Ransford Slater Constitution of Sierra Leone – Obstacles to Constitutional Change

Several factors had seemed to threaten the implementation of the 1924 Constitution. The size of the Legislative Council was gradually increased between 1963 and 1920. The Executive Members for instance, who constituted an autocratic majority on the Legislative Council controlled almost all the powers. Although there were dynamic unofficial like A.J. Shorunkeh-Sawyerr and Samuel (later Sir Samuel) Lewis in the Legislative Council, there were several factors which really delayed the growth of the Legislative Council and Executive Councils as truly representative institutions1. In other words, these factors could be rightly seen as obstacles to the 1924 Constitution.

Colonialism and racism

Colonialism implies dominance, that is, the exploitation of the national interests of a subject by a foreign nation. Since it always concerns foreign interest, race relations are normally involved. This political and social system (colonialism) denotes a special relationship between the imported oligarchy and its subject majority which represents the nucleus of what George Balandier referred to as la situation colonial (the colonial situation).

An examination of the colonial period in Sierra Leone from the inception of the Province of Freedom in 1787 to the period of independence in 1961 reveals that racism and colonialism were handmaidens, that is, they worked together. The efforts of Thomas Peters to become governor were thwarted. Although several factors contributed to the outbreak of the Nova Scotia Rebellion, the fact that the experience of slavery at the hands of the whiteman lingered a deep distrust of whites in authority in the minds of the Nova Scotians must not be overlooked. Even the Maroons emerged from a traumatic experience fighting for freedom for decades. White domination was reinforced with the formal imposition of colonial rule in the Colony on 1st January, 1808.

Since the days of the ancient Greeks, some philosophers held the notion that living things on earth evolved from simple to complex forms. It was, however, in the nineteenth century that Charles Darwin, the English naturalist, presented an explanation for the existence of different types of plants and animals and the reasons for the extinction of some and arrival of others. Since food supply multiplies slowly than animals, the latter always struggle to live. The implication is that those who survive could assimilate their environment better than those who perish. The fittest, therefore, live to produce another generation that is adapted in the same way. This natural way of selection is what Darwin called the principal of natural selection. The fight to live, the survival of the fittest and natural selection are thus the three ideas which formed Darwin’s theory of evolution.2

As Thomson noted, “so much had flowed into the Darwinist synthesis that as much again could be squeezed out of it”.3 His theories (which were transferred to phylogenetic) won a powerful array of converts ranging from politicians like Chamberlain and Hitler to Scoiologists like Spencer and Sumner and all sorts of imperialisits and expansionists towards the end of the last millennium. It is true that Darwin was not a racist but it is equally true that “his theory of biological evolution was extended to social evolution giving birth to the Theory of Social Darwinism”4. Social Darwinism, therefore, (used as a philosophical realization for imperialist and racist policies) sustained a pseudo-scientific belief in Aryan or Anglo-Saxon cultural and biological superiority.

The French began to talk about la mission civilisatrice, the Germans Pan-Germanism, the Russians Pan-Slavism and the British In the words of Rudyard Kilpling) the whiteman’s burden. Although the realistically minded Kenneth Stamp rightly noted that “immensely Negroes are after all, only whitemen with blackskins, nothing more nothing less”5, it was (and is sadly still) true that “many Europeans…cherished the flattering notion of innate white superiority; such people could hardly help communicating something of their attitude to the Africans with whom they came into contact”6.

