Defining Success by Decentralized Democracy in Sierra Leone

Summary:  Since 2007, Ernest Koroma is trying to build a reasonably progressive government in Sierra Leone. And such an approach does seem to be a radical departure from the country’s history and political culture. It has the makings of a realistic and acceptable alternative model of governance a more responsible democracy and a system of internal accountability. The original plan for a post-Kabbah Sierra Leone called for rapid, transformational nation building. Such a vision has been slow coming but it now seems Koroma is listening and he is taking action to make his government work for the people more than ever before seen in Sierra Leone. Many Sierra Leoneans are now optimistic that a stable and acceptable outcome in Sierra Leone is possible. They believe that Sierra Leone has never been administered effectively. However, much of today’s public acceptance of Koroma’s leadership centers on the widespread belief about the good intentions of Koroma, a quite suitable political end state that is both acceptable and achievable with Koroma’s persistence to demand excellence from the key players in his administration.

The Koroma administration appears to share the public’s optimism about the viability of a decentralized, but strong national government in Sierra Leone. Before it seems such an ambitious outcome would not be realized.  Now a decentralized Asian Singapore kind of state in Sierra Leone would presumably suffice. Success in Sierra Leone thus means governance is gravitating toward an acceptable end state, somewhere between ideal and intolerable. The Koroma administration is working to identify and describe what this end state might look like. With clear limits on acceptable outcomes, at long last constructive development in Sierra Leone can be achieved under the arm of an administration leader who insists on getting roads and bridges constructed, increasing agricultural productivity (through his US$403 million agricultural sector growth project), among other development pursuits, regardless of what those in his administration are trying to do to frustrate his efforts. As the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, observed in 2009, President Koroma is one of two reliable and committed African leaders he could do business with. The other is the Rwandan leader, Paul Kagame. In an exclusive interview in the authoritative London based Financial Times ‘This Is Africa’ magazine, Blair said the two presidents absolutely have the right vision for their respective countries. “What I am trying to do is to go into these countries with a group who are really smart, dedicated people  – we’ve hired them internationally – who will try and build proper systems of governance around President Koroma and Kagame, each of whom… have absolutely the right vision for their countries”, the former Prime Minister said.

In fact, there is an array of acceptable and attainable outcomes for Sierra Leone. None is flawless, and all would require sacrifice. But it is not fair at this time to assume that Sierra Leone is somehow ungovernable or that any sacrifice would be futile in the pursuit of an unachievable goal. Sierra Leone’s own history offers ample evidence of the kind of missed opportunities that could have made the larger society stable, responsible governance that could have met society’s demands without abandoning the convenience of those in power, and their security and respect. By learning from this history and from recent experiences with the leadership of Tejan Kabbah and elsewhere, like Lansana Conte’s Guinea, Koroma should be framing a workable definition of success in Sierra Leone.


Koroma seems to be pushing for a more inclusive, flexible, and decentralized political arrangement, but he should have oversight structures in place to ensure powers devolved are appropriately utilized for the development of regional communities.

From the end of an era in 1992 when Siaka Steven’s hand-picked successor, Joseph Saidu Momoh, was ousted from power, to the coup of Johnny Paul Koroma in 1997, through the second administration of Ahmed Tejan Kabbah, Sierra Leone underwent a difficult and tumultuous period of national challenges. Although the country celebrated democracy post-Johnny Paul Koroma with a leader (Tejan Kabbah) people sacrificed their lives for, the kind of administration people sarcificed their lives for, on the whole, fell short of people’s expectations and those placed in positions of trust all connived to undermine Kabbah’s leadership. Evidently, these previous governments had the resources and the authority but lacked the strength and resolve to exercise control or provide public resources in many parts of the country. Instead, these governments ruled according to a series of bargains between the state and private interests, exchanging state resources for loyalty and some semblance of order. Over time, as the power brokers continued to be more corrupt and sustained their capacity to deprive society of public resources and failure to govern, this balance shifted, and a series of military takeovers gravely upset the status quo. And whenever the military did what they thought was best for the country, to chase away the power brokers – most notably in 1992 under the popular revolution of Valentine Strasser coup and in 1997 under the despicable Johnny Paul Koroma – conflict in who should run the country became an issue and central authority repeatedly challenged. Evidently, the AFRC invasion in 1997 led to a fundamental breakdown of government authority and legitimacy, which led to further chaos and national quagmire. The total devastation of Sierra Leone reached its climax.

