A growing socialist movement in Sierra Leone knows that democracy can't live alongside neoliberal development.
In a recent seminar on comparative democracies, I glanced over a document, published by the US-funded NGO Freedom House, which scored every country in the world based on their level of democracy. I was surprised to see Sierra Leone — a small, resource-rich country on the West African coast with about six million people — listed as one of the most democratic nations in sub-Saharan Africa.
But the plaudits were also nothing new. Ever since a 2002 United Nations intervention helped end a decade-long civil war — purportedly installing a system of free and fair elections and respect for civil liberties — Salone, as locals call it, has been hailed as a model for the region.
In addition to democratic advances, boosters assert the country has reaped the dividends of neoliberal capitalism. Home to precious minerals and crops, from bauxite, iron ore, and diamonds to palm oil, multinationals extract hundreds of millions of dollars from the country every year. The country’s weak regulatory mechanisms and low tax rates help attract over US $1 billion in foreign investment annually.
In reality, however, the country’s democratic and economic record is not so sunny. Foreign investment — long touted as the engine of development for poor nations — hasn’t made life better for the country’s broader population. Extractive industries such as mining generate minimal jobs and engage in “satellite development,” relying on the minimal level of infrastructure to get the loot to the coast rather than providing generalized growth.
The country’s massive sell-off of land to foreign agribusiness corporations is demonstrative. Over a four-year period, a 2013 report from Christian Aid details, the country put nearly a fifth of its arable land on the market — all with the help and oversight of the World Bank.
For those living in the vicinity, the result was a decline in safe drinking water, nutrition, community cohesion, school attendance, and more. Salone residents reported that they could no longer afford three meals a day because their crops and fruit trees had been destroyed. The jobs and infrastructure the company used to convince residents to sell their land for pennies — dangled in front of those it bothered to consult — have not materialized.
None of this is surprising — pollution, displacement, and a drop in countries’ wealth are all par for the course when it comes to resource extraction. So is venality. In Sierra Leone, mining and agrobusiness leases are awarded in a process dominated by kickbacks.
On-the-books backscratching takes the form of enormous tax breaks for multinationals. London Mining and African Minerals, for instance, have been granted obscene reductions and exemptions on various levies. And the Swiss agribusiness giant Addax BioEnergy was recently given a thirteen-year income tax exemption on its investments in the country.
These giveaways only deepen the poverty of Sierra Leone and its residents, whose most basic needs go unmet. A complete lack of health infrastructure (a government official recently pointed out that the entire country has just five ambulances) led to the death of over four thousand people during the Ebola epidemic last year and underpins staggering levels of infant and maternal mortality.
According to the World Bank, one in ten babies in Sierra Leone will die before their first birthday, and nearly one in five women will perish giving birth — the worst maternal mortality rate in the world. Compare this with socialist Cuba, a poor country that, because it prioritizes health care, boasts a lower infant mortality rate than the US. Additionally, Sierra Leone only has about three physicians per one hundred thousand residents, a deficit compounded by the recent deaths of doctors and nurses battling the Ebola epidemic.
Yet the economic centralization and lack of transparency that allow a small, weak government like Sierra Leone’s to open the floodgates of multinational exploitation are not viewed by the world’s dominant countries and organizations as a detriment to democracy.
Instead, the unhindered predation by the international capitalist class and the domestic petty bourgeoisie is equated with freedom. Figures like UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon tout it as a success story, and the head of the UN peace-building mission in Sierra Leone praises President Ernest Koroma’s “zero tolerance” policy toward corruption (even though the country ranks near the bottom in sub-Saharan Africa by that metric).
Capitalism’s international governance institutions have been at the heart of underdevelopment in the Global South since their founding immediately after World War II. At the behest of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank — before, during, and after the neoliberal “structural adjustment” programs of the 1980s and ’90s — the levers of the Sierra Leonean state that could have checked the wealth extraction and bolstered domestic industries and social services were done away with in the name of fiscal austerity, debt repayment, and incentivizing foreign investment.
Global North governments, particularly that of the US, have justified this continued plunder by referencing freedom, responsible institutional reform, and economic growth. But the tension between economic authoritarianism and democracy is reaching a breaking point in sub-Saharan Africa.
The spread of dictatorship in countries like Rwanda, Burundi, and, increasingly, Sierra Leone indicates that the relationship between capitalism and democracy (long assumed to be harmonious by scholars like Francis Fukuyama) is finally collapsing under the weight of its inherent contradictions.
In a recent trip to Sierra Leone, the fear and tension among Salone locals and political activists was palpable. With the veneer of democracy disappearing since the Ebola outbreak, President Koroma has suppressed dissent under the auspices of emergency laws.
