The Al-Aqsa of Africa
Sierra Leone’s Israeli-built parliament building is a symbol of the Jewish state’s long-running engagement in Africa
Sierra Leone’s parliament is a cubic citadel with a panoramic view of the Freetown harbor. Situated on a hilltop called Tower Hill, the complex has an assembly hall, ministers lounge, library, committee rooms, offices, cafeteria, and a terrace. The building is an example of Brutalist architecture, a style that had its zenith from the 1950s to the mid-1970s, and is characterized by sharp geometrics and a rough concrete surface that reveals the imprint of the structure’s wooden frame.
A symbol of Sierra Leone’s survival after a bloody civil war that ended in 2002 at a cost of 50,000 dead and hundreds of thousands made homeless, the coffee-colored parliament building is also a symbol of the State of Israel’s long-running engagement in Africa. Israel’s foreign-aid program began in 1958 with a small department in the nation’s foreign office. The motivation to develop strong ties with post-colonial states became a political emergency after the Bandung Conference in Indonesia, a gathering of African and Asian leaders in 1955 at which Israel was persona non grata. Alone among emerging nations, Israel turned to Africa to develop agricultural cooperatives, youth training programs, and industrial and technical joint enterprises in what Newsweek called in 1962 “one of the strangest unofficial alliances in the world.”
Many African countries, Sierra Leone included, broke diplomatic relations with Israel following the Yom Kippur War due to Arab pressure at the Organization of African Unity, but there are inklings that Sierra Leone may rekindle the relationship. Earlier in 2012 Cyril Juxon-Smith, director of public relations and protocol at Sierra Leone’s House of Representatives, bumped into a high-level Israeli diplomat casually “having a look” around the parliament complex. She was immediately escorted to the parliament clerk for an engaging conversation. “This building has been a blessing to our country since its construction. It stands strong, stoic, solid. It seems as if it could withstand another five decades,” said Juxon-Smith. If diplomatic relations are restored, parliamentarians of the two nations will have more in common than they might think, and plenty of unfinished business to talk about—starting with the roof.
In 1996 the late Dr. Karefa-Smart, one of Sierra Leone’s most prominent politicians and its first foreign minister, told Peter J. Kulagbanda, the recent principal clerk of committees at Sierra Leone’s House of Representatives, that the idea of building a new parliament building was his. Once it became imminent that the British would officially unhook its talons from its Crown Colony on April 27, 1961, the Sierra Leoneans had less than a year to find a suitable station for its legislative body and Independence Day Ceremony. Karefa-Smart approached the British with an idea to construct a parliament for the nascent government. It was their refusal—citing an unrealistic deadline—that led the Sierra Leoneans to seek Israeli assistance. With earmarked loans the Israeli government financed almost half of the construction budget of £400,000, a naïve estimation that would later balloon to over £900,000. Solel Boneh, the construction arm of Histradrut, Israel’s largest trade union, was awarded the building contract. To oversee the project Israel created the National Construction Company (Sierra Leone) Ltd., a joint enterprise based in the capital city of Freetown.
The architectural firm Karmi, Melzer, & Karmi was commissioned for the parliament’s design. Dov and Ram Karmi, the father-and-son team who were also involved with the design of Israel’s own parliament, the Knesset, are footnoted in history as the architects of Sierra Leone’s House of Representatives. But it is Zvi Melzer, a partner in the firm, who gets credit as the architect on documents from Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Works. “It’s a very good example of the so-called Brutalist architecture,” said Zvi Efrat, an Israeli architect and architectural historian. “But this is an African building—an object out of a foreigner’s imagination of Africa.”
Indeed, Sierra Leone’s parliament has unusual characteristics that deviate from the Brutalist style. The parliament’s façade is covered in pre-cut pieces of red stone, locally excavated from the hilltop, which gives the building its coffee color. “The dome is also an enigma. It’s a strange feature that has nothing to do with Brutualist architecture,” added Efrat, referring to the building’s saucer-shaped dome, which glistens like the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. “When you usually see something like that, it almost has a religious significance—perhaps Jewish, perhaps Islamic. What is it doing on a civic structure?” Other Israeli touches include the beautifully crafted wood beams in the assembly hall, features Efrat often sees in boardrooms and conference halls across Israel.
The entrance hall in Sierra Leone’s parliament is grand and spacious with high ceilings like an Italian palazzo that sits oddly with the country’s reputation as a poverty-ridden backwater. The glass windows circling the main gallery send lances of sunlight over a staircase. Speaking of the building’s interior, Efrat said, “Here the architecture is reduced to the essentials: light, structure, free-standing elements in the space. Everything is very distinct. It’s beautiful.” The original plan called for three phases of construction: Phase 1 was the emergency project—the assembly hall needed for the Independence Day Ceremony in April 1961; Phase 2 was to include offices for all the members of parliament and quarters for staff; Phase 3 was finishes—but the project never made it that far.
Held hostage by a fast-ticking clock, Sierra Leone’s Cabinet ministers gave the Israeli contractors carte blanche to work without a bill of quantities, a document detailing an itemized list of materials, costs of labor, and terms of construction. The expectation was that everything would be sorted out after the Independence Day Ceremony. Early in October 1961, Alexander Tzur, consul of Israel in Sierra Leone, sent a desperate cablegram to Israel’s ministry of finance complaining that a representative of Dizengoff, the firm Israel had appointed as the executor of its funding toward the project, had not visited Freetown in over four months and was unresponsive when sent a visa. With the exception of woodwork crafted in Israel, important equipment and other construction materials had yet to be ordered. A month later, Tzur again contacted the ministry pleading that it was necessary for Dov Karmi to come to Freetown to adjust the building plans and to bring along a permanent representative who would shepherd the project until the Independence Day Ceremony. By February 1961, the architectural drawings were still missing.
R.L. Armstrong, Sierra Leone’s director of public works, contacted the Israeli company Solel Boneh to get to the heart of the matter. The constructor forwarded the diligent bureaucrat an ambiguous reply that led him to fire off a confidential memo to his colleagues stating, “The government is now in a position where it has no control over the contractor who is in fact carrying out [a] cost-plus contract without supervision.”
After eight months of bureaucratic intrigues, money squabbles, and construction circumventions, the Israeli contractors completed the assembly hall in the nick of time for the Independence Day Ceremony on April 27, 1961. On the eve of independence, the Duke of Kent gave a speech and presented a plaque at the opening ceremony of the assembly hall. The next day it rained and water leaked through the building’s unfinished areas; the parliament still experiences leaks.
There was an opportunity for a proper refurbishment in 1996 when President Ahmad Tejan-Kabbah discussed completing Phase 2 of the parliament’s construction. A company from Côte d’Ivoire, claiming to be subsidiary of Solel Boneh, was given a tour of the complex. But before plans could materialize, a coup d’état erupted in Sierra Leone a year later. In 2004 a Chinese company was commissioned to refurbish the parliament and repair corroded pipes. But they couldn’t figure out certain aspects of the original engineering. A local supervisor assigned to monitor their work was allegedly fired after he asked too many questions. The original chairs in the assembly hall—still in excellent condition after nearly five decades—were plucked out, carted off in a truck to be sold, and shoddier replacements was brought in.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
A conversation about literature, Judaism, and the Almighty with the great Yale literary critic