Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Reconfiguring State Power in Sierra Leone

How state power is organized (regime) and exercised (government) is key to understanding governance problems in Africa. Regime defines the norms and principles of political systems while government refers to the principal agents of the state or the occupants of top public offices.

Governance problems are quintessentially regime problems and in the specific case of Sierra Leone, it was the predatory organization and exercise of state power by successive governments that led to institutional collapse in the 1990s. To avoid past tragedies, not to mention current abuses, we cannot afford to restore the state in the predatory form that led to its collapse in the 1990s.

This, however, is exactly what the SLPP leadership has been doing the past eleven years. Content to liberalize a discredited mode of governance, the approach of the SLPP leadership on issues of post-war state reconstruction has been restorative rather than transformative. This is particularly disheartening, though not surprising, in light of the numerous opportunities to put our house in order after the rebel/sobel insurgency. That the international community (UN 2006 Report) and our principal external patron (UK) are becoming increasingly frustrated (to put it mildly) with the performance of the SLPP government only confirms what many of us have been saying - that our country is once again headed in the wrong direction.

The form of the state that failed in Sierra Leone is unrestorable. We should be working to transform the state, not to restore its discredited regime. States are transformed when regimes change, hence the focus on regime change as the path to state transformation. There are both institutional and policy dimensions of regime change. At the institutional level, regime change would involve distancing public power from private wealth, decoupling state and government, prioritizing legitimation over domination and reconnecting state and society. At the policy level, progressive regime change in Sierra Leone would require an activist social agenda that privileges the needs, interests and aspirations of the masses, an effective policy to combat official corruption, proper management of our resources and reduction of our dependence on international dole.

Given the link between corruption and mass poverty, not to mention insecurity, political power will not be institutionalized in Sierra Leone unless and until concrete and effective mechanisms are put in place to combat this scourge. In the final analysis, governmental performance, which can be structurally and attitudinally transformative, is the most critical variable in facilitating or preventing regime change. What precludes regime change and the legitimation of political authority in Sierra Leone is the mode of accumulation of the political class (a consumptive rather than a productive class), especially political incumbents and their vast patronage networks. The convergence of processes of accumulation and the exercise of political power not only prevents the emergence of an independent bourgeoisie (not tied to state patronage) whose historic mission is to help develop productive sectors and check the power of political leaders, it also delegitimizes state power by converting its organization and exercise into means of personal enrichment.

Right now, the local business class is so closely tied to the state that it lacks the autonomy to act contrary to the wishes, demands and interests of those in power. Democracy, with its emphasis on transparency and accountability, can begin to provide some safeguards but only if the judiciary and law enforcement agencies operate autonomously of the executive or government of the day. Stringent conflict of interest regulations for public servants should be enacted, the award of government contracts should be subject to independent scrutiny, follow-ups to ensure projects are completed should be mandated and the Anti-Corruption Commission should be strengthened and allowed to operate without interference from the government.

The need to prosecute high profile corruption cases involving public officials cannot be overstated even though the current government has demonstrated a pronounced disinclination to pursue corruption cases involving its own officials.

While distancing processes of accumulation from the exercise of political power is necessary if state power is to be transformed and institutionalized, it is only a beginning. Equally important is the decoupling of state and government or promoting the relative autonomy of state institutions like parliament, the judiciary, civil service, NACSA, NRA, Army and Police.

For the better part of our country’s political history, these institutions have functioned as mere appendages of the executives of successive governments. Our parliamentarians double as contractors, the civil service remains a cesspool of nepotism and corruption, NACSA is the SLPP’s piggy bank, NRA is a shakedown operation under Haramu Karimu, and the judiciary suffers from undue political interference.

There have been some modest (donor-driven) improvements in the security sector but tensions between senior officers and subaltern ranks continue to fester, with conditions of service for the ordinary soldier, police and prison officer hardly any better today than before the onset of the rebel war in 1991. The army may be less politicized than under the APC but Siaka Stevens never built mud barracks for our soldiers as the SLPP government did in Pujehun with its donor-funded PEBU project.

