Ponder my thoughts by Andrew Keili He was a Sierra Leonean academic, diplomat, physician, writer and poet, considered as one of Sierra Leone’s most educated and greatest citizens of the twentieth century, as he was able to secure degrees in the arts, science and commercial disciplines and he contributed to science, history, and literature. 

He was the first African to graduate with First Class Honours from the University of Cambridge and he was also the first African elected as a Fellow of a college of Cambridge University. 

Described by one scholar as a Polymath, he significantly contributed to medical science when he was the first to analyse the breakdown of insulin in the human body, a discovery which was a breakthrough for the treatment of diabetes. He was born in the village of Sokrala on the outskirts of Kabala, where his father was a cattle herder. His western education was short-lived as he showed very little interest in school and eventually dropped out before high school graduation. 

Realising that his son was not interested in pursuing western education, his father gave him some cattle to sell to raise some capital to embark on his business career, which turned out to be the most significant steps to national and international stardom for him. 

He made history in the 1970s by becoming the first Sierra Leonean to enter the European and Lebanese dominated import and retail of motor vehicles, cars and light vans. He was the most successful black diamond dealer in post-colonial Sierra Leone.

These two short profiles are of Davidson Nicol and Bailor Barrie, both of whom need no introduction. And don’t you dare ask which is for whom and for what they are famous. I am certain you all recall the adage "den say Bailor Barrie, you say Davidson Nicol", relating to the “money versus education debate”.

Well, the reason for bringing up this issue is to apprise you about a very important book whose launch I attended a few weeks ago. 

The respected academic, Professor Alusine Jalloh of the University of Texas in Arlington launched his book titled “Muslim Fula Business Elites and Politics in Sierra Leone”. This scholarly work chronicles the journey of the Fulas over several decades spanning from the immediate post-independence era with Dr. Milton Margai at the helm to the NPRC era. I will not attempt to do a review, but only provide some glimpses of some interesting issues captured in this volume. Professor Jalloh’s book investigates why and how Muslim Fula business elites participated in the post-independence politics of Sierra Leone. 

The Fula are one of the county’s main entrepreneurial groups. Arguably, they are the most successful African business minority in the country. But how did they get from a situation in which for over decades they were treated as foreigners and interlopers into our economic and political system to a situation today in which they are very much in the driving seat?

Jalloh states that in the immediate pos- independence era, Milton Margai worked closely with both Sierra Leonean-born and foreign-born Fula political, business and traditional elites. They included Alhaji Amadu Wurie, Alhaji Kaikai, Hon. Jah, Almamy Agibu Jalloh, Alhaji A.D. Wurie, Alhaji Bah, Alhaji Abdul Jalloh, and Alhaji Wuroh Timbo. These elite Fula played an important role in mobilising the Fula business community to provide cash and in-kind donations of livestock and rice for the 1962 election. This rapprochement with the Fulas continued under the Albert Margai regime.

In the aftermath of the 1967 election, however violence was visited upon the Fula business community. Despite efforts by Fula business leaders to stop APC political violence against the Fulas, it continued unabated. Prof. Jalloh states that “the chief reasons why the Fula were singled out by APC partisans centred on Fula support for the SLPP and the prejudicial belief that they had no business participating in national politics and should return to their homelands. Protection of the Fula community had little political appeal among the top leadership of the APC”. 

The book states further: “In February 1970, more than three thousand strangers, the majority of them Fula, were arrested in several diamond-mining areas in Kono town. By March most of these strangers were repatriated back to neighbouring Guinea by armed policemen. 

This was a continuation of the Stevens administration’s effort efforts to rid the Kono diamond mining areas of strangers without valid permits by arresting and repatriating them to their homeland.”

Despite these difficulties with the Stevens regime several prominent Fulas prospered under the Steven’s regime. The book cites the case of Alhaji Bailor Barrie and several other Fula businessmen: “Alhaji Bailor Barrie, for example, both as an elite entrepreneur and president of the Fula Progressive Union (FPU), played a key role in lobbying the Stevens administration on matters relating to Fula participation in the diamond business. Fula retailers had similar concerns like stranger drives and security, trade, including the issuance of more diamond dealer licenses, residential permits and diggers licences to Fulas. Prominent Fula diamond dealers included Alhaji Momodu Alpha Bah, Fula chief in Kono, Demba Arch of Kenema, and Alhaji Sanu Barrie. But of all the Fulas involved in the diamond business, the most accomplished was Alhaji Bailor Barrie. Until his death in1989, he was the most successful Fula entrepreneur in pos- independence Sierra Leone with a total net worth of millions of dollars and wide-ranging domestic and international businesses from corporations to retail shops. Alhaji Bailor helped to change the long-standing Sierra Leonean public measurement of elite success from that of academics to entrepreneurialism.” 

All was not however well between Bailor Barrie and Stevens because of a diamond dispute which is aptly captured in the book: “In 1982 the Fula community in Sierra Leone faced increased persecution from the Stevens government following a diamond sale dispute between Alhaji Bailor Barrie and Jamil (Said Mohamed) in neighbouring Guinea where President Toure reportedly favoured Alhaji Barrie. The evidence suggests that after Jamil returned to Freetown after losing out to Alhaji Barrie in Guinea, he influenced President Stevens to target and harass Fula residents.”

