The poverty of democracy in Sierra Leone

Alpha Kawusu

6 January 2012

Many political pundits believe that a swift consolidation of democratic institutions naturally follows the establishment of a democratic regime. While this may be the case in many political formations, the Sierra Leonean experience has been different as an antiquated administrative and bureaucratic culture has failed to adapt to democratic change.

Yet, there is a body of work that contends that democratization does not always mean a radical departure from the past. Accordingly, it is argued that democracy can coexist with authoritarianism, elitism and social exclusion. This means that the road to democratic consolidation can be littered with pitfalls.

However, even under these circumstances, restricting individual freedoms can become a recipe for disaster, since the system of government need not be primarily democratic for individual freedoms to be guaranteed by the constitution.

Sierra Leone’s latest wave of democratization started with the handing over of power to a civilian government in 1996. But almost sixteen years later, the quality of democracy remains poor, in that while “electoral” democracy may have flourished, liberty has not.

This paradox can be explained by the fact that, on the contours of our electoral democracy lie vicious authoritarian practices that are totally inimical to political progress.

Thus, whereas our democracy as represented by the devolution of power to our people has been spreading rapidly, there has been little or no evidence of a consolidation of democratic institutions in our polity.

But unlike consummate authoritarian establishments, political dissent in Sierra Leone is not obliterated with an iron fist. This makes Sierra Leone as a post-modern authoritarian state – a state where all the elements of liberal democracy are present, albeit they are ultimately an illusion.

Correspondingly, when the rhetoric of liberal democracy is combined with illiberal rule, an illiberal democracy emerges. Being the mirror image that it is of the post-modern authoritarian state, the illiberal democratic state in Sierra Leone allows regular competitive multiparty elections, which qualifies it as an electoral democracy.

However, the government’s everyday practices are characterized by arbitrary rule and the blatant disregard for the rule of law.

Thus, not only is Sierra Leone’s parliamentary democracy undermined and the concept of human rights misinterpreted, but the government’s abuse of power has also provided the basis for the evolution of a “political cartel” with hegemonic ambitions.

Conversely, liberal democracy has a near-universal appeal, which makes it the ideal model of government. In this respect, liberal democracy promotes political openness, which allows free competitive arrangements that empower citizens to choose and remove leaders through competitive elections.

Thus, unlike illiberal democracy, liberal democracy establishes the parameters of a truly representative government that is based on the principles of popular sovereignty. Since the right to rule is derived from the people, liberal democracy provides a more favorable environment for rulers to positively respond to the demands of the people.

Additionally, not only is nation building that promotes good governance more conterminous with liberal democracy, but arguably, compared with alternative political systems, liberal democracy does a better job at promoting economically and sociologically progressive policies that improve the welfare of the poor.

Yet a body of literature examining the process of industrialization in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan argues that the discipline and autonomy necessary for rapid industrialization can only be provided by an authoritarian regime.

There is no doubt that the experiences of these countries provide a sound argument for achieving efficacious institutional building and economic development under authoritarian rule.

However, unlike Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan where authoritarian rule resides in the developmental state, Sierra Leone is a predatory authoritarian formation that is more conterminous with the pathologies of predation and expropriation.

No doubt, in Sierra Leone the political elite have gained more discretion in appropriating state assets for themselves at the expense of the state. Yet this orgy of looting and self-aggrandizement is not limited to the elite at the central government level.

State agents in all corners of Freetown and party operatives in provincial and regional centers with strong ties to officials in the executive branch of the national government, are also constantly engaged in illicit business activities, thereby increasing their stake in an ultra corrupt system.

Furthermore, not even the “independent” media has lived outside of the perfidious network described above. Sycophancy in the world of journalism, for example, continues to grow unabated on the largesse of corrupt politicians in Freetown.

Given these ominous patterns and the lack of democratic reforms, pervasive corruption and the breakdown in political accountability prevails like a pestilence. The net effect of all of this is the entrenchment of illiberal democracy, which does not provide an effective path to liberal democracy in Sierra Leone.

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