By Mohamed El Tayyib-Bah,
Oct 22, 2008, 17:18
1977 Students Against APC: A Chronicle
1977 is the 30th anniversary of the students’ demonstration which started on the 29th January and which has now become a landmark in Sierra Leone’s history. The event itself is important because it was the first open challenge to the ruling APC and which virtually brought Dr Siaka Stevens, who believed he had literarily killed all opposition to his 10 years rule fraught with political assassinations, to his knees.
Thirty years is a long time and, because the event was not chronicled, the facts behind it will have inevitably muddled and corroded.
I am undertaking this chronicling (thank God I am alive to do that 30 years later!) and inviting you, dear reader, down this memory lane so as to set the records straight for an event which has had several offspring as well as a few pretenders who I can only best describe as shameless surrogate parents who are today basking in the glory of a birth which, although conceived by me, would never have been without the ‘complicity’ of God.
Saturday January 29, 1977
Being Saturday, the dining halls didn’t close until 10am for breakfast. On week days, they closed at 9.
I set off for breakfast just before the 10.00 that morning, but not before I visited Chukes Press, the student notice board on which was posted everything from students’ poems and jokes to news and clippings to almost everything informative.
Amongst the several postings there that morning was a small clipping from the weekly West Africa magazine published in the UK. It reported that the Sierra Leone Government had accepted the IMF recommendation to lay off 15% of the unskilled labour force in the public sector, which comprised mostly clerks, drivers, cleaners and messengers. A move, it was claimed, to cut budgetary deficit.
It was (and still is) this group whose children filled the country’s classrooms from primary, secondary to tertiary institutions, as well as those roaming the streets jobless. Sacking whatever percentage of these unskilled yet crucial breadwinners from their jobs would, I reckoned, bring untold suffering to thousands of homes as well as prematurely end the education of several hundred children.
I entered Solomon Caulker hall and collected my breakfast from the kitchen staff, or ‘Jangreys’ as we called them and vice versa.
As I sat at the table, several things crossed my mind: the labourers and clerks and messengers in government offices who didn’t even earn enough to feed one person let alone their several children and spouses and relatives and how their incomes were augmented by the tips and handouts they get from their bosses but mostly from visitors and business men and women to the Ministers and Permanent Secretaries etc. What impact would stopping their meagre wages have on the country’s budget? It’s like depleting the beach by collecting a grain of sand from it, I mused.
Why didn’t the IMF recommend the laying off of retired civil servants who had been recalled and redeployed in Para-statals and were earning fat salaries and didn’t even have several mouths to feed? So much in fact were their savings that they could afford to send their children overseas to be educated.
What can we do for these poor, helpless people, I thought?
Two weeks ago I remembered, during the visit of Julius Nyerere to Sierra Leone, we marched down the city of Freetown with banners identifying us with the Anti-Apartheid struggles of the suffering, black workers of South Africa and crying down the Government of PW Botha. So what are we now going to do for our own kith and kin, most of who even happen to be our parents, uncles, brothers etc?
Today is convocation day, couldn’t we do something?
With those questions exercising my brain, I headed for the high table on which sat the students’ hi-fi and PA system which was normally operated by a DJ. Now, going to 10.00 and closing time, there was no DJ, as there were only a few students in the halls to entertain anyway.
I sat down and took the microphone. As a stammerer and nervous as this was my first time of addressing students, I hesitated at take off. But I eventually got myself talking, addressing those few fellow students who were still around.
I drew their attention to the article on Chukes Press and asked, in the light of its implications on our people and our anti-apartheid solidarity march a fortnight earlier, whether we were going to shut our eyes on the dirt in our own backyard while shouting down our neighbour’s?
We could do something today Convocation Day, when the whole of Sierra Leone converged on Fourah Bay College: when the President, his Cabinet, MPs, Ambassadors and the Diplomatic Corps including IMF officials, parents, relatives, spouses, local and foreign press, yes the crème de la crème of the Sierra Leone mortal community would be here assembled in the Adjai-Crowther amphitheatre on Mount Olympus. So what better place and opportunity to cry down the IMF prescription, Government corruption and excesses, etc etc!!!!
I therefore made a strong case for us to ‘demonstrate again today as we did 2 weeks ago’.
On that note, I hung up and made for the door, not knowing what impact my speech made on those I addressed, for nobody clapped in support, or banged their spoons of forks, as was the norm, in condemnation.
When I left the hall, I headed for the main road, toward “Buzz Stick” and Police Post. There I saw the President of the Students Union Hindolo Trye, alias Guru.
I went and, after exchanging greetings, asked if he read the IMF article on Chukes. He said yes.
