Sir Milton Margai (December 7, 1895 – April 28, 1964) the first prime minister of Sierra Leone, was an outstanding political leader, a pioneer in medical welfare, particularly in midwifery, and an acclaimed surgeon. A man of high integrity and a moderate approach to politics, his influence made possible an alliance between the educated elite and the traditional rulers of the Protectorate, which led to the formation of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (S.L.P.P.). Under his guidance, Sierra Leone achieved independence in 1961 with a minimum of upheaval. 

Dr. Margai was born on December 7, 1895 at Gbangbatok in the Banta chiefdom, Bonthe district. He attended the Evangelical United Brethren School in Bonthe and later moved to the Albert Academy in Freetown for his secondary education. As the grandson and nephew of paramount chiefs he retained a strong sense of his native culture while being exposed to Western culture at an early age.  He was the first ‘Protectorate Native’ to attend Fourah Bay College, where his experiences may well have been useful for his future career, but were not likely to have been pleasant. As a Krio (Creole) dominated institution the attitude towards the ‘Kossoh’ or ‘country man’ was markedly condescending.

In 1921, Milton Margai graduated with a B.A. in modern history, after which he went to King’s College, Durham, to read medicine. He returned to his own country in 1927, being the first person from the Protectorate to obtain a medical degree and practised for a short while in Freetown and Bonthe. He was appointed medical officer in the colonial service in 1928 and posted to Bonthe. During the following 22 years of service he served in every district in the Protectorate except Koinadugu. 

Throughout his work, Dr. Margai cultivated warm relationships with chiefs and their subjects, which may well have laid the basis for his active interest in politics.  He often acted as confidential adviser to the chiefs and when the Protectorate Assembly was instituted in 1946 he served on it as the non-chief member for Bonthe. By this time his standing in the whole Protectorate was very high. It was at his instigation, together with Chief Julius Gulama (q.v.), that chiefs’ conferences were held in Moyamba, the starting point from which developed the Protectorate Assembly and district councils.

As medical officer in Pujehun, Dr. Margai pioneered his “welfare work in secret society,” although it extended to other areas. With his special skills in surgery and midwifery, he initiated a scheme of instruction in anatomy, baby care, mothercraft, and general handicraft, using the local women’s secret society, the Sande, to try and modernise midwifery practices.

Milton Margai - Wikipedia

For five years this scheme proved very successful and was implemented in other stations where he worked as medical officer. To further this work, he published a simple handbook on midwifery in Mende called “A Primer of Midwifery’”. In 1947 he was made a Member of the British Empire (M.B.E.) in recognition of his midwifery services.

In 1950, Dr. Margai retired from government service as senior medical officer and began to devote more time to politics, in which he had been actively involved since 1946. He did not, however, abandon medical work entirely for he opened a surgery and clinic in Bo.

In The Post-war period, his political influence in the Protectorate was crucial, particularly over the two most important quasi-political associations, the Protectorate Education Progressive Union (P.E.P.U.), of which he was deputy President, and the Sierra Leone Organization Society (S.O.S.). Both were founded in 1946 ( though the former had existed as an educational advancement society until it lapsed in the 1930s), and though ostensibly associations for cultural development they acted as pressure groups for the growing political aspirations of the educated protectorate minority. Dr. Margai also founded and edited the first National Protectorate newspaper, the Sierra Leone Observer, in Bo. 

The politics of this period were characterised by intense rivalry between the Colony Krios and the people of the protectorate whom they despised, and whose encroachment on important government positions was much feared. A new constitution, proposed in 1947 by Governor Hubert Stevenson (term of office 1941-48) and aimed primarily at giving a majority to unofficial members in the Legislative Council was delayed until 1951, mainly through opposition from entrenched Krio interests. Through Dr. Margai’s influence the two main Protectorate organisations merged to form the Sierra Leone People’s Party, of which he was elected first president, sinking their differences to oppose the claims of the National Council of the Colony of Sierra Leone (N.C.). This latter organisation was virtually a Krio party formed mainly to thwart the introduction of the new constitution.

The most rational course of action, in spite of the insulting protests from the N.C.-for example: “We object to foreigners (i.e. Protectorate Africans) prepondering in our Legislative Council”- was to introduce the constitution in 1951.There was direct limited franchise in the Colony, but indirect franchise through electoral colleges in the Protectorate. The S.L.P.P. won a resounding victory. Dr. Margai welcomed Krios into his fold, and thus the Rev. E.N. Jones (Laminah Sankoh) [q. v.] and H.E.B. John became stalwart S.L.P.P. members. The party was run by an executive council of Six members, of whom Dr. Margai became chief minister.

Disputes threatened the party mainly from younger members who were impatient with his ‘go slow’  policy. But his astute leadership prevented the S.L.P.P. from destroying itself, although a splinter group broke off in 1958. He achieved a united front of all parties, however, to work out the independence constitution.In 1959, he was awarded a knighthood, and on July 9, 1960 he became the first prime minister of Sierra Leone as well as minister of internal affairs. Three days later, Durham University awarded him an honorary degree.

Sir Milton, far from being ‘tribalist’ in his politics, had Krios appointed as governor-general and chief justice at independence in 1961, and also had five Krios in his cabinet. Uninterested in material values, he had very little property and cared little for accumulating personal wealth. Despite occasional shake-ups in the political system, Sierra Leone maintained a strong stability during Sir Milton’s leadership. When he died on April 28, 1964, that stability was threatened, and the days of his rule are remembered with nostalgia as an epoch of social well-being.                                                                                              


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