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Understanding and fighting corruption in Sierra Leone: a metaphorical linguistic approach.


This essay is about a way to understand and fight corruption in Sierra Leone. It argues that the legal approach, which has been predominant in the fight against corruption in the country, has not been effective. After examining the linguistic metaphors that permeate the entire Sierra Leonean society, it is suggested that the first aspects to reconcile in any concern over corruption must be against those myths and metaphors that blind and govern so much of our thinking. This means that the fight against corruption must begin with the youth and carried all the way to the adults, and by re-instilling traditional ethical practices.

Perhaps the following simple folk stories will serve to illustrate the state of corruption in Sierra Leone:

A Man Dies and Goes to Hell

A man dies and goes to hell. There he finds that there is a different hell for each country and decides he'll pick the least painful to spend his eternity. He goes to the German hell and asks: "What do they do here?" He is told that "first they put you in an electric chair for an hour. Then they lay you on a bed of nails for another hour. Then the German devil comes in and whips you for the rest of the day." The man does not like the sound of that at all so he moves on. He checks out the United States hell as well as the Russian hell and many more. He discovers that they are all similar to the German hell. Then he comes to the Sierra Leonean hell and finds that there is a long line of people waiting to get in. Amazed, he asks: "What do they do here?" He is told that "first they put you in an electric chair for an hour, then they lay you on a bed of nails for another hour. The Sierra Leonean devil comes in and whips you for the rest of the day." "But that is exactly the same as all the other hells, why are there so many people waiting to get in?" asks the man. "Because there is never any electricity, so the electric chair does not work. The nails were paid for but never supplied, so the bed is comfortable to sleep on. And the Sierra Leonean devil used to be a civil servant, so he comes in, signs his time sheet, and goes back home for private business" (author unknown).

The Little Boy and President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah

A little boy wanted to know what it was like to have Le10,000. His mother told him to pray to God for it. He prayed for two weeks, but nothing turned up. Then he decided perhaps he should write God a letter requesting the Le10,000. When the post office employee received the letter addressed to God, he opened it and decided to send it to President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. The President was so impressed, touched and amused that he instructed his secretary to send the little boy Le200. He thought this would appear to be a lot of money to a little boy. The little boy was delighted with the Le200 and sat down to write a thank-you letter, which read as follows: "Dear God, thank you very much for sending me the money. I noticed that you had to send it through the government. As usual, those thieves deducted Le9,800 for tax" (author unknown).

That corruption in Sierra Leone has become rampant and the fight against it in that country, like in other countries around the world, hinges upon the legal approach is hardly a matter of dispute. A principal argument of the legal approach is that it will deter would be perpetrators of corruption. But what is the evidence for this? Although proponents of the legal approach such as Sierra Leone's Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) have offered convincing arguments for their position, there does not appear to be any decrease in corrupt practices. It seems, then, that the fear of legal consequences fails to act as a powerful deterrent of corruption. Why? There appear to be two main reasons. The first reason is that most corruption is rarely premeditated. In cases where corruption is premeditated, the offenders obviously do not expect to get caught or punished. The second reason the legal approach often fails to deter corruption is that, as presently applied, punishments are less swift or less certain. Courts permit an elaborate review process that sometimes lasts several years. And many times, the victims themselves do not pursue legal recourse for economic, social, or cultural, reasons. Decisions via the legal approach, then, are not really about deterrence. They are about retribution-about society's revenge on a person who is caught engaging in corruption.

