Charles Margai talks at Chatham House

charles margai 06

Charles Margai, Leader of the People’s Movement for Democratic Change,
Sierra Leone

Meeting Summary
Chatham House, 7 December 2006

This summary is issued on the understanding that if any extract is used, the speaker
and Chatham House should be credited, preferably with the date of the speech.

Chair: Richard Reeve, Associate Fellow on the Africa Programme, Chatham
Speaker: Charles Margai, Leader of the People’s Movement for Democratic
Change, Sierra Leone

Charles Margai

Let me start by thanking you immensely for your presence. I have no doubt in my
mind your presence here is a clear manifestation of your concerns for humanity and
of your love of Sierra Leone and Sierra Leoneans as we prepare for the 2007
Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

I shall be talking on Sierra Leone yesterday, today and the future. Sierra Leone
became an independent state from Britain on the 27th April 1961. Sierra Leone is in
the North Atlantic on the West Coast of Africa between the Republics of Guinea and
Liberia, with a land space of approximately 27,000 sq miles and a population of 5
million. It is well endowed with material resources such as diamond, butane, gold,
bauxite to name but a few and human resources. Sierra Leone is also blessed with
very fertile, arable land which any investor in agriculture would want to take
advantage of. It is also blessed with one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
In spite of this, Sierra Leone is ranked second to last among the poorest nations of
the world.

Sierra Leone became a republic in 1971 and for a brief spell there was a military
interregnum before returning for a short period to democratic governance. In the
early 1990s it witnessed one of the most brutal wars known to mankind. Thanks to
the international community, with Britain at the forefront, security has been restored.

As we prepare for elections, we want to take stock of Sierra Leone yesterday, today
and where we want to see Sierra Leone tomorrow. After Independence, Sir Milton
Margai became the first Prime Minister of Sierra Leone. After him, Sir Albert Margai,
his younger brother took over the reigns of power, and Sierra Leonean enjoyed much
development, and the basic necessities of life such as light, good roads, the basic
staple food of rice, which was also exported. This is no longer the case however.
Surprisingly, in the 21st century, with mechanised farming etc, Sierra Leone depends
on imported rice. Sierra Leone is at the moment going through a lot of difficulties. The
country has not had electricity in the last 7-8 months, nor has it had piped water.
Unemployment rates are as high as 75-78%. The roads are almost impassable, with
journeys that in the past could be covered in 3 hours, now taking at least 8 hours.
This gives an insight into what Sierra Leoneans are going through now after suffering
during the war years. As we prepare for the elections, the Peoples Movement for
Democratic Change (PMDC), of which I am the interim leader – interim because we
believe in democratic values, we will assume permanent positions after the
conference in February 2007, when people will be elected democratically. As interim
leader, I believe that there are certain issues of concern as we approach the
elections. Business cannot thrive in Sierra Leone if there is no security. We must
ensure that there is adequate security as we approach the elections. I am pleased to
say that the military and police are very committed to being professional and we hope
that will remain the case.

Security will be guaranteed I have no doubt about that as long as the government of
the day ensures that elections will be free, fair, democratic and predicated on a level
playing field. Many people always entertain the idea that it is a Herculean task to
replace an incumbent government. I do not think it is an impossible task and I believe
Sierra Leone is about to demonstrate the need for change as demanded by the
electorate. PMDC was born out of the desire of the people of Sierra Leone to effect
change because they are disenchanted not only with the governing party of the
SLPD but also the official opposition party of the All Peoples Congress (APC) which
ruled the country for over 25 years with abysmal results. We are here to appeal to the
international community, NGOs and the business community to apply whatever
pressure they can on the government of Sierra Leone to give the people of Sierra
Leone the chance to decide who is to govern them. The people of Sierra Leone have
suffered for too long and I believe it behoves all of us to ensure that they do not go
down that road again. Elections are very often won not on the day of voting, but I
have always maintained that they are won from the commencement of the intellectual
process being addressed. If at all there is going to be any electoral fraud, it will not be
on the day of voting but during the process especially when it comes to voter
registration. We implore the international community, to ensure that that does not

Now to the business community, there are a lot of opportunities, depending on how
the elections go. From all indications, after the elections in July, whichever
government assumes power, they will have to start from scratch because the war has
devastated the country and people of Sierra Leone. There is so much opportunity in
the fields of mining, agriculture and commerce in general. Sierra Leoneans have left
Sierra Leone for greener pastures and they cannot be blamed. But from my tour of
the transatlantic, I have been convinced of the desire of Sierra Leoneans to return
home and help build up their country, they are just waiting for the proper opportunity
to arise. On our part we have to ensure that we create an enabling environment by
looking at our taxes, looking at the commercial aspects from the point of view of
banking, looking at bureaucracy in the formation of companies. This will help create
the enabling atmosphere for people wanting to assist us in nation building, to go
there with the utmost of ease.

