Political corruption and economics in Sierra Leone

Alpha Kawusu

3 January 2012

Political corruption in Sierra Leone involves the manipulation of political institutions for personal gain and the deviation from the rational-legal values of the modern state.

It includes extortion, nepotism, bribery, cronyism, patronage, graft, embezzlement, and clientellism.

Together with weak and arbitrary governance, weak protection of civil liberties and inadequate regulatory and legal framework to guarantee property rights, political corruption deprives Sierra Leone of needed productive investment and growth.

The rise in drug trafficking and money laundering in recent times is not unrelated to the rise in corruption in high places. This situation has not inspired good governance, which is positively related to economic growth. Studies have found that good governance promotes economic growth, which in turn improves good governance.

Conversely, it has been argued that political corruption is negatively or inversely related to good governance. Thus, corruption and other aspects of poor governance and weak institutions substantially hinder economic growth.

The causes of political corruption in Sierra Leone range from sheer greed to low wages of public officials to sociological factors. But irrespective of the cause, a common characteristic of this obnoxious activity is politicians acquiring wealth and prestige through a system of predatory accumulation.

The essential features of this peculiar system include politicians using public authority to extract resources not only from the citizenry but also from the nation’s riches.

Predatory accumulation also allows politicians to enter into profitable businesses while simultaneously allocating monopoly rights in the economy and distributing public resources according to patrimonial logic.

As has often been demonstrated over and over in our polity, political corruption is not just limited to chief executives – the president, mayors and paramount chiefs.

Legislators, both at the central government and local government levels, accepting gifts and kickbacks or selling their votes to special interests in exchange for favours, are also part and parcel of this morally reprehensible practice.

For example, the recent case of Vice President Samuel Sam Sumana and his two advisors succumbing to illegal activity in the timber industry clearly demonstrates how political decision-makers and state agents entitled to making and enforcing state laws can themselves be corrupt.

Moreover, this case illustrates how state agents can use the power they are armed with to sustain their status and wealth, thereby deviating from the moral principles of the modern state.

What all of this contributes to is the erosion of the public’s faith in our political institutions – an essential recipe for institutional decay.

With institutionalized political corruption, corruption becomes a necessary economic backbone of the state elite. Since the basis of its domination and survival is corruption, it is correct to suggest that the extractive capacity of the corrupt state elite becomes the raison d’etre for holding power.

Yet political corruption in neo-patrimonial formations like ours has sometimes assumed a “collective” dimension. In this respect, public policies have been tailored not only to benefit the ruling elite but also to cater to the upper echelons of the urban, educated elite.

As evident in Freetown today, the systematic development of high-cost services in the education and healthcare sectors clearly advantages the minority urban elite and high-wage earners to the detriment of the majority of Sierra Leoneans who are low-wage earners.

Additionally, corruption has raised the cost of doing business in Sierra Leone through the introduction of a new set of transactions costs. This includes the cost of negotiating, monitoring and enforcing illegal agreements.

Consequently, Sierra Leone has not provided a business-friendly environment, which explains why the country has consistently ranked lower than many African countries in the last five years on the ease of doing business index.

Yet another serious problem is that with political corruption, the composition of government expenditure is distorted as corrupt politicians are more likely to choose government expenditure not on the basis of public welfare but on the basis of the opportunity for extorting bribes.

The net effect of all this is a precipitous fall in national revenue. The question now is: what do we do to eradicate or at least minimize political corruption in Sierra Leone?

The answer to this question is not easy given that the executive branch of our government is so powerful that it has reduced the legislative and judicial branches to mere appendages of the political process.

However, it is by no means impossible to curb the excessive powers of the executive branch of government and by extension all the other components of the central and local governments through reforms.

Such reforms must call for the strict enforcement of the rule of law and provide for transparency, accountability and probity.

While the abuse of power must be prosecuted and punished by long prison sentences, public officials must be made to provide detailed financial disclosures of their assets more than once a year.

Moreover, while we must increase the wages of elected officials to reduce the temptation of embezzlement, we must tie the monetary success of public officials to the economic success of the nation.

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1 Comment

  1. An excellent concise analysis of the interconnected problems of political corruption, illicit dealings in drug and timber and the continuing economic malaise in Sierra Leone. I am wondering if a more aggressive Parliament would help apply needed pressure on the executive to check corruption, and help create the enabling environment for business growth. Cheers

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