Looking at corruption in Sierra Leone, one can notice that the self-glorifying language is notoriously unflattering. What we often hear is a confusion of greed and selfishness with success, an obsession with living in a world in which oosai den tie kawo, na day ee go eat (where a cow is tied, it is where it grazes), den say fet for you hade, you say you go Grammar School (they say fight for your head/self-interest, you say you went to/attended Grammar School), and a plethora of bloody metaphors invoking images of Darwinian jungles and guerilla warfare. If we are to listen only to the supposedly self-glorifying rhetoric, we might well come away with the idea that societal relations comprise a brutal battle for survival, devoid of rules, trust, or courtesies in which mercy and mutual consideration (much less altruism and concern for the public good) are share folly. Or, at best, we might come to believe that the aim of societal relations is to join an exciting game and, above all, "have fun." (It should be noted here that Sierra Leonean languages, like other African languages, do not have an exact translation for the Western notion of having fun. After adolescence, an individual supposedly learns that risks and challenges can be foolish as well as invigorating, wasteful as well as productive.) Or more cynically, societal relations present themselves as a grueling necessity, without ultimate point or purpose. Strikingly lacking is a vision: the failure to see the "Sierra Leonean family." We hear about krach me back, ar krach you back (scratch my back, I scratch your back), put for me, etc. As the larger vision gets lost from view, people become so entrenched in their individual and increasingly greedy and selfish ambitions that they lose sight of the purpose for living in a human family. It suffices to say that this is neither healthy and conducive to happiness and fulfillment for individuals, nor is it healthy and conducive to cooperation and efficiency in the human community.

Thus, this paper proffers the thesis that just as corruption begins in our minds, its elimination or at least its reduction must also begin in our minds. The same species that invented corruption is likewise capable of inventing mechanisms to effectively deal with it. The first aspects to reconcile in any concern over corruption must be against those myths and metaphors that blind and govern so much of our thinking. Metaphors are not just "more picturesque speech." The power of metaphors, as Anita Wenden observes, hinges upon their ability to assimilate new experiences so as to allow the newer and abstract domain of experience to be understood in terms of the former and more concrete, and to serve as a basis and justification for policy making. (1) As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson put it,
 The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of
 the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning,
 down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure
 what we perceive, how we get around the world, and how we
 relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a
 central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are
 right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely
 metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience,
 and we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor. (2)

Given the preceding excerpt, we should be horrified by the metaphors that are the currency of corruption in Sierra Leone. We hear again and again that corruption is now a widely accepted part and parcel of the culture.

Indeed, if we believe these descriptions of societal relations as Darwinian survivalism, we would be quite properly justified in outlawing all societal relations as brutal and uncivilized behavior that no society should have to tolerate. Indeed, human rights advocates have effectively used just such descriptions to push their approach. Of course, none of this is to deny the fact that corruption exists in every country on earth.

How we look at what individuals do has a lot to do with much of the self-interest that is manifested among them. Many of the casualties of corruption can be laid at the feet of the malevolent images that we impose on societal relations and on ourselves. The word "ethics" refers somewhat ambiguously both to a set of theories and reflections about our behavior and to that behavior as such. Consequently, the one influences the other. As our theories and reflections try to be true to our actual intentions and activities, our intentions and activities themselves are shaped and are given direction by what we think about them, what we think we are doing, what we think we ought to be doing, and what we would like to think we are doing. How we think about societal relations, either as a ruthless competition for our greedy and selfish ends or a cooperative enterprise the aim of which is the prosperity of the human community, pre-shapes much of our behavior and attitudes toward our fellow humans. Thus, corruption and discourse are not devoid of philosophy, whether or not this philosophy is articulated as such, nor are corrupt practices devoid of any conception of ethics and virtue. But the philosophy that makes its rounds in discourse on corruption is appalling. The virtues most often celebrated in corrupt practices typically belong in a brothel, if not in a treatise on Darwinism.

Therefore, we must reject those myths and metaphors that cast societal relations in a bad light and encourage such hostile, uncaring, and ultimately greedy and selfish behavior. Some of these are quite crude and explode as soon as they are seen for what they are, but others are much more sophisticated and built into every fabric of our current thought processes. Some can be summarized in a slogan; others do not even have names. Some seem not to be metaphors at all, notably the uncompromising emphasis on the importance of greed, and some seem to lie at the very basis of our conception as individuals, as if any alternative concept would have to be anti-individualistic, or worse.

