Sparkle and Splinters

Rosalind Raddatz on why Sierra Leone’s resource wealth has yet to change its people’s fortunes.
By: /
November 16, 2012
Trudeau Scholar and a PhD candidate at the School of Political Studies, University of Ottawa

The cab lurches in and out of first gear as it creeps up one of Freetown’s steep hills. The undercarriage scrapes the ground at every bump with the weight of the six sweaty people jammed inside.  All four doors are held closed with bits of coat hanger.  Over the din of a jackhammer and the latest Afro-pop hit fresh from Nigeria, Mahamed, the driver, explains (loudly) why he’ll be voting for incumbent President Ernest Bai Koroma and the All People’s Congress (APC) this Saturday. “It’s all because of the roads.  Koroma has proved himself by building many roads and because that helps me I am voting for him.”

If roadwork is what it takes to win the Sierra Leonean vote, Koroma’s chances of re-election are good.  The capital city is crowned with a red dust haze, while men with shovels and rakes toil around the heavy machinery that seems to litter nearly every major street.  Indeed, over the last five years, the Sierra Leonean government has allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to road and rail construction and maintenance throughout the country.

The well-graded roads of the capital extend past the town of Mile 91, all the way to Sierra Leone’s second-largest city, Bo.  In fact, this section of tarmac is the best I’ve driven in Africa.  Past the fluorescent lights of Bo’s late-night diamond dealers, towards Zimmi and the Liberian border, the shift is swift and painful to cars and passengers alike, as the road degenerates into a crunching dirt track the width of a single logging truck.  The lack of infrastructure here only reflects that the more sparsely populated eastern part of the country is not as politically relevant to the capital. 

Here, you see one or two cars every hour.  Lest you consider trying to pick up speed in the late-afternoon light, be forewarned of the dozen or more roadblocks that bar your way.  Identified only by an unravelling rope adorned with empty plastic bags strung across the road, and typically attended by skinny men in worn t-shirts who carefully thumb your passport for long minutes, their sole purpose appears to be to thin the brick of cash you must carry on you at all times – after all, the leone is trading at 4,500 to CAD $1. And in a place where the current vice-president has been fingered for systemic corruption, low-level boys on the take see no reason they shouldn’t also try to exploit the resources at their disposal.

Cab-driver preoccupations aside, there is more to Sierra Leone’s elections than roads. Successful elections are championed as a milestone achievement for post-conflict nations. Indeed, Sierra Leone’s two post-war elections (in 2002 and 2007) have been the freest and had the most participation in the country’s history, and there is every reason to believe that this Saturday’s vote will be no different.  These events have yet to yield any genuinely new leadership – all three campaigns have featured many of the same faces that have been at the helm of political decision-making for more than a decade, back to and including the war.  Still, unlike in Liberia, there are no known former belligerents in government, and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) – the rebel force that led the decade-long civil war – no longer exists as a political party, having been absorbed by the APC in 2007.  Moreover, consistently high voter turnout (83 per cent of registered voters showed up at the polls in 2007) is evidence that the citizens of Sierra Leone are committed to the benefits of electoral democracy.

The 1999 Lomé Peace Accord, which marked the beginning of the end of the civil war (the fighting only ceased in mid-2000), includes clear commitment to democratization and provisions for free and fair elections.  Despite the fact that, since the war, Sierra Leone has run three genuine multi-party election campaigns (there are candidates from eight different parties running against Koroma this time around), in essence, all national elections from independence onward have been two-party duels between the APC and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP).  Traditionally, the APC is supported by the Tembe and Limba in the North, whereas the SLPP is favoured by the Mende in the South and East regions.  According to scholar Christopher Wyrod, while these parties have distinct historical ethnic affiliations and patronage networks, their policies and platforms are not particularly unique.  Consequently, it is no surprise that both parties have similarly mixed records on governance and development.

Elections are not the apogee of democratic performance, but merely the first base camp along the way.  Today, Freetown is almost bucolic in terms of safety, while still maintaining its bustle and vibrant charm, but thus far, political leadership has lacked the commitment or capacity to address widespread issues of poverty, corruption, and marginalization.  Women and young people remain vastly underrepresented in politics – it’s still a “big” (older) man’s game.  Since 2004, the government claims to have made inroads towards decentralization, but the pace of change is slow and most political power remains firmly entrenched in Freetown.

That Sierra Leone’s political stability is genuine and lasting is due, in large part, to the ongoing aid and support of foreign donors, including the United Nations, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and the European Union, as well as the United States and the United Kingdom. The steady political climate has led to increased foreign investment, but the country still depends on foreign largesse for part of its operating budget.

