The Monuments and Relics Commission (MRC) remains the last bastion of colonialism in Sierra Leone. It does not serve the interest of Sierra Leoneans who have been poorly informed about its relevance. The administration of the MRC has for a long time rested on the Chairperson who informs the rest of the Commission about whatever s/he wants them to know about.
This MRC administration has been dominated for many years by British scholars and Joseph Opala who is American and these people have manipulated to keep it that way for a long time by making strenuous efforts to get elected a chairperson of the MRC who knows little about Sierra Leone’s history and who would therefore depend on these expatriates to run the MRC.
Unfortunately for the last appointed chairperson, Ms Isatu Smith, the Commission came to include two top historians of Sierra Leone, Professor Joe Alie and Professor Emeritus, C. Magbaily Fyle. Questions and problems began to arise as it became obvious, at least to Magbaily Fyle, that the MRC was held hostage by these White scholars. Looking through the documentation, I saw that one of these scholars, Christopher Decourse was styled “official adviser to the MRC”. The questions that came to my mind were who appointed him official advisor, and to what end was he so appointed?
The other expatriate scholar, Paul Basu, I noticed was represented at every function the MRC had in the past year. I asked myself the same questions about him as for Decourse. Joe Opala, now discredited because he could not account for the grant money he received on behalf of Bunce Island, had anchored himself to Fourah Bay College after his tour as a Peace Corps volunteer. At the Institute of African Studies where I was director, I first took him to know where Bunce Island is in 1976. Thereafter, I gave him a job teaching anthropology at the new Diploma in Cultural Studies Program I had set up in 1986.
He gradually moved away from the Institute of African Studies, anchored himself to State House through the late Dr. A.K. Turay and got into Bunce Island scholarship, gleefully misrepresenting Sierra Leone’s participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade which Bunce Island is notorious for.
I opposed that in an analysis in the Peep tabloid in 2010. But this did not stop him. He ultimately won a grant for Bunce Island from some American agency and no one knows what he did with the money.
The Biggest MRC Problem
We need to explain this background for the benefit of the public so that they could appreciate the core of the MRC’s problem. The MRC was founded in 1946 in Freetown by agents of the Colonial Government that included Dr. M.C.F Easmon who was keenly interested in a broader rendition of the Sierra Leonean culture.
The teaching of the colonial period, longest in Sierra Leone than everywhere else, was that Africans had no history. As late as 1960, a prominent British Professor, Hugh Trevor Roper, stated on the BBC that there is nothing like African history. Scholars in Europe do not think so any more, but that was the prevailing thinking at the time the MRC was founded. The dominant idea then was that what is African/Sierra Leonean history is what Europeans left behind in Africa/Sierra Leone.
The Monuments and Relics of the MRC starkly bear out this problem. Out of the sixteen monuments declared between 1946 and 1965, all except one talked about what Europeans left behind guns, cannons, forts, educational institutions like the Old Fourah Bay College building, and the like. The declared monuments also include a couple of tombstones of White people who had been briefly in Sierra Leone. I always asked the question, if tombstones were that important, what about the graves of Bai Bureh, Madam Yoko, Sengbe Pieh, some of our greatest heroes? And we know where their graves are located.
I guess you can begin to understand the background to the moribund nature of the MRC. I have been pushing for this perception to be rectified since I joined the MRC as a Commissioner in 2014 but little progress has been made in that direction. It became a determination to change this image of the MRC.
I explained in a couple of pronouncements that the MRC could contribute to the development of nationalism and patriotism in Sierra Leone. As it is at present, it is a far cry from this realization. But it could be done and it seemed we were going to move in that direction.
So we started off in 2014 as a new MRC with a grand launching. The day before the launching in April, the Chairperson called me at home saying she was having problems with doing the press release to accompany the launching. I rushed to the office and drafted the press release and we launched. But as I began to demand information, I began to notice the imprint of Paul Basu and Christopher Decourse and Joe Opala in virtually everything.
I was disturbed and I started asking questions. One of the documents I was handed was a write up on all of the declared monuments and relics. I noticed this had been written by Paul Basu. As I read through, I noticed some starkly colonialist renditions of Sierra Leone’s history. I brought this to the attention of the Chairperson and commissioners. The reaction of the former was that she found it “quite good”.
As I have said before, I do not know what scholarly background she has to properly evaluate the document. I insisted that the entire write up had to be redone and that she could give it to Professor Alie; if she wanted me to do it, I have to be given some remuneration. Fancy me asking her to pay me to re-do what she had found quite good.
She opposed very sharply and said that was conflict of interest. I then took the matter to the meeting of the Commission and explained that if the MRC has the expertise to redo a major document like that, someone competent has to be remunerated to do it, whether or not he was a commissioner. The commissioners agreed and I defined a measly reward of two million Leones, simply to make the point.
It turned out to be a far more taxing exercise than I had expected and I brought this to her notice. In the end I handed her the completed script and she gave me a cheque. On reflection, I realized the hostility of the chairperson to this exercise and I decided to return the cheque at the next meeting of the Commission. At the meeting of May 26, 2015, I returned the cheque. This is how that event was reported in the minutes of that meeting, vetted by the chairperson:
“With regards the General Management Plan of Bunce Island, Professor Magbaily Fyle told members that there are a lot of errors discovered on the Historical background. Apart from that, he donated the honorarium given to him by the Commission for vetting the historical write up of the proclaimed sites because he feels his work is not appreciated. Members however disagreed to agree as the issue was peacefully resolved with a conclusion that he takes back the honorarium and that all historical flaws be corrected before the printing of the final document. “
This was not exactly as it happened, but this is how she recorded it. The Bunce Island Management Plan referred to in that quote had been given to Decourse to write. The chairperson never informed the Commissioners when she was doing so but simply called for some big ceremony for us to go and vet the plan. I objected. But as usual, all my objections were disregarded.
I wish the MRC well and if the chairperson wants another copy of the write up I did on the declared monuments, I will give her another copy. I suspect, however, that she does not want it, preferring to use what Paul Basu had written. If this structure of the Monuments and Relics Commission does not change, the institution would largely be of little benefit to Sierra Leoneans as the chairperson and her henchmen are mostly interested in Bunce Island without being competent to provide a rational explanation for the Atlantic Slave Trade which that Island is all about. But I’ll be watching
By C. Magbaily Fyle
Wednesday November 11, 2015