Before delving into an analysis of metaphors of corruption in Sierra Leone, it makes sense to first provide an operational definition of the concept, even if the reader may feel frightened at the thought of another definition of what may appear to be a clearly over-defined phenomenon. The intention, however, is not to suggest a new definition, but to stress an important point: There can be no final definition of corruption, only suggestions of what it implies.


As Gire observes, while it is very easy to talk about corruption, like many other complex phenomena, it is difficult to define corruption in concise and concrete terms. Not surprisingly, he notes, there seldom is a consensus as to what exactly constitutes this concept. Consequently, he adds, the danger always exists that several people may engage in a discussion about corruption while each is talking about a different thing altogether. (3) In order to avoid this confusion, it is imperative to provide some of the commonly employed definitions. Brooks defines corruption as "the intentional misperformance or neglect of a recognized duty, or the unwarranted exercise of power, with the motive of gaining some advantage more or less directly personal." (4) Senturia conceptualizes corruption as the misuse of public power for private gains. (5) Alatas characterizes corruption as the abuse of trust for the sake of private benefits. (6) Gire finds these definitions to be fairly embrasive of the issues subsumed under corruption but do not sufficiently bring out the prioritization process by the individual-i.e. putting self above the collective. Therefore, he defines corruption as a betrayal of trust resulting directly or indirectly from the subordination of public goals over those of the individual. Thus, for him, a person who engages in nepotism has committed an act of corruption by putting his family's interests over those of the larger society. (7)

The factors subsumed in this definition of corruption are so broad that they prompted Gire to provide the following refinement of its scope:
 In an elaborate analysis, Alatas (1990) divided corruption into
 seven distinct types: autogenic, defensive, extortive, investive,
 nepotistic, supportive, and transactive. Autogenic corruption is
 self-generating and typically involves only the perpetrator. A
 good example would be what happens in cases of insider trading.
 A person learns some vital information that may influence stocks
 in a company and either quickly buys or gets rid of large amounts
 of stocks before the consequences arising from this information
 come to pass. Defensive corruption involves situations where a
 person needing a critical service is compelled to bribe in order
 to prevent unpleasant consequences being inflicted on his
 interests. For example, a person wanting to travel abroad within
 a certain time frame needs a passport in order to undertake the
 journey but is made to pay bribes or forfeit the trip. This
 person's corruption is in self-defense. Extortive corruption
 is the behavior of a person demanding personal compensation in
 exchange for services. Investive corruption entails the offer
 of goods or services without a direct link to any particular
 favor at the present, but in anticipation of future situations
 when the favor may be required. Nepotistic corruption refers to
 the preferential treatment of, or unjustified appointment of,
 friends or relatives to public office in violation of the accepted
 guidelines. (8)

Gire continues his refinement of the concept of corruption by stating that:
 The supportive type usually does not involve money or immediate
 gains, but involves actions taken to protect or strengthen the
 existing corruption. For example, a corrupt regime or official
 may try to prevent the election or appointment of an honest
 person or government for fear that the individual or the regime
 might be probed by the successor(s). Finally, transactive
 corruption refers to situations where two parties are mutual
 and willing participants in the corrupt practice to the advantage
 of both parties. For example, a corrupt business person may
 willingly bribe a corrupt government official in order to win
 a tender for a certain contract. (9)

The focus of this paper is on metaphors employed to characterize activities in all of the preceding types of corrupt practices that take place in Sierra Leone. For the sake of simplicity, the metaphors have been placed into the following categories: (a) personification metaphors, (b) action metaphors, (c) animal metaphor, (d) food metaphors, (e) obligation metaphors, and (f) neological metaphors.


The following are the six types of metaphors delineated from the collection of these speech forms in Sierra Leone. In the following paragraphs, each type is defined and its metaphors presented.

Personification Metaphors

These are metaphors that represent a corrupt practice in terms of human characteristics.

(a) mama coker (Mother Coker) is used to refer to doing a second job while on duty on the first, as in the case of a teacher making money by giving private lessons or driving a taxi.

(b) dieman (deadman)

Action Metaphors

These are metaphors that represent a corrupt practice in terms of a process of doing something.

