Comrade Sumanguru Kante: An Appreciation
By Ibrahim Abdullah
Samuel Hindolo Trye, now known to history as Sumanguru Trye; or better still Sumanguru Kante, was my senior inAlbertAcademy. He later came to teach when I was in form three but was not my teacher. I therefore knew him from a distance; a distance that could have vanished had I stayed in the boarding school where Sumanguru spent all his life at Albert Academy, and before then, Koyeima Secondary School. Little did I know that our paths were to cross, and continuously overlap; that he was going to influence my life, in multiple ways that I least imagined. I was present when he met his first wife Hannah Brewah in 1977; and would be there again twenty-seven years later when he met his second wife Memuna Lebbie in Koidu.
Our paths indeed crossed at a crucial period in Sierra Leone’s history: on the eve of the 1977 student demonstration; or ‘revolution’; as some commentators have consistently dubbed the national uprising and demonstration.
How do we begin to make sense of Sumanguru’s contribution to post-colonial Sierra Leone? What did he do to push history forward? How did he individually and collectively inaugurate a new beginning— a different kind of politics—a new grammar of politics; and a new political imaginary? These troubling questions underline his seminal importance as a towering political persona in post-colonial Salone. He is unarguably the most important political figure to appear on the historical stage in post-colonial Salone. When all was seemingly lost Sumanguru proclaimed that change was indeed possible; where people were despondent he gave them hope; where compatriots wavered he counselled to keep the faith; when comrades faltered he was there to inspire, to lead by example, to ginger the despondent, and to maintain the gaze on the ultimate prize: the search for a better Salone! Sumanguru was the consummate inspirer; the provider of the wherewithal to get to the Promised Land; and the unwavering believer in a better tomorrow. We have to do it comrade; he never tired of saying, for those who will come after us, for history and for posterity; and for our children.
But how did Sumanguru do it? What is the legacy of this man who has been vilified by countless commentators who hardly know him?
As our late Comrade father Ahmed Sekou Toure used to say; what is man before the infinite and transcendent becoming of peoples and humankind? What is the role of the individual in history, in society, in social struggles; in short, in epochal transformation? To appreciate Sumanguru’s exemplary contribution, indeed his sacrifice to/for Salone, his stout advocacy of popular democracy from the bottom-up; his undying love for his beloved masses; his humanist and nationalist values; we need to situate this towering patriot in-context; examine the choices that were available to him; the options, the alternatives and possibly the missed opportunities. To situate him historically—to historicise his life, his political activities—is to draw important lessons from his practice as a populist politician; an unassuming revolutionary. As that theorist and strategist against Portuguese colonialism Amilcar Cabral was fond of saying: ‘rice only cooks in the pot’.
There were key defining moments in Sumanguru’s life that were shaped by political happenings to which he responded politically. The first of these moments was his debut on the politico-historical stage: 1976-77. The singular political lesson that Sumanguru drew from his electoral victory in the 1976 student union election was the debilitating salience of ethnicity in national politics. Dubbed fixity at FBC; ethnicity and regional alliance determined who got elected. A group of so-called elders had ruled that Sumanguru did not belong; he was not Mende enough, they charged— his friends and constituents were Krios from the Western area. The hold of the fixity clan in FBC politics helped shaped his consciousness; he steadfastly refused to adhere to their ritual of identity politics and in defiance christened himself a ‘revised standard’ Mende. He would later revisit this theme and re-christened himself as an ‘international’ Mende. This attempt to redefine him as against his supposed ethnicity was to become a constant source of struggle throughout his political career. Ethnicity was a cancer that Guru confronted fearlessly!
The second key/defining moment in his political life spanned the 1977 demonstration and the inauguration of Tablet as the voice of the unofficial opposition. Sumanguru tirelessly emphasized his own limitation as a student leader—students do not make revolution was his popular refrain— in the context of the criminalisation of opposition politics, and instead emphasized the need for a broad based movement. And even though the 1977 ‘revolution’ did not bring in the much envisaged change—its objectives were limited— it did make a dent in the political landscape: for it became crystal clear for once that change was indeed possible! The APC was forced to call an election—which was not schedule to take place in 1977— and the voting age was reduced from 21 to 18. Even so, the debate around the gains of 1977 still continues amongst those who participated. What is not up for debate about 1977 is that it gave us Ernest Koroma! It was immediately after 1977 that Koroma expressed his interest in running for political office and it was to Sumanguru that he turned to unlock the gate to political power via SI Koroma!
The political space opened up by the mass action of students in 1977 gave rise to the Tablet newspaper edited and managed by Pios Foray, Sumanguru Kante, and Frank Kposowa. Tablet was the place to be after 1977; the politically correct site to hang out if you were opposed to the then APC dictatorship. Tablet provided an ideal political space to debate the state of the nation: to theorise the multiple challenges then facing the nation-state; and to explore alternatives to the then APC. We were all young undergraduates; some recent graduates; and a few older hands. There were democrats; would-be socialists/ socialists; plain sympathisers; patriots and nationalists who came around, wrote an article or two, but nonetheless identified with the general anti-establishment thrust of the discourse around and within Tablet. Sumanguru’s stature as the icon of change and revolution, as the student leader who challenged the APC, cemented all these disparate individuals in a common but undeclared goal of change for a better Salone. This is how a certain Ibrahim Benedict Kargbo was hired by Sumanguru, to try his hand in journalism, based on recommendations from James Castro Webber, who worked with Kargbo at Schelenker.
