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Sierra Leone at a cross roads

Austin Thomas

18 October 2011

Some people see in Sierra Leone’s political and economic failings, proof that we are incapable of ruling ourselves. Such people may also believe that the colonial powers opted out of the continent prematurely and that some more years of tutelage might have made a difference.

In this liberal age, such views are rarely spoken openly by either the enemies or friends of Sierra Leone.

But it would be naive to think that Sierra Leone's experience has not raised questions about the quality of character and minds of its people. The doubt certainly occupies the thoughts of many of us as we watch our prostrated country treated as a basket case.

Before independence, Sierra Leone was doing well. It exported rice and had one of the strongest economies in Africa. The exchange rate was Two Leones to the British Pound, we were better off than Japan and the Asian Tigers.

  After independence, the problem started. We stopped  exporting rice, the infrastructure left behind was hardly maintained, we allowed poverty to get worse, standard of education fell, the economy took a nose dive and we ended with a civil war that lasted ten years.

The country is said to be blessed with abundant natural riches, but cursed with wicked and heartless politicians that only care about themselves and their families.

Ordinary Sierra Leoneans, bewildered and disappointed by the outcome of self-rule, find little around them to instil the confidence required to manage our own resources.

In some respects, Sierra Leoneans are now more vulnerable to theories of black inferiority than they were during colonialism. Under colonialism they could dream that with liberation comes the opportunity to prove our worth.

The future was uncompromised by the failures of the present. And after more than three decades of poor governance, many Sierra Leoneans have lost faith.


During the 2007 elections, most Sierra Leoneans were of the opinion that none of the political parties vying for power will govern the country well.

But the majority nonetheless, opted for the APC under Ernest Koroma. Were they right in their judgment?

Recently reading stories on-line about Sierra Leone, I came across an article where the writer said that; since all our leaders have tried their best, and their best have not improved the lives of Sierra Leoneans, why don’t we ask our colonial master to come back and recolonize us, because under British rule peoples’ lives were far better.

That statement was written by the writer with sincerity, and has been echoed by many other writers across Africa, because of the economic hardship facing the continent.

SLPP ruled from Independence to 1967 – before I was born; and some people say that it was the beginning of Sierra Leone’s demise, whilst others argue that the country was doing well then, with every area of state governance functioning well.

Then came APC and they stayed in power for 24 years. In those 24 years, conditions in the country were very harsh - economically, politically and socially. Those were 'trying times' for the people of Sierra Leone.

I must say though, that APC did well in terms of giving the country’s infrastructure a facelift. But it should be noted also that during that period, many African countries such as Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ivory Cost, Senegal, had progressive and forward thinking leaders in power.

Those African countries were developing fast compared to Sierra Leone, with modern cities to be proud of. In the 24 long years of APC rule, Sierra Leone should have become one of the most developed countries in the African continent.

Instead, the country’s economy was battered and its social fabric shredded. Most Sierra Leoneans will recall those endless queues, for every essential consumer item that had to be purchased.

Then in 1992, thousands of Sierra Leoneans took to the streets, danced and saluted the NPRC when they overthrew the APC government of president Momoh. Speeches delivered by the young Strasser sounded like sweet music to many, as he promised a better life for the people.

But did he really mean what he was saying? Personally, I have my doubts, although some Sierra Leoneans blamed the civilian advisers and ministers that were working with the NPRC, whom I considered to be more of opportunists than saviours of Sierra Leone.

  In 1996, came SLPP to power again, but that time with Tejan Kabbah as president. The civil war had escalated and had engulfed the capital city. Kabbah’s government lasted for nine months and was then overthrown by the armed AFRC military force, sympathetic to the APC party.

The war ended in 2001 and elections were held in 2002, which were again won by Tejan Kabbah, as most people thought that he would bring Sierra Leone out of the doldrums.

But in 2007, I really believed that Kabbah had failed in that direction. I along with many others criticized him for doing little to alleviate poverty in the country. Yet, little did we know that what was coming was going to be a disaster to our lives.

With president Koroma’s APC coming to power in 2007, there was every hope that the successes of Kabbah’s SLPP would be built upon. But that hope evaporated in less than six months.

To our greatest shock, the prices of basic foods such as rice had doubled whilst salary levels remained unchanged. The price of petrol too had doubled. The majority of Sierra Leoneans could no longer afford to put milk in their tea, as milk became a luxury rather than necessity.