Early last year, on the same day that President Obama was hailing Koroma and the presidents of Guinea and Liberia for their handling of the Ebola crisis, youths in Freetown were being rounded up and jailed after peacefully protesting the emergency laws. Under Koroma’s watch, radio personalities and political opponents have been arrested for criticizing the government response to the crisis, and the country’s vice president was unconstitutionally ousted. Expanded police powers in the wake of the outbreak have spurred more police brutality.
But despite this litany of abuses, the international community and President Obama haven’t critiqued or even acknowledged the Koroma government’s authoritarian behavior.
Meanwhile, the attacks on civil liberties continue. Even with the end of the epidemic, the emergency laws are still in force today. During my visit to the country, word spread that government supporters were attacking voters during a local election in the eastern district of Kono. The journalist covering the story was arrested, and later the house of an opposition politician in the district was burned down. The government blamed the violence on rogue foreigners in the area.
In late December another opposition politician, Ali Kabba, was detained and charged with committing “bigamy” (even though Kabba had divorced his first wife before remarrying). Only after Kabba managed to sneak a camera into the country’s infamous Pademba Road Prison and released images on Twitter of the prison’s horrendous conditions — starving, naked inmates piled atop one another — was he granted bail.
Inhumane treatment by police — which has received millions of dollars in anti-riot gear at the same time basic services like the fire department are wholly neglected — is also a serious problem. One night, while in a taxi in Freetown, I witnessed five police officers beating a truck driver on the side of the road with whips and batons, seemingly for parking incorrectly. In addition to sheer brutality, there’s the corruption: taxi and motorcycle drivers in particular are targeted for extortion by the police, whose $100 monthly salaries leave them desperate for more cash.
For its part, Koroma’s All People’s Congress (APC) government uses bribes and other means to establish the appearance of a free and fair election, making it easier for the US and others to turn a blind eye. It is not uncommon for all but one or two of the opposition parties to campaign on behalf of the incumbent, or to drop out of the race and endorse the APC a day or two before ballots are cast.
Recently, Koroma’s government has started flouting constitutional strictures, claiming the president deserves a third term because the Ebola crisis has interfered with the implementation of his policy initiatives. This is a barely concealed pretext, however. Koroma and the APC were campaigning for a constitutional change even before the epidemic.
They don’t seem to have the public behind them either. While a recent BBC story pointed to young people in Freetown wearing “More Time” t-shirts as proof of popular support, the writing on a free t-shirt means nothing in a country where many live on less than a dollar a day.
In hundreds of interviews and conversations during my trip, I met just one person who thought the president staying on for another term was a good idea. Most individuals I encountered — ranging from APC supporters and members of the president’s Temne tribe to outspoken opposition activists and members of the South’s Mende ethnic group — were angry and afraid. Whispers about the country’s dark past and the APC’s legacy of one-party dictatorship, which lasted from the 1960s to the 1990s and gave rise to the civil war, marked even the most casual of conversations.
Sierra Leoneans, despite their resilience, are tired of their country’s condition. Government statements about economic growth and the coming benefits of this or that new mining deal don’t match up with their day-to-day immiseration.
In Freetown, a city of over two million people that lacks basic social services (including waste management, sewage systems, and electricity), I visited the national library. Across the street, a large park, now fallen into disrepair, stood sealed off. The park, I learned, had been slated for renovation years ago (the million-dollar contract went to a relative of the president). Instead, the money disappeared and the park, the only one I saw in the city, was left to further dilapidate. The national library itself had no power or running water on the day of my visit, and any decent-sized high school library in the US would’ve dwarfed its collection of books.
The tragedy of Sierra Leone is not that it’s poor — the tragedy lies in the fact that it’s not: as ordinary Sierra Leoneans well know, there is more than enough money to pay for essential services.
Awareness of this basic fact has contributed to widespread and growing support for the African Socialist Movement, one of the largest radical socialist movements in the world in terms of both proportional size and mainstream popularity.
Indeed, it is only mass grassroots support that prevents the ASM — which uses electoral and extra-electoral measures to challenge the neocolonial regime — from being completely destroyed by Koroma.
That’s not to say the government isn’t trying.
Using a 2002 law that requires all political parties to maintain four offices in four separate districts for five years, the government has effectively blocked any grassroots political force from running in an election without forming a coalition with a pre-established party. Even with thousands of followers and years of fundraising, the ASM lacks the money to set up the required offices. (For parties like the APC-backed opposition, the registration law is not enforced.)
As a result, the Movement ran fifteen of its members for parliament in 2012 in a coalition with the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) party. ASM’s candidates all lost by a narrow margin, but the election was widely considered to be fraudulent — more votes than constituents were counted in numerous districts.