Perhaps no one expresses the situation better or worse than a supreme racist, Arthur de Gobineau who, although in many words, clearly explained what many-if most- whites would hastily endorse. He identified the negro (who tends to mediocrity in everything) as the lowest when rated with its counterpart the yellow and the white. The yellow race, though superior to the negro, he argues, could not create any civilized society. According to him the white race, the most advanced of the three, is gifted with reflective energy or rather with an energetic intelligence.7

Racial discrimination or segregation was and is still tied up with the whiteman’s erroneous and pseudo-scientific conception that the races are unequal. The new imperialism which developed in the latter part of the nineteenth century altered the original policy of preparing the West African territories for self-government and “the General Act of the Berlin Conference and that of the Brussels Conference provided the juridical basis for European expansion into the hinterland as well as for the acquisition on the coast… The coastal region of West Africa was quickly partitioned by the imperial powers after 1885.8

With the growth of racism and the proclamation of the Protectorate in 1896, a new era dawned on the face of Sierra Leone. It must not be forgotten that the Krios had a good start over their counterparts in the interior (later the Protectorate) because of the early imposition or importation of western education in the colony. The British realized that if given the opportunity the Krios would prove their competence and indeed they were initially partners in the administration.

As a result of the inadequate supply of European manpower, the junior posts were almost an African monopoly. These posts gave them some insight in the workings of the colonial administration. A.J.G. Wyse in other words commented that “European appreciation of the talents of these Africans reached a high point in 1872 when Governor Pope Henessy exulted that there were enough qualified Krios to replace the entire European staff”.9

James C.E. Parkes’ plan for administering the declared Protectorate was categorically rejected by the Colonial Office which neglected Pope Hennessy’s statement by noting that it would be a practical impossibility to assemble a sufficient number of competent Krios In a realistic observation, Porter noted that “Cardew who disliked and mistrusted the Creoles, only extended a line of policy already agreed on. The events of the decade that followed showed the trend of this policy.”10

The era of the career open to talents had passed away. Discrimination, rather than competence or qualification, was the order of the day. Cardew’s policy of replacing Africans with Europeans was continued by his predecessors. It is lamentable to note that in 1900, J.E. Dawson, Assistant Head of Customs was not replaced by an African, but rather a European. After the death of Enoch Faulkner, a Krio African Assistant District Commissioner, in 1908, the colonial administration amalgamated his district at Waterloo with an adjacent one and appointed a European to succeed him. perhaps Fyle’s statistics explain the situation better. As he noted, “Krios gradually lost their favoured position in the colonial hierarchy. Whereas in 1892, Krios held 18 out of about 40 senior positions by 1912, when these appointments had exceeded 90, Krios only held 15 and 5 of these were abolished in the next five years.”11

The colonial government thought it fit to drain a small area from malaria for the English population in the city. In 1904, Hill Station was chosen as the appropriate site and was turned into a reservation for the European population. This geographical distance was soon translated into social distance. Hill Station became a badge of superiority. The situation was the same in the medical field. Since blacks were considered innately inferior, most whites disliked being treated by African doctors. It soon, therefore, became customary to exclude African doctors irrespective of their qualifications. In 1902, African doctors were excluded from the unified West African Medical Service and the Government White Paper Policy in 1909 publicly proclaimed that “the committee are already strongly of opinion that it is in general inadvisable to employ natives of West Africa as medical officers in the Government Service.”12

This discriminatory attitude really affected the rapid development of the Legislative and Executive Councils as truly representative institutions. The whitemen in these councils for instance would not have appreciated an African governor. In 1900 unofficial representation was not increased though the (Legislative) Council was now responsible for the whole of the Colony and the Protectorate. It was argued that tribal Africans were not ready for this, and that further Creole representation was unacceptable to the administration. Not unnaturally, this policy this policy of discrimination which greatly limited opportunity gave birth to a great deal of resentment during this period.

