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Sierra Leone: the world's poorest nation.

ON April 30th, 1992, Sierra Leone witnessed a dramatic development in the form of a military coup d'etat. Replacing the All People's Congress (APC), which ruled for a remarkable twenty-four years, Captain Valentine Strasser took over the reins of power to become, at the age of 27, the youngest Head of State in Africa. The coup was hardly surprising, however, when regarded in the context of the dismal social and economic record of the APC, under both Siaka Stevens (1968-85) and Joseph Momoh (1985-92). Despite being well endowed with natural resources -- including diamonds, gold, iron ore, rutile, relatively rich agricultural land and great tourist potential -- in 1991 Sierra Leone came last in the world in the United Nations' Human Development Table. This was all the more damning since the criteria used were not only those of GNP per capita, but involved social criteria such as infant mortality, life expectancy and literacy.

An important factor in Sierra Leone's precipitous decline has been gross economic mismanagement. From the outset the Government failed to deal effectively with the economic crisis. Policies designed to meet short term difficulties, such as deficit financing, simply exacerbated problems in the long run. The necessity for careful management of the country's resources often seemed to elude those in power. An extreme example occurred in 1980 when Siaka Stevens, acting upon considerations of prestige, decided to host the extremely costly Organisation of African Unity Meeting, thereby exacerbating his country's financial predicament. The deteriorating situation was characterised by a shortage of foreign exchange and a worsening balance of payments situation.

Economic mis-management and failure was a reflection of costly state policies. For example, despite the fact that importing food has been a major drain on a scarce foreign exchange, agricultural expansion was inhibited by policies which demanded high levels of taxation in the agricultural sector, and the suppression of food prices to prevent urban protest. Similarly, despite official rhetoric, neither the problem of smuggling nor that of the black market has ever been seriously tackled. Smuggling has had a crippling effect on the economy of Sierra Leone, resulting in scarcity of foreign exchange, yet the Government lacked the political will to take a 'firm stand' as it repeatedly promised. Smuggling, by depriving the banking system of foreign exchange, led to the intensification of the black market. Faced with the prospect of empty shops the Government was often willing to bend the rules to ensure goods were available. A minority benefited enormously from this arrangement, however as the economy deteriorated, the ordinary citizen could increasingly ill-afford even basic commodities.

Effective development policies were further distorted by the dominant position of a group of Lebanese and Afro-Lebanese businessmen. Although excluded from political office, they cultivated informal alliances with senior political figures, and consequently established a degree of influence in the business and political spheres unprecedented elsewhere on the continent. Popular resentment of this group is extremely high in Sierra Leone; many feel they have been forced out of important areas of the economy to make way for the Lebanese. Under Stevens, much of this resentment was focused upon Jamil S. Mohammed, a Sierra Leonean with Lebanese roots. Not only immensely wealthy, Mohammed was also a close associate of Stevens and a key financial patron of the APC regime. Accused of manipulating government policies in favour of his widespread business interests, he was often blamed for the country's economic troubles. Stevens did not wholly discourage this trend, after all it did distract attention away from APC mismanagement, however, the Lebanese were important allies and Stevens occasionally made statements in their defence. It appears certain that the APC received generous monetary contributions from the Lebanese, and it has further been alleged that certain key political figures, together with the Lebanese, were involved in large scale diamond smuggling. With the changing of the political guard in 1985, Momoh appeared to effect little change. Although there was certainly increased friction between the government and Mohammed, who eventually left the country in 1987 amidst rumours of involvement in the coup attempt of that year, the Lebanese retained their strangle-hold on the economy.