Although war, migration, and the lack of great leaders not driven by money but by the challenge, have caused a great deal of suffering for Sierra Leoneans, the resolve of Sierra Leoneans to bear the pain of misguided development policies remain a fundamental source of Sierra Leonean identity and a critical base of hope and patience. This is especially clear in the case of the youths (community activists). Traditionally, the misery of the youth in Sierra Leone has been an opportunity politicians prey on. The youth are a community systematically exploited by governments often used as instruments to negotiate over development programs, with their more prominent members serving as liaisons to the central government. The youths may differ in their power and representation, but they are still found today in virtually every community. This traditional and local base of legitimacy offers a potential foundation for stable governance in the future if their youthful energies are adequately utilized through essential jobs geared towards the agricultural and the infrastructural development of Sierra Leone.

Over the course of 2009 and 2010, the World Bank has been very generous in supporting Koroma’s government’s short to medium term efforts aimed at building on successes of existing youth employment programs in the country through the Youth and Employment Support (YES) project. In November, 2009, in what the Bank considered as growing confidence in the economic development of Sierra Leone accelerated by sound economic management, the World Bank released $30 million dollars to the Government of Sierra Leone, and it was anticipated more than 60,000 young people should have benefited from that funding agreement and at least 31,000 people benefitted directly from the “cash for work program” (Sierra Express Media, 2009, Again, in July 2010, $20 million dollars have been allocated to finance (1) a “Cash for Works” component of US$10 million; (2) a Skills Development and Employment Support component of US$7.5 million, and (3) an Institutional Support, Policy Development, and Impact Evaluation costing US$2.5 million (The Patriotic Vanguard, 2010,  

The activities to be supported under the “cash for works” component would include the rehabilitation and improvement of priority infrastructure chosen from amongst three areas: feeder road rehabilitation and maintenance, agriculture, and renewable energy/environmental management. It is not clear however, whether feeder road rehabilitation and maintenance would include inner city roads in the country’s capital. Obviously, road infrastructure in Freetown is currently not utilized effectively. The quality of many inner city roads like Sackville Street, Leicester Road, Mountain Cut, Fourah Bay Road, Kissy Road, is poor, and do need treatment; and haphazard parking in most of these roads is a problem. Besides, Sierra Leoneans are desperately waiting for a respite from chronic traffic congestions, thus the need for some kind of roads project, to include the construction of inner city flyover networks at critical intersections, which could even be constructed as toll roads, to help provide relief to traffic congestion at critical areas on inner city roads networks. For instance, the corridor linking Fourah Bay Road, Guard Street, and Kissy Street, and the other corridor from Kissy Road to Goderich Street; as well the corridor linking Congo Cross to Syke Street to Kroo Town Road are among corridors which have to be prioritized in any roads project since the most chronic traffic jams and the brunt of bad commutes are felt in those areas every day.

The international community, of course, would prefer to see Sierra Leone – much as it would like to see any country in Africa – ruled in accordance with the will of the governed, its people prosperous, and the rights of its minorities and women respected. But any meaningful development approach in Sierra Leone’s two main interests has to justify dealing with the human costs corruption in government at all levels: one, that many government officials and many conniving private interests who wish to continue to degrade any development opportunities by using public resources for their own ends not be allowed to continue to do that; and two, that rogue politicians not use Sierra Leone’s power corridors as platform to launch their careers to enrich themselves at the expense of nation building programs. Clearly, corruption is the enemy of excellence. Corruption is the enemy of innovation.  Corruption is the enemy of service. And corruption is the enemy of justice. When corruption rules, these qualities go out the window.

