Sierra Leone sits on a Political Precipice in Wake of Ebola Response

Sierra Leone can’t seem to catch a break. Just as soon as the West African country emerged from a bitter eleven-year civil war in 2002, Sierra Leone entered a decade-long transitional and peacekeeping process. The seven-million-strong country managed to conduct its first national election absent the watchful gaze of United Nations observers in November of 2012. Yet, in 2014, the government reluctantly declared a nation-wide state of emergency to deal with the merciless Ebola outbreak that killed nearly 4,000 people and stopped the country in its tracks.

With its post-colonial history and conflict mineral narrative firmly in the rear view mirror, the government has adopted aggressive socioeconomic development agendas to build out the country’s institutional capacity, adopt long-term sustainable economic development goals, and supposedly foster a government system defined by stability, fairness, and transparency. History has not been kind, however. Sierra Leone still rests at the extreme end of the Human Development Index—ranked at 181.

Overall life expectancy is a mere fifty-one years and economic growth and public health infrastructure has remained stagnant since the end of the brutal civil war. As such, the governing bodies of Sierra Leone pursue extensive bi-lateral development relationships with other states, including the United States and the United Kingdom and key non-government organizations, such as World Vision, the World Health Organization, and recently Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders. The risky and economically weak climate has sheathed private-sector-led interests.

As part of its strategy to combat the prolonged Ebola outbreak across the country, the Sierra Leonean government closed primary and secondary education institutions—putting nearly two million children behind their counterparts in respective education programs. The systemic effects of these closures will negatively affect the country’s development agendas. It may even lead to increased dependency on third-party organizations to provide basic infrastructure services to constituents.

Even prior to the epidemic, education did not stack up well against competitive averages in other developing countries. Children were lucky to remain in school for more than eight years and systemic issues associated with lax education priorities meant that the adult literacy rate never made it over fifty percent of the country’s population. The government’s budget has been stretched thin while ministers have appealed to donor-based relief under the strict U.S.-led “Build Back Better” development strategy. National GDP spending on education programs has fallen to a meager two percent.

Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, serves as the political and economic hub and is one of the world's largest natural harbors.

Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital, serves as the political and economic hub and is one of the world's largest natural harbors.

Despite the country’s daunting challenges ahead, Sierra Leone boasts a relatively stable and moderately “free” political climate. Freedom House—an international think tank that pairs economic development indicators against domestic media and human rights conditions—ranks the Sierra Leonean government as a “partly free” institution. And, to its credit, the government has emerged from hostile civil strife and tackled the future of its communities and legislative processes with effectiveness and adherence to Western-inspired democratic values—however “good” or “bad” they may be.

The first unmonitored “free and fair” elections were successfully conducted in 2012. Ernest Bai Koroma—leader of the majority All Peoples Congress—secured a second and final term as president in a competitive electorate climate. The executive’s power is kept in check by the legislative parliament—an institutional body made up of proportionally-elected representatives from constituencies across the country.

In practice, the so-called “Parliament” functions similar to a unicameral congress with an independent judiciary that is congressionally bound to serve as the country’s highest court. The chief opposition party—the Sierra Leone’s People’s Party—operates in a marginally minority capacity on the sidelines. Following the civil war, the government has maintained this bi-partisan system with no real competition from third or independent political organizations.

Given these structures, the institutional capacity in Sierra Leone remains stable, but critics and certain journalists have pointed to increased animosity being sown between opposition and ruling party members in the Parliament as 2017 gets underway. The Judiciary has recently come under fire for reportedly being a pawn of the Koroma’s inner circle.

Even though the president secured his second term through seemingly legitimate and fair elections, he has been accused of contracting out key judicial members to amend the constitution that would increase the term of the presidency—mirroring the upset caused by Rwandan President Paul Kagame across the continent in early 2016.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="691"]  Medical supplies arrive from the United Kingdom's Department for International Development in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak [/caption]

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="691"] Medical supplies arrive from the United Kingdom's Department for International Development in Sierra Leone during the Ebola outbreak[/caption]

Sierra Leone is approaching a precipice. Going into 2017, the government needs to invest in economic development agendas that position itself as a positive partner—not an acrimonious dependent—in the eyes of the international aid and humanitarian relief community. President Koroma risks inciting civil violence and catalyzing instability should his executive administration agitate the country’s institutional norms that were established in such a fragile manner as the dust of the civil war settled.

The international community can help prevent an all-too-familiar collapse, but it will ultimately be the up to Koroma and his allies to preserve what remains of the country if they hope to steer Sierra Leone in a sustainable and resilient direction.

Mitch Hulse is a student in the MPPGA Program at UBC focusing on international development policy, information communication technology, and digital development principles. You can follow him on Twitter @mitchhulse.