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Fear and Loathing in Sierra Leone

By 1991, Sierra Leone was a failed nation, mired in poverty, with an economy almost continuously shrinking for almost three decades. And then failure turned into total collapse…

On March 23 a group of armed men under the leadership of Foday Sankoh crossed the border from Liberia into Sierra Leone and attacked the southern frontier town of Kailahun. Sankoh, formerly a corporal in the Sierra Leonean army, had been imprisoned after taking part in an abortive coup against Siaka Stevens’s government in 1971 and had ended up in a training camp for African revolutionaries ran by the Libyan dictator Colonel Qaddafi. There he met Charles Taylor, who was plotting to overthrow the government in Liberia. When Taylor invaded Liberia on Christmas Eve 1989, Sankoh was with him, and it was with a group of Taylor’s men that Sankoh invaded Sierra Leone. They called themselves the RUF, the Revolutionary United Front, and they announced that they were there to overthrow the corrupt and tyrannical government of the APC.

The RUF even had a manifesto called “Footpaths to Democracy” (see here) which started with a quote from the black intellectual Franz Fanon: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it.” The section “What Are We Fighting For?” begins:

“We continue to fight because we are tired of being perpetual victims of state sponsored poverty and human degradation visited on us by years of autocratic rule and militarism. But, we shall exercise restraint and continue to wait patiently at the rendezvous of peace—where we shall all be winners. We are committed to peace, by any means necessary, but what we are not committed to is becoming victims of peace. We know our cause to be just and God/Allah will never abandon us in our struggle to reconstruct a new Sierra Leone.”

Though Sankoh and other RUF leaders may have started with political grievances, and the grievances of the people suffering under the APC’s extractive institutions may have encouraged them to join the movement early on, the situation quickly changed and spun out of control. The “mission” of the RUF plunged the country into a rampage that left 80,000 people dead and many more maimed and traumatized.  Soon, few voluntarily joined the RUF. Instead they turned to forcible recruitment, particularly of children. Indeed, all sides did this including the army. A harrowing but moving testimony of his days as a child soldier in the army was written by Ishmael Beah (http://www.alongwaygone.com ; on the controversy surrounding this book, follow this link ).

                         A boy who lived through Sierra Leone’s civil war

                                                     Casualties of war

In 1997 the RUF enjoyed a brief spell as part of the national government after a faction of the military, led by Major Johnny Paul Koroma overthrew the government. Needless to say, their behavior was similar to what had been seen during the rule of APC.

None of this should have been surprising. When a country has the type of extractive institutions that Sierra Leone inherited from the British and then intensified by its post-colonial leaders, fights over power, over who gets to benefit from the extraction, are common. By their nature extractive institutions breed conflict, which often turns into civil war and, as in Sierra Leone, leads not only to carnage but also to the collapse of the state.




The economic institutions that keep Sierra Leone poor are not just national. Most people in Sierra Leone still live in villages, and their lives are governed by chiefs. Chiefs raise taxes, hire the local police, dispense justice and control the most important resource in rural Sierra Leone today – land. The chiefs are the “custodians of the land” which in effect means that they decide who gets what. Here are two imposing Paramount Chiefs photographed in the 1980s, Madam Yatta K. Saffawab II and M.K. Mustapha Ngebeb IV (from “Portriats of Paramount Chiefs of Sierra Leone”, by Vera Viditz-Ward and Roslyn A Walker, Smithsonian, 1990).

Only economic institutions that guarantee some degree of property rights, so that people know that they will be able to reap the benefits of their investments and efforts, will generate prosperity. But there are no property rights to land in rural Sierra Leone — at least not in the sense that we understand it in the United States. Nobody has a written title, though some dynasties and families do have traditional user rights to use certain pieces of land. Most out of luck are “strangers” meaning anyone not born in a particular chiefdom (like say the two of us in Cambridge, Massachusetts). A stranger has to “beg” (the word the Sierra Leoneans use) for land and even if he or she gets it they cannot plant any perennial crops, like bananas, cocoa, coffee or oil palm because this would be tantamount to trying to establish de facto property rights on the land. Jim once asked a chief in Kono district what would happen if a stranger tried to grow coffee or oil palm. “We’d come and cut it down” he said. During the same visit as the chief was showing off his plantations of cocoa, Jim asked (rather naively in retrospect) “for example, how did you get the right to use this land?” “That man used to farm it and he gave it to me” said the chief, pointing out a man on the other side of the road. “What would have happened if he hadn’t given it to you he asked” (again rather naively) to which he got the rather puzzled question back “why wouldn’t he give it to me, I’m the chief?”.