Q. You say that the party was born out of the desire of the people of Sierra Leone to
effect change; many people would say that if that were the case, why did you not
start this party before you stood in leadership elections for the SLPD.
A. I couldn’t have started this party before the time it was launched because as you
know and said, I was a member of a party. It was after the convention last year that I
decided to tour Sierra Leone and to confer with the people of Sierra Leone as to the
way forward.
Q. You say you are an interim leader, and that the party will be voting for a leader,
could somebody stand against you in the leadership election and would you be
prepared to serve under the person.
A. The party is not Charles Margai’s party, but the people’s party which I was asked
to lead for reasons others know and which must be good. With regard to the second
question, in the unlikely event that the party does not receive the mandate of the
people, I will be prepared to accept the results of the elections as long as they are
free, fair and democratic. I would happily stay in opposition and live in formidable
opposition to the government of the day in the unlikely event.

Q. How are you going to stop rogue elements from exploiting the economy of Sierra
A. I believe that the rule of law is a must. We must ensure that law is there to protect
all and that there should be no sacred cows. Before my resignation from the
government in 2002, I was the minister of internal affairs and local administration, in
charge of the police and I ensured that we transformed the police into a force for
good. I will, with the help of God and the mandate of the people of Sierra Leone build
upon what has already been established

Q. A lot of people say that the causes of the war are to do with the difference in the
circumstances of the hinterland and the way that the people in the mineral rich areas
were cheated out of their own earnings and their own potential by successive
governments in Freetown. Do you think that there needs to be a big structural
change in the way that Sierra Leone is run compared to the way it was run before the
civil war? Because it doesn’t seem that the current government has learnt much
about the causes of the war.
A. The causes of the war, as has been said time and time again, were
marginalisation of the youth in particular, corruption and nepotism. I am sorry to say
that these causes still haven’t been addressed. This is one of the reasons why the
people of Sierra Leone called for the formation of the third force, resulting in the
registration of the political party which I now head. Now, we will definitely address
those causes to prevent a recurrence because the young people are the future
leaders of tomorrow but we need to ensure that they have what it takes to be able to
lead and to govern properly otherwise, it will be the same old story.

Q. The second question relates to generational change, the younger generation feel
that the older generation need to give way and what Africa really needs is for the old
guard to give way for a new generation of visionary younger people. Which side of
the fence a you on?
A. With the generational age gap, I believe I am in between, I am 60. The PMDC is a
mixture of all ages and I think we have accommodated ourselves admirably.

Q. There is a cry among the youth about Margai and the fact that Sierra Leone is not
family property. How are you going to convince Sierra Leoneans that you are Charles
Margai and that you are capable of governing Sierra Leone as an individual rather
than as a Margai?
A. I am not trying to build up a dynasty as you well know but at the same time, I am
not ashamed of being a Margai, I am proud of belonging to a noble family and I
believe that my membership of that family, based on the performance of the first two
prime ministers, gives me an added advantage. But since returning home in 1979, as
a lawyer and a politician, I believe I have stood out as my own man, in other words, I
do not believe in inscriptive politics.

Q. Should there be second round voting, will you go with SLDP or will you go with
APC? 4
A. Judging from the reaction of the people of Sierra Leone and their desire to effect
positive change, for which PMDC was created, we do not envisage second round
voting. But in the unlikely event of that, based on my tour of the country, I believe a
run off would be between PMDC and APC, therefore, the question of where I will
stand does not arise.