(a) see me or see de man (see me or see the man)

(b) you done see de man? (have you seen the man?)

(c) grease de pam (grease the palm or palm greasing)

(d) dash (add a bit of something)

(e) bo, go cam (contemporary, go and come)

(f) krach me back, ar krach you back (scratch my back, I scratch your back)

(g) put for me

Animal Metaphor

This is a metaphor that represents a corrupt practice in terms of a lower animal as distinguished from humans.

(a) oosai den tie kawo, na day ee go eat (where a cow is tied, it is where it grazes) was popularized by the late President Siaka Stevens.

Food Metaphors

These are metaphors that represent a corrupt practice in terms of material consisting essentially of protein, carbohydrate, and fat used in the body of an organism to sustain growth, repair, and vital processes, and to furnish energy.

(a) plasas money (sauce money)

(b) kola (kola nut)

(c) satiday foofoo (Saturday foofoo)

(d) lili grease (small grease)

(e) ya you bottle whiskey (here is your bottle of whiskey)

Obligation Metaphors

These are metaphors that characterize a corrupt practice as necessary or essential.

(a) enti you no en, nor forget yousef oh! (As you know, do not forget yourself) when you read between the lines, you are being advised to be corrupt.

(b) den say fet for you hade, you say you go Grammar School (they say fight for your head/self-interest, you say you went to/attended Grammar School)

Neological Metaphors

These are new words or expressions or established words or expressions used in a new way or different sense to represent a corrupt practice.

(a) mujumuju

(b) koko

(c) was han (handwash)

(d) shake han (handshake)

(e) mohkohfay refers to taking money from someone for no good reason simply because the person taking the money is in a position of authority.

(f) lili majiji (small majiji)

(g) brown envelope is used mainly by broadcast journalists to mean that they either requested or were given money to report a story. Of course, the story would be reported in favor of the giver. This could be "hard" or "soft" news. It is almost as if both parties are buying and selling commercial air time and both are aware that it is wrong. Also, journalists acknowledge that taking money for a news story is wrong, but they point to their meager salaries as a justification for resorting to such practices.

(h) carto (a Liberian borrowing) is a prepaid interview/story for which the writer would go beyond the call of duty to get it planted into the newspaper.

(i) krokogi (a Liberian borrowing)

(j) ten percent (a Nigerian borrowing)

(k) cut

(l) chap is used by ordinary folk when telling lies in order to get extra money: for example, overcharging for a particular item or telling someone that you are sick and need money to pay hospital bills, when in fact you are not.

(m) boroh is used in banking circles to leap frog the 500 or more customers in front of you in line to get your check cashed, and on time.

(n) haramu (from the Arabic haraam, meaning forbidden)

(o) mass mass is used mostly by police officers to induce their forbearance in matters such as routine traffic infractions, driver's licenses issuance, and immigration services.

From the preceding paragraphs, it can be noted that the majority of the metaphors of corruption are of the neological type. The second largest category is comprised of action metaphors. Also, a number of other observations can be made. First, the personification metaphors give human characteristics to corruption, and they are more subtle. Second, the action metaphors seem to represent self-propelled motions toward a corrupt activity. This type of metaphor in literal usage denotes one kind of action applied to a distinctly different kind of action. In essence, if a dynamic situation is under the control of an agent, it is an action. Third, the animal metaphor seethes with an undercurrent of meditated repression. It manifests itself in reference to nature and self. It also exposes the unending clash between the character's instinctual, pleasure-driven id and his inhibiting, morality-driven superego. Fourth, the food metaphors appear to suggest materials that sustain us, providing meaning, order, and rules to our lives, and that food reflects the symbolism in our ideological systems. Fifth, the obligation metaphors assume a larger context. They operate on a horizon of imagination that draws groups from the perception of facts to concerted action. They also order principles according to some view of the whole, some common moral (in this case, immoral) vision. Finally, the neological metaphors place particular emphasis on the neological image of the world as an integral part of the linguistic image of the world. Thus, these particular metaphors can be viewed on the cognitive level as well as the nominative level because innovations reflect changes and new things in reality.

