As Sierra Leone celebrates its 50th birthday, a look back

Tonight in Freetown – Sierra Leone’s dusty, sprawling, and party-loving capital – the independence festivities will continue well past midnight.

Bai Jingshan/Newscom
Sierra Leonean President Ernest Bai Koroma (r.) meets with Han Changfu, special envoy of Chinese President Hu Jintao in Freetown, Sierra Leone, on April 26.

Fifty years ago, a flag of green, white, and blue unfurled for the first time against a sultry West African sky. The clock struck midnight on April 27, 1961, and Sierra Leone, a British colony for 150 years, became its own country.

Tonight in Freetown – Sierra Leone’s dusty, sprawling, and party-loving capital – the independence festivities will continue well past midnight.

The city’s beaches are already packed with revelers dancing to ear-numbing blasts of the country’s reggae-like tunes. The president, Ernest Koroma, will address a crowd of thousands inside the National Stadium, where traditional dancers provided entertainment under the midday sun. Tri-colored streamers have adorned the city’s streets for weeks.

Sierra Leoneans have much to celebrate: nearly a decade of peace, billions of dollars in new foreign investment, and the tentative return of tourists to the country’s forgotten white-sand beaches.

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These gains are perhaps that much sweeter because Sierra Leone has been deeply wounded over the past half century – by profound poverty, brutal conflict, and rapacious leaders.

But life still pulses in the streets of Freetown, a city that was founded in the late 1700s by freed slaves who had come from the New World in search of a better life. Hundreds died of disease and hardship, and many gave up and left. But the tough ones stuck to the land they had chosen, and their children did the same.

The fledgling city on the coast soon became the capital of a British colony that reached 200 miles inland, a mishmash of cultures and languages cobbled together into a single state.

At independence, this jigsaw puzzle of a country cried out for a strong leader to keep it together. It got the autocratic Siaka Stevens, who held the country in a tight grip for nearly two decades, executing his rivals, lining his pockets with donor money, and outlawing all political parties other than his own. In 1980, a Western diplomat described Sierra Leone as “a time bomb waiting to explode.”

Perhaps it’s a testament to the country’s fortitude that that time bomb kept ticking for more than a decade. It finally went off in 1991, when a group of rebels supported by Liberian warlord Charles Taylor invaded from the south. Other rebel groups jumped into the fray, and the country erupted into a brutal civil war that lasted 11 years. The lights went out in Freetown, the streets emptied, and anyone with the means fled the country.

Peace, finally, was declared in 2002. One election was held, and then another in 2007. Power changed hands, but there were no bloody riots or coups.

Today, the country continues to cling to this fragile peace. Electricity is back on in Freetown now, at least for part of the day. In 2009, nearly 8,000 tourists came for the country’s beaches, jungles, and wildlife – almost twice as many as a few years ago. New finds of iron ore, petroleum, bauxite, and diamonds could easily double the country’s GDP.

Of course, there are still plenty of problems: corruption, malaria, sanitation, maternal death, unemployment, illiteracy, and a host of other pernicious issues. Sierra Leone is better off that it was a decade ago, but it still falls easily in the bottom ten percent of the UN’s Human Development Index. Anyone lucky enough to get a job doing manual labor here can expect to earn about $1.60 a day.

But tonight, Sierra Leoneans will not dwell on their troubles – they will celebrate having survived the past 50 years. And they will celebrate the possibility, if not the promise, of a peaceful future.

Tonight, they will dance until dawn.

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