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The Paramount Chiefs of Sierra Leone

Manya Seisay

A brief history of Sierra Leone’s traditional rulers and the role they play in today’s governance.

Paramount Chiefs existed in Sierra Leone long before the advent of European traders and colonialists.

The term Paramount Chief is a residual colonial designation for the sovereigns or local rulers in nations once subjugated by the British.

Prior to the British colonization of Sierra Leone, they were called kings or queens in the written records of European merchants and navigators i.e. the Temne King Naimbana, his successor King Farama, Queen Yamacopra, King Siaka of the Galinas and Yoko, Queen of Senehu.

In the indigenous languages, their titles remained unchanged during the colonial and postcolonial eras.

Sierra Leone’s Electoral Commissioner Mohamed N’fah-Alie Conteh explains: “The rulers of such precolonial polities were called ‘Kings’ […] later called by the British Colonial administrators, ‘Paramount Chief’.”

The History of Paramount Chiefs in Sierra Leone
Excerpt from Mohamed N’fah-Alie Conteh’s text.

At that time, there were many kingdoms in Sierra Leone. Each ruled by its own respective monarch.

Precolonial chieftaincy in Sierra Leone

In the precolonial era, Sierra Leone had 13 kingdoms and 217 principalities.

Monarchs and princes were selected from Sierra Leone’s royal clans based on their abilities. They could be renowned hunters or proficient farmers, but more often than not they were great warriors.

Sierra Leonean monarchs were not autocrats. Rasmus Christian Bering‘s study ‘The Government – Chieftaincy Power Nexus in Sierra Leone’ describes the political structure as follows:

“Each residential unit had its own lineage political organization, a Council of Elders, which formed the machinery for maintenance of public order. Furthermore, the chief, who at that time was usually the local warlord, was one of the most important authorities within the Council of Elders.”

The Council of Elders formed the justice system in precolonial Sierra Leone. They arbitrated in both the mortal and spiritual realms.

Bering explains that it was their job to “validate the correct patterns of human relationship, create beliefs, discourage aggressive or disruptive behavior, regulate economic activities, protect the community from territorial aggression and counteract the destructive forces of witchcraft,”

In the Mende language the court is called katehun.

Thus, in precolonial Sierra Leone, political power was concentrated in the Council of Elders with the monarch at the helm.

Types of chieftaincies

There are two kinds of chieftaincies in Sierra Leone: ritual and secular.

Ritual chieftaincies are sacerdotal monarchies prevalent among the Temne, Sherbro, and Bullom. They are also known as Divine Kingships.

A secular chieftaincy is a non-religious form of governance common to the Mende.

In precolonial Sierra Leone, these monarchs ruled their respective kingdoms independently.

Postcolonial chieftaincy in Sierra Leone

During the colonial era, the British crown decreased the number of principalities to 149. Indigenous kingdoms were rebranded as districts and the principalities rebranded as chiefdoms.

On 29 July 2017, Sierra Leone’s fourth president Ernest Bai Koroma, restored many of the precolonial principalities and reinstated the ruling houses.

Only persons who hail from recognized ruling houses, established prior to Independence in 1961 i.e. descendants of ruling houses), in the chiefdom in question shall be allowed to contest the elections.

Mohamed N’fah-Alie Conte

Today Sierra Leone has 190 chiefdoms and 16 administrative districts. There are 14 non-partisan Paramount Chief Members of Parliament in Sierra Leone. Candidates are selected from ruling clans and run in a special Paramount Chief election in the Sierra Leone’s general election.

List of current District Paramount Chiefs in Sierra Leone

The 2019 Paramount Chief Members of Parliament are:

  • P.C. Alie Balansama Marah III – Koinadugu District, Northern Region
  • P.C. Bai Farama Tass Bubu Ngbnak IV – Kambia District, Northern Region
  • P.C. Matilda Yayu Lansana Minah – Pujehun District, Southern Region
  • P.C. Prince Mambu Pewa IIIKenema District, Eastern Region
  • P.C. Kandeh Wusu Sesay III – Karene District, Northern Region
  • P.C. Haja Fatmata Bintu Koroma Meama-Kajue – Moyamba District, Southern Region
  • P.C. Bai Sherbora Sehba Gbereh – Portloko District, Northern Region
  • P.C. Kandeh Finoh III – Bombali District, Northern Region
  • P.C. Sahr Youngai Kontanday Mbriwa II – Kono District, Eastern Region
  • P.C. Joe Kangbai Macavoray Bo District, Southern Region
  • P.C. Alie Badara Sheriff – Bonthe District, Southern Region
  • P.C. Fasalie Kulako Demba Marrah III – Falaba District, Northern Region
  • P.C. Cyril Foray Gondor II – Kailahun District, Eastern Region
  • P.C. Matilda Yayu Lansana Minah V – Pujehun District, Southern Region

Indigenous names for Sierra Leone’s monarchs

Sierra Leone has approximately 18 ethnic groups. Most of them speak their own unique language.

The Mandingo, Koranko and Kono use the traditional term Mansa which has its origins with the Keita dynasty of Imperial Mali. Mansa is a unisex term that means king of kings, sultan or emperor in English

The indigenous name for monarchs among the Temne and Bullom is O’bai or Bai i.e.Bai Farama and Bai Koblo.

The Yalunka and Soso call their rulers Manga.

The Limba use the term Gbaku.

The Mende called their monarchs Ndomahei or Mahei. They also call male chiefs Maada means both “old king” or “grandfather”. By the same token, women monarchs are colloquially referred to as “mother” i.e. Mammy Yoko.

Fun fact: in the Mende language, Ya means the highest, most exalted and is added as a suffix to a name to denote status. The Mende word for majesty is Mahaya.

FREE DOWNLOAD: Indigenous Names for Sierra Leone’s Monarchs Inforgraphic.

Infographic: Indigenous Names for Sierra Leone's Paramount Chiefs

Cite this page

Seisay, Manya, “The Freetown Landslide revisited”. Published online on 17 March 2019 (https://www.manyaseisay.com/freetown-landslide/)

Bibliography

Conteh, Mohamed N’fah-Alie. The Institution of Paramount Chieftaincy in Sierra Leone: An Introduction to Its History and Electoral Process. Freetown, Sierra Leone: National Electoral Commission, 2013. Page 7.

Parks, George B., and John William Blake. “Europeans in West Africa, 1450-1560.” Geographical Review 33, no. 4 (1943): 693. doi:10.2307/209935. Page 33

Trivellato, Francesca, et al. Religion and Trade: Cross-Cultural Exchanges in World History, 1000-1900. Oxford University Press, 2014. Page 255.

Ogot, Bethwell Allan. Africa from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Paris: UNESCO, 1999. Page 201.

Bering, Rasmus Christian. The Government – Chieftaincy Power Nexus in Sierra Leone – Implications for Conflict Creation, May 2010, 48. Accessed March 18, 2019.

Manson, Katrina, James Knight, and Sean Connolly. Sierra Leone: The Bradt Travel Guide. Chalfont St. Peter, Bucks: Bradt Travel Guides, 2018. Page 35.

Ngom, Biram. “La Question Gelwaar Et L’histoire Du Siin.” Ethiopiques N°54 Revue Semestrielle De Culture Négro-africaine, 7th ser., 1 (1991). Accessed March 14, 2019. www.ethiopiques.refer.sn/spip.php?article1244.

Martin, J. P. African Empires: Your Guide to the Historical Record of Africa. Trafford On Demand Pub, 2016.

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