Sierra Leone: The World's Poorest Nation

By Vidler, Elizabeth | Contemporary Review, January 1993 | Go to article overview

Sierra Leone: The World's Poorest Nation


Vidler, Elizabeth, Contemporary Review


ON April 30th, 1992, Sierra Leone witnessed a dramatic development in the form of a military coup d'etat. Replacing the All People's Congress (APC), which ruled for a remarkable twenty-four years, Captain Valentine Strasser took over the reins of power to become, at the age of 27, the youngest Head of State in Africa. The coup was hardly surprising, however, when regarded in the context of the dismal social and economic record of the APC, under both Siaka Stevens (1968-85) and Joseph Momoh (1985-92). Despite being well endowed with natural resources -- including diamonds, gold, iron ore, rutile, relatively rich agricultural land and great tourist potential -- in 1991 Sierra Leone came last in the world in the United Nations' Human Development Table. This was all the more damning since the criteria used were not only those of GNP per capita, but involved social criteria such as infant mortality, life expectancy and literacy.

An important factor in Sierra Leone's precipitous decline has been gross economic mismanagement. From the outset the Government failed to deal effectively with the economic crisis. Policies designed to meet short term difficulties, such as deficit financing, simply exacerbated problems in the long run. The necessity for careful management of the country's resources often seemed to elude those in power. An extreme example occurred in 1980 when Siaka Stevens, acting upon considerations of prestige, decided to host the extremely costly Organisation of African Unity Meeting, thereby exacerbating his country's financial predicament. The deteriorating situation was characterised by a shortage of foreign exchange and a worsening balance of payments situation.

Economic mis-management and failure was a reflection of costly state policies. For example, despite the fact that importing food has been a major drain on a scarce foreign exchange, agricultural expansion was inhibited by policies which demanded high levels of taxation in the agricultural sector, and the suppression of food prices to prevent urban protest. Similarly, despite official rhetoric, neither the problem of smuggling nor that of the black market has ever been seriously tackled. Smuggling has had a crippling effect on the economy of Sierra Leone, resulting in scarcity of foreign exchange, yet the Government lacked the political will to take a 'firm stand' as it repeatedly promised. Smuggling, by depriving the banking system of foreign exchange, led to the intensification of the black market. Faced with the prospect of empty shops the Government was often willing to bend the rules to ensure goods were available. A minority benefited enormously from this arrangement, however as the economy deteriorated, the ordinary citizen could increasingly ill-afford even basic commodities.

Effective development policies were further distorted by the dominant position of a group of Lebanese and Afro-Lebanese businessmen. Although excluded from political office, they cultivated informal alliances with senior political figures, and consequently established a degree of influence in the business and political spheres unprecedented elsewhere on the continent. Popular resentment of this group is extremely high in Sierra Leone; many feel they have been forced out of important areas of the economy to make way for the Lebanese. Under Stevens, much of this resentment was focused upon Jamil S. Mohammed, a Sierra Leonean with Lebanese roots. Not only immensely wealthy, Mohammed was also a close associate of Stevens and a key financial patron of the APC regime. Accused of manipulating government policies in favour of his widespread business interests, he was often blamed for the country's economic troubles. Stevens did not wholly discourage this trend, after all it did distract attention away from APC mismanagement, however, the Lebanese were important allies and Stevens occasionally made statements in their defence. It appears certain that the APC received generous monetary contributions from the Lebanese, and it has further been alleged that certain key political figures, together with the Lebanese, were involved in large scale diamond smuggling.

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