As a gripping introduction to Sierra Leone's convoluted post-Independence politics, this book is unmatched.
Through the story of her own life, as the daughter of an influential and key political figure in newly independent Sierra Leone, we are led through the details of how Sierra Leone made its gradual descent from one of the most promising countries in West Africa, the place that used to be called "the Athens of Africa", to what is today considered euphemistically a "collapsed state". While one has heard of Foday Sankoh and the RUF, and one has an idea that diamonds are involved, Aminatta Forna takes us back to the very beginning of the process of decay. From the imprisonment of the victors in the 1967 elections, to the eventual rise to power of the rightful victor of that election, Siaka Stephens, and his consolidation of Sierra Leone into a one-party state completely under his own control.
The book is divided into two parts. In part one, we read about Aminatta's first ten years, as she moved between Scotland, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, according to the political situation in Sierra Leone, and the state of her parents' marriage. Consumed by politics, and not fully accepted by Forna's very traditional Sierra Leonean family, Mohamed Forna and his Scottish wife Maureen quickly grew apart. By the time Aminatta was eight, she had lived in six different homes, in three different countries. Part one ends when Mohamed Forna is taken away by state security, imprisoned, and his children never see him again.
Part two begins some 25 years later, in the year 2000, when Aminatta has started to research the death of her father. As a child she was told he died of stomach ulcers, which she always knew was not the truth. She returns from England to war-torn Sierra Leone where she seeks out everyone involved in her father's arrest, trial, and execution. She interviews scores of people, reads the complete trial transcript, and uses her own memories of the day he was taken away to try to piece together what really happened. What she finds is a blatant perversion of justice. Bribed and tortured witnesses, manufactured evidence, a jury of government stooges, and a judge obviously in the pockets of the state, together find her father guilty of treason and condemn him to death.
The narrator, Aminatta Forna herself, who writes in the first person, is not completely trustworthy, however. Particularly in the beginning of the book, she makes so many polemical statements about the nature of states' corruption, in the midst of which she states as fact a contested interpretation of history-who really killed Patrice Lumumba-that one is thenceforth wary of her claims.
Coming to the book with very little knowledge of Sierra Leonean history, and again recognizing her bias towards her father's goodness, his achievements, after a while, become somewhat incredulous. We are repeatedly told how brilliant Mohamed Forna was. At medical school in Scotland he was top of his class. The clinic he opened in a rural Sierra Leonean town was the model of Sierra Leonean healthcare. He won his parliamentary seat by the largest margin ever, he had the most support of all the politicians, as finance minister his budget was the most sensible that Sierra Leone had ever seen, and Sierra Leone enjoyed a fiscal surplus for the first time while he was minister. Sometimes it seems a bit too good to be true. Then she lets us know that he does have a weakness. Mohamed Forna's only shortcoming, according to his daughter's account, was with women. He carried on an extra-marital affair openly in front of his children, as he betrayed their stepmother who had spent the previous four years of her own life looking after his own children in England, while he was in prison. Yet the incidental treatment that Aminatta Forna gives this aspect of her father's life leaves the reader not fully understanding why Forna has included this in her account, as she does not use it to help us to understand her father and his choices.
However, I must confess that I couldn't put the book down once I had started reading it. Even amongst my quibbles about style and some of the content, I was compelled to keep turning the pages until I had finished, in a virtual non-stop two day reading marathon. Indeed these drawbacks that I cite, by the end of the book, are either forgotten or forgiven, as the account is so detailed and well researched, and too, moving.
The point is that once democracy, and democratic institutions and processes get corrupted, it tends to be a slippery slope, with a very unpleasant end, that exacts its tolls not only on countries, but on the lives and relationships of individuals. Aminatta Forna's book is a pithy and personal account of exactly how this happens.