Compounding these problems and playing an important part in the country's economic decline was corruption. Although by its very nature difficult to quantify, corruption appears to have been a widespread and significant feature of the political economy of Sierra Leone. Perhaps the most notorious of the corruption scandals were the two which emerged in the early 1980s, popularly known as 'vouchergate' and 'squandergate'. These involved the misappropriation and embezzlement of huge sums; most of the culprits were ministers and top civil servants. Such examples however, are merely the tip of the iceberg. Under Stevens, corruption came to affect virtually every aspect of the political economy. He understood that political power is tied to the economy and that in order to maintain political control with a weak economy in decline, those in key positions have to divert and corruptly use public funds. Inevitably the diversion of funds affected the presumed development strategies of the regime. Provision of government services was increasingly determined by bribes and personal connections. Contracts, import licences, foreign exchange and government subsidies were all utilised by Stevens and later Momoh, as rewards for loyal supporters.

When Momoh acceded to power in 1985, popular expectations of his ability to reverse the country's declining fortunes were high. Disappointment and disillusion however, soon followed. As previously indicated, Momoh failed to tackle the root of the country's problems, and the well known economic ills -- smuggling, black marketing, corruption and indiscipline -- persisted. A major problem of Momoh's tenure was his lack of a long term developmental vision for Sierra Leone. Despite some early successes and subsequent shake-ups of the economy, evidence of real progress is hard to find. The various catch phrases of the regime, including the 'new order' and 'constructive nationalism' were gradually revealed as little more than hollow political slogans. The 'Green Revolution' launched in 1986, and billed as the country's solution to the problem of self sufficiency in rice, the staple food, lacked a realistic governmental approach. It was given a low budgetary priority and consequently lacked resources; the resources it was allocated were often corruptly diverted by public officials. Part of Momoh's problem was a lack of personnel committed to a thorough economic overhaul; many of the 'old guard' of the Stevens era continued in office after 1985. They had a vested interest in the maintenance of a corrupt economy and so the lack of progress is to a certain degree understandable. By 1992 the situation in Sierra Leone was chaotic. Problems included a scarcity of foreign exchange, deteriorating infrastructure, limited electricity supply, frequent breakdowns of communications and a host of other problems such as late payment of salaries, declining health and vast unemployment. Agriculture remained weak, manufacturing was in decline and excessive government borrowing had resulted in spiralling inflation and gross distortions in the banking system.

Given such endemic economic decline, it was hardly surprising that a successful coup d'etat took place in 1992. More remarkable was the ability of the APC to hold on for as long as it did. A glance at political developments since 1968, however, throws some light on this apparent paradox of political survival and economic decline. Siaka Stevens, an extremely shrewd politician, utilised various strategies in his quest for survival. Once in office he immediately made it clear he would brook no opposition to his plans to consolidate power. In 1968 he unseated 26 opposition MPs with election petitions, he declared a permanent state of emergency between 1969 and 1975, (as a pretext for detaining opponents), and in 1970 banned the opposition United Democratic Party. It was not only official parliamentary opposition that came under fire however. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s Stevens employed a variety of tactics to silence critical voices. The freedom of the press for example, was curtailed not only by the 1980 Newspaper Amendment Act, (which required that newspapers apply to the Minister of Information for a certificate of registration which he could refuse or withdraw), but also by the frequent arrest of outspoken editors, and in the last resort by the use of party thugs to smash up printing presses. Stevens also employed co-optation, i.e. the incorporation into the government of senior members and representatives from potential opposition groups, such as the Trade Unions and the Military. For example, the trade unionist Ibrahim Langley and Brigadier J. S. Momoh, head of the military, were both nominated as members of parliament by Stevens after the 1982 elections. Sometimes however, this strategy failed to work, as in the rejection of 'their' nominated MP by the strikers in the 1981 strikes. On such occasions Stevens was not averse to changing tactics and taking more extreme measures. The 1981 strikes for example, were violently crushed by the government. Similarly, Stevens dealt with the 1971 and 1974 coup attempts by ordering the execution of those involved and in 1971 he signed a mutual defence pact with Guinea, thereafter receiving security assistance in the form of Guinean troops, stationed in Sierra Leone until 1973. Under Stevens it was perhaps the students who best retained an independent voice. However, their protests were rather sporadic and disorganised, and with Stevens' monopoly on the use of force, they failed to pose a serious challenge to his rule. The APC's intolerance of pluralism and criticism even extended to those within the framework of the party. This point is amptly illustrated by the case of Alfred Akibo-Betts, the man responsible for uncovering the vouchergate scandal at the Ministry of Finance in 1981. Less than a year later he was 'advised' by a senior party official to withdraw from the elections since the APC no longer wanted him in Parliament.