Autonomy of state institutions from partisan governments, not to mention checks and balances among these institutions, can help develop institutional capacity, enhance effectiveness and engender legitimacy. Excessive interference from government in the operations of these institutions undermines their legitimacy, erodes capacity and renders them less effective in the performance of basic tasks.

The loyalties of public employees should be re-oriented away from parties and individual patrons and toward the state. Only by so doing can we begin the long process of institutionalizing political power in our country. Stated differently, relatively autonomous public institutions are critical to democratic sustainability and the legitimation of state power.

Our country is in dire need of effective and legitimate public institutions that can make a positive difference in the lives of our people. Institutions that are not legitimate are not likely to be effective and creating some daylight between state institutions and the government of the day is a step in the right direction.

Political legitimacy cannot be reduced to elections because what is most important at this juncture in our history is what the government that is elected does or how it governs. We risk authoritarian reversals in the future if elected governments prove to be unequal to the task of alleviating mass poverty, combating corruption and promoting development and good governance. Positive performance by a government is the surest way to build support for public institutions, consolidate democracy and reconnect state and society.

The disconnection between state and society can be traced back to the colonial era but the chasm between these two entities has grown since independence. This is largely attributable to two factors: (1) incompatibility between the interests of the political class and the citizenry, and (2) the functional retreat or incapacitation of the state, especially in the areas of social provisioning. The unbridled venality of our political class has not only widened the material and political gulf between leaders and citizens, it has also directly contributed to the erosion of state capacity and the rising levels of public alienation and mass impoverishment.

But there can be no meaningful development in our country if state and society continue on a collision course and the best way to reconnect state and society is for governments to pursue policies that privilege the majority of our citizens.

Transforming the state through regime change involves a whole lot more than decoupling state and government, distancing accumulation from the exercise of power, legitimizing public institutions and reconnecting state and society. It also calls for policies that reflect, embody and promote the interests and aspirations of popular sectors. These are typically policies geared toward basic needs satisfaction - the provision of clean drinking water, electricity, health care, sanitation and other social amenities. Investments in basic infrastructure and human resource development should take precedence over projects that do not directly benefit the plurality of our people.

Policies to alleviate poverty and promote human resource development should be linked to a zero tolerance crusade against official corruption. Linking corruption to poverty and insecurity in policy formulation and implementation makes sense because these problems are closely intertwined.

We could, for example, establish an Anti-Corruption Development Fund (ACDF) that can use proceeds from confiscated assets by the state to build clinics, schools, feeder roads, etc, around the country. This way ordinary citizens can see a direct linkage between the government’s anti-corruption measures and tangible improvements in their lives. Ministers and public servants should declare their assets before assuming and after leaving office and an independent Auditor General’s Office should audit ministries and departments on an annual basis.

Self-reliance and prudent management of our abundant natural resources for the benefit of our people should be cornerstones of state policy. We must first try to meet our payroll, pay our bills and finance development projects by relying on our vast natural resources, which, if properly harnessed and managed, can serve as springboards of our social transformation. This means rapidly weaning ourselves from international dole (a status the SLPP has been exploiting and perpetuating) and aggressively pursuing internal solutions to our myriad needs, problems and challenges. In short, we should seek to become more autonomous in the formulation and implementation of our policy choices and development strategies.

To recap, these are some of the basic, critical steps that must be taken if we are to positively reconfigure and transform state power in our country:

+ Distance Accumulation from Domination

+ Decouple State and Government

+ Performance Legitimation of Public Institutions

+ Re-Connect State and Civil Society

+ Activist Welfare Policy

+ Anti-Corruption Crusade

+ Populist Social Development Policies

Link to Reconfiguring State Power in Sierra Leone: Sierra Leone News