The Political Class and the Ebola Tragedy in Sierra Leone: Never Again? -Prof Alfred Zack-Williams
By:-Prof Alfred Zack-Williams*
What a tragedy? I do hope that at the end, the Ebola challenge will mark a defining epoch in our national life; in particular it will mark the reawakening of the political class to the task of nation building.
Ebola Outbreak in West Africa
For me, Ebola has exposed the nakedness and idiocy of the political class as a force for national progress. For those of us who have been raising our voices since the 1980s, pointing out that the path which this class had embarked on since Independence would lead us into a socio-economic and political cul-de-sac.
We have once again been vindicated. In 1985, I described it (in an article published by Birmingham University, UK) as ‘The politics of decline and the decline of politics’. Some of us foresaw the coming storm and warned against the ‘politics of the belly’; and called for a strategy that would bring all our people into the process of development.
Of course we were dismissed and ridiculed as ‘Lefties’. We called for the political class to work with the people and to move away from indirect despotism- leaving the people to the mercy of the political puppets they call traditional rulers.
They and their lackeys did not make any serious attempt to invigorate our people’s energy, instead, they failed to lead and to educate our people by examples, in order to subjugate them and embed them in the paths of feudalism. The main reason was to enable the political class to utilise ethnicity and deceit to ensure accumulation by dispossession.
Our people called for leadership. However, the nature of the petty bourgeoisie oppression was such that they expelled the messengers from their citadel of learning, which some of them had by now turned into their fiefdom (naming institutional buildings after their lackeys), who continued to oppress the emerging organic intellectuals, who had started to swim among our people like fish in the sea; and who were trying to provide leadership for our people, drawing their attention to the fact that decadent petty bourgeois life was not the way forward for a modern nation.
They used ethnicity (we do not use the word tribalism, because our people do not constitute tribes) and the oppressive state apparatus (ISU/SSD) to silence the nucleus of the organic intellectual. What they failed to see was that by driving the voices of angels underground, they were also sowing the seeds of the advent of the ‘rural Jacobin’, which later emerged under the name of the RUF. The demands of these Jacobinical masses were simple: bread! National pride! Respect! Down with Kleptocracy! All for Democracy!
Unfortunately, our people put their trust on an ex-member of the oppressive state apparatus of the same petty bourgeois oppressors, who turned out to be a traitor to their cause as he continued the butchery, which he had perfected before he was put in front of Kangaroo court, which let him off to roam along our rural areas as an itinerant photographer.
It was not long before this class enemy betrayed the young people, who had been agitating for a better tomorrow. Like all leopards, it was not long before this militariat masquerading as ‘militant’ decided to show his true colours: through amputation, rape of our women and children, killing innocent children, women and men.
Once again the political class triumphed as they called upon their protectors in the International Community for help. It was not long before the gains which the young ‘rebel-protesters’ had earned in the battle field were lost at the negotiation table, as the feudalists were reinstated in office (with house provided by their masters in the International Community, whilst the aggrieved young people were left to dry out.
With the help of their friends in the international community whom they have served so well, the political class with the aid of the feudalists gained full control of the situation. To ensure the status quo ante (in the global division of labour), their protectors in the international community imposed the ‘Liberal Peace’, as a prelude to full-blown neo-Liberalism.
The political class was flattered by emissaries from the international community, some of whose representatives were now imposed in vital Ministries to ensure that their Master’s will in the neo-Liberal contract is kept.
Meanwhile, the political class was emboldened by discovery of new minerals and all of a sudden the land of my father was paved with gold, more diamonds (the curse to our nation), more iron ore, bauxite, rutile and rumours of coltan as well. The prospect of Salone was bright again.
The political class was in glee, and could not wait to reformulate alliances with the rural kulaks, which had by now been fully rehabilitated for the task of indirect despotism following the humiliation of the Young Jacobins and the organic intellectuals.
Meanwhile, a major contradiction still exists between the political class and their protector and it is this: The Washington Consensus upon which Neo-Liberalism was constructed, demanded not only the end ofirigisme, but also observation of ‘good governance’, a feature with which the political class is most uncomfortable and unfamiliar.
Despite the fact that their protectors have been ‘calling’ for good governance since the heyday of the dreaded structural adjustment programmes, which crippled many an African economy, yet the political class is most unwilling to implement what it construes as an ‘un-African mode of governance’.
The truth is that the petty bourgeois mode of accumulation is antithetical to democratic governance, since democracy, ipso facto, involves bringing the people in from the cold into the development process, which might threaten the monopoly of power of the political class. In short, they were not prepared to commit class suicide, a la Amilacr Cabral.
Indeed, the arrival of a new Protector, China has given impetus to the petty bourgeois project: They do not need to be harangued by the harbinger of good governance in exchange for their minerals (hardly any agricultural products is now exported by our people- even Ibakor is not available in Big Market), the Yen will take care of business.
China is now a major player in our mining industry, and they too can drive a hard bargain. However, China in Sierra Leone is not a new phenomenon. The ruling party with its rising sun emblem had always dovetailed well with political and cultural relationship with the Peoples Republic of old.
One would have thought that this plethora of foreign partners would have provided the political class with leverage to increase revenue. Far from it; alas the political class is prepared to mortgage the people’s resources for its class interests through accumulation by dispossession.
