up to PhD level, which happened in my case. I recall when in 1974, I applied for the M.Phil course, which was a condition for admission to a PhD programme, my undergraduate tutor wanted me to apply for a university scholarship. I told him that we should not worry about finance, as I was confident that I would get a Sierra Leone government scholarship. I was deeply nationalistic.
I always tell my children that those of us who were born between 1940 and 1970 were very lucky to enjoy Sierra Leone’s heritage of sound human capital. We had a university that was one hundred and twenty years older than the next generation of universities that the British built in Ibadan in Nigeria, Legon in Ghana, and Makerere in Uganda in the 1940s. Indeed, many of the early post-colonial elites in these and other African countries were largely trained in Sierra Leone. And our primary and secondary schools were truly first rate. I will always remember our Economics and Government teacher at sixth form, Denis Williams, who taught us how to get at the heart of an issue, develop complex arguments and question everything.
I would like to highlight one other point about the 1950s and 1960s: the standard of living for the growing elite, including the lower middle class of teachers, nurses and clerks was good. I earned 36 Leones a month as a secondary school teacher at Juba, and one of my best friends, Ernest Williams, a fresh FBC graduate at the time, who was also teaching at the same school, earned 63 Leones. The school gave every teacher a generous monthly transport allowance of 20 Leones. Ernest and I were able to hire a taxi on a contract basis to take us to Juba every morning, and collect us from school in the afternoon and take us home at Campbell Street every school day for a whole year.
PV: You taught at universities in Nigeria the 80s during the oil boom in the midst of military rule. What were your experiences as a university lecturer at the time?
YB: I went to Nigeria in 1980, at the tail end of the oil boom, which began to show signs of decline by 1982. I stayed until 1988, when the crisis became deep and the military government was fighting various groups on the campuses and the wider society in its efforts to impose an IMF-inspired austerity programme. Much of my research focused on trying to understand the origins and dynamics of the crisis, the highly mismanaged and unpopular structural adjustment programme, and the contestation between unions and the state in managing the crisis and adjustment programme. I immersed myself fully in the Nigerian social science community and network of groups advocating progressive social change. I was warmly embraced by colleagues, students and social activists. Even today, many Nigerians who have not met me believe that I’m a Nigerian. Some of my closest friends are Nigerian. Indeed, Nigeria is another home. I try to keep abreast of developments there.
Three things stand out for me in my engagement with Nigeria. The first is the sheer size of the informed middle class and social movements. There are more than 100 universities and 40 big towns with a fair amount of public provisions and civic life, making citizens less dependent on Lagos or Abuja. Nigeria in this sense is not like Sierra Leone (or indeed, most African countries), where you have to be in the capital to access basic services or engage in serious debate. Public debate is vibrant; and even under military rule, it was difficult to control dissent even as popular resistance was weakened and organizations were banned.
The second amazing thing about Nigeria is that there is a radical or Left-wing tendency in most of the associations and movements that engage the state or advocate change. This is particularly evident in the trade union movement, the academic staff union of universities, the students movement, the Bar association, the association of journalists, the medical association, and the women’s movement. The party system also had a strong radical tendency, especially in the North, before the two party system was imposed by the military. Even then, a labour party with strong ties to the trade unions is fully registered and governs one of the 36 states.
The third point about Nigeria is what I will call a seemingly strong belief among the intellectual and political elite that their country is destined to lead Africa. Sierra Leone has been a big beneficiary of this pan-African disposition. Nigeria spent millions of dollars and lost thousands of its soldiers through the West African force, ECOMOG, to end our brutal war. It is one of the few African countries that is not easily cowed by foreign powers. Indeed, it always resists foreign dictation, even though transnational enterprises dominate its economy and the political elite messes things up when they make their own choices. Part of this autonomy in the foreign policy field is due to its lack of dependence on foreign aid and access to massive oil revenues, which unfortunately benefit the political and business elite much more than the masses.
PV: Coming back to Sierra Leone, the ugly spectre of ethnocentrism (known as tribalism in the country) is once again rearing its head. As somebody who has done extensive work on ethnicity please share with us your thoughts on this problem in Sierra Leonean politcs.
YB: Ethnic diversity is not pathological. Indeed, it should be seen as a virtue, as it enriches the social life of a nation. As the saying goes “variety is the spice of life”. The problem is when diversity is transformed into a discourse of “us” versus “them”, with gate keepers who can pronounce on membership, making it difficult for individuals to straddle different groups. This can lead to a polarized environment that can plunge societies into conflict. If a country’s ethnic structure is such that two or three large groups are numerically dominant and inequalities assume ethnic lines, the political elite is likely to have a field day in manipulating ethnic divisions, especially during the electoral cycle. Sierra Leone’s ethnic structure is bipolar, which unfortunately has produced two dominant parties that are highly ethno-regional in character. Voting patterns under multiparty rule have largely been ethno-regional, except in 2002 when most voters wanted the tenuous peace they were enjoying to be consolidated and 70 percent of them decided to vote for the incumbent.
