Albert Margai left office in 1967, after three years as prime minister of Sierra Leone, he was worth an estimated US$250 million – despite receiving an annual salary of just US$4,000. In 1985, when President Siaka Stevens stood down, he is said to have amassed a fortune of US$500 million. The Bank of Sierra Leone, in contrast, held US$196,000 in its foreign reserve accounts. In the late 1980s, a common joke told on the streets of Freetown was: ‘What did Sierra Leoneans read by before they had candles? … Electricity!’ By then, life expectancy in Sierra Leone was one of the lowest in the world. Infant mortality was amongst the highest. The literacy rate was just 15 percent. In 1991, the United Nations ranked Sierra Leone last of 160 countries in its Human Development Index. A common joke told on the streets of Freetown was: ‘What did Sierra Leoneans read by before they had candles? … Electricity!’
Since the civil war officially ended in 2002, consecutive national elections have been won by different parties. When Ernest Bai Koroma and his All People’s Congress (APC) party were elected in 2007, the incumbent Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) accepted defeat – albeit reluctantly. For many, elections – and the preceding campaigns – provide the true measure of how Sierra Leone has progressed. As yet the fundamental character of political competition in Sierra Leone has not been altered. Identity, not ideology or policy, remains the paramount factor. Ethnic and regional voting blocs – sustained by entrenched patronage networks and corruption – are as rigid as ever. The APC draws majority support from the Temne, Limba and other northern tribes, and Krios of the Western Area, while the SLPP are favoured by the Mende and tribes of the south-east. Elections are regarded as ‘winner takes all’ contests with defeat entailing exclusion and disadvantage for the losers, and their regions.
Political parties still use violent means to achieve political goals. Election campaigns for the 2007 elections were tarnished by clashes organised by the upper reaches of the APC and SLPP. A return to war was never probable, but President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah threatened to suspend the vote and impose a state of emergency. On 9 September 2011, during a ‘thank you tour’ to SLPP supporters, Julius Maada Bio’s convoy was pelted with rocks by mobs of APC supporters in the southern city of Bo. Maada Bio required stitches to the head. SLPP mobs retaliated by setting fire to the APC district office and residential properties. A public enquiry concluded that the violence was both premeditated and orchestrated by elites of both parties.
Sierra Leone’s 2012 elections are unlikely to reveal anything new about the country and its politics. President Koroma is expected to win a second term, but not because he has transformed the country’s economy. The incumbent has deployed clever tactics, co-opting proxy parties – including the Revolutionary United Front Party – to carry out political dirty work, and enticing high profile SLPP politicians to defect, most notably veteran Tom Nyuma formerly of the NPRC.
While the economy has grown, it is structurally little different to its pre-war incarnation. The purchasing power of low income earners has halved since 2007. Food prices have spiraled. A cholera epidemic concentrated in the slums of Freetown had killed 392 residents by September 2012. Youth unemployment remains endemic. Sierra Leone’s government budget is minuscule, about US$500 million per annum, most of which is from donors who insist on democratic and liberal economic reforms in exchange. The government is not in a position to adopt political and economic policies that will inevitably be unpopular with donors. Nor does it possess the human capital or institutions to successfully implement such measures.
Important progress has been made, particularly in the area of electoral management. But legacies of identity politics, violence, corruption and inequality have been – and will continue to be – harder to overcome. the imperatives of how to create employment and distribute wealth more equitably have been keenly avoided by Sierra Leone’s political class.