Q. You said that the causes of the war were marginalisation of the youth, corruption
and nepotism which you intend to address. Can you let us know how you plan to do
this and what are your plans for industrialisation?
A. Regarding corruption, we must be pragmatic. If it is to be tackled, we need to look
at the causes. The salary structure in Sierra Leone is very low – the average salary is
about 200,000 Leones, which is less than $100 per month which is grossly
inadequate. We also need to improve the conditions of service, if we do this, our
attitude in the government regarding corruption will be zero tolerance. We have at the
moment the Anti-Corruption Commission which is meant to be addressing corruption
within the public service. But there are impediments, because the government itself is
condoning corruption, so therefore only opponents of the government are being
prosecuted which is unacceptable. The constitution provides for the infusion of the
minister of justice and the attorney-general. This is an issue which our government
will look into and perhaps sever for the simple fact that the holder of those offices
invariably will investigate on the political side of things and ignore the legal aspect.
According to the anti-corruption act, a prosecution cannot commence without the
consent of the attorney general. It is for this reason that although there is a prima
facie case against certain people, due to the fact they are colleagues of the minister
of justice, he is shirking in his responsibility as attorney-general and cases are not
being brought against these people. So that will be our approach towards tackling

Regarding marginalisation, PMDC has it’s constituency among the youths and
women which will ensure that every Sierra Leonean has a sense of belonging and
that they have a role individually and politically to play in the development of Sierra
Leone. We will endeavour to create jobs, because as I said, any government taking
over will have to go back to the drawing board and start all over again – roads will
have to be repaired, the agricultural sector will have to be revived instead of relying
solely on diamonds which have proven to be a curse. We will create job opportunities
for the youths in particular. On the question of industrialisation, it is a known fact that
you cannot industrialise without energy, which is a problem in Sierra Leone.
Bumbuna which should have been giving light to Sierra Leone and possibly exporting
light to Guinea and Liberia is still being constructed. This has been going on for the
last 30 years and we hope that a PMDC government will conclude it.

Q. How organised is the election process? What confidence do you have that people
will be interested in turning up to vote?
A. The people are anxious and eagerly waiting to exercise their franchise. With
regard to the process, it is ongoing and we have a very dynamic national elections
chairwoman but she needs to be empowered, not only financially but also with
manpower. One of the areas in which our party and APPA –All Political Parties
Association – are concerned about is the fact that many of the electoral laws hinge
on legal interpretations and there is not a single lawyer in Sierra Leone who is not
partisan. This is a worrying aspect. This came to light when PMDC contested the
electibility of the standard bearer of the governing party SLDP in the person of vice
president Solomon Berewa because there is a provision in the constitution which
states that if one is a President, Vice President, Minister or Deputy Minister, one is
ineligible to lead a political party. Mr Solomon Berewa was elected leader of the
SLDP while he was Vice President and he continues to be so. Although the petition 5
was written in simple language, the commission rejected it and that is a worrying
aspect. It is necessary for the international community who are funding the elections
to consider assigning a renowned, non Sierra Leonean lawyer to assist in the
interpretation of these laws so that the confidence of the people will not be lost.

PMDC is a party that cuts across ethnicity and regionalisation. It is in the constitution
now that any political party wanting to function in Sierra Leone must ensure that it
cuts across tribalism, religious groupings etc and I believe that all of the parties that
have registered so far have satisfied that requirement. But in the past this has been a
factor because politics has been polarised but we hope that it will be a thing of the
past as we move forward to the next elections.

Q. One of the policies that the Sierra Leonean government has pursued has been
public sector decentralisation and restoration of local democracy. How do you see
that process succeeding today and what is your party’s position on it, bearing in mind
that other African countries such as Uganda and South Africa have followed that
A. Decentralisation is absolutely necessary, at least to relieve the burden on the
central government. It has been introduced by the current government but it has not
followed it up by empowering the central bodies financially. There have been a lot of
problems between the city councils and central government because the latter have
been complaining about lack of funds to affect their responsibility. PMDC would
ensure that decentralisation will continue and that the district and city councils will
have the mandate to generate their taxes and to utilise them for the good of the
areas they control. There can be no better way to effectively and equitably govern a
nation than decentralisation of authority. We welcome it and will pursue it vigorously.

Q. You have a very unstable political past, you’ve been quite an active member of
the SLDP and you’ve been thrown out of the party. Why should Sierra Leoneons
believe now that you will be a stable person in the elections?
A. I wasn’t thrown out of any party; I left of my own volition. That is a very subjective
question for the people of Sierra Leone to answer, all I can say is that my past record
in Sierra Leone in the last 35 years has put me in a very advantageous stead such
that the people of Sierra Leone who called for the formation of the PMDC, saw fit to
invite me to lead the party.


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