Divide and rule

Closely tied with discrimination is the policy of divide and rule. By deliberately suffocating the efforts of the Krios to hold top positions in the Protectorate and the Legislative Council and by widening the bridge between inhabitants of the Colony and Protectorate, the colonial administration was in effect controlling the degree of opposition from her subjects. It realized the effect of unity. By keeping the two administrative units separated, the inhabitants of both regions will not have much time to attack the government as a unified force. The government wanted to prevent that ‘unity’ in politics which was present in Sierra Leone just before independence when all existing political forces or parties amalgamated into a United Front to ask for the long-awaited independence. Indeed, “prominent among the problems which have always dominated Sierra Leone politics is one generally described as the Colony-Protectorate issue.”13 Instead of uniting the Colony and Protectorate politically, it is evident that the declaration of the Protectorate in 1896 divided it culturally and ethnically. It was very awkward to learn that, according to the Protectorate Ordinance in 1896, the administration of the Protectorate was to be by Europeans. The majority of the Krios clearly saw that the government, instead of bridging and cementing, was consciously widening the gap between the Colony and Protectorate. Official policy fostered division and tribalism. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is indeed a timeless novel. The Europeans cleverly inserted the wedge and clearly divided Sierra Leoneans who could no longer see themselves as brothers. The decline of the Krios for instance was systematically planned by the colonial administration.

The Prospectus of the Bo School, if anything- reveals the implicit desire of the colonial administration to prevent Protectorate boys from receiving the kind of education the colony schools provided. The administration in effect was saying that it wanted to train ‘yes men’ rather than critics of the government. These Protectorate boys should not become like the Krios. They should not follow the example of distinguished men like Ezzidio or Lewis. They should obey the powers that be irrespective of the effect of their actions. To foster division, the colonial administration in a very clever way argued that both native pupils and their teachers should wear their own country clothing.

In a very forceful argument, Marcus Jones listed several points which undoubtedly lend credence to the view point that it was a conscious or deliberate – rather than an accidental- policy of the colonial administration to keep the Krios of the Colony and the inhabitants of the Protectorate distinctly apart. He observed that no lawyers from the Colony were permitted to appear in the Court of the Protectorate without special permission even though a more legal system was being introduced.14

The implication of this policy of divide and rule on the Legislative Council was clear. The confidence enjoyed by Africans prior to the declaration of the Protectorate was really effaced. They became mere advisers whose advice in many instances were neglected. The Legislative and Executive Councils between 1896 and 1920 therefore were mere rubber stamps of government policy. The Protectorate inhabitants were merely dismissed as unqualified men not yet ready for representation in the colonial administration and the Krios in the colony (qualified men) were really discriminated against. By keeping these two administrative units divided, the chances of challenging the government were effectively reduced. Discrimination and divide and rule were therefore two powerful obstacles to the development of the Legislative and Executive Councils as truly representative institutions.

The Great War (1914-1918)

Attention must be drawn to an external factor (that is the First War) which- even if indirectly- affected constitutional development in Sierra Leone during its duration. The First World War broke the peace that had been carefully maintained since 1815. While it was mainly a European War, it did affect other parts of the globe. Colonial peoples joined the war for various reasons. This is significant because just before the war rumblings had been sounded which denoted challenges to British reign. By 1914, it was clear that the colonial administration and the Krios were potential enemies. However, this hostile relationship notwithstanding, all hatchets and grievances were buried as all and sundry rallied round the British government or rather the British Crown to defend that cherished empire and that gracious Queen.

The implication then is that all political agitation or pressures were suspended because of the outbreak of the First World War. It must be borne in mind that several pressure groups had emerged by this period. The Ratepayers’ Association and the Civil Servants’ Association for instance were among the other pressure groups that set the government on edge. Some Krios had even started talking about an organization such as the National Congress of British West Africa. Since the entire period of the First World War was dormant as there was a temporary break in political agitation, the War could rightly be seen as an obstacle to constitutional change or development.

The Great Debate

This obstacle was largely internal unlike the First World War. The issue was the status of the inhabitants of the Protectorate known as the Great Debate. This legal tussle was an important and thorny issue. Perusal of the movement of this debate lays bare two interesting discoveries. First, it clearly showed the dynamism of the colony representatives, with a specific reference to Shorunkeh-Sawyerr. Second, it revealed the attitude of the Colonial administration. It is of vital importance to put this Great Debate in perspective because, among other things, it threatened the implementation of the 1924 Constitution. By 1922 the composition of the Executive Council was the same as 1863. In other words, it was still an advisory body made up entirely by European officials. The Legislative Council was then constituted as follows:


The Governor

Official Members

The Officer Commanding the Troops

The Colonial Secretary

The Attorney General

The Colonial Treasurer

The Principal Medical Officer

Unofficial Members

Three African Members

One European Member.