“Can’t we do something to show we are against Government’s adoption of the recommendation?” I asked
“Something like what?” he retorted.
“Like demonstrating” I said, then quickly added
“Like we did for the South African workers 2 weeks ago. These are our own blood”.
“No”, said Guru, rather sternly, and went on to explain why it was not for SU governments to spearhead demonstrations.
I walked away and headed back towards Chukes Press, disappointed and certainly crest-fallen – for these were the last comments I had expected to hear from Guru.
Then I saw this little boy just outside Chukes with a load of white, vanguard papers which he said were for sale.
Was this God sent? I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“How much?” I asked.
He said 5 cents a leaf and he had 80.
Le4.00, I quickly calculated, and which was exactly what I had!
I bought all.
If Guru’s reaction had dampened my spirit, the paper development not only bolstered it, it automatically placed me on a point-of-no-return footing to what was effectively from that moment a one-man demonstration.
So all I now needed were more of my fellow students to join me.
I started with my roommate and neighbours, then friends, explaining to them the need to demonstrate that afternoon at the Convocation and supplying them the paper to make the placards.
Within hours, talk about the demonstration had spread, not only on the campus, but to the APC Government in Freetown as well, because emissaries were sent to warden of students Dan Decker to forestall, if the rumour was true, any such move.
About two hours to convocation, Guru called a meeting of the student body to warn against moves by some students to hold a demonstration and to publicly distant himself and his Government from it.
I climbed to where he was addressing us from and, proudly displaying an impressive picture of President Stevens waving, took the stage and reiterated to students the need to demonstrate to save our poor people from the IMF recommendations waiting to be implemented by Stevens as well as to cry down the unbridled corruption that characterised his regime.
As I set out for the amphitheatre, I wasn’t very sure if students would bring the more than 150 or so placards (I had cut each vanguard into two to increase numbers) I had distributed to them earlier.
I didn’t mind displaying my placard alone, as long as I got my message across. But since a greater number of participants would create a greater impact, I took an extra 5 placard with different messages to give to students I’ll be sitting with.
Speaker after speaker, the deans of faculties, the University Orator, the Vice Chancellor, each took the podium and made their speeches for conferment of the licences, degrees and diplomas.
Then came the turn of President Stevens, who was also Chancellor of the University, to deliver his speech and confer the degrees etc.
But hardly had he uttered his first sentence than hundreds of white placards suddenly sprung above the several hundred heads that formed the listening student population. And for what appeared to be several seconds, a deadly silence descended on what was a few seconds earlier was a human hive of murmurs.
Siaka Stevens removed his glasses, peered into the crowd, at the placards and leant and whispered something to Arthur Porter, Vice Chancellor.
It is claimed that Shaki asked Porter ‘Is that about me?’
To which he answered, ‘I should think so sir’
Suddenly, as if obeying some invisible voice, we all got up and jumped into the street and started dancing with our placards carrying messages such as “DOWN WITH APC!” “SIAKA STEVENS MUST GO!” “AWAY WITH IMF CONDITIONATIES!” etc.
Mine carried Stevens’ picture, sitting in the new helicopter he had just acquired, waving good bye.
That effectively brought the Convocation ceremony to an end and not long after, Stevens, who was waiting in the SU building, was whisked away amidst student boos and jeers and shoos.
Following Shaki’s motorcade a few minutes later was Vice President, S I Koroma who, to every student’s astonishment and joy, gave us the solidarity salute as he was being sped away.
Apart from the dancing and singing with our placards, no ugly incidents took place on that occasion. It was indeed a peaceful demonstration, even to the much feared and dreaded Para-military Internal Security Unit (ISU and dubbed I’ll Shoot U) who accompanied the President, as they only stood by and, though armed to the teeth, watched, clearly bemused by our dancing and singing, albeit defamatory and insulting to Shaki and the APC.
The ISU were Shaki’s creation. Comprising almost entirely of his Limba tribesmen, the ISU were armed and fiercely loyal to him. Most of its officers were Cuban trained and, because the country’s army had been disarmed and confined to the barracks, acted as a deterrent to any military coups to which our soldiers were still considered inclined. The ISU are reminiscent of Napoleon’s dogs in Animal Farm.
The demonstration was all over by dusk.
What must have pre-occupied the minds of most students after that were which graduation parties they would gate-crash that night.
If media coverage is anything to go by, then the 29 January demonstration can only be best described as a flash in a pan to the country’s press and which wasn’t worth mentioning anywhere outside Mount Aureol; for even though the OB Unit of the SLTV was out there covering the occasion, our action was never mentioned in the news.