As can also be seen from the preceding entries, the metaphors of corruption in Sierra Leone are many. Why are they so many? Why can't corrupt acts be called their proper name? Most of the metaphors one hears may seem cynical and resigned ways of expressing disapproval, but there is not much actual disapproval embedded in the actual expressions-that seems to depend on the attitude of the user of any of the expressions. This attitude's intensity, or lack of it, of course, varies from person to person.

These findings seem to hinge on the fact that language and honest or corrupt practices are inextricably linked. Indeed, while numerous examples have been cited over the centuries about how language has been used to foster a particular behavior, nothing has been written about and no course exists that deal exclusively with the relationship between language and corrupt or honest practices. No one would disagree that language is central to human society and interpersonal relations and, thus, it is the basis of civilization. Without this communicative tool, no leader could command the resources needed for a political system that extends beyond family and neighborhood.

It is true that the ability to manipulate words in order to persuade voters is one method to obtain and hold on to power. It is also true that oratorical and writing skills are admired as gifts. Nonetheless, language is not considered a separate factor, like taxation, which is subject to conscious choices by leaders in power or individuals who desire to win or influence power. Nor is language thought of as a form of capital yielding measurable benefits to those who possess it.

Pivotal to a honest society is the process of making decisions in order to satisfy group interests, shape society in accordance with an ideal, solve problems, and cooperate with other societies. The normal economic process includes accumulating and investing capital. However, corrupt relations soon emerge when those who own capital use it to exercise influence and power over others in illegal ways.

This means that efforts to expose metaphors of corruption for what they actually are must begin with children in elementary school all the way to adults. The entire society must become cognizant of the fact that these metaphors are impetus for a malevolent society. Therefore, the effort must be incorporated into the curricula of those training for the teaching profession as well as others. The goal will be to prepare future civil servants who will incorporate anti- corruption attitudes into their work.


In traditional Sierra Leonean society, there was a lively awareness that ethical obligations extended in time as well as space. The living acknowledged a responsibility both for the dead and for generations yet unborn. Consequently, there were direct connections between religion, ethics and honesty, although the concepts of sin varied and the sources of retribution were diverse. They included the mystical power of senior kinsmen. The basis of ethics was fulfillment of obligation to kinsmen and neighbors, and living in peace with them. Anger in the heart was the root evil; to avert evil, anger must be admitted.

As isolation diminishes, the range of ethical obligations extends in space and time; there is a growth of individual freedom and responsibility, and a change in family organization. Finally, the effect of increase in scale is an enormous increase in choice facing each individual, and any choice involves ethics.

The greatest danger to Sierra Leone's peace, religiosity, and ethics is that the old may disappear, without some new force to take its place. Unchecked individualism, self-seeking, corruption, and materialism are the greatest threats to contemporary Sierra Leone. Fortunately, the past has been so thoroughly impregnated with ethics that it is difficult to imagine how a peaceful Sierra Leonean society can be established without it.

Indeed, the issue of how an ethical society could be achieved in Sierra Leone in light of the rampant corruption needs to be addressed. What I offer in these final paragraphs is a small sample of the traditional ways Sierra Leoneans have used in the past to deal with pariahs/outcasts and the inevitable consequences. I provide this evidence as an addition to the legal approach.

The following traditional ways of dealing with pariahs/outcasts in Sierra Leone is a very small sample. There is plenty for an entire book. The failure to mention the practices of members of other linguistic groups is due simply to space constraints.

Traditional Sierra Leonean ways of dealing with pariahs/outcasts are akin to the history of jiggers (small parasites that bore into the feet) in the country. Jiggers were unknown in Sierra Leone. In 1882, someone imported a sheep from Liberia which was infested with them, and they spread quickly to different parts of Sierra Leone. At first, people did not know how to deal with them. Some tried to cut them out and died of blood-poisoning. But they soon learned to extract them safely.