It is clear from the facts stated above that both Councils were far from being democratic institutions. However, moves for a more liberal constitution began with the assumption of office by R.J. Wilkinson’s successor, Alexander Ransford Slater (later knighted) who arrived in Sierra Leone in 1922. Although he ‘identified’ the constitutional problem, his conclusions were to a large extent prejudicial.

The problem which Slater identified in Sierra Leone shortly after his arrival was nothing other than the disproportionate balance between the numerical size of the two segments which constituted the country’s population, He observed that there was no representation from the Protectorate in the Legislative Council which determined its laws whereas the Colony which had 80,000 Africans against the 1,350,000 aborigines in the Protectorate had three unofficial representatives. Slater dismissed this as “an anomaly of a somewhat glaring character”15 and he therefore felt it incumbent on him to make an early study of the question of a possible reform of the Legislative Council.

Slater assured the members of the Legislative Council that he would present his proposed reforms to the Duke of Devonshire. When the Council met again on 28th December 1922, Governor Slater informed it that the Duke had already approved of the enlargement and reconstitution of the Legislative Council of the Colony and Protectorate of Sierra Leone. The Legislative Council was to be enlarged to twenty-two members including the Governor (that is eleven official and ten unofficial members). Out of the ten unofficial members, three were to be elected and seven nominated. Those elected were to be Colony members. Of the seven nominated members, two were to be African representatives of the Colony, two Europeans and three Paramount Chiefs from the Protectorate. The issue which led to Blyden’s designation (The Great Debate) was the issue of Protectorate representation on the Council and this ushered in a series of acrimonious debates in the Legislative Council. A critical study of the trend of events in the Legislative Council prior to the implementation of the 1924 Constitution reveals that “there is no doubt that, in law, if not in fact, the Creoles of the Colony had a strong case against the implementation of the proposed constitution…”16 According to the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890, the Protectorate was a foreign territory. The implication then is that its inhabitants are aliens who had no business in the Legislative Council of the Colony.

In Slater’s view, the press of the day furnished the public with false information. According to the Press, the Protectorate was still in its embryonic stage to earn direct representation and the so-called change was a fictional idea forced on chiefs. Before the declaration of the Protectorate in 1896, Governor Cardew observed that during his tours the chiefs favoured the idea of a Protectorate. Almost a quarter of a century later, Slater too claimed to have visited the chiefs who favoured representation. He noted that in his recent tours, the chiefs themselves asked for direct representation on the the Legislative Council. Commenting further on the issue, Slater argued forcefully that “direct representation would be inadvisable if there were no suitable chiefs to be representatives but this was not the case. I am satisfied from my personal experience during my tours in the Protectorate, and from information that there do exist in each of the Provinces, Paramount Chiefs who can adequately understand and express their opinions on matters such as we consider in this room”.17

Shorunkeh-Sawyerr- an exceptionally gifted man with great sensitivity- was the Senior unofficial member of the Legislative Council during the period of the Great Debate. It would have been wonderful for a racist like Sir Richard Burton- who once noted that “the negro in mass will not develop beyond a certain point and that not respectable”18 to have been present in the Legislative Council when unofficial members (especially Shorunkeh-Sawyerr) took the colonial government to task with sound arguments. The colony politicians based their opposition on several grounds. They believed that the Protectorate was not too advanced for representation. Bringing then Provincial Commissioners and Chiefs to the same council will weaken Protectorate representation instead of buttressing it simply because of the relationship of subordination and domination between the chiefs and their bosses, the Provincial Commissioners.

Bringing these ‘yes men’ of the administration into the Legislative Council was a clever way to increase supporters of the government. But Shorunkeh-Sawyerr was really confused. There were several issues he needed clarification on, the most important being the real or actual status of the inhabitants of the Protectorate.