Even the APC paper We Yone, when it came out the following day, hardly mentioned the demonstration. It only said, in not more than three lines, how a few students, not appreciative of the fat privileges they were enjoying at tax payers’ expense, tried to mar the occasion or were insulting to the President etc.
The tax-payer element was always brought into play at these times because nearly all Sierra Leonean students then were on government scholarship.
But even I didn’t give the demonstration further thought, except perhaps the lingering euphoria for my success in mobilising my fellow students to, with one voice, send whatever messages they had for Dr Stevens and his cohorts.
Sunday January 30 1977.
We are officially informed by the Principal Eldred Jones that APC youths and stalwarts in downtown Freetown planned a counter-demonstration on our campus Monday morning in response to our ‘rude behaviour’ on Saturday to Pa Shaki and his Government. We were advised to stay indoors, behind the iron gates which had just been erected outside the halls of residence.
It was a tense Sunday evening, with some students fleeing to the city and parents coming to evacuate their sons or daughters.
Many female students, fearing physical abuses prevalent on such occasions, relocated to the male hostels. We were not baying for battle, but most of us stayed on campus, determined to meet our aggressors in whatever manner they would invade us the following morning. The signs were ominous.
Monday January 31, 1977
We had all decided against staying in our rooms lest our attackers whom we considered nothing but paid mercenaries and thugs, get that far. Call it naivety, but we had decided to converge by the iron gates and confront them, if necessary, with our bare hands.
At about 7 am we heard the first sounds of the so-called pro-government demonstrators. But before we knew what was happening, they were breaking glasses, hauling stones and missiles in all directions, some of which landed on the zinc roofs and our halls of residence.
Then the missiles started raining down just outside the Blocks.
Shortly after that, we saw our attackers advancing towards us in Blocks E and G, hauling rocks and other missiles.
I don’t know how, but the next thing I knew was that we had engaged our attackers in a sort of fist-of-fury, free-for-all, fight.
Then we saw in their midst, but not fighting, people we knew, some of them former students too!
But it wasn’t just all physical fighting. We adopted diplomacy too, which won the day.
We told the thugs, who were mostly unemployed youths, why we demonstrated on Saturday: that it was not for us because, with a University degree, we were sure of a good job and a decent livelihood; that we were fighting for them to be given jobs and crying down the rampant corruption which is causing their suffering etc.
Within minutes the fighting was over and some students were even fraternising with and sharing in the drinks – rum, whisky, brandy – of the counter demonstrators.
The only casualty of the combat that morning was a student by the name of Zaioux Sesay.
My own attempt to hurt a ‘thug’ we had captured and dragged down the stairs of block E failed. My hand overshot his head and the empty bottle which I was going to break on his head hit the floor instead and smashed. I was happy I was spared this bloodshed!
The conflict ended as it had started – quick – and on a note of mutual understanding on which our visitors, even before 9 am, dispersed happily.
[It later emerged that the counter demonstration was orchestrated by supporters of Vice President Koroma, whose solidarity salute to us on Saturday left most people, amongst them Shaki who must have been hinted, wondering if he was not behind, or colluded in our action?
So the move was to both placate sceptics and vindicate SI]
Because of the impending counter demonstration, classes had been cancelled that Monday morning. By 10am however, sufficient calm and quiet had returned on campus to allow students to go about their business or roam about. But it was short-lived.
Monday January 31, 1977 – Ca 11 am – 12mid-day
I came up the road, by the Police Post. As I stood there observing the traffic to and from Freetown, I beheld the unmistakable figure of a Police truck, with helmeted heads protruding in the back, speeding up the road towards me.
It stopped as soon as it reached the open space close to where I stood and Police in riot gear sprang out and arrested Farid Anthony, a Lebanese student who was walking past.
Students who witnessed this incident started fleeing. I didn’t. I watched until Farid had been thrown into the truck before I decided to walk away, towards the halls of residence where some Police had also headed, chasing fleeing students.
Then I saw a classmate by the name of Sahr Aruna fall down as he was fleeing. He tried to get up but couldn’t. I went over and pulled him up but he slumped back on the ground, writhing with pain.
I lifted and took him into the College Security Land Rover that was parked outside, close to the Police truck. I then went to the Security Post and asked the driver to take us down to Connaught Hospital.
After handing over Sahr to Emergency staff at the hospital, I jumped into the vehicle again and returned to Mount Aureol which was now a chaotic scene teeming with riot Police, thugs and hooligans like the ‘counter-demonstrators’ earlier in the morning but only now more ferocious and uncompromising, and APC party stalwarts including women clad in the unmistakable red colour of the Party and barking out invectives at ‘ungrateful’ students.
