Sierra Leone: ‘Bad politicians and the imperilled State’

Rebel RUF leader - Foday Sankoh

Alpha Kawusu

25 January 2012

Recent developments in Sierra Leone have not only raised questions about the country’s commitment to democracy, but have actually once again put at risk, that dreadful possibility of disintegrating into chaos and anarchy.

Putting it differently, Sierra Leone has once more become an imperiled state, capable of self-destruction and collapse. Political violence, corruption and tribalism are all on the rise.

In particular, political violence as evident by clashes between the ruling All Peoples Congress Party and the main opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party, has sometimes resulted in the unnecessary loss of lives and the destruction of property.

This in turn has shaken the very foundations of Sierra Leone’s fledgling democracy.

This article will not to go into the specifics of political violence, corruption and tribalism. Instead, it will focus on one of the main forces behind the malfeasance – ‘bad politicians’.

The analysis will offer an insight into how the actions of bad politicians discourage good candidates from running for public office in Sierra Leone.

Rebel RUF leader - Foday Sankoh

Bad politicians induce violence, corruption, and tribalism in Sierra Leone. They do so by criminally manipulating the institutions of power and shrewdly hoodwinking the very citizens that they have sworn to serve.

Models of bad politicians depict at least two dimensions to the quality of public officials: competence and integrity.

Competence refers to the ability of the public official to recognize the appropriate policy objectives and work toward accomplishing them at the lowest possible social cost.

On the other hand, integrity refers to the public official’s personality trait, which leads him/her to perform his/her, duties assiduously without resorting to intimidating private citizens for graft or other allurements.

While competence and integrity may be in abundance in some political formations, in others like Sierra Leone with a high level of corruption, incompetent public officials that are also lacking of integrity are never in short supply.

Put differently, whereas countries with an abundance of competent and honest public officials are demand-constrained, others like Sierra Leone that are poorly governed are supply-constrained.

Consequently, one would expect Sierra Leone to not only have a low quality political class, but the output and quality of economic and political policy would also be low.

But why would a democracy like Sierra Leone produce such a low quality political class? In other words, given that the right to rule is derived from the citizens, why are Sierra Leoneans voting so many bad politicians into public office?

We will use three arguments to shed light on the above question, and in the process we will divide the pool of candidates for public office into distinct categories: “low quality” and “high quality”.

The first argument is that national politics has always attracted dishonest Sierra Leoneans whose belief in stealing with impunity from the public coffers is sacrosanct. This allows this group of politicians to extract greater rewards from public office.

Consequently, Sierra Leone’s politics has mainly been the domain of low quality candidates, thereby conferring on them a comparative advantage over high quality candidates seeking public office.

But the strong pathology for greed and predation in public office on the part of low quality politicians is completely incongruous with the character traits of their high quality counterparts.

High quality politicians have high moral values and would therefore not be driven by greed to seek public office. Many of the high quality politicians are affluent and highly educated citizens living in the Diaspora.

This means that this group of Sierra Leoneans has a lot to lose by giving up a lucrative private life for a public life that is populated mainly by mendacious characters. What this also says is that unlike low quality candidates, high quality candidates have a high opportunity cost for choosing a life in politics.

The second argument is based on the idea that the rewards for public office in Sierra Leone are a cumulative package of financial rewards and what is known in the psychology literature as ‘ego-rent’ rewards.

Ego-rents refer to the rise in social status and self-esteem that comes from holding public office.

Since both of these rewards are endogenous to the political process, it is expected that the returns from holding office will be relatively high enough to encourage low quality candidates to seek public office.

In Sierra Leone, it is self-evident that many candidates for public office come from humble backgrounds with many being high school dropouts or graduates with little or no marketable skills.

With this group of citizens, holding public office becomes a mechanism for not only reaping financial rewards through graft and other means but also for enhancing social status and self-esteem.

Conversely, high quality citizens, especially those living in the Diaspora, who are highly trained professionals with tremendous influence in their fields of work, are neither in demand of ego rents in Sierra Leone nor are they inclined to debase their moral standards by harassing private citizens for kickbacks through elective office.

This means that this group of citizens will not find the returns for holding public office attractive. Consequently, Sierra Leonean voters will find themselves supply-constrained of high quality candidates leading them to make do with low-quality candidates.

The third argument is that violence is a part of Sierra Leonean politics. This trend intensifies especially when the All Peoples Congress party is in power.

Violence or the threat of violence is used by government or party functionaries and their surrogates, drawn mostly from low quality Sierra Leoneans, as a coercive strategy to cause fear and political intimidation.

But to be fair, violence was bequeathed to the present generation of leaders by Siaka Stevens in whose Sierra Leone political dissent was sometimes crushed with an iron fist.

Accordingly, the historical injustices and oppressive structures inherited from the Stevens era, inform the present weak institutions and flawed legislative systems of the state.

Consequently, there is a constant struggle for power among competing low quality candidates to the detriment of high quality candidates and the overall well being of the state.

Thus, instead of moving on the path of development as a modern state with a firm liberal democratic foundation, Sierra Leone has gradually evolved into a post-modern authoritarian formation with illusory elements of liberal democracy.

Yet, the instability and violence that have characterized much of Sierra Leone’s history, have not always been induced by endogenous factors. There is convincing evidence that the violence that climaxed into an eleven-year civil war was partly induced by exogenous factors.

Libya and others in the international community with geo-political and resource interests in Sierra Leone were never pro-establishment of a functioning system in Sierra Leone.

Instead, their involvement in Sierra Leone was carefully crafted to undermine the country’s stability through the intensification of conflicts for accumulative purposes.

Another important factor, albeit less virulent in nature than those already discussed is tribalism. Any serious student of Sierra Leonean history knows that tribalism has always been beneath the surface of Sierra Leonean politics.

However, what separates today’s politics from yesterday’s is that today’s politicians are using an entirely different rhetorical schematic to further their parochial interests.

Yet these tribal manipulations, designed to stir false emotions into the national mindset, are reduced to an absurdity when weighed against the reality that the average Sierra Leonean is not a tribalist.

Sierra Leoneans live, work, congregate and socialize together both in and outside of Sierra Leone. However, the actions of bad politicians will keep driving away high quality Sierra Leoneans from national politics.

With bad politicians comes bad governance. And with bad governance, the state ceases to perform its core functions. In other words, the state abdicates its core responsibilities to its citizens. Consequently, the state becomes an imperilled sovereignty that teeters on the verge of imminent collapse.

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