Sumanguru’s greatest strength, his force of character, was his infectious simplicity and his uncanny capacity to ground, to converse, and to negotiate, not necessarily with his peers, but with folks from all social groups in society: from the newspaper vendor to the high court judge; from the bourgeois university professor to the street hawker; from the Rastafarian in the ghetto of Freetown to the chief in an isolated chiefdom in the interior; from the okada rider to the lumpen proletariat cum potential recruit to Iraq. He listened, counselled, and made concrete suggestions; and he did this with ease; effortlessly I must add, because he could switch sides with his numerous admirers, the better to understand their problems and to proffer advice. Larger than life, his generosity knew no bounds. All were welcome to his modest abode: from New England Ville to Shangri La!
And this did not change when he skipped town after Tablet was put out of business. His apartment in NY became the Makkah for all advocating change in Salone. Many came by to visit, to spend time; or just to hang out: the list ran like a who is who in the opposition to the APC. His bedroom was always reserved; indeed prepared for his numerous political visitors. Sumanguru’s life in exile was shaped by political happenings in Salone. He devoted his time and energy to the production of Tawakaltu and the building of an opposition movement.
It is hardly surprising that his participation in government was a reward for his political activism—the only NPRC minister known for his opposition to the APC dictatorship. Accessible and approachable he tried to make a difference in his relations with people. His experiences as minister—he held four ministerial positions in two governments—were marked by what he dubbed ‘the tyranny of popular expectation’. According to him this tyranny operated at two levels: from above and from below. From below were the daily demands of his beloved masses for assistance with everyday needs; and from above were the subtle but not so subtle nudge from peers/ relatives urging him to arm himself with ill-gotten wealth for a post-power tomorrow. He vividly recounted to me the exhortations of some so-called friends not to ‘form am o’ meaning he should ‘help’ himself. This nasty reality of neo-colonial politics really bothered him and in several conversations he fingered it as the most debilitating aspect of power in post-colonialAfrica. As I recall his musings and his narratives on the everyday life of a minister/politician I am struck not only by his dogged refusal to be the kind of politician they wanted him to be but also his determination to resist the beckoning alternative: prebendal politics/unbridle corruption! For him politics was not the route to primitive accumulation of wealth; politics for him was to change society for the better; to transform the lives of the masses; the oppressed and the downtrodden. His key watch word was always—difference—in the lives of those you serve. This was the guiding principle that shaped his tenure as a minister under the combat fatigued NPRC and the Agenda for Change APC.
Corruption and ethnicity were the two aspects of power that dominated our conversations during his last days. We spoke frequently and periodically met to deliberate on party affairs: we were both members together with Frank Kargbo of an imaginary political party that was never was! If identity politics profoundly affected his sense of being; political corruption made him uncomfortable with the multiple demands of everyday life that were products of the ‘tyranny of popular expectation’. If Southern-Eastern chauvinism alienated him under the NPRC; Northern exclusivity marginalised him under the APC. ‘Probably the one minister who would have died in office poor and that makes his passing a huge loss forSierra Leone’ a close friend lamented inLondon.
Sumanguru’s legacy constitutes a lingering challenge to state and society in contemporary Salone: how do you hire and keep honest men and women in positions of authority in public life? How do you attract and maintain public officials who would put the interest of the nation above self? These are troubling questions that Sumanguru’s transition compels us to confront! And confront them we must if we are indeed committed to building a society based on Unity, Freedom and Social Justice!
Much more telling about Sumanguru is the date of his passing: 26 July!!!! Sumanguru is definitely talking to us even in transition; sending a message to those who would listen. Sumanguru passed away on the 59th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution—the attack on Moncada Barracks— at age 59! Why would Sumanguru depart on that date if there is no message to relay? Why the morning of 26 July? Coincidences do not happen in history! Is Sumanguru vaguely hinting at the beginning of a Sierra Leonean Revolution—a Moncada has to precede a Sierra Mestra? The significance of 26 July and the passing away of Sumanguru is too mind boggling to be coincidental! If this is indeed a message to decode we your comrades who share your ideals will surely rise to the occasion if a Sierra Mestra becomes an historic possibility!
You are not dead Sumanguru
Because you stood for Progress and Social Justice
You are not gone Sumanguru
Because history has enshrined you in our memory
You are still with us Sumanguru
For the struggle for social justice continues
A lutta Continua!!!!!
Ibrahim Abdullah, read at the service of Thanksgiving and Celebration, KingMemorialUnitedMethodistChurch, 14th August, 2012.