I saw no students around.
Then I realised I had only socks and no shoes on. I was also in short pairs. So I decided to go to my room, M150 which was situated at the far end of the building through a maze of stairs, to get adequately dressed.
As I set out, one of the youths accosted me and asked
“You are a student, aren’t you?”
I nodded. I was not in the mood to talk to thugs, I decided.
“Where are going?”
“To my room” I retorted, reluctantly.
“Don’t” he said in a voice which was both friendly and dispassionate, “they’ll kill you.”
I returned to where I was when Farid was arrested. It was safer there. Soon I learnt that students had been physically attacked and had fled into the bushes surrounding the campus to the East End of Freetown. The blocks and rooms had been demarcated to various thugs to loot and sack as they chose. I also learnt from that point that the college had been closed indefinitely.
I decided to go down so I asked for a lift from an APC woman whom I saw driving a car. She waved me to the back seat as the other seat was occupied by another female. I was immediately joined in the back seat by another student, Max Kanga, who later became Chief of Army Staff in 1996 and was executed in 1998.
On our way down, we met a check-point manned by APC thugs who stopped us and, spotting Max, demanded that he come down as he was a student. Max swore he was not and that he had only gone ‘up’ to visit his brother who was a cook. He begged them to let him go. They did and we continued the journey. I kept pinching Max until we arrived and parted company.
Monday January 31, 1977 – Ca 1300 – 1700 hrs
I was walking the streets of Freetown aimlessly, still in my shorts and socks, when I heard that some secondary schools, notably Albert Academy and The Muslim Brotherhood, closest neighbours to Fourah Bay, had taken to the streets singing “NO COLLEGE, NO SCHOOL”; meaning if the authorities had closed the only college for them to proceed to after their secondary education, there’s no need keeping schools open!
Other schools followed suit and the situation became a full-blown Freetown students’ demonstration.
I arrived at the Cotton Tree from where I saw a large crowd gathered outside the CID headquarters on Pademba Road, and as b I was wondering what the matter was, I saw my colleague students, about a dozen or so, male and female, including SU President Guru being escorted in single file by armed ISU personnel into the CID.
They had brought them from the APC headquarters just across the road on Siaka Stevens Street.
How did they even get there? I wondered.
Some of the female students were crying and I felt a pang of guilt run through me: they were suffering because of MY action; why must I be out here a free man?
I gave myself a little time and then stepped forward, towards one the armed ISU personnel controlling the crowd.
“Can I help you!” he asked, perhaps sharply.
“Yes” I answered, rather calmly, and then went on, “I am a student. I want to join my colleagues who have just been taken in”
He let me in.
At the second gate, I gave my name to the orderly at the counter who was busy making entries and told him that I was an FBC student like the ones just taken in and that I was surrendering myself.
He too let me in.
Once in, I got to know that they had all been arrested at Mount Aureol and taken to Party HQ. They, or we, were now at the CID for questioning. Even though we weren’t held in cells but sat in little groups of twos or threes in the charge office, many of my colleagues, especially the females, were despondent. Those whose relatives brought food for them wouldn’t eat. It took a lot of coaxing and persuasion from me to get them to eat.
I cheered them up and I told them I wouldn’t have surrendered myself if I believed I’d be jailed. In fact, I told them, I was even going to use this opportunity to tell the authorities why we demonstrated!
Within 2 hours of our detention, at about 5pm, a female personnel of the CID pulled me aside and told me that the Sierra Leone Labour Congress, to which most of the country’s work force belonged, had threatened to join the our demonstration unless we were released immediately. I passed on this info to my colleagues, with the exception of Guru whom I didn’t lay my eyes on throughout my brief stay at the CID.
By the time the Congress ultimatum became public, statements had been extracted from most of us.
I told the officer taking my own statement why I demonstrated. He noted every word I told him but, because my confession didn’t sound any alarming bells in him, he let me go after appending my signature to it.
All the other students, with the exception of Guru, were also released.
Monday January 31, 1977 – 1800 hrs and after
Dr Wiltshire Johnson, a lecturer in the Chemistry Department and a very close friend of mine, was one of the several people outside the CID monitoring events.
I joined him as soon as I gained my freedom and we drove to the east end of Freetown where he had an uncle at Upper Easton Street who ran an ‘in-house’ pub which we visited ever so often even before these problems.
But we couldn’t get to our destination by car. We were forced to abandon it around Mammy Yoko Street and take to our heels because of the firing of shots and tear gas in the area.
After a few drinks we decided to go home as the firing was getting more and more intense and dangerous as it became clear the ISU were using live ammunitions.