For a start, it is so dependent on its foreign partners to the point that it cannot stand up to them for ‘Mama Salone’; it is a truly comprador petty bourgeoisie, its interests are truly hooked up with foreigners. The room for autonomous action is severely limited.
It is scared of its domestic critics, who can be hurled into the notorious Pademba Road Prison, thus depriving what would otherwise have been a dynamic economy and society of that critical voice that push society onwards.
The comprador nature of the political class renders it impotent to distinguish between national and foreign interests; thus concessions are negotiated away to placate foreign interests (such as the World Bank, mining companies and land speculators), whilst locally, no questions are tolerated about such manoeuvrings.
Furthermore, because the political class is not rooted within its own society, it is not on firm ground to negotiate with its protectors either the East (Beijing Consensus) or West (International Financial Institutions); as it cannot mobilise domestic forces against these foreign vampires.
Indeed, the raison d’etre of the World Bank is not only to maintain peripheral social formations within the ambit of the global capitalist system, but to squeeze surplus from them by reducing state intervention, but also to ensure taxation on foreign enterprises are reduced to the bare bone.
This is where we locate the conundrum of Ebola. Largely because mining juniors are constantly asking for tax reduction, well below what the (36 percent of profit) which the country’s legislation demands to single figure and in some cases to none at all, except the 3 percent royalty, which some mining concerns are trying to avoid.
So if the Government fails to collect taxation from these foreign enterprises how can it finance its welfare programmes, in particular health and education?
We have the contrasting example in Great Britain where the mining companies involved in shale gas fracking would have to hand over 42 per cent of profit to the exchequer in the form of taxation, yet in Sierra Leone foreign advisers are leaning on the Sierra Leone Government to break the country’s law by urging concessions for foreign mining companies, below the rate stipulated by the laws of Sierra Leone.
We have the dastardly situation, where some years back, a mining company made a profit of $25million, but paid only $180,000 tax to the government of Sierra Leone. This experience invites the question, which the late Andre Gunder Frank, an American economist posed all those years ago, ‘who is diffusing who with capital’.
For the damne de la terre of the unfortunate land that constituted Sierra Leone, a country that the creator gifted with so much resources, that a local fable has it that the people in the surrounding countries were so aggrieved, that they pointed out that if one country is so gifted, then very little would remain for them.
From this local fable, I gather that God’s retort was ‘wait and see the kind of Government that will emerge in that country’. Indeed, governance is at the heart of the crisis of what was once called the Athens of West Africa.
The poor governance has created a ‘free for all’, and total indiscipline in public life (even to a point where a clock was stolen from the law courts during session) that any small time crook feels he is entitle to run for the high offices of state.
Unfortunately, the lack of accountability and good governance which also destroyed local government has meant that prospective political figures do not have a platform to practice their art, so their first act of ‘public service’ is to be catapulted as a national politician, with the aim of not serving, but to accumulate: ‘accumulate, accumulate said the prophet’; make you ep Yousef oh’; Ousie dem tie cow na dae ei for eat grass, said the Chief’.
This obsession with accumulation via the state has destroyed the functional relationship between the state and society, leading to the former losing its legitimacy as individuals gradually withdraw from its vampire clutches.
Now, this rampant accumulation has impacted on the general population, largely because it is based on patrimonial kleptocratic strategies, which tend to deny the state revenue as these modern political vultures denude the state of capital.
A good example is the case of $1million that went missing from the health budget, which could not be accounted for and no one has been charged with theft or fraud. Another example is the sad case of the second hand ferry boats bought by the government with pensioners’ money, only to find that they were basically good for nothing and had to be dragged off Sierra Leone waters for a good while.
In a broadcast on national television (SLTV) a while back, I posed a question to the adroit Director of Broadcasting, that in a country like ours (Sierra Leone), if he was aware of any one who has been accused of theft, larceny or fraud regarding state assets who has been investigated, charged to court, found guilty, sentenced to imprisonment and actual served the prison sentence.
This august intellectual looked at me pensively, smiled and said ‘no’. To which I retorted: ‘It shows that the authorities are not prepared to get rid of kleptocrats, and that they are normalising theft as a mode of accumulation’.
I gather the missing fund came from the Gates Foundation, who given the inability of the state to bring culprits to book, cancelled the rest of their programme in the country. Just imagine what a million dollar would have done for pre-Ebola health service of Sierra Leone, to cope with what our people are now going through.
For our country to move forward, the political class would have to rethink its strategy on national development. The interests of our people (the rural and urban poor) who constitute the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans would have to be engaged.
There is nothing that points to this disengagement than our people’s reaction to the current outbreak of Ebola. For example, why should our people be running away from state officials who have come to talk to them, to work with, to help them overcome this destructive disease that has engulfed a once proud nation?
Why should our people be taking actions that are contrary to common sense; actions that seem normal in any modern society, such as not to touch or wash infected bodies?
For me the answer is simple: Our people have been totally disengaged from the political class who have been steep in accumulation by any means with no attempt to bring modernity and progress to our people. For me, this is the Gordian knot of the Ebola epidemic in our country.
*Prof Alfred Zack-Williams
Professor Emeritus in Sociology
University of Central Lancashire-UCLAN (United Kingdom)