Charles Smart, a member of the Loko Smart family of Mahera and having been educated in Freetown, asked Bai (King) Kompa to elevate him to the rank and dignity of chief. When Bai Kompa refused, Smart joined the Frontier Police and subsequently had himself crowned chief. He made himself a willing instrument of British policy, supplied the British with information about Bai Kompa's anti-tax activities, served as chief prosecution witness against Pa Naimbana of Ronietta in 1898, and joined the British expedition in Ronietta during the Hut Tax War. Treated like a pariah by the Koya as an embarrassment to the traditional ruling hierarchy, Smart committed suicide.

In Kono society, constraints on action come directly from the tensions associated with the struggle between self- expression and social expectation. One of the highest compliments that someone can receive is "they have good character" (a sone nyi). When individuals do not live up to the community's expectations, they suffer a great deal of pain. Some even commit suicide.

In early Mende society, the Poro society's sanctions regulated general behavior. Chiefs who could count on the backing of the Poro were able to use its quasi-religious symbols to control a territory more effectively, even without the continuous exercise of military force. The Poro functioned on its own account as a powerful arbitrator in local feuds. Many people loathed being treated as pariahs by the Poro.

Also, in traditional Mende society, no one enjoys being labeled a sawa nya moi ("a law breaking person"). It is believed that violations of communal regulations usually lead to illness and in some cases death. In every case, an offender is believed to be as if he were covered with rust, a condition which destroys her/his personality. Treated like pariahs, some offenders commit suicide or go on self-imposed banishment.

Among the Koranko, morality is relative to social distance and it is frequently suspended altogether at the boundaries of the linguistic group. For example, a group of Barawa men from the now-abandoned village of Kurekoro discovered that some men from the neighboring chiefdom, Woli, had destroyed a kola grove near the Merimeri River. The Woli men attacked the group from Kurekoro, tying them up and beating them. Instead of beheading them, as it used to be the practice, peace was confirmed by the offering of a sacrifice. A curse was placed on the liver of the beast; kibeli elders from both Barawa and Woli ate some of the liver, thus assuring one another that should the quarrel flare up again they would all be equally accursed. Sierra Leoneans can only deal effectively with corrupt individuals like jiggers by drawing upon their traditional practices. As a participant on the leonenet listserv aptly suggests, "I think we ought to re- institute and popularize the tiffi tiffi jankoniko song and encourage celebration to this tune at the doors (home or office) of those akatas (the name for thieves)." (10) Thus, I conclude this essay with the following poem:
 When individuals spend millions of leones,
 In bribing civil servants,
 What are their expected returns?

 Who was it with a deranged mind,
 That called our esteemed parliamentarians,
 The representatives of the people,
 "The best money can buy"?
 Investment, equals opportunity,
 The more the merrier

Abdul Karim Bangura, May 23, 2005


(1.) Anita Wenden. "Defining Peace: Perspectives from Peace Research." In Christina Schaffner and Anita Wenden, (eds). Language and Peace. (Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1999.) p. 223.

(2.) George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980.) p. 3.

(3.) James T. Gire. "A Psychological Analysis of Corruption in Nigeria." Journal of Sustainable Development in Africa 1, 2. Available: 20A%20Psychological%20Analysis%20of%20Corruption%20in%20Nigeria.pdf.

(4.) R. C. Brooks. Corruption in American Politics and Life. (New York: Arno Press, 1974.)

(5.) J. J. Senturia. "Political Corruption." Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 3-4 (New York: Macmillan, 1931.)

(6.) H. S. Alatas. Corruption: Its Nature, Causes and Functions. (Kuala Lumpur: S. Abdul Majeed and Co., 1990.)

(7.) James T. Gire. "A Psychological Analysis of Corruption in Nigeria."

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Ibid.


Abdul Karim Bangura, Researcher-in residence at the Center for Global Peace and profesor of International Relations and Islamic Peace Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC 20016.
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Author:Bangura, Abdul Karim
Publication:Journal of Third World Studies
Geographic Code:6SIER
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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