Lack of property rights and arbitrary allocation of land, without regards to who will be more productive in using it, are not the only extractive institutions in rural Sierra Leone. The perennial extractive economic institution, labor coercion, is also widespread. Chiefs also use their power to coerce youths to work for them on their plantations and in building roads and other local public goods.

So what comes out from decades of repression and lack of economic opportunities at the local level, and blatant thievery at the national level? We’ll see in our next blog.



Extractive Institutions in the US?

The Twitter exchange with Simon Johnson and James Kwak, @baselinescene, touches upon many central issues. Some of these are discussed in a short article, written for a forthcoming book edited by Janet Byrne on the Occupy Movement. A link to the book is here. Originally we posted a link to that article, but we were informed that we were not supposed to post that article on our webpages… Fortunately, we have a related article and you can access that here.

So there is much agreement between us and @baselinescene, but we are clearly more optimistic about the resilience of US institutions.

But since that article was written in early January, there have been even more worrying developments on the civil liberties front (see, for example, here and here)


The Cow Eats Where It Is Tethered

We saw the fancy school and the nice new houses in Sierra Leone’s president Ernest Bai Koroma village, Yoni, in our last blog. Koroma is in good company among Sierra Leone’s presidents.

The school in Yoni will educate the children of the elite of the All People’s Congress Party (APC), which ran the country from 1967 until 1992 and then returned to power in 2007. The first APC president, Siaka Stevens, used to like to quote the aphorism, “the cow eats where it is tethered”. And eat he did. He created a whole gamut of extractive institutions enriching himself and his APC cronies, and impoverishing Sierra Leone, which experienced almost nonstop economic decline after independence in 1961.

Like many other post-colonial leaders in sub-Saharan Africa, Stevens used the agricultural marketing boards that the British had created to expropriate farmers by setting a fraction of the world price for the main export commodities, such as palm kernels, cocoa and coffee. Not that the British were saints, actually they were already doing the same thing, except not quite so excessively. Stevens looted the country’s diamond wealth, and handed out monopolies, such as that on the import of rice, the main staple food, to his friends.

Stevens did not only suck the economic potential out of Sierra Leone by his thievery. He in fact actively destroyed infrastructure. The next picture shows Jim at the derelict Hastings railway station.

But actually there is no railway station there anymore. The railway going all the way from the capital, Freetown to Mendeland, which until 1967 used to transport coffee, cocoa and diamonds, was pulled out by Stevens and destroyed.

At this point, you might think Siaka Stevens was just mad. But actually there was quite a bit of method to his madness. This was all part of his strategy to hold on to power. After all, unless you have control of what we refer to as extractive political institutions, which concentrate power in your hands without any accountability and which suppress all opposition, how can you run the sort of extractive economic institutions that Stevens was so keen on gorging on? And to control these extractive political institutions, Stevens had to destroy all opposition. Mendeland was the power base of the rival Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). So Stevens decided, whatever was good for Mendeland was bad for his political control, and just destroyed the rail line and together with it much of the trade with Mendeland. Stevens probably also like the aphorism “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs”.


Fancy Schools

Where do you think this fancy school is located?

 Where could such a Fancy School be?

Not in the United States. Not on a Greek island, financed by tourism revenues and EU funds. It is in Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world with about 1/50 of the income per capita of the US, where only 41% of the adult population can read and write. But it is not in Freetown, the capital city, nor is in Bo, the next biggest city and capital of the south. Indeed, it is not in any of the major urban centers. It is a small village, Yoni in Bombali district. It was recently built there by China Aid. Why would anyone want to build a wonderful school in the middle of what Africans call “the bush”?

Here is a hint: Yoni is the home village of Sierra Leone’s president, Ernest Bai Koroma. The next photo shows a bit more of Yoni. Everyone has a new house.

 Everyone has a new house in Yoni

Those readers living in affluent western countries may not be impressed by these houses but by the standards of rural Africa they are palaces. Could the fact that such fancy schools and houses are being built in the president’s village, while most villages have no school and most villagers live in a decrepit houses be related to why Sierra Leone is so poor?