The consolidation and centralisation of power under Stevens took several forms, including changes to the constitution. An astute gradualist approach to these changes virtually ensured success. Threats to the incumbent regime came to be identified as synonymous with threats to state security, and thereby served as a pretext for expanding the scope of power. Thus a coup attempt in 1971 was followed by the introduction of a Republican constitution and the 1977 student demonstrations were followed in 1978 by the introduction of a one party state. The establishment of a de jure one party state in 1978 was the culmination of the decline of formal competitive politics in Sierra Leone. Throughout the 1970s elections were effectively diminished as a means for challenging the continued rule of the APC. They were characterised by intimidation and violence. In 1973 the violence was such that the opposition Sierra Leone People's Party had to withdraw completely.

Further evidence of the centralisation of political power under Stevens was his politicization of the judiciary and civil service. A key feature of this process was the increasing personalisation of political power. The award of high office and the distribution of public resources by Stevens became a method of assuring fidelity. Holders of high office, for example in the civil service, were appointed by Stevens on the basis of loyalty rather than merit, and in the process he created a loyal network of clients on which he could draw when he needed political support. Stevens also sought to limit the power of the chiefs by increasing the level of personal involvement in chieftancy politics. Neither the installation nor removal of a chief could take place without his approval. Perhaps, however, the ultimate illustration of Stevens personal control was his ability in 1985 to hand pick Momoh, the head of the army, as his chosen successor, and then impose his choice on the APC and the nation, ignoring the dismay of his first and second vice-presidents who had both nurtured presidential ambitions.

When Joseph Momoh acceded to the presidency he did so with a considerable fund of popular support and goodwill. Promises of a 'new order' aroused fresh hope amongst the people; they welcomed Momoh as a leader capable of reversing their country's decline. Despite widespread support, however, it soon became clear the new president was vulnerable on several fronts. The highly personalised political system Momoh inherited, with a cabinet, government and party whose personnel and officials by and large, owed their position to the former president, did not augur well for the new administration. The need for Momoh to create his own political base was clear, yet proved far from straightforward. From the outset Stevens himself posed a problem. On retirement he had appointed himself to the post of party chairman -- a post generally assumed to have been created to allow Stevens to act in an advisory capacity. Conflict soon developed however, as it became clear Stevens intended not only to advise, but also to control, his chosen successor. Momoh tried strenuously to distance himself from the former president, and made clear his intention to brook no interference, yet Stevens continued to plot against him from the sidelines until his death in 1988.

Problems were also posed by certain elements within the Government. On retiring, Stevens had ensured that most of the 'old guard' should be inherited by the incoming President. To counter their influence, Momoh called a general election in 1986, yet despite the appearance of some new faces, in the event many of Stevens old cronies resurfaced, and were given ministerial posts. Antagonised by Momoh's attempts to implement change, they made every effort to resist the 'new order'. By 1987 the Government was plagued by reports of disloyalty and conflicting interests which culminated in a coup that year. Although defeated, largely thanks to Momoh's base of support within the military, the coup attempt illustrated the divided loyalties within the Government. Among those implicated was Francis Minah a former close associate of Stevens and Momoh's first Vice President.

