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10 December 2020

Sierra Leone’s fragile democracy

An investigation into past corruption is shining a light on wider questions of political accountability.

By Freddie Hayward

Nearby hills surround Sierra Leone’s capital city of Freetown in a colosseum-like enclosure. At night, the steep incline twinkles with generator-fuelled lights that mark embassies, tin-roofed houses and government buildings. The poorer parts of the capital aren’t contained to one area but stand against the walls of commercial and political centres.

In various ways, the city’s geography reflects the nature of politics in Sierra Leone – where political discourse permeates lunchtime conversation inside the city’s small restaurants, and the government and the public feel closely enmeshed. Perhaps because of the nation’s recent history (a brutal civil war waged between 1991 and 2002), many I’ve spoken to here are emotionally invested in politics, and apathy seems uncommon. As Alusine Sesay, editor of the national daily paper the Concord Times, told me: people’s survival depends on their knowledge of the government’s activities.

Since the end of September, conversation has focused on the publication of three judge-led reports detailing alleged mismanagement of finances under the previous administration, which left office in 2018. The reports have named former president Ernest Bai Koroma, who denies any wrongdoing, and a number of his ministers, leading to a series of appeals. Koroma has recently been interviewed by the Anti-Corruption Commission and the government has placed a travel ban on those named in the reports. When President Julius Maada Bio published the reports on 24 September, he said he would expunge corruption from the political system, but critics such as Sesay question whether action will be taken against the government’s own ministers.

According to a recent survey, 76 per cent of Sierra Leoneans say they prefer democracy to any other form of government. But can a country that democracy and human rights NGO Freedom House considers only “partly free” and where corruption is still pervasive be said to have fully fledged democracy?

[see also: We need to talk about corruption in the UK]

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The current governing party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), was dominant in the period around independence in 1961, until it was replaced by the All People’s Congress (APC) following the 1967 election. The APC subsequently repressed any opposition and installed a one-party state until a multi-party system returned in the 1990s. Since the end of the civil war war, the country has had two largely peaceful transfers of power and achieved a consistent improvement in governance on the Mo Ibrahim Index.

The two main parties are predominantly defined by their relation to the country’s ethnic groups, rather than an established ideology. The Mende people in the south traditionally support the SLPP, while the Temne people in the north typically vote for the APC. This poses questions for Sierra Leone’s democracy. On one level, people are freely choosing to vote along ethnic lines. As David Harris, author of Sierra Leone: A Political History, told me: “Who’s to say that democracy that is to an extent an ethnic census is fundamentally wrong?” On another level, if the electorate is motivated by ethnicity rather than competence or ideology, a fundamental channel of accountability can be lost. When asked whether ethnic voting deprives the government of a mandate for its policies, Harris said, “It does that as well, and therein lies the problem.”

Abdul Fatoma, chief executive of Campaign for Human Rights and Development International, believes that corruption and patronage fuel ethno-regionalism. He argues that the politicisation of ethnic identities in Sierra Leone is not a historical trait but is brought about by the divisive effects of corruption. He points to marriages between ethnicities as evidence that the inequitable distribution of resources is fomenting division, rather than inherent ethnically based discord.

“People believe that when [their region’s party] is in power it is their time to be in high places in the government structure… and even [to receive] business contracts,” he told me. “Corruption is fundamental [to ethno-regionalism].”

Dependence on foreign aid is another cause of the relative ideological paucity of the two main parties. By 2005, aid was equivalent to 30 per cent of Sierra Leone’s gross national income (GNI), with its former colonial ruler Britain making the highest individual contribution. But nothing is ever free. The conditions attached to aid often promote the donor’s own ideology – for instance, the IMF has pressured the government to abolish fuel subsidies. (The government rarely acquiesces with donors on culture-related issues, however, such as female genital mutilation, because they are seen as electorally risky, according to Harris.)

[see also: We have to keep our promise to the world’s poorest – and save the 0.7 per cent aid target]

Without entrenched ideological differences, it is not uncommon for ministers to cross the aisle once the opposition is voted into office. In addition to demonstrating the similarity between the parties and the limited choice for voters, this phenomenon has also complicated the reports into the alleged corruption of the previous administration, as certain officials and ministers have moved from that administration into the next.

Harris believes the reports will not resolve the corruption problem because those favoured by the SLPP leadership will be protected from prosecution: “It’s fundamentally party politics. The chances that anyone senior in the SLPP will be put in front of the Anti-Corruption Commission are almost zero unless they are out of favour or expendable.” What is ostensibly democratic accountability could actually be a tool of partisanship that injures democracy in the long term.

The nation’s media is also less free than it seems. The country currently has more than 15 national newspapers and, in July, the parliament repealed a notorious libel law that had stunted criticism of the government. Yet intimidation and self-censorship still exist. It is common for journalists to stand when ministers enter press conferences and for the president to be prefixed with “His Excellency”. Alusine Sesay says that the threat of the government pulling adverts from newspapers, which account for a large proportion of revenue, hangs over editors.

The nuances and particularities of Sierra Leonean democracy abound. They tell us that democracy will always be shaped by its host’s history and individuality. In such ways, Sierra Leone serves as a warning against electoralism (the false assumption that elections equal democracy) and a reminder of the potential damage to the democratic process when any one of its facets is eroded.

Whether the current president will pursue corruption impartially remains unclear. With elections scheduled for 2023, Sierra Leone will continue to act as a reminder of the inherent fragility and complexity of democracy in action.