The Mende ethnic group has played a pivotal role in the national politics of Sierra Leone since the 16th century.
There are roughly sixteen other ethnic groups in the country. They are the Bullom, Creole, Fula, Kissi, Kono, Koranko, Krim, Kru, Galina, Gola, Limba, Lokko, Sherbro, Susu, Temne, and Yalunka peoples.
Each of these ethnic groups have defined the country in different and vitals ways.
Why are the Mende so influential in Sierra Leonean politics?
Over thirty percent of the population in Sierra Leone are Mende people. In fact, they are one of the two largest ethnic groups.
Consequently, the proportion of Mende to other ethnic groups in the country is a contributing factor to their relatively high level of representation in the political sphere.
Another factor that gives rise to this phenomenon is that they have a long tradition of gravitating toward politics.
They have enjoyed significant political influence in the precolonial, colonial and postcolonial eras.
For centuries, they have had a unique impact on governance in Sierra Leone.
How have the Mende influenced politics in Sierra Leone?
“The politics of Sierra Leone have traditionally been dominated by the Mende. The Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), which is one of the two major political parties in the country, is predominantly based among the Mende. And it gets most of its support in the predominantly Mende southeastern region of Sierra Leone.
“Most of the country’s top government positions have been held by the Mende. Sierra Leone’s first prime minister, Sir Milton Margai, who led the country to independence from the United Kingdom on 27 April 1961 was a prominent member of the Mende ethnic group.
“Other prominent Sierra Leonean politicians from the Mende ethnic group include the country’s second prime minister, Sir Albert Margai, who was also the younger brother of Milton Margai; commander of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces and later head of state Brigadier David Lansana; Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio, also Sierra Leone’s head of state; Sierra Leone’s vice president, Albert Joe Demby; and Solomon Barewa, Sierra Leone’s attorney-general and later vice president.
“Other prominent Mendes include minister of justice and attorney general Francis Minah; Banja Tejan-Sie, Sierra Leone’s attorney-general and one of the founding members of the Sierra Leone People’s Party.”
Bankole Kamara-Taylor’s work provides a glimpse into the early political history of postcolonial Sierra Leone. It was part of the research material used for the article ‘Cory Booker’s African roots traced to the Mende of Sierra Leone’.
The Margai brothers were Sierra Leone’s first and second postcolonial prime ministers, further evidence of the level of influence this ethnic group had in shaping the nation-state.
The ability of politicians to command support through a maternal connection to an ethnic group is a unique instance of gender parity.
Matrilineal affiliation with the Mende holds equal significance to patrilineal relationships.
Therefore, it is important to note that while some politicians have fathers from other ethnic groups, they have a Mende identity and association through their maternal bloodline.
For example, President Julius Maada Bio is the son of a Mende mother and Paramount Chief Charlie Bio II of Sogbini Chiefdom, a Sherbro. Accordingly, it is not uncommon to see the president referred to as a Mende in news reports and historical texts.
Political participation in the diaspora
It is interesting to contrast the role played by this ethnic group in Sierra Leone with the role played by African-Americans of Mende ancestry in the United States as their impact has been substantial.
In closing, the Mende exercise an important influence in the politics of Sierra Leone because they are a major ethnic group and can deliver a large voting block. In addition to this, they have a long tradition of participation and produce many skilled candidates for political office. The custom of political engagement is practiced by Mende people on the continent and in the diaspora.
Cite this article
Seisay, Manya, ‘The Mende in Sierra Leonean politics’. Published online on 8 February 2019 (https://www.manyaseisay.com/mende-politics/)
Taylor, Bankole Kamara. Sierra Leone: The Land, Its People and History. Washington D.C., United States of America. New Africa Press, 2014. Page 102.
Minorities at Risk Project, Chronology for Mende in Sierra Leone, 2004, available at: refworld.org/docid/469f38d81e.html [accessed 8 February 2019]
“Sir Milton Margai Dead at 68; Prime Minister of Sierra Leone; Physician and Peoples Party Leader Guided Nation in 3 Years of Independence.” The New York Times. April 29, 1964. Accessed February 8, 2019. nytimes.com/1964/04/29/archives/sir-milton-margai-dead-at-68-prime-minister-of-sierra-leone.html.
Laremont, Ricardo René. The Causes of War and the Consequences of Peacekeeping in Africa. Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2002. “…the war continued even when a Mende (Brigadier Julius Maada Bio) took power…”