Secret societies in Sierra Leone

14 August 2010 at 03:08 | 18208 views

By Maada Gumbu, Freetown.

Since the pre-colonial era secret societies have played a dominant role in the politics of African societies including Sierra Leone , but over the decades they have become so powerful that they have gone to the extreme point of becoming dangerous.

One of the reasons why they are dangerous is that they have so many taboos for non-initiates that are so uncertain, indescribable and unidentifiable that it is easy for a non-initiate to fall into the trap of a secret society. For instance, a non-initiate should not see the “devil” (masked spirit of a secret society) or say something in public pertaining to what happens in the secret society. The punishment in extreme cases is death, which should not even be subsequently discussed in public both by initiates and non-initiates. The punishment also for doing so is death.

A couple of years ago, a man whose wife was killed by secret society men in Kabala, north of the country, was heard over Radio Citizen at Kissy, in the east of the capital Freetown, explaining his ordeal and crying for justice to be done.

According to him, his late wife was returning home from another village when she unexpectedly met secret society men in a bush path surrounding the masked spirit of the Gbangbani secret society. She was instantly butchered with machetes. Her corpse was left lying on the road side. The man alleged that he reported the matter to the police but nothing came out of it.

The bitter fact is that secret societies are a powerful force to reckon with in the politics of Sierra Leone . They represent the highest echelon of decision- making in rural societies and could therefore be an effective instrument for mobilizing support. They therefore play a crucial role in the election processes of Sierra Leone . Politicians have a great preference for them because each member is bound by a secret society oath which makes their support not to waver. Because politicians want what they call “steady votes” unlike that of non initiates which might swing from one party to the other they give great encouragement and protection to secret societies which makes them to be above the law. They do many things that are contrary to law and go scot-free. This has made many people to be apprehensive and feel unsafe especially in rural communities. Many youths have migrated as a result of this. Many have lost their lives when they step on the toes of secret societies.

At Fullahtown in the east of Freetown , there is currently a court order to evict an Ojeh society from the premises of a landlady. But whether out of fear or for some other reasons no bailiff has ever gone there to execute the court order. The woman is now in perpetual fear of what might befall her especially when secret societies are notorious for casting evil spells and incurable diseases on people. They have become the nemesis of civil society.

Everywhere in Sierra Leone this has become a prevailing phenomenon. In Port Loko district, during the totalitarian reign of Siaka Stevens, his vice president S. I. Koroma commonly known as “Agba Satani” ( Chief Satan), made sure that secret societies became the destiny maker of each and every man in the district.

The success of a man from Port Loko depended on his status in the secret society and they had the power to initiate any one who was not a member or “discipline” him according to the rules of the secret society which were most times inhuman and dangerous. In the same Port Loko district a teenage boy is currently suffering from an amputated leg after being tortured by Poro society members who claim he did something that was taboo to the society. The boy was found hung upside down on a tree after being abducted by poro men. The matter was reported to the traditional ruler, that is the Paramount Chief, but apparently out of fear or because he too is a member and is bound by his secret society oath, nothing came out of it.

The matter has been pursued for the past couple of years by an investigative journalist of the Premier News newspaper, Desmond Lewis. That boy is not the only one, there is currently a pathetic issue that has made a family at Kagbantama Village in Port Loko District to weep every day. Their son Ahmed Kamara who had been influenced by human rights campaigns openly condemned the activities of poro men at Kagbantama village . Prior to that the men had vowed that the so-called campaigns that were going on in Freetown if anyone dared to take them to that village, he or she would be “seriously dealt with."

But Ahmed perhaps never took the threat seriously and went ahead to condemn the secret society practices and started talking about human rights and dignity. This was considered a serious “offence” against the secret society.

One night they stormed their home and claimed that they want Ahmed Kamara who should "take the place of his dad" in the sceret society but only to discover that Ahmed had escaped. Some secret society members were held responsible for leaking the information to Ahmed. His family was terrorized. They searched every nook and corner of the village but he was nowhere to be seen. They even boasted that anywhere he hides in Sierra Leone there is a secret society there so he could still be dealt with. A boast which is actually true because everywhere in Sierra Leone secret society members are known to have solidarity and can secretly plan against anyone or group of persons. They knew Ahmed had always detested joining the society but always gave the impression that he would replace his dad. His campaign was reported to be an attempt to vilify the society as FGM campaigners had done to the (female) Bondo society.

One of the reasons poro men have become hypersensitive to criticism is the onslaught on their counterpart female secret society the Bondo which is currently under fire by those who campaign against Female Genital Mutilation something which was a taboo in the past. No human being ever thought of talking openly about Female Genital Mutilation. A woman who made the attempt some years ago at Ogoo Farm in the west of Freetown lost her life in the forest when she was chased by a group of Bondo women who caught up with her when she ran to seek refuge there. Her corpse was later found in the forest.

The intensification of the campaign against FGM over the past years has apparently made other secret society members to be apprehensive that after Bondo it might be the male secret societies as Ahmed had attempted to do. But since 2001 when he escaped his whereabouts have not been known.

Recently a group of poro men stormed his parents home and claimed that they heard that he had returned and therefore demanded him. It took some time for the family to convince them that the whereabouts of Ahmed are not known.

The questions now asked by many are: How safe are non- initiates when secret society members have the right to take their lives? Where should non-initiates run to when secret society members are everywhere and manifest solidarity when it comes to dealing with non-initiates? Should a man like Ahmed Kamara continue to be in hiding throughout his life after stepping on their toes especially when the law cannot protect him? Where is the human right that society so much cherishes?

There have been numerous allegations that secret society members are responsible for the numerous rituals and ritual murders that take place in the provinces . At Sunneh in the Ribbi chiefdom a few years ago the body of a mutilated woman was found in the forest. No culprit has been found. This has made many people to be apprehensive. At a time when Europe is moving into the twenty first century Sierra Leone is moving back to the twelfth century.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of the Patriotic Vanguard editorial board and management.