There are many possible end states for Sierra Leone, but only a few are compatible with these national development interests. Sierra Leone could revert to a heavily centralized democracy, or become a fully decentralized democracy; relapse to anarchy, or degenerate to centralized dictatorship. The first has already been experienced in Sierra Leone and failed; anarchy and centralized dictatorship are definitely unacceptable. But decentralized democracy is both feasible and can be acceptable to get things done effectively.


The pervasiveness of government decentralization and local governance is not a new phenomenon in Sierra Leone’s political history. For nearly a century, the British policy of indirect rule remained the basis of local government administration in all her West African colonies. The policy was first popularized by Lord Lugard who served as governor general of Nigeria between 1914 to 1919; which he described in his book titled “The Dual Mandate in Tropical Africa” published in 1922, in which he said:

The British Empire…. has only one mission for liberty and self development on no standardized lines, so that all may feel that their interests and religion are safe under the British flag. Such liberty and self development can be best secured to the native population by leaving them free to manage their own affairs through their own rulers, proportionately to their degree of advancement, under the guidance of the British staff, and subject to the laws and policy of the administration”.

In basic terms, therefore, the theory of indirect rule was aimed at governing colonized peoples through their chiefs and local institutions. There is the cynical view that the colonial government’s main motivation for colonial government decentralization and local governance was to balance the difficulty the British had in administering her colonies in West Africa as there were simply not enough English men prepared to serve as colonial administrators in the hinterlands of the empire. As such, indirect rule had the advantage of being cheap for the British colonial masters since traditional rulers were less expensive than British officials. For this reason Lugard, and other British Governors in West Africa, adopted the system for the administration of local government in the region. But the concept itself was a laudable one.  The essence of the conceptofdecentralization is to allow the fullest diversity in governance in keeping with local aspirations and traditional culture.

Post-colonial governance institutions in Sierra Leone were thus rooted historically and culturally in the institution of chieftaincy, which constituted an important constituent of local community governance. Yet, although the system of local governance retained a colonial outlook at independence, it was evident that the district councils established in 1946 was a commendable governance approach. But in 1972, Siaka Stevens’ motive was even more cynical and twisted than the British colonial masters by playing on anti-imperialist sentiments to formally and officially abolish the district councils, introducing a heavily centralized system of administration where powers, duties and responsibilities once exercised by local government structures were taken over by the central government.

Centralized democracy carries risks and disadvantages that make it less consistent with the country’s national development interests as already seen with Siaka Stevens’ deliberate attempt in 1972 to do away with local district councils.  Siaka Stevens thought by centralization he could maintain the maximum feasible control over the national economy and economic development. It was a handy strategy for him in the sense that he called all the shots, as such that enabled him to exploit more easily the resources of society. Evidently, his hidden motive to push for centralization was to loot the resources of the country, which was far easier for him to do with highly centralized powers as opposed to when they were dispersed throughout the many levels and segments of the society. As first envisaged in the 1971 republican constitution under which Siaka Stevens became president, then codified in 1972, the circumcision of local district council powers approach placed virtually all executive, legislative, and judicial authority in Stevens’ national government. It literally gave him superseding powers to govern.  He appointed every significant official in the executive branch, from departmental and provincial ministers down to outposts or branches functionaries serving at the interior level.

However, following the first democratic elections in over three decades, in 1996, a vast majority of Sierra Leoneans called for the re-institution of local decentralized governance as a major strategy to enhance democratic and inclusive participation. Kabbah, however, was ill-prepared and in a hurry to decentralize, and his strategy ultimately led to serious military upheaval and the civil strife that tore apart Sierra Leone over the course of 1997, precipitated by his ad hoc plans to decentralize both the military and some key governmental departments.

Lessons learned the hard way, and in his second administration, with international support, Kabbah had then constructively pursued and had sought to address the issue of decentralization as one of its top priorities. One major step was the enactment of the Local Government Act 2004, which provided for the creation of 19 Local Councils to be in charge of the affairs of their various localities throughout the country. The passage of the 2004 Local Government Act, the creation of the 19 local councils and the subsequent holding of local government election have been the right steps toward extending governance to the local level and ensuring that citizens can participate and effect changes in their localities through participation in decision making processes.