It would be legitimate to infer that Shorunkeh-Sawyerr was probably right in this quest. One of the burning issues which had come on and off in question since the declaration of the Protectorate in 1896 was the political status of the natives occupying these territories. In the space of seven years (1916-1923), three Crown Law Officers gave their candid opinions on the issue. The opinions of two of these- though unequivocal- were divergent and that of the third was intermediate. The implication these controversial opinions had was that the issue was in need of a satisfactory explanation. Little wonder then that Shorunkeh-Sawyerr termed them as aliens- and aliens they really were.

The Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890 declared the Protectorate a foreign territory which meant that its inhabitants too were foreigners or aliens. Before proceeding, one must really question the dubious nature of the colonial policy. When the Bo School was formed, it was intended for the sons and nominees of chiefs and the boys should be given an education entirely different from that which the Krios received. Soon after the punctuation of the Bai Bureh Rebellion, the British were engaged in the pacification process, that is, the suppression of all resistant movements. The colonial government organized a Protectorate march during which its soldiers displayed their sophisticated weapons to show the people how strong the government force was and to frighten them to become pusillanimous as far as fighting or challenging the administration again was concerned. As Fyle noted, “after the war of freedom of 1898, the Sierra Leone hinterland settled down to a dull acceptance of British rule”.19 Rulers like Madam Yoko, Nancy Tucker of Bagru and D.F. Wilberforce who were favourable to the British were selected to become Paramount Chiefs. Chiefs suspected to have been disloyal were either deposed or exiled, for example, the great Kebalai (Bai Bureh) of Kasse and Nyagua of Panguma.

The implication here is that Paramount Chiefs will always strive to preserve the goodwill of the British rather than cultivate the support of the people. By 1922, both chiefs and their people were diametrically apart and the former could not be proper representatives of the latter. The inclusion of chiefs who neglect the wishes of their people will therefore make the Legislative Council unrepresentative. Neither the governor nor the Acting Attorney-General could convince Shorunkeh-Sawyerr that the Protectorate inhabitants were British subjects. Shorunkey-Sawyerr’s request for annexation was inspired by the similar situation in the Gold Coast Colony. He was indeed certain that this would definitely happen in the near future and really tried to avert the legal difficulties involved. He was among one of the very first Sierra Leoneans to argue for annexation and it is reasonably therefore to observe that the Krios were not necessarily against the inclusion of the protectorate into the council.

It seemed as if Shorunkeh-Sawyerr was busy counting the stars in the sky in a bright night. The Governor’s mind was fixed. He had thought of reconstitution and its course before arriving in Sierra Leone and his mind was almost closed. Maybe he erroneously thought that the Chiefs in the Protectorate region were on a par with their Gold Coast counterparts. This over simplication was too misleading. According to official opinion, the Protectorate inhabitants could take the Oath of Allegiance which is the main precedent to be a member of the Council. However, it would appear as if official policy wanted to delay the idea of annexation since Governor Slater observed that such a request must come from Protectorate inhabitants themselves.

A close look at the Great Debate shows that even the British were not too sure whether it was really correct to have the Protectorate representatives in the Legislative Council. It really magnified the attitude of the colonial administration. One sees traces of racism. The idea of race is tied up with the pseudo-scientific conception of the inequality of the races or worse still, the superiority of European culture. Since the blackman was believed to be at the foot of the human tree of evolution, he must accept the ‘fact’ that the whiteman is very clever and always right. There was therefore that typical ‘jumble obstinacy’ not to yield to the brilliant and legitimate argument of the Africans during this Great Debate.

The colonial administration gave a blind eye to the validity of Shorunkeh-Sawyerr’s plea for annexation and rather found all sorts of ‘rationalization’ to justify their policy.