As the November elections approach, politicians and their media supporters have been trying to exploit ethnic divisions for electoral gain. This applies to both parties. They operate on a simple logic: protect your ethno-regional terrain and divide the ethno-regional terrain of your opponent. When the APC started to make inroads in Kailahun, commentators that were sympathetic to the party wrote articles that pitted the Kisi against the Mende. Recently, commentators with links to the SLPP have been trying to set up the Temne against the Loko and Limba in the North. The most ridiculous assertion is that the president has been fooling the Temne all along that he is Temne when in actual fact he is a Loko, having revealed his Loko identity in a public rally at the national stadium. Those who make this statement do not ask whether it is wrong for a Loko to be president, or indeed whether someone cannot belong to more than one ethnic group, and whether the Loko are the main beneficiaries of government appointments and development programmes.
Ethnic identity is a very complex issue. It is not fixed in stone. It evolves continuously, and can be highly situational, making it difficult to pin someone down to a single identity that transcends time. The situation is even more complex for large groups as the Temne and Mende. Take the Temne, for instance. Their growth as the dominant group in the North has been achieved by incorporating individuals from smaller ethnic groups. The main influences are the Soso, Yalunka, Madingo, Limba, Loko and Fula. This is why most Temne carry the surnames of these smaller ethnic groups. Surnames like Bangura and Kamara originate from the Soso. I recall when I first came to the UN at the Palais des Nations, there were quite a few Guineans of Soso ethnicity who thought I was Soso, because the Banguras in Guinea are Soso. They were shocked when I told them I could only speak Temne, not Soso, even though I could trace my lineage to Soso. My father spoke both Soso and Temne, and my mother spoke only Temne even though she told us that her father was Loko. They were born and raised at Mange Bureh where most people have either Bangura or Kamara as surnames. No one at Mange speaks Soso anymore. My parents raised us as Temne in Freetown. Similarly, the Fula at Gbinti have been converted to Temne. One of my mother’s best friends in Freetown, Jamilatu Jalloh, who was from Gbinti, spoke only Temne. Surnames such as Conteh, Sesay and Koroma that many Temne carry are from the Madingo; and Kanu can be traced to the Loko. I think that the original Temne surnames that have survived are Gbla, Kaloko, Kabia (probably from the Madingo Kabba), Sankoh (probably from the Madingo Saccoh) and Taqi.
PV: As an academic and former top diplomat, we assume, now that you have some time for yourself, that you would use some of that time to help your native country, Sierra Leone, as she struggles with development issues. If our assumption is correct, in what way do you plan to do this?
YB: My plan is to relocate to Sierra Leone at some point and contribute to the development that is underway. The current development agenda on infrastructure, energy, health and agriculture seems focused, even though there are major difficulties that need to be overcome. My contribution will be in the field that I know best—education. I would like to work on the supply side of development—training young people at the university, developing their research and analytical capacity, building educational infrastructure, and contributing to development policy discussion. No development is sustainable without good universities. The countries that have been able to transform their economies –those in East Asia—place a high premium on education. Their universities are now ranked highly in the global ranking of universities. There is no reason why our premier university, which will be 200 years old in 2027, cannot achieve the same.
As a beneficiary of state educational grants in the 1970s, I have a very strong urge to pay back my debt. I can do this in three ways. First, I can tap into my large global research network in the field of development to improve on the curricula in the social science faculty, link students and other faculty members to research and study opportunities overseas, and encouraging Sierra Leonean Diaspora academics and scholars from other countries and regions to spend some time in our national universities. Second, funding can be sought from various sources to promote large faculty-wide research programmes. This will help tip the balance in favour of domestic research and away from consultancies that usually respond to the short term needs of donors. It can lead to the establishment of a centre for development research at the university that will not only conduct primary research, but will be able to engage government and the wider society on public policy issues. Sierra Leone is one of the few countries without a research and public policy think tank on development. Third, the visibility of young scholars can be raised by encouraging and working with them to publish books with established publishers and articles in reputable journals.
I would also like to use my retirement to do a lot of writing and maintain my research contacts at the sub-region and globally.
PV: Thank you very much, Doc. We wish you a pleasant retirement and look forward to more articles from you whenever you find the time.