Presently, the economy is not our only problem. The entire country is now sitting on a time bomb, with the approach of the 2012 elections. Ironically, since 2007, there has not been a single peaceful local election held in Sierra Leone, because of thuggery and political violence.

Sierra Leone lacks continuity of governance. The respective political parties must take responsibility for this, as it impacts negatively on the country’s development.

President Obama was not stupid when he retained Roberts Gates as Defense minister and Bernanke as boss of the Federal Reserve. He did so because he knew there were policies handed over to him, which he need those lieutenants to continue with under his administration.

When APC came to power, they sacked hundreds of senior civil servants believed to be supporters of the opposition SLPP. This policy was wrong and has had an adverse effect on the country’s development. Without continuity in governance it will be very difficult for the country to progress.

The only time we have seen continuity in governance was when Kabbah’s SLPP won in 1996. All of the projects that were in the pipeline and most of the personnel in the ministries and Parastatals were retained by his government. If not for the 1997 coup, Sierra Leone could have progressed much more rapidly towards development.

Almost all of the senior civil servants sacked by Koroma’s APC, were then replaced by unqualified, inexperienced supporters of the party, making it difficult for the government to manage and implement development projects.

Is that the reason why the president asked for 36 months before his performance could be judged by the people? Well 36 months of fanfare is over and we have been left nursing our wounds. Sierra Leoneans have become poorer, with increasing number of deaths among young people especially, being reported.

Reading 'The Observer' on-line recently, the writer - Norman Stone, proposed a programme of enlightened 're-imperialism' to sort Africa out. Conditions in Africa today, he said, were similar to the bloody mess that prevailed before European colonization in the nineteenth century.

"There is a strong case for another version of the nineteenth-century liberal international order to be re-imposed....Empires do not have to be formal or tyrannical...There are times when they do good, and the post-independence history of Africa indicates that this is one of them."

What this writer is saying may be good for Sierra Leone - otherwise the people of Sierra Leone will never enjoy the country’s wealth.

But rather than view Sierra Leone’s failed rulers as buffoons, we should see them and their actions from the perspective of the interests they serve. The failure of economic development in Sierra Leone is due in large part to the unbridled scramble for wealth by predator elites, who have dominated Sierra Leone’s politics for a very long time.

They see the state as a source for the accumulation of personal wealth. There is high premium placed on centralised state control. Those in power will use all means necessary to retain that power, including the use of ethnic sectarianism and political repression.

Competition for power and control of the state between political parties is invariably ferocious and does generate serious instability. The senseless civil war, which lasted for a decade was precipitated by a battle for the trappings of power.

As long as Sierra Leone’s rulers and administrators are drawn from this class of predators, no amount of preaching the virtues of good governance or tuition on public administration will fundamentally alter the quality and direction of state governance.

Good governance is the effective exercise of power and authority by government in a manner that serves to improve the quality of life of its populace. This includes using state power and funds to create a society in which the full development of individuals and of their capacity to control their lives is made possible.

The current petroleum and food crisis in the world today is a known fact. But most leaders in the underdeveloped and developing countries have taken measures such as increasing the salaries of public sector workers, subsidizing the cost of fuel and rice, as well as giving tax holidays to importers so as to keep prices down.

One just cannot see the economic measures being taken by the APC government to help the poor in the country, especially as Sierra Leone has one of the lowest salary levels in the world. A bag of rice cost more than a month’s salary in Sierra Leone.

The talk shows of I.B Kargbo are not needed. If he wants, he should consider joining the Oprah Winfrey show. What Sierra Leoneans are looking for now is not to be regretful about their decision to give SLPP an ‘INJECTMENT NOTICE’ in 2007, but to be proud of taking the right decision by voting for APC.

  More than four million people in Sierra Leone are poverty stricken and cannot afford three square meals a day. One thing I know is that the people cannot wait patiently for another five years, if the first five years have been uneventful.

It is unlikely that Sierra Leone will be able to achieve the Millennium Development Goals within the next 50 years, unless the government increases transparency in the use of public funds, and with better conditions laid down in the exploitation of our natural resources so as to benefit the people.

The much promised electrification  of the country has not materialised. There is no evidence of 24 hour electricity in the country. Those areas where cables have been stolen, remain unconnected. Electricity voltage does not meet the requirements of most business users and households.

Sadly, as long as politics in Sierra Leone is dominated by predator elites such as the ones in power, it is difficult to see how meaningful economic development can be achieved.

The challenge facing us the poor who want better governance is how to make those in power accountable, and ultimately rescue Sierra Leone from them and to transform the country into an engine for positive change.

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