To the world’s powerhouses, reconstruction is restoring a nation’s institutional capacity and establishing a functional government, but to many Sierra Leoneans, reconstruction is the promise of economic development.  The presence and possibility of overseas capital are obvious in Freetown in the outrageous cost of office space and housing, not to mention the extortionate price of hotel rooms with meagre amenities. Foreign investment is predominantly directed towards the exploitation of natural resources, although there is also indication of investment in the latent tourism industry.  Certainly, there is ample evidence of foreign capital in the myriad road works.  In the trenches of Freetown, nearly every Sierra Leonean work crew has a Chinese foreman at its helm.

The prospects of investment and development have great lure, but they can cast a bleak shadow. Sierra Leone has been blessed by tremendous natural-resource wealth, but because so few have benefitted from this windfall, most citizens would call the irony of such treasure a curse. 

Lasting peace and increased government stability in Sierra Leone have made way for greater foreign investment, particularly in the extractive industries.  Recent economic growth is partly driven by mineral exports, namely diamonds – the very gem that damned it during the war – and rutile, an ore used to produce titanium and pigment paint.  The diamond industry claims to employ more than 100,000 people in Sierra Leone, but most of these toil as backbreaking alluvial miners – few collect a regular pay packet or work in even marginally safe conditions. 

The diamonds of Sierra Leone did not cause its lengthy civil war, but their value to rebel forces and neighbouring Liberia’s president at the time, Charles Taylor, certainly helped to perpetuate it.  More than a decade later, Taylor is incarcerated and Sierra Leonean gems no longer bear the taint of “blood diamonds.”  Mining now accounts for more than half of the country’s export revenues, most of which come from diamonds.  As in politics, familiar faces are found even in the mines of the distant northern region, where former mercenary (of Executive Outcomes) Jan Joubert now heads up Koidu Holdings.

If Sierra Leonean diamonds are sparkling again on world markets, there is another resource that now threatens to curse the people of Sierra Leone and the land on which they live.  Aside from its glorious, untouched beaches, Sierra Leone’s landscape is usually described as dense tropical rainforest, but along many of the nations’ main highways, there is no shade to be found.  The once verdant countryside has been denuded by loggers, many of them operating illegally.  According to the European Union, illegal logging is the leading cause of environmental degradation in Sierra Leone, and even Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Food Security admits that barring urgent intervention, the country’s forests will have entirely disappeared by 2018.

Logging is so lucrative – at least to a few – that investigative journalist Sorious Samura claims, “timber has become the new diamonds.”  Although President Koroma banned the transport and export of logs in 2010, tens of millions of dollars’ worth of timber continues to be cut and exported, mostly to Asia and the Middle East.  China is deemed to be the largest exporter of Sierra Leonean timber, a type of wood known locally as “gbenie,” which is similar to ebony.  At least part of this illicit trade is alleged to have been facilitated by Vice-President Samuel Sumana, who is campaigning for re-election this Saturday as Koroma’s running mate.  That the government has not addressed this scandal indicates to many that corruption will continue to be business as usual in Sierra Leone.

This weekend’s elections are a laudable landmark in Sierra Leone’s post-conflict history.  But there are real challenges that stand to blight this promising country’s future.  Whichever party and leader wins the right to lead the country needs to act upon the pervasive but hitherto meaningless rhetoric against corruption.  The judicial system is in tatters and requires major overhaul.  Media freedom is still curtailed.  Women and young people continue to be politically marginalized. Sierra Leone remains one of the world’s 10 poorest countries – a distinction it has carried since before the war. Sustainable economic and political development that benefits whole populations, and not select elites, is truly the key to lasting peace and prosperity in Sierra Leone.

Also in the series


The Tipping Point

Damon van der Linde on whether the election will be a tipping point into established democracy or renewed violence.

Watermelon Politics

Christina Stevens on the green-versus-red politics of the Sierra Leone election.

Interesting but Risky

Martha Kargbo on what it's like to be a journalist covering the election.

Keeping Elections Free and Fair

JHR's Executive Director Rachel Pulfer on how her organization has helped promote balanced coverage of the election in Sierra Leone.

Brave Reporting

Bob Press on the key role journalists play in defending democracy and human rights in Africa.

One Eye on the Ballot

Ato Kwamena Dadzie reflects on experiences working on radio in Ghana.

Business as Usual?

Edward Akuffo on whether or not the upcoming elections in Ghana and Sierra Leone will mean fundamental change.