By Ibrahim Abdullah
Arthur Antar Abraham, triple A for short, (aka Karmoh), was unarguably the historians’ historian amongst the first generation of university trained historians that the Sierra Leone academy produced. Not only was he of a leftist/pan-Africanist persuasion amidst mainstream empiricists and middle of the road fellow travelers, Abraham had a much broader research project that went beyond the narrow confines of ‘regional or ethnic histories’—that original sin? — which came to define Sierra Leone historiography. All of them without exception belong to the dying Durham Breed; though none of them are amongst the now non-existent Brahmins within that Breed.
This first generation, which sprouted in the mid/late 1970s, rather late compared to Ghana and Nigeria, laid the foundation for the academic engagement with the Sierra Leonean past(s) by Sierra Leoneans. A small group of only about six, possibly seven, if we give Arthur Porter a pass who was actually trained as a sociologist, all male, was saddled with the (epic) task of producing a history for an independent nation. In the words of J.F. Ade Ajayi, a leading practitioner at the time and one of the founding fathers of African historiography, the discipline of history was summoned to play its part in the herculean task of building new nations. Yet that very ‘generation and the subsequent generation of historians’, Abraham claimed four decades later, ‘were not able to influence the direction in which to shape the new state of Sierra Leone.’
If truth were told the first generation of Sierra Leonean historians labored against tremendous odds— one of which was an albatross of a foundational text that defined their research agenda and topics. Every one in this cohort of first generation historians with the exception of one, did ethnic history as their primary research— one subsequently switched from European diplomatic history to crass ethnic history; another from a Zambian to a Sierra Leonean ethnic group. The foundational text in question, Christopher Fyfe’s encyclopedic chronicling of the Sierra Leonean past, shaped Abraham’s primary research agenda: from his 1971 masters dissertation, “The Rise of Traditional Leadership among the Mende: A Study in the Acquisition of Political Power,” to his PhD dissertation published in 1978 as Mende Government and Politics under Colonial Rule. Abraham published Topics in Sierra Leone history: A Counter-Colonial Interpretation in 1976, a collection which included some of his previously published articles on anti-colonial resistance, slavery, and Mende genesis/historiography.
In 1977 he took the continental highroad with his soon to be famous Counter-Colonial Thesis, essentially turning the colonial problematic on its head, presented at the FESTAC ’77 colloquium in Nigeria. Abraham would be instrumental in the setting up of the Historical Society of Sierra Leone headed by George Anthony at Milton Margai Teachers College (MMTC); he was elected as the Editor-in-Chief of the society’s journal—The Journal of the Historical Society of Sierra Leone— a name copied wholesale from the Nigeria (Historical Society of Nigeria/ Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria). By the late 1970s Abraham was undoubtedly the most published in the department but those who were guarding the gate on the hill choose not to appoint him to head the department. Excluded from initiating any transformation of the inherited colonial curriculum, which had remained unchanged even after independence, he trooped off to Cuttington University College, Liberia, in search of the proverbial greener pastures, and to honor his pan-African obligation to serve the continent. Not surprisingly when he got back, there was no journal—his colleagues had forced him to relinquish his position as editor in chief on the grounds that he was out of the country— even though the state subvention for the journal continued to appear in the budget of the ministry of tourism and cultural affairs long after the journal was choked to death.
Abraham’s contribution to historical knowledge production—research and publication— straddles the arbitrary partition of African history into the so-called pre-colonial/colonial/post-colonial. He could not be boxed into any of these imagined periods as an expert—his transdisciplinary approach to scholarship rebels against such pigeonholing. He remains the only historian amongst his generation who has made substantial contribution in all three traditionally imagined periods. His contributions range from his pioneering studies of colonial violence and resistance to female chiefs to ethno-genesis to warfare and state formation to slavery and the nasty rebel war which one ‘self-published’ historian christened a ‘border war’.
Abraham would be appointed chair and director of the then Institute of African Studies after his return from Liberia but not to the department of history where he truly belonged. His contribution to shaping a robust and dynamic history curriculum would take place in far away America where he would be elected to chair the department of history and philosophy at Virginia State University. He not only had the opportunity to shape how the discipline of history was taught at VSU—an opportunity denied in the land of his birth—he was also appointed as an Eminent Scholar in recognition of his sterling scholarly contributions. Several Attempts to win him back as Vice Chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone did not work out. Abraham stayed in the US for almost two decades before he retiring and returning home leaving his family in Virginia.
Abraham’s last book—An Introduction to the Pre-Colonial History of the Mende of Sierra Leone—published in 2003 is a path-breaking intervention in the area of ethno-genesis, the peopling of Sierra Leone, the dispersal of Mande culture and the spread of Mende as a Lingua Franca. Again he is the only historian amongst the first generation who made any conscious attempt to wrestle with the pre-1500 ‘dark’ area in Sierra Leone historiography erroneously dubbed ‘pre-colonial’ in the study of the African past(s). This yawning gap in the study of the Sierra Leonean past(s) has remained untouched five decades after Walter Rodney published his magisterial intervention on the Mani invasion. After reading the autographed copy he graciously sent me (‘to carry the intellectual torch of the next generation’) I shot back to raise questions about the ‘pre-colonial’ in the title. Abraham and I never agreed on anything without an argument; we only resolve issues after an extended exchange over which we always (dis) agree to agree. You are ending your career where you should have started your research project: the making of the Mende speaking people and their culture, I finally said to him! Yes, he responded: I have done my bit; the baton is now for the next generation and those who will come after them.
Abraham’s practice as a historian went beyond writing and teaching in a university. He played consultant to two Hollywood movies that shaped public and popular perception of how the historical events around the Amistad captive revolt (1998) and Blood Diamonds (2005) in exchanged for arms were packaged and marketed globally as cultural consumption referencing real historical events. He popularized the Amistad revolt and its hero Sengbe Pieh and initiated a research project on Bunce to recover aspects of the consequences of the European slave trade. Here, visual and popular history became a site within which the European slave trade together with the illegally mined diamonds in exchange for deadly arms could be brought to a wider audience. If the European slave trade was about the past and our complex connection with Euro-America in a dependent relationship, blood diamonds were unarguably about how that relationship had endured in the contemporary era. The visual references urgency; advocacy demands change in that relationship. The responsibility of the activist historian is to unearth this complex web of dependency by pointing out the pathway to an emancipatory future. Here consciousness raising and advocacy are key. When Arthur made it clear us, friends and colleagues, that he was retiring from active teaching and research, Ismail Rashid and I thought it best to publicly commemorate his singular contribution to Sierra Leone history and scholarship by organizing two round table discussion of his work at the annual African Studies Association (ASA) conference in Chicago in 2017. This we hoped would prepare the ground for a festschrift in his honor. The contributors turned out to be an inventory of who is who in Sierra Leone studies—virtually every contributor had something to say about Abraham’s influence on their work or his contribution to the field of African and Sierra Leonean history, politics, anthropology and sociology.
Abraham commenced his research on colonial Sierra Leone at Fourah Bay College, USL; continued graduate work at Birmingham University under John Fage a deadly patriarch and gate-keeper in African history; he was also a protégé of Christopher Fyfe the chronicler of the foundational text that shaped the research agenda of the first generation of Sierra Leonean historians; and he came out of this experience armed with an emancipatory practice that was keyed to bottom up social transformation and a pan-African future. Abraham’s practice as a historian was matched by an active involvement in the historical process— he not only wrote history; he made history. A dependent friend and colleague; a comrade in arms; a battle tested Commandante with whom I broke bread countless number of times—he will surely be missed!
Ibrahim Abdullah is Professor of history at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone.