Democracy in Sierra Leone: Whose Keeper?

18 September 2007 at 04:33 | 589 views

By Christopher Warburton, Ph.D Econ.

Given the rate of life expectancy in Sierra Leone (41 years in 2005), it is conceivable that many Sierra Leoneans have died without the sight of democracy in Sierra Leone. In actual fact, the civil war in Sierra Leone has made this more of a reality than a presumption.

The triumph of the APC is a sobering reminder that there comes a time when the forces of change are daring. More so, victors cannot afford to gloat and let the door of success hit the faces of the vanquished on their way out. This is evidently so when the challenges of adversity truncate the savor of success.

There are salient reasons why civilized societies have always preferred democracy over alternative forms of government. Fortunately, the political parties of Sierra Leone now seem to understand why. They frantically solicited the votes of Sierra Leoneans by promising to guarantee fundamental liberties which are integral to contemporary civilization-the right to life; the right to own property; the right to be educated; the right to live in a healthy environment; the right to have a shelter; and the right to choose a government that will affirm the inalienable or unimpeachable rights of man.

By embracing these extra-ordinary challenges, political parties impose upon themselves a colossal burden by which they are willing to be evaluated. By this measure, the victors of the 2007 elections have taken up a tremendous responsibility to deliver to the people of Sierra Leone what they have lost for forty-six years. The litany of losses or liabilities is immeasurable, but the victors ought to be reminded that victory is an oxymoronic outcome.

The victory is apparent, but the challenges are multiple and may probably be less apparent at the height of celebration. There is every indication that voters are outraged because of ocular or evident deprivations. Dysfunctional governments cannot succeed in a democratic environment. Such governments are detached from societies, and state-society disintegration can only fester for protracted periods under authoritarian or despotic regimes.

It might not be efficient or beneficial to dwell on the anomalies or failures of the past, but they provide unavoidable lessons for progress and the subsequent success of any political party. A political party without a national agenda is transient, and it becomes a pariah when a greater segment of the population is alienated.

In the past, politics in Sierra Leonean has been rooted in corruption; nepotism; tribalism; fraud; neglect; and impoverishment; for which no political party has been beyond reproach. The distinguishing feature has been one of intensity and timing. Today, democracy opens up a revolving door, even as the country struggles with primordial ethnic differences that are exemplified by regional voting predisposition.

The power of democracy resides in its populist characterization. It is a system that subscribes to the philosophy of government for, of, and by the people-governance that lends itself to state-society integration. Democracy is therefore the keeper of the people’s welfare when they are weak, infirm, alienated, marginalized, and impoverished. It is what in effect, brings a government to justice when a government repudiates its obligations, although it has to be accountable. It gives victors a forewarning of its unrelenting wrath.

Populism is not socialism. Humans require a decent opportunity to succeed in life with the help of a facilitating government. The trajectories of success are inevitably: equal opportunity to gain employment (not because of ethnic affiliation or political affiliation); access to good quality of education; good health; good food; sound infrastructure; and equal protection of legal rights and fundamental liberties under just laws.

A new regime is compelled to be sensitive to the populist demands which have catapulted it to success. It must then strategically envision and implement plans to achieve a reasonable measure of success in the face of formidable challenges. What are some of these evaluative formidable challenges?

Poverty. In 1989, about 74 percent of Sierra Leoneans were living on less than $2 a day. There is every reason to believe that this number is astronomical by toady’s estimate. It is an indication of why voters were enraged and why a storm was already advancing from the horizon. In 2005, the gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of Sierra Leone was $217.77, although it was $300 in 1982 (the highest between 1970 and 2005). This means that for the entire 2005, each Sierra Leonean only made approximately $217. This pitiful amount does not take into consideration, adverse redistributive or distributive mechanisms that are usually evaluated by the Gini coefficient.

Public debt. In 1999, the public debt as a percentage of GDP was 247%, but exports as a percentage of GDP was only 12.6%. Export as a percentage of GDP increased by almost 100% between 1999 and 2005. The argument could be made that the war was disruptive. However, since the 1970s, exports as a percentage of GDP have seldom exceeded the 30% mark. There is a dire need not only to increase the export capacity of the country, but also to keep the out-of-control spending by the public sector in check.

Public debt is detrimental to economic growth and social well being. It obviously has a huge impact on the local currency and the current overvaluation of the leone. The country’s currency is no longer an international currency, and its overvaluation is contemporaneously beyond redemption. The consequences are severe for investment and the domestic economy. It fuels the growing trend towards a dollarized economy; a situation in which some Sierra Leoneans are no longer quoting prices in leones, but in dollars or foreign currencies in various markets (including the housing market). There is an urgent need to address the destabilizing fiscal and monetary situation of the country.

Health. In 2004, public expenditure on health as a percentage of GDP was 2%. It is not therefore surprising that life expectancy of Sierra Leoneans in 2005 was 41 years. A government cannot meet required social spending if it is severely in debt, and if it cannot encourage the private sector to invest or assist in the provision of health care. Progress on prolonging Sierra Leonean lives has been very slow. Between 1970 and 2005, the life of a typical Sierra Leonean was extended by approximately 6-7 years. The rate of extinction is expedited when a country is overwhelmed by the proliferation of garbage.

Education. There may well be a considerable amount of functional literates in the country, but only 35% of the adult population (15 years and above) could currently read and write in English. This is not a good precondition for development, and it fuels the propensity to act without reasoning. The victors inherit a moribund system of education at all levels. The tertiary education is on the brink of collapse, partly because of inadequately paid lecturers, decrepit buildings, and sub-standard educational facilities. The country erected the perfect structure for a brain-drain syndrome since the 1980s; a structure within which it is undesirable for intellectual and skilled workers to stay in the country and contribute to its development; because of starvation wages, inflation, and repugnant conditions

Energy. It is confounding that the country has not made any marginal or incremental improvement on energy supply for the past twenty years. The availability of energy supply is inextricably linked to investment and increased government revenue. An incoming government must urgently address this shameful state of affairs.

Infrastructure. Passable roads and bridges provide positive externalities to the growth of agriculture, just as legal reforms to ensure private investment in land, have the potential effect of maximizing farm output by those who have the capital to do so. Outdated and dichotomous laws have outlived their usefulness and it is time to envision a gradual rather than precipitous change of the tenure system.

Although the prognoses for change in the manifestoes are cryptic, the manifestoes of the political parties give a detailed catalog of the problems confronting the country. It is impractical to address all of them here, and certainly there is a lot the APC could learn from the manifestoes of its adversaries. Leaders of the APC must now realize that they are not in an enviable position. Glory is tainted by long years of adversity and the desire for a tangible change in the lives of many, who are now desperately hoping for favorable life-altering circumstances.

The SLPP has lost an election but not the Sierra Leoneans. It must now find ways of earning the trust of Sierra Leoneans by addressing those issues which are important to all Sierra Leoneans. Meaningful political parties are equally effective when they are out of office. The SLPP must now seize the moment to contribute to the development of the nation in significant areas of need (as outlined in its manifesto). The time to ruminate on wrongs and make sincere amends is now, not later.

The dynamism of democracy is irresistible. It is the only political force that reliably ensures progress, and its civilizing power touches both victor and vanquished. Beyond its justification of authority, it necessitates healing, reconciliation, and progress.

Let the era of reconstruction begin, for the day of reckoning is at hand. May God save Sierra Leone.