The government uses other means to deny socialists political space. When ASM members collected enough funds to purchase a radio tower and office, the government denied them a frequency to broadcast. Simply put, to meet or carry out any political activities without government approval is to risk arrest.
In spite of such harassment, the ASM has retained its distinction as the only consistent dissenting voice in a media landscape honeycombed with newspapers and journalists on the APC payroll.
For the army of unemployed youth forced to hawk cheap products in Freetown’s informal economy to avoid starvation, the socialist party is viewed as a real alternative — not only to the APC but to the other establishment party, the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).
Facing unemployment rates of nearly seventy percent, still haunted by the civil war–era child-soldier abductions, Salone youths are viewed as dangerous by the APC and SLPP and largely excluded. Even some of the few openly Marxist groups in the country write them off as “lumpen” or potential reactionaries.
The ASM has welcomed these youth into the fold — at least partially because the party’s founders and leaders are young people from poor backgrounds themselves. While many young Sierra Leoneans do engage in criminal activity — as can be expected in a country where food and shelter are luxuries — the ASM thinks youth have political agency and should be included in grassroots initiatives rather than scorned as nefarious elements.
Inspired by Sierra Leone’s own socialist icon, I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson, the party has launched education and community projects led by the youths themselves, including the founding of schools and symposiums, the distribution of educational materials, and the organization of street carnivals and similar activities.
In addition to its youth outreach programs, a core organizing node of the ASM is its “Ataya bases” — Chinese tea houses located in Freetown and other cities, where unemployed men form communal chains of support and engage in political discussions. Allied to the socialist movement, many of the bases distribute radical literature and disseminate anticapitalist, anti-neocolonial ideas. Unlike the political establishment, the ASM is building a base linked by a shared critique of global capitalism and oppression rather than one united by tribal identity or populist gestures.
Drawing upon the ideas of Thomas Sankara — the Burkina Faso revolutionary who outlawed female genital mutilation, polygamy, and forced marriages after taking power in 1983 — the ASM also advocates policies for the emancipation of women.
Female members occupy important roles in the ASM, from the leadership to the press. The party’s constitution states that if the party chair is a man, a woman must fill the deputy chair position. And while parity is not complete, four of the fifteen candidates the party ran in the 2012 elections were women.
Even bolder is the party’s long-standing initiative to end female genital mutilation — a risky political position given the practice’s entrenchment in Sierra Leone society. Throughout its campaign — which it rolled out in 2003 with a series of newspaper articles — numerous civil society and traditionalist groups have criticized the movement.
Salone elites are aware of the growing resistance movement among the youth, both in the educated college populations and the unemployed, formally uneducated sector. Government attempts to outlaw social media outlets such as WhatsApp — a platform for activists and youths to criticize the government — and the closure of the dormitories at the prestigious Fourah Bay College, reflect its growing unease. So does its decision to outlaw the student union at FBC, canceling elections there due to “student violence.”
More recently, the APC government sacked Dr Ibrahim Abdullah — a world-renowned conflict scholar, outspoken Africanist and Marxist, and the nation’s only tenured history professor with a PhD — for publicly criticizing the quality of higher education in the country (under the present arrangement, the president of the country also serves as the University of Sierra Leone’s chancellor and appoints senior university officials).
One of the few enclaves of radical and socialist thought in Sierra Leone, — especially during the struggle against dictatorship in the 1970s and ’80s — Fourah Bay College has strong ties to the ASM. During the 2011–12 school year, the movement aided the academic staff association’s struggle to secure pay raises and the education minister’s dismissal.
The conflict between the government and the ASM is perhaps most acute in the media, where the ASM are unusually strong given their broad base. The party’s most popular figure, chairman and de facto spokesman Chernoh Bah, appears regularly on nearly every major television and news station, where he has critiqued government misuse of Ebola funds and corruption. But his appearances are then followed by interviews with government officials, who accuse the party of opportunism and “incitement.”
A Humane Alternative
In the hands of the Koroma government, the Ebola outbreak has been leveraged to narrow the room for opposition and postpone the next election. But these attacks on civil liberties and democracy are not the result of a liberal democracy gone rogue. They’re the predictable progression of the neoliberal project within Africa, which has long preached the centralization of wealth and power and the dismantling of the state’s social functions to prevent a confrontation with capital.
Today, the African Socialist Movement and, more importantly, the classic pan-Africanist and socialist ideals it embodies, are the last line of defense for democracy in Salone. They are also an example to workers the world over.
The failure of the neoliberal project, the ASM makes clear, does not have to result in dictatorship and the rise of the far right. It can instead give way to a humane alternative rooted in genuine democracy — not the Freedom House variety.