Unfortunately, the Committee of Educated Aborigines (a Protectorate Organization) gullibly accepted Governor Slater’s position of though which unrealistically attributed the relative backwardness of the Protectorate to the selfishness of the Colony. Such tendencious statements were not only stupid or gratuitously provocative but were also a hotchpotch of throroughly evil nonsense. Newspaper reports show that – if anything- there were cries for Protectorate representation in the Legislative Council. In the nineteenth century, Sir David Chalmers turned down Samuel (later Sir Samuel) Lewis’ cry for Protectorate representation in the Legislative Council. The statement therefore that the colony people were totally against Protectorate representation must not be in a blind manner. Shorunkeh-Sawyerr cleared this point in one of his speeches. He was not against protectorate representation. The colony raised eyebrows because of the manner of Protectorate representation. It was clear that by 1924, the Paramount Chiefs were all yes men of the government. As stated above, this situation was carved after the end of the Bai Bureh Rebellion (1898) when so-called ‘disloyal’ chiefs were either exiled or deposed and loyal ones retained or installed.

It was clear that the members of the Committee of Education Aborigines who felt that the ‘anomaly’ must be corrected represented only a portion of the Protectorate. They were all northerners and their main motive was to foster protectorate issues.

It was therefore clear that the policy of the colonial government was bias and once it had been laid down, no amount of objective analysis by colony Africans in Sierra Leone could alter it. It is therefore not surprising that at the suggestion of Governor Slater, the moot question was withdrawn. Deveneaux’s comment on colonial policy was an accurate one. He commented thus, “the suggestion that colonial policy was formulated in London and sent overseas…describes the situation in the nineteenth century (and also twentieth century) Sierra Leone. Undeniably, this decision in London was frequently final….”20

As already stated, this Great Debate must be put into perspective because it really ‘threatened’ the implementation of the 1924 Ransford Slater Constitution. The administration would not yield to the suggestion of Shorunkeh-Sawyerr, however valid it was. The end of the Great Debate also coincided with the punctuation of the life of that archaic or ancient Legislative Council which had served the colony of Sierra Leone for over a millennium.


1. Edward Blyden III, “The pattern of constitutional change in Sierra Leone, 1924-1951), unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Harvard, 1975, p.127

2. Walter T. Wallbank, et.al. History and Life, (Illinois: Scott, Foreman and Company, 1977), p.487

3. David Thomson, Europe since Napoleon, (Norfolk: Lowe and Brydone Printers Ltd, 1957), p.257

4. The New Encyclopaedia Britannica Vol.27, s.v. “Social Darwinism”, p.339

5. Kenneth Stamp, The Peculiar Institution, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), p.3

6. Gustav Jahoda, Whiteman, (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), p.113

7. Howard M. Bahr, Bruce A. Chadwick, Joseph H. Stauss, American Ethnicity, (Massachusetts: D.C. Heath & Co., 1979), pp.128-129

8. Boniface Obichere, West African states and European expansion, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971), p.245

9. A.J.G. Wyse, “The Krios of Sierra Leone-Of British imperial overrule?”, p4

10. Arthur Porter, Creoledom, (London: Oxford University Press, 1963), p.61

11. Cecil M. Fyle, The history of Sierra Leone, (London: Evans Brothers Ltd., 1981), p.110

12. Christopher Fyfe, Sierra Leone Inheritance, ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), p.262

13. Gershon Collier, Sierra Leone: experiment in democracy in an African nation, (New York: New York University Press, 1970), p.9

14. W.S. Marcus Jones, “Legal development and constitutional change in Sierra Leone, 1787-1971”, unpublished manuscript, pp.260-261

15. Sierra Leone Legislative Council Debates (henceforth ‘Debates’), 1922-23, Sierra Leone Public Archives, Fourah Bay College, p.6

16. Blyden, op.cit., p.128

17. Debates, No.II, 1922-23, p.6

18. Sir Richard Burton: cited in Journal of the Royal African Society, Vol.70, p.240

19. Cecil M. Fyle, Alimamy Suluku of Sierra Leone (London: Evans Brothers Ltd., 1979), p.52

20. Deveneaux, op.cit., p.47