Sierra Leone

Sir Albert Margai and the Shadow of Thurgood Marshall

Charles Margai (left) and Kurt L. Schmoke. (Photo: Karamoh Kabba)

The interim leader of the People's Movement for Democratic Change (P.M.D.C.) of Sierra Leone, Charles Margai, who is on what party officials refer to as a Transatlantic Tour for Positive Change in the United States, was honored by Rizwan Pureshi, president of the Student Bar Association, and Joshua Senavoe, president of the International Law Society, after he arrived to speak and take questions from students at Howard University Law School in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 14.

The meeting was arranged by a former student of the law school, Yolanda Thompson, who is a Sierra Leonean American and the daughter of Raymond Bamidele Thompson, national chairman of the P.M.D.C. Media Committee. Kurt L. Schmoke, dean of the Law School, gave the closing remarks.

Rizwan spoke briefly about Margai as a graduate of the University College of Dublin, Ireland, where he obtained a bachelor's degree in civil law , a leader of the P.M.D.C. party of Sierra Leone, a son of the late Sir Albert Margai, the second prime minister of Sierra Leone, and a father of three children. Rizwan added, "Mr. Margai is of a good pedigree."

Joshua, the second speaker who introduced Margai, demonstrated remarkable knowledge of the decade-long rebel war in Sierra Leone and the judiciary system that he said "is controlled by the government." He asked his fellow students to "imagine themselves with opposing views in a country in which the judiciary is controlled by the government" before he introduced the keynote speaker.

Following a brief history of Sierra Leone and its precise geographical location on the world map, Margai, in a somber mood, reminisced about a winter day in December 1980 when his father gave a speech at the same Houston Hall at Howard, where he was now honored to speak.

"Twenty-five years ago my father, Sir Albert Margai, second prime minister of Sierra Leone gave a speech here in the Houston Hall of this great institution. He was then probably the only African leader in power who had lost elections to a political rival. He admonished the then government of Siaka Stevens to elevate the economic status of the poor or they would rise up to demand what they deserve," he said.

Margai told the students that the great grandfather on the maternal side of the champion of civil rights in the United States, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, a graduate of the Howard University Law School, was from Sierra Leone amid thunderous applause.

"We have great historical links," he said. "And I will ensure, when I become the next president of Sierra Leone come 2007 elections, that those links between us are strengthened through a student exchange program between the Howard University and the University of Sierra Leone."

I was able to confirm Margai's statement through a Howard University Law School student from the early 1980's, who was then president of the Student Bar Association. Indeed, Sir Albert Margai gave a speech at the law school in December of 1980 just before he died later that month, on the 18th. The former law student told me that Sir Albert Margai was introduced to the students by the late S. E. Darammy, another Sierra Leonean. The former law student who is now a prominent Washington lawyer went on to recall Sir Albert Margai's words.

"He was a great fighter for economic parity for the poor," the lawyer told me. "He articulated his foresight for Sierra Leone in that speech as follows: 'If the government,' referring to the A.P.C. [All People's Congress] government of the late Siaka Stevens, 'does not do something to elevate the lives of the have-nots, the poor, they would one day rise to demand from the haves, the rich, their own share of the economy.' The old lion retired to his home afterward that winter, and died in his sleep on December 18, 1980."

"His prophesy came through the decade-long rebel war that was characterized by the abduction and the forcible conscription of children as warriors by rebels and the government — a gross human rights crime against children on both sides," he concluded.

Charles Margai drew the students' attention precisely on his father's prediction of that winter day at Howard University when he linked that prophesy to the decade-long "rebel war that was characterized by some of the most gruesome war crimes against humanity in recent history." He spoke briefly of the unattended limbless Sierra Leoneans, whose limbs had been hacked off by machete wielding rebels that now walk the streets of Sierra Leone with caps in hands.

In a book by Richard Klukir, "Simple Justice," I confirmed that Margai was on point when he told the students that the late Chief Justice Marshall's great grandfather on the mother side was from Sierra Leone.

After Margai's speech, the students asked many brilliant questions. Two stood out:

"What will be your position on the ongoing discussion on the all Africa citizenship for African Americans in Africa when you become the next president of Sierra Leone?" The student explained that he was interested in the discussion for African Americans to be citizens of Africa regardless of which country they may want to go to because the African American will be able to have a home anywhere in Africa and also be able to help with the development programs in the country of choice.

Margai answered, "Thank God we are already ahead in that in Sierra Leone," referring to the dual citizenship bill that was recently passed in the parliament of Sierra Leone.

"I am fully in support of dual citizenship for African Americans in Africa in a way that would not infringe on nations' sovereignty … The P.M.D.C. government would streamline the procedure for acquiring dual citizenship to make it less cumbersome than is currently proposed, Margai said.

The other question was about Margai's position on women. The student asked what he would do about women, who are the most marginalized people in Sierra Leone and many other countries in Africa. Margai reassured the student without hesitation that women would make up a third of his cabinet, more if enough qualified and willing women come forth to sacrifice for public service to their country.

Margai stressed that his government will have zero tolerance for corruption and that "there will be no sacred cows in Sierra Leone as far as clamping down on corruption is concerned." He reiterated the point that "public service would become a sacrifice to serve and not to amass wealth through corruption."

In his closing remarks, Schmoke told Margai, "We know your schedule as president would be very busy, but remember that we have extended an invitation to you to come back to Howard University Law School when you become the next president of Sierra Leone."

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