Like all fledging independent states, Sierra Leone had no Foreign Service on the 27th of April 1961 when the National flag was unfurled. The rudiments of an external relations mechanism had begun to emerge, however, with plans being formulated to attain the semblance of a Ministry of External Affairs.
Foremost among these was the selection and training of the personnel to form the nucleus of the new Ministry that would be responsible for conducting the nation’s external relations. In a two-pronged approach, the pre-independence government had offered a range of scholarships to serving civil servants for specialized training as successors to the colonial administrators. Some of these were to be absorbed into the external service later.
Simultaneously, training opportunities were offered to carefully selected, young intellectuals already learned in the law, political science, communications and media operations to prepare them for the challenges of the brave new world beyond the national borders. During a period when Sierra Leone was still the prime exporter of learning to Anglophone West Africa, a perceptive and adventurous corps of young intellectuals was emerging, prepared to transcend the local horizon, invade the world and engage the brightest and best everywhere. The first Minister of External Affairs, Dr. John Karefa-Smart, although a medical doctor, had already been an international civil servant. Beyond that, he was an intellectual and a visionary. His first line of support staff consisted of veteran teachers skilled in personnel selection and training.
This triumvirate (Minister and two top officials), guided and assisted by the experience of Whitehall (the seat of the colonial government), promptly obtained training scholarships from older Commonwealth and other countries. Britain, Canada, Australia and the Nordic countries were ready benefactors. The initial training consisted of compressed courses lasting three (3) months on average, designed to unfold the environment in which diplomats were to operate and grow. As a newly independent state, Sierra Leone’s foreign ministry was initially hatched as an appendage to the Commonwealth and Foreign Office in London, with the Queen as Head of State, represented locally by a Governor General.
With a skeletal staff partially trained at their disposal, the initial architects endeavoured to design a Ministry to engage with International organizations, protocol duties, diplomatic correspondence and the establishment of diplomatic missions. Even the functional design of a Foreign Ministry was itself an initial challenge. The first configuration consisted of four main divisions, namely, Political, International Organizations, Administration and Protocol, with the sub-divisions of Communications, Passports and Consular Relations. Although the staff were predominantly generalists, the lawyers were more involved with accession to treaties and conventions whilst the teachers and administrators were designing the structure and functions of the missions abroad, embryonic communication links, and conditions of service for diplomatic operations.
Seeking familiar ground, Sierra Leone’s initial representation was limited to the United Kingdom, West African neighbours, the United States of America and the United Nations. Being the 100th member of the UN and carrying the accolade in Education as the “Athens of West Africa” inspired Sierra Leone’s representatives to exhibit intellectual leadership in the various fora in which they were engaged. The country soon earned places in the UN Committees on Apartheid and Decolonization as principal spokespersons. Within the first decade of its inception, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had recorded an impressive history for the country, which included:
- Membership and chairing of the Security Council;
- Leadership of the West Africa Steel Community;
- Spokesperson of the 24 member committee on Decolonization;
- Spokesperson of the 21 member committee on Apartheid;
- Drafting Committee in Law of the Sea Commission;
- Senior Positions in the UN Institute for Training and Research, including its Directorship.
The real texture of Sierra Leone’s foreign policy was not unveiled until the Republic came into existence on 19th April 1971. Until then, Sierra Leone was implementing in large measure the foreign policy of Great Britain.
At independence, Sierra Leone acceded to the Agreements which had been contracted on her behalf by the colonial power. At that initial stage, diplomatic ties with Cuba and other communist states like North Korea were not even on the cards. It was also standard Commonwealth practice for Britain to represent the interests of newly independent members where they had no Embassies or High Commissions. Policies inconsistent with British Policy could hardly be expected to be articulated in such circumstances.
By 1971, it was clear that the initial pronouncement of “An Open Door Policy and Friendliness towards All Nations” was inadequate to address the complex association of independent states of which the Republican Sierra Leone was now a full member. The challenges were enormous. The cold war was hot; the iron curtain firm and unyielding; and nuclear arms threatened the antagonists with self-destruction. In this context, Sierra Leone joined the Afro-Asians to occupy a middle ground between both blocks and in doing so consolidated her identity among like minds. She became openly anti-colonialist, anti-apartheid, more visibly independent and non-aligned. The Commonwealth bond was flexible enough to accommodate the intrinsic identity and outlook of its members.
The end of apartheid, the ebbing of the colonial tide and the dismissal of nuclear war as a geopolitical option provided space for new policy options that Sierra Leone could not readily convert in view of the civil war that coincided with this period of global détente and would occupy the entire focus of its foreign policy actions. Henceforth, bilateral and multilateral trade and aid would guide the direction of Sierra Leone’s foreign policy but these opportunities could not be optimized during the period of war instability and uncertainty.
Arguably thus far, Sierra Leone has not been able to fully maximize the potential benefits of the utility of diplomacy in the attainment of its development aspirations and on the same token, has not fully evolved its foreign policy to be strategically aligned with development objectives and priorities. Despite some impressive strides since independence, the country’s Foreign Service, like the wider public service, has not delivered as it should for the citizenry of this nation. While it has hitherto stood out in international decision-making processes, the last time Sierra Leone served on the UN Security Council was over four decades ago in 1971.
Two subsequent attempts between 2006 and 2009 were prematurely aborted in preference to Ghana and Nigeria respectively, even though the chances of Sierra Leone were highly favourable within the sub-region at the time. In the same vein, the furthest Sierra Leone had been at the helm of leadership of the UN General Assembly in more than two decades was within the rotational Vice Presidency – a provision that allows for Member States to serve in that capacity and to assist the President in conducting the business of the Assembly during each session. Logistics constraint has also restricted Sierra Leone’s leadership of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) on no less than two occasions. To its credit however, Sierra Leone has in recent years been able to make some appropriate policy adjustments in the context of the changing international environment and pressing internal challenges.
At present, Sierra Leone’s global relevance is increasingly being recognized. It is a member of the Human Rights Council with diplomatic representation in Geneva. Sierra Leone’s President is Coordinator of the African Union Committee of Ten Heads of State and Government to canvass the African Common Position in the reform of the United Nations Security Council. The ambassadorial and representative offices in the multilateral stations – AU, Commonwealth, ECOWAS, EU, and UN, have particularly demonstrated maturity and effectiveness in contributing to the achievements of the institutions’ stated goals and objectives. In the 21st century, the foreign policy and international relations trajectory of Sierra Leone points toward a genuine ambition of the country to visibly and productively align itself with the aspirations of the nation and the complex realities of the global diplomatic environment. The new Sierra Leone Foreign Service Transformation Strategy 2014-2018 is geared to help fulfill this grand vision.