Barriers to Democracy in Sierra Leone

Corruption among Sierra Leone’s leaders has exacerbated the damage done by poor government institutions founded in the colonial era. The United States must work with fellow democracies to create a financial incentive for reform in the country.

By Jonathan “JB” Bissell
Contributing Writer
June 15th, 2016

Between 1967 and 2010, there were five failed and five successful coup d’états in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone’s instability is a product of poor physical infrastructure, ethnic clashes, and an ineffective political system born of colonial rule. The country’s unscrupulous leaders have exacerbated each of these problems. The European Union, the United States, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have all invested heavily in Sierra Leone over the past several decades. They have a significant interest in ensuring stringent political and economic reforms in the country that will ensure a more positive return on their investments in the future. The United States and fellow democracies must ensure that Sierra Leone transparently invests in its people, resources, and infrastructure before providing the nation with further financial assistance.

Sierra Leone has a number of long-standing challenges to overcome. A problem that plagued Sierra Leone’s leaders immediately after independence was the government’s inability to effectively manage the so-called “hinterlands,” which are large rural areas in the center of the country. When the British expropriated resources from the country, they did not invest heavily in stable infrastructure. Instead, they kept power away from traditional centers of historical political power in the country’s interior. Even now, less than 9% of roads in the ‘hinterland’ are paved, which limits travel between the rural areas and the politically powerful urban areas such as Freetown, Bo, and Kenema. Ultimately, the colonial-era decision to locate Sierra Leone’s capital on the coast created little incentive to develop infrastructure or service delivery in the hinterlands, and contributed to the unrepresentative nature of the country’s modern-day political system.

Arguably, the Berlin West African Conference of 1884-1885 also contributed to instability in modern-day Sierra Leone by fueling ethnic clashes. This conference divided the African continent among the great powers of Europe in a diplomatic manner that avoided armed conflict over any potentially disputed territories in distant locations. Over 110 million Africans came under European rule in less than 20 years. This chaotic way of separating the continent contributed to lasting instability as natural ethnic groupings were divided by imposed boundaries. In Sierra Leone, instability manifested itself by pitting the Creole elites against indigenous peoples, as well as the Mendes of the southern portions of the country against the Temnes of the north. Resulting ethnic clashes and the exploitation of natural resources by Prime Minister Siaka Stevens (1967-1971) contributed heavily to internal conflict and instability over the next 50 years.

Finally, the colonial period in Sierra Leone incentivized patronage politics. The modern government must have an incentive to overcome this legacy. Great Britain managed its colony by empowering local elites to “…sustain the imperial administration’s authority over the masses.” In Sierra Leone, Sir Milton Augustus Strieby Margai was the chosen elite. As Prime Minister, Margai learned the autocratic political system of imperial rule, and he was left with extraordinary power upon the swift exit of the Europeans from their colonial holdings in the mid-twentieth century.

Following the untimely death of Sir Milton Margai in 1964, Sierra Leone’s fledgling democracy weakened quickly. Albert Michael Margai, and Siaka Stevens were the next two individuals to hold the office of Prime Minister. These three initial leaders (Margai, Margai and Stevens) effectively manipulated the population with the purpose of staying in power. Their style of rule precluded diffusion of power. These leaders funneled money from the state for personal use, delivered services to a small and powerful selectorate to keep themselves in power, and failed to send representative governments into the large rural parts of their territory.

In sum, Sierra Leone was left with artificial borders, poor infrastructure, weak government institutions, and ethnic clashes after nearly a century of colonial rule. Political leaders have made the situation worse by consolidating and retaining their newfound power, driving deeper wedges between their citizens, and simultaneously enhancing their own wealth. Indeed, in Sierra Leone, economic disparity remains extremely high contemporarily.

Deep and challenging issues that were created by colonialism continue to plague Sierra Leone. While the newly independent country’s leaders were “dealt a poor hand,” to this day individuals holding high government offices have squandered loans from the international community and mismanaged their natural resources. The current government cannot isolate or ignore impoverished populations – but the international community must create an incentive for political leaders to engage in meaningful reform.

To break the cycle of poverty and massive inequality in Sierra Leone, the United States and other developed democracies need to work with intergovernmental institutions to ensure that the leaders in Freetown engage in economic structural reform. Before approving further loans and foreign aid, the United States should also review its terms of trade with Sierra Leone. The country’s government must have financial and political incentives to invest in both infrastructure and human capital, and to expand the power and resources of the state beyond patronage based networks. In an environment where power holders live glamorous life styles while 73% of the nation lives in poverty, continuing to issue foreign loans, aid, and grants is simply not in the long-term interest of fully democratic nations in a Responsibility to Protect era.

Major Jonathan “JB” Bissell is a United States (US) Army Foreign Area Officer assigned to the National Capital Region. He focuses on current events in Latin America as well as national security, policy, and security cooperation issues. A career Soldier and Officer with over 25 years of active service his overseas assignments include tours in Iraq, Kuwait, Panama, Peru, and Saudi Arabia. He holds a Master’s of International Policy and Practice from George Washington University (2015), a Master’s of Science of International Relations from Troy University, and is a graduate of the US Army’s Command and General Staff College, at the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation, Fort Benning, Georgia. The opinions expressed in the article are his alone.

Photo via Flickr Bill Megalos, is licensed under CC-BY-2.5.

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