President Toure, speaking on Guinean radio called for an immediate end to “such unacceptable behaviour”.

Many Fulas did however play a prominent role in the APC. During Stevens’ one-party rule, Alhaji Chernoh Maju, together with the Kenema-based Fula politician M.A. Jalloh, who was later appointed a member of the APC Central Committee and Governing Council played prominent political roles.

Though the Fulas had varying levels of acceptability under these regimes there were always some underlying factors affecting them. Immigration was one factor.

Court records show that Fulas, particularly those from Guinea, were among the highest number of deportees because of illegal entry into the country. 

Professor Jalloh states: “Immigration was a unifying and radicalizing force and the primary factor in giving birth to a Fula organisation – the Fula Progressive Union (FPU) – which drew together foreign- born and Sierra Leonean-born Fulas into political action. Such resources included money, membership, information, and business expertise. This trade was hierarchical, trans-ethnic, and highly competitive.”

The Fulas had to find a meaningful way of joining the country’s political landscape and pursued diverse strategies.

The role of the Fula progressive union (FPU) is captured by Jalloh: “For four decades after independence in 1961, the FPU…evolved into an effective interest group that advocated and defended broad Fula interests, particularly those relating to immigration and business. The FPU was successful in bridging political, generational, class, religious, and ancestral homeland divides among the Fula people. The Steven era witnessed the largest growth of the FPU’s membership in response to the APC government’s repressive actions against the Fula people….With highly placed Sierra Leonean-born leadership, the FPU was largely successful in navigating the country’s political landscape in dealing with Fula immigration and business challenges.”

The FPU had strong support from the Fula business community and increased Fula voter turnout during nationwide elections, effective political outreach by Fula politician to non–Fula groups, and prevailed on governments to recognize the Fula as an integral part of the country.

Meanwhile the diamond trade made the Fulas richer. 

Jalloh states thus: “By the 1960s, the diamond trade based in the Kono District began to emerge as a primary source of capital accumulation among the Fula. By the 1980s, it had become the single largest source of Fula capital. Profits from the diamond trade were then invested in such sectors as real estate, livestock, and motor transport, the latter being one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Sierra Leone economy.” 

What an object lesson in diversification!

As for the diamond business, Fula business elites were competitive and highly successful during both SLPP and APC rule in Sierra Leone. Their success can be attributed to many factors, including entrepreneurship, hard work, highly developed kinship networks, active collaboration with local authorities and traditional rulers, as well as the diamond business.

Other prominent Fulas captured in the 320 page book (with 100 pages of notes and references) make a “who’s who” of major players in the business and political spheres- Alhaji A.B.M Jah, Sir Banja Tejan-Sie, Alhaji Alimamy Wuroh Jalloh, Alhaji Abu Bakarr Tejan Jalloh, Alhaji Ali Dausy Wurie, Alhaji Momodu Bah, Alhaji Dr. Amadu Wurie, Alhaji Ibrahim M. Alie, Alhaji Momodu Alpha Bah, Almamy Agibu Jalloh, Alhaji Abass Alie, Alhaji Muhamadu Seray Wurie, Alhaji Mohamed Lamin Sidique and a host of others.

Our recent political history has shown how far the Fulas have come and how effective they have become. 

In the political sphere, Ernest Koroma initially sought a Fula, Abubakarr Jalloh as his running mate in 2002. PMDC’s Charles Margai had Dr Tejan Jalloh as his running mate in 2002. And what is this thing about Fulas and running mates? In the recent elections Dr. Samura Kamara of APC had Chernoh Maju Bah (Chericoco) as his running mate and our current Vice President Juldeh Jalloh is also a Fula. 

There is no doubt the Fula vote has been actively courted especially in the recent elections.

The serious business sector is replete with Fula participation. There are a considerable number of Fulas importing goods into Sierra Leone. Even the real estate market is not spared Fula domination.

They have made strides into various spheres of national life. Consider the judiciary over the past decade. Umu Hawa Tejan Jalloh, Dr Abdulai Timbo and our current Chief Justice Abdulai Cham have all held the position of Chief Justice. Fulas are into all spheres of life and those who may have once been tempted to shun western education now actively court it-just go to college convocations and listen to the litany of Fula names-Bahs, Jallohs etc. receiving their certificates. 

The Fulas have really arrived. 

Congratulations! They have taught us that it is possible for Bailor Barrie to be an alter ego of Davidson Nicol. 

Thankfully education in Sierra Leone has changed and entrepreneurship is actively encouraged in several educational courses.

Whatever the case the Fulas have embraced education.

However, one should not skate over the grumblings from some quarters about the difficulties of distinguishing between foreign-born and Sierra Leonean Fulas (with Fulas comprising some 45% of neighbouring Guinea’s population) and matters of alleged tepid allegiance to country by some of the major players on the political and economic scene and of a cartel-like behaviour by major Fula businessmen, often bordering on economic marginalization of others. 

Whatever the merits of such accusations, it is indisputable that there are a considerably high number of Sierra Leonean Fulas to whom Sierra Leone is home and are contributing meaningfully to all spheres of national life. Indeed, we should celebrate all those who continue to make this nation wholesome and successfully. 

Thank you, Dr Jalloh for enlightening us about the Fulas and congratulations to the Fulas for their profiles in courage and perseverance. Ponder my thoughts. 

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