The Kabbah administration thus laid the foundations for a well structured decentralized democracy. Today, the democratic government of Koroma has the governance tools well aligned by his predecessor for the efficient implementation of development programs through a decentralized model of democracy. It could thus be argued there are many advantages for a decentralized democracy to be in place in Sierra Leone justified by Sierra Leone’s prior experience with failed, albeit centralized democratic governance efforts. The government of Koroma’s devolution drive is now being felt in all parts of the country, as the central government continued to devolve power to the local councils, a drive defined by the construction of adequate local government offices across the country. Koroma himself has remarked that his “determination to develop Sierra Leone would not be limited by regional or partisan boundaries”.


Power distribution would be easier under a decentralized democracy, in which many responsibilities held by the central government would be delegated to local bodies. For development and governance to be fully responsive and representational, people and institutions must be empowered at every level of society – national, provincial, district, city, town and village (ST/ESA/PAD/SER.E/88, Some of these powers of course would constitute the mandate to draft and enact budgets, to utilize traditional preferences to centralized justice systems, and to facilitate the implementation of sustainable community development programs. Any decentralization process in Sierra Leone should tie in with the genuine internal distribution of power downward to sub-national levels of society and the local notions of legitimacy.

But supporting increasing local autonomy should come with oversight of local administration and the presidency should be prepared to meet with a firm hand the unscrupulous behaviors of certain players in local governance and in private sector administration who are against national development because of their actions which stand in the way of getting things done. Sierra Leone’s reliance on democracy and transparency is consistent with international values and is strategic to sustain any development effort in the country, but with empowering local bodies and individual agencies should be made with adequate checks and balances that restrict the freedom of local authorities to reflect local preferences and social policies that are regressive.

The center has to maintain its strict oversight powers and should raise the bar of expectations. The need to promote local acceptance of the central government is critical as this option would remove much of the casus belli for corrupt local administrations. The preservation of the central state is therefore critical with the power and incentive to deny the misuse of local revenues for programs that are not pro-development.

Some critics of the model would argue that a major challenge of decentralized democracy is the limited administrative capacity of the Sierra Leonean state, and with an inadequate pool of capable bureaucrats, this could overwhelm the country’s current human capital. They argue, decentralized democracy has the tendency to malign the state’s power brokers’ leadership preeminence which is in fact necessary to threaten the status, authority, and ability of local power brokers to profit from corruption and abuse at the local level.

But decentralized democracy could actually offer some important counterbalances in many areas. Besides, it could be counter-productive to marginalize the chiefs, for instance, under any democratic system, decentralized or not. The odds of success of such a model are much higher, however, when the population truly understands the power the center holds. The core of decentralization is not about competition in governance; in fact it is much down-to-earth to get people in line when the form of government offered is closer to the natural preference of the governed. If the chiefs and local administrators come to see their power prospects as extended, a decentralized system would oblige them to remain reconciled with the government in the hope of securing meaningful local roles in line with the development aspirations of the state.

It is not at all easy to combat high-level corruption or to improve administrative capacity. Only a representative and transparent accountability system in place in which political decentralization of decision making powers downward to local administrators that would allow Sierra Leone’s traditional community leaders to police the use of power and public funds. A national ministry in Freetown, however, should still have oversight of a village or district council. The ministry can see how local officials are spending money and can take issue with uses they find objectionable.

Of course, with devolution of power it does help to make better the Sierra Leone government’s critical competence by letting local officials give attention to marginal, more local issues. For example, if Freetown could provide grants to democratically elected community councils for local development projects, designed at the national level but administered locally, the central government ought to demand fiscal efficiency and effectiveness, that way many villages as possible could be reached. The central government has to put in place vigorous anti-corruption measures to keep in line the conduct of local administrators.