Momoh's leadership style rendered him particularly vulnerable to the machinations of antagonistic cliques. Apparently wishing to get on with the business of running the country, he distributed power and authority to a much greater extent than his predecessor. This strategy backfired however, when ministers began to take advantage of the situation, making decisions secretly and often embarrassingly in the name of the Government. Momoh further decreased the level of personal involvement by refusing to be drawn into distracting political conflicts. He even declined to intervene on behalf of particular candidates in the General Elections. Yet by remaining above the fray Momoh failed both to manipulate conflicts for personal advantage, and to create a network of loyal clients personally beholden to him as his predecessor had done with such consummate skill. Thus when Momoh needed support it was not necessarily forthcoming and subsequent efforts to transform the prevailing political climate proved at best only partially successful. Successes included a halt in 1986, to the cycle of electoral violence and the emergence of some refreshingly frank analyses of the country's problems from politicians and APC members. Momoh himself tolerated an unprecedented amount of criticism from those with whom he shared power. Yet lacking a clear political agenda, and preoccupied by economic problems, Momoh failed to implement a far reaching political programme. The resultant political stagnation, coupled with economic decline, culminated in a successful coup d'etat last April. Why the coup occurred at this particular juncture, when the necessary preconditions appear to have been in place for years, is the subject of intense speculation.

The new military leaders -- the National Provisional Ruling Council -- have justified and explained their intervention by portraying themselves as the saviours of Sierra Leone. They have promised to rescue the country from economic decline, eliminate corruption, restore multi-partyism and bring the Liberian rebel incursion to an end. Nevertheless, the NPRC's professed altruism has been greeted with scepticism in some quarters. If Captain Strasser and his colleagues are genuinely committed to the progress of the country, why did they wait until after more than two decades of decline before taking action? Of course at this early stage it is impossible to discern their true motives, however an alternative explanation centres upon their vested interest in intervention. During the APC administration, obedient officers were amply rewarded with promotion, salary increases and other social privileges. Were Strasser and his friends denied upward mobility under the APC? If so, they may have felt it was their turn to reap some of the benefits of national political power.

Military aspirations to political power are not new in Sierra Leone. Coup attempts, although generally disorganised and poorly planned, occurred periodically during the APC administration. Yet in 1992 determination to succeed, in the face of the Liberian civil war, was at a premium. The war impinged upon Sierra Leone in a number of ways, with social and economic problems exacerbated by the presence of thousands of Liberian refugees and the commitment of troops to the ECOWAS peace-keeping force. However, it was perhaps the soldiers who bore the worst of the brunt. In 1991 Charles Taylor launched a guerrilla insurgency against Sierra Leone because of its role in the civil war. The military responded, yet before long found themselves engaged in frustrating action under extremely poor living conditions. Meanwhile their political bosses, comfortably ensconced in Freetown, the capital, appeared indifferent to their plight. The subsequent politicisation of certain elements of the army was an immediate cause of the coup. Moreover, once the decision to intervene had been made, the coup leaders encountered apparently minimal resistance. Momoh, at the first sign of trouble, and perhaps realising the unpromising nature of his prospects under the multi-party system he had pledged to restore to Sierra Leone, fled to Guinea.

What then does the future hold for Sierra Leone? Clearly, the new military administration must tackle certain key problem areas to retain the popular acclaim which greeted the coup. Urgent tasks include a revitalisation of the economy, a timely ending to the rebel incursion, a denunciation of corruption and a restoration of the fundamental human rights of all Sierra Leoneans. Particularly controversial is the debate surrounding the return to multi-partyism -- a return promised by the APC in 1991. Various observers in the international community regard the coup as a setback to the cause of democracy, and a disruption to the restoration of a multi-party system. Nevertheless, the goodwill of the APC regime, and Momoh's genuine enthusiasm for a system which may well have cost him his job, has come under close scrutiny. In all likelihood, multi-party elections under the APC's direction would have been heavily rigged in its favour. The burning question now is, can the NPRC do any better? Despite the mood of optimism within Sierra Leone, sceptics doubt the ability of the NPRC to realise its promises. They have pointed to Strasser, arguing that at 27 he is simply not old or experienced enough to tackle the country's monumental problems. Nevertheless, the havoc Strasser's elders and supposed betters wreaked on the country, should not be forgotten. Undoubtedly the situation is desperate, and the tasks formidable, yet with genuine commitment Sierra Leone's problems are not insurmountable. Captain Strasser and the members of the NPRC face a crucial test in the months ahead.

|Elizabeth Vidler is a postgraduate research student at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.~
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Author:Vidler, Elizabeth
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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