A solid Traditional Institution

Paramount Chieftaincy in the Eastern region of Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone is a small tropical country on the West Coast of Africa, surrounded by Guinea on the north, Liberia on the southeast and the Atlantic Ocean on the west. The country has a very long rainy season of seven months and the capital city, Freetown, is fondly called by Sierra Leoneans as the city of the “seven days rain,” where it can rain with very brief interruptions for an entire week. The country is very green as a result with luscious vegetation throughout the better part of any year. Sierra Leone is approximately 72000 square kilometers. The Northern part of the country is very rich Savannah like agricultural land, ideal for rice, fruit and palm cultivation. The Eastern and southern parts are more tropical and suited for tree crops such as Cocoa and Coffee. Approximately 45% of the country is located on Diamond rich land. The diamonds have been both a blessing and a curse. They have been a source of immense wealth for a few and a source of great instability, as they helped fuel the decade long civil war of the 90s that destroyed the economic and social infrastructure, reduced investment in human capital and sent the country back decades down the channel of modern development.

In spite of all these problems, Sierra Leone is a country that is very remarkable for the strength of its traditional institutions. Some of these institutions have proven tobe so formidable that they survived the advent and domination of British colonial influence. The institution of Chieftaincy in Sierra Leone is a typical example of a traditional social arrangement that remains intact, in spite of the ravages of colonialism, to the present day. It could be argued that the system suited the British colonialists, as it closely resembled their own monarchical system. The point is that the institution survived and is still relevant in the social fabric of the country.

Sierra Leone is divided into four regions (formerly provinces), all the four regions composed of twelve districts. Regional administration is divided between the central government on one hand and local administration consisting of Regional clerks and chiefdom authorities. Each region is divided into Chiefdoms, under the control of the Paramount Chief, who has traditional authority. All the Paramount Chiefs in a district elect one Paramount Chief that represents them in the national Parliament, the legislative branch of central government.

Chieftaincy in Sierra Leone is a very unique institution. Paramount Chieftaincy can only be obtained by right of birth. In each Chiefdom, there are royal families, most of who are descended from traditional warriors. When a Paramount Chief dies, his eldest child does not automatically become the paramount chief. In every chiefdom, there are likely to be several families that have traditional claims to the chieftaincy. In the event of the death of a paramount chief, members of each royal family in the chiefdom will select representatives that will face off against each other in the paramount chieftaincy election. In this election, only local authorities, that is, lower level chiefs, are allowed to vote. It is therefore very important during a Paramount Chief’s tenure to maintain very good political affiliations with lesser chiefs. This system introduces some checks and balances on the authority of the paramount chief.

In Sierra Leone, every chiefdom is divided into sections. A section may consist of several towns and villages, with the towns and villages divided into areas. Each section, town, village, and area will have their own chief with differing levels of authority.

The death of a Paramount Chief is a very significant event. The funeral rites that are observed differ among regions and ethnic groups. In Eastern Sierra Leone, the ceremonies surrounding the death of a Paramount Chief are very elaborate affairs. There are traditional days of mourning, with masquerades by the various traditional secret societies. After forty days of mourning and celebrating the life of the chief, the campaigning begins. Traditional alliances are rekindled and old differences and grudges are brought up. Campaigning is sometimes acrimonious and violent. Society becomes polarized and there can be a lot of character assassinations. All is not negative however, as each candidate tries to put on their best face. They make the usual promises, give gifts to schools, participate in community projects, and distribute a lot of tee shirts and other campaign paraphernalia.

In the days preceding the elections all the families try to mobolize their traditional bases. Men move about at night secretly, conniving, plotting and dredging up embarrassing stories from the past. Secret rituals are held in which chiefs pledge their loyalty to their candidates. Traditional rituals are conducted to tie them to these vows, with the promise of some grave misfortune befalling them if the vows are broken. There is also a lot of betrayal as some people try to secretly ally themselves with several camps. As paramount chieftaincy is a position of lifelong authority, the wrong allegiance could be a costly mistake for a lower level chief.
On the day of the vote, everybody gathers in the Chiefdom community hall. The election is usually presided over by the District Officer and District Paramount Chief Parliamentary representative. Initially there is an elimination phase which is usually the most interesting part. Each candidate comes forward and explains what qualifies him to contest for the chieftaincy. The presiding officers then invite people who want to dispute such claims to come up and do so. Some old people then get up and give detailed reasons why a particular candidate may not be qualified. In a particular case I observed, a candidate was disqualified because his brothers all agreed that he was not their father’s legitimate child. When he was disqualified he never had the same respect he had again.

After all the arguments, those whose royalty or family lineages were proved beyond a reasonable doubt were then allowed to proceed to the delegate balloting stage as official candidates. The Paramount chieftaincy election I observed in Segbwema was done by secret ballot. The voting was a tense and solemn process. Counting proceeded immediately after the votes and in less than two hours, the winning candidate was announced. There is usually no time for concession speeches as the celebration starts immediately.

In Segbwema, Momoh Borbor Jimmy Jajua, the son of the late Paramount Chief David Kekura Jimmy Jajua, won by a landslide and became paramount chief somewhere around 1983 till his death around 2005. A new chief is yet to be elected. The celebrations that followed Chief Jimmy’s election and subsequent inauguration were spectacular and elaborate. Traditional masquerades of all the major sections, and secret sects were at hand. There were “congorlee”, “Jawei Yafei”, “ Sowei”, “Bomu Landa”, “Ngorboi”
“Faluee”, “Jaygay power”, “Nafeii”, etc and traditional singers.

As Segbwema is a multi ethnic town, there were Mende,Temne, Madingo, Limba, and Fula celebrations. There was enough food cooked those days to feed the entire chiefdom for one month. Chief Jimmy was the first Njaluahun Paramount chief with a Masters degree but his reign was pretty unremarkable as he himself was a very quiet and reserved person.

Ex British Prime Minister Tony Blair was crowned a ceremonial Paramount Chief in Sierra Leone in gratitude for the Britsh role in ending Sierra Leone's bloody civil war and helping restore democratic governance.


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