Of course, with decentralization, it does not mean local authorities could be left to run their localities as they saw fit, with the freedom to ignore the will of the governed or engage in any scale of corruption. Of course, forms of corruption pertaining to money like bribery, extortion, embezzlement, and graft are found in local government systems. Other forms of local government corruption are nepotism and patronage systems. Local officials are more susceptible to corruption in which they profited from the theft of local revenues and property while they try to maintain order and to share their predation with the center.  As such redline restrictions that forbid the sort of excesses that fuel corruption are thus essential. Local administrations have to be dependent on the rapid development of state institutions that offer a closer fit with the realities of Sierra Leone. Restricting the central government’s involvement in local issues to a limited – but aggressively enforced – set of redlines could sanction the local power brokers to moderate their excesses. A decentralized democracy would depend more on transparency and efficiency, thus requiring more international mentoring, oversight, and assistance.


Other outcomes for Sierra Leone are possible – but would fail to meet core Sierra Leone development requirements. The country could, for example, revert to warlordism, as experimented by Foday “Saybana” Sankoh and Sam “Maskita” Bockarie’s uprising in the 1990s. The most likely such warlordism is anarchy at its worst. Such a result could only grant other warlords too much leeway in the country’s border towns and villages, as seen with the RUF. Any outcome that allows the advent of another warlord in Sierra Leone and more or less free to operate in the border towns and villages could create safe havens for cross-border terrorism and mayhem, similar to the use of Congolese border havens by Hutu guerillas, causing another spate of more human suffering in Sierra Leone. Warlordism would also set the stage for regional surrogate battles and internal vicious struggle for control of Freetown and key border and diamondiferous areas.

If the Koroma government collapses, Sierra Leone could again break down into the kind of anarchy and atomized civil warfare of the 1990s. Such a state would resemble the one that was taken over by Johnny Paul Koroma in the 1997, where lawlessness would create an opening for a new group of violent under bosses like the brutal Sam Bockarie – with obvious consequences for Sierra Leone’s development interests.

And if Sierra Leone could again revert to the kind of centralized and one party dictatorship perfected by Siaka Stevens in the 1970s, although this is hard to imagine, a single strongman is unlikely to be able to consolidate power in a democratic Sierra Leone, where constitutional law now prevails. In this environment, any prospective dictator – whether pro- or anti-Western – would find it very difficult to prevent the country from descending into another civil war. Another military coup d’état or other anti-democratic power grab (amending the constitution, for example, to allow for a president for life) is possible, but sure enough, it would not yield stability in its wake.


Koroma’s Sierra Leone seems to be making progress in experimenting with decentralized democracy, heading toward widespread development of the country. This trend can be sustained. Clinging to the constructive, decentralized model will surely help sustain the country’s stability. Decentralized governance resonates with the legitimate internal sharing of power in Sierra Leone and local notions of legitimacy. There can be a practical development solution when the intended political goal is so fittingly aligned with the country’s underlying social and political structure.

To its credit, the Koroma administration appears to have recognized that decentralized democracy is a bridge too essential for Sierra Leone. Current policy is aligned with decentralization – the question is how far this should go and whether the key players in his administration and the local players in local governance can manage the change process successfully. This strategy toward decentralization can work, and could be the solution to Sierra Leone’s development challenges. Such a system of decentralized democracy would have its glitches, and would involve sacrifice and risk, but in Sierra Leone – as in most places – the most favorable a system of governance, the longer and arduous the fight to get it to work for the common good. The question of whether to strive for the preferable outcome of decentralized democracy or to accept any other less appealing alternative of governance model will largely be determined by the efforts and sacrifices Koroma and his under bosses are willing to undertake. Yet for all its imperfections, such an approach of decentralized governance seems to be meeting core Sierra Leone national development requirements if continued to be properly implemented. And such model is more achievable than yesterday’s goal of centralized democracy under Siaka Stevens.