Wiltshire lived up at Kortwright and the only way we could get up there was through the bush, at the edge of which we already were at Easton Street.
It was a steep, arduous climb in which we got caught in branches and thorny thickets, as it was already past 7 and dark.
When we arrived on campus, at the Police Post, the place was completely deserted. There were neither human nor vehicular traffic.
I parted company with Wiltshire after I choose to go Allen Street to Ngai my childhood friend. After all it was just down the hill, by Model School.
It was a dangerous trek, I soon realised, as scores of fiery, live bullets flew towards me from downtown Freetown. I had to crawl most of the way lest I be hit by the flying cartridges.
I finally made it but to a very dark, chaotic and rock-ridden Model School junction which was also eerily deserted.
Ngai must have been expecting me because the door opened as soon as I pushed it.
“Lock it, quick!” he said sharply, in an undertone.
“There is a curfew”, he added.
I heard the announcement again shortly on the radio. It said the Police had been given a shoot-to-kill order for anybody violating the curfew which was from 7pm to 7am.
Tuesday 1st February 1977
I told Ngai I was determined to spread the ‘revolution’ to the provinces and needed money for the trip. He gave what little he had.
My first stop was Bo.
When I arrived that evening, I went straight to Bo School, where I met with the Head Prefect, Harry Seilinger and his circle of friends.
I told them about the Freetown demonstrations which they already knew but added that the changes we were fighting for cannot be achieved without the involvement of entire student population of the whole country. My mission therefore was to get Bo School to ignite and spread the demonstration in the south.
I suggested that the demonstration take the form of a peaceful march with banners and placards and no looting or attack on public property. This would, I told them, deter the ISU from opening fire on them.
After securing their pledge, I left Bo that afternoon for Kono.
Wednesday February 2nd 1977
I arrived in Koidu at night and the following morning Wednesday I visited 2 secondary schools where, after introducing myself as a student of Fourah Bay with a mission, I appealed to the few of their numbers I was able to confer with to join the student ‘revolution’ that was sweeping the nation. I told them Bo town was already on board.
After giving me their word to mobilise their colleagues both within and outside their schools, I departed for Magburaka around mid-day.
The Government Secondary School for Boys, aka Oxford of the North, is my alma mater and some of the staff then my former classmates.
I used the quarters of one of them, Abdulai Barrie, aka OPC, to talk to prefects and other popular students about my mission. I got their assurance to mobilize not only Boys’ School pupils, but students of other schools in the township as well, including the Mathora girls.
I left Magburaka that same day and arrived in Freetown around 3pm, in time for a meeting between Fourah Bay College students’ representatives and Dr Stevens and some members of his Government at State House.
The students had prepared a list of demands, amongst them the immediate holding of free and fair multi-party elections – the last one was held in 1967 – which they were going to present to the President and his lieutenants.
My name was not on the list but nobody stopped me from joining the delegation.
It was whilst we were climbing the stairs of State House that I felt a whiff of wind blow my bottom, and when I passed my hand there, I grabbed the hanging end of my torn jeans right across my backside! Fortunately, the half-gown, ‘ronko’ I wore covered what would have otherwise been an embarrassing spectacle.
President Stevens in several of his observations did confess that we took them unawares, and from this I surmised that what he actually meant was we wouldn’t be that lucky next time round!
Indeed I must say I spent a good part of my time in the meeting observing Vice-Presidents S I Koroma and C A Kamara-Taylor and what I read in their demeanours and body-language portended evil, to say the least.
Nothing was firmly agreed at this meeting so a second was slated for
When we went out, I advised against a second visit to State House because, I told Guru and others I believed the APC was thinking, based on my observation above, of sinister ways of handling us so they were only biding their time.
“So what do we do?” asked one student.
“Go underground!” I suggested.
They dismissed my advice.
Friday 4th February 1977
Hindolo Trye makes an announcement on the SLBS calling an end to the demonstrations and asking all students to return to classes, effectively bringing to an abrupt end the tumultuous rise of Sierra Leonean students to exorcise the devil that had possessed, intoxicated and corrupted the leadership of the APC, the only political party then steering the country’s destiny.
That I was shattered is an understatement.
But so ended, by Hindolo Trye, the 1977 Students Demonstration which he had both personally to me and publicly to the student body, washed his hands off.
A few months later, in 1978, relatively free and fair general elections that resurrected the sunken, virtually proscribed opposition SLPP were held. But in the same breadth, the country was transformed into a One-party, APC, state.
I wish you all God’s blessing.
The Struggle Continues,
Mohamed El Tayyib-Bah,
Croydon, London, United Kingdom
© Copyright 2005, Freetown, Sierra Leone.