Under a decentralized democracy local councils are of course not free to espouse regressive social policies and abuse human rights,as that contradicts any promises and the prestige of democracy. Some would argue that with a decentralized system, corruption would be rife; the occasions for graft would be an essential part of the system’s appeal. The Koroma government would have to contain the scale and scope of this corruption. To prevent this, Koroma would have to continue to rein in on the worst of today’s excesses – if decentralized democracy is merely a gloss for the status quo, it will fail. At the same time, the Sierra Leonean state would have to crack down on the diamond and gold smuggling trade, which if left unchecked would continue to dwarf the revenues provided by foreign aid and make such aid a less convincing incentive for compliance with the center.

Under this style of governance, there would be a potential threat of instability as some cynic local power brokers would periodically test the waters to see what they could get away with. The central government would doubtlessly need to carry out periodic enforcement actions, including aggressive ones. Decentralized democracy is thus not perfect, but it could be viable and could meet Sierra Leone’s development requirements if Koroma’s presidency is willing to fulfill its roles as limited but important enforcer. Decentralized governance can be successful with the central government submitting to two means of imposing essential redlines. The first is the threat of punitive incarceration action ordered by the central administration. This would require an ACC that has the wherewithal to inflict serious costs on violators. (It need not have a monopoly on law and order, but a meaningful national aggressive ACC of some sort is necessary.) The other enforcement mechanism is Freetown’s control over foreign aid and its ability to direct aid to some provinces but not others. So the presidency would not be powerless – it would retain its influence through the disbursement of foreign aid and its deep engagement with the Sierra Leone’s chieftaincy.

In order to maintain Sierra Leone’s internal balance of power, Koroma would need to pay constant attention. Otherwise, the country could slip into another unrestrained warlordism and civil war. A workable decentralized democracy model is not a recipe for central government disengagement: it would require not only continued aid flows but also sustained political and presidential engagement. Regional policing of development efforts would be particularly important. To keep local councils from becoming a magnet for corrupt chieftain interference and a source of regional instability, Koroma would have to ensure that all chiefdoms are embedded in a regional development framework. Such a framework would facilitate and monitor aid flows and discourage intervention by corrupt chiefs.

Decentralized democracy with the local dynamics it unleashes has thus produced tolerable outcomes in developing countries like Ghana where the decentralization program is based on governmental values such as empowerment, equity, stability, accountability and checking of rural-urban drift; and Botswana where decentralized democracy is seen to provide a choice and act as a voice to express the needs and aspirations of the people. Sierra Leone itself was governed under a similar model for much of the colonial era: The colonial government ruled for several decades working effectively with district councils, but with limited state bureaucracy and a certain degree of autonomy for the periphery. The rule of law was generally administered locally. Nevertheless, a national army and a national police force remained ready to enforce a few key presidential prerogatives. The government earned revenue not from internal taxation but from foreign trade, foreign aid, and the sale of the country’s mineral resources. Over time, as the government’s capacity and resources increased, it was able to extend its writ, trying criminals in state courts, regulating the price of staple goods, and bringing community land under its authority.

Moreover, a decentralized democracy would not require the Sierra Leone government to abandon or amend the existing constitution. The 2004 constitution is flexible enough to allow many powers to be devolved through legislation, as demonstrated somewhat by the new sub-national governance policy, which provides limited administrative and budgetary authority to local officials. An anarchy model would clash with the spirit and letter of the 2004 constitution, but such a system would likely evolve on a de facto basis, averting the need for a new constitution in the near term.

Sierra Leone under president Koroma today is not ungovernable. There is a feasible option with an acceptable end state that is meeting core Sierra Leone development interests and placing the country on a path toward tolerable stability. Koroma has to continue to stay focused and to pursue his ambitious but realistic project to create a strong, decentralized Sierra Leonean state. If he does, then a range of power-sharing models could balance the needs of Sierra Leone’s internal constituencies in ways that today’s design can, while ensuring at the same time that Sierra Leone does not again become a base for warlords like Foday Sankoh, Sam Bockarie, and Johnny Paul Koroma. In a country developing, as in so many other things, the perfect model can be a far-fetched aspiration. The perfect governance model is probably not achievable in Sierra Leone – but the acceptable can still make a difference.

Source by Kenday Samuel Kamara, Ph.D.