Ernest’s looking glass, by Anne Menzel

“Development” reflections from a long awaited return to Sierra Leone

Among my friends in Sierra Leone I have a reputation for “not knowing how to walk properly” (“waka fine”) especially at night. One time in April 2009, during field research for my PhD thesis and after a late evening visit to a friend, I even stumbled into a nasty ditch that I “should have grown used to” (so I was told) a long time ago, since I regularly frequented the same street during daylight. I ripped my jeans, received a cut on my ankle and had to suffer the amused assistance of bystanders who pulled me out of the ditch. According to next day’s gossip I managed not to cry but was so ashamed of my clumsiness that I begged my friendly helpers to please keep quiet about the incident. However, my Western inability to gracefully cope with Bo Town’s road conditions and nearly constant blackout was just too delightful.

In September 2013 I returned to Sierra Leone on a consultancy contract with a British NGO, but I have also tried to spend as much time as possible with old friends from my PhD research in the southern city of Bo, who have now scattered all over the country. For me it has been a long awaited return to Sierra Leone after four years of longing absence and too much dissertation writing. I soon realized that neither my clumsiness nor my reputation have improved over the years: As I was walking the relentlessly dark streets of Waterloo (a Western Area town near the capital city Freetown) with a close friend one night, he reminisced the good times we had had in Bo and how he had watched out for me when walking with me at night. As I was about to step into a water-filled pothole, he laughingly grabbed my elbow and warned me to, “please not break Ernest’s looking glass”. How absolutely brilliant! Ernest, of course, refers to President Ernest Bai Koroma, whose Agenda for Change towards “development” and towards a proper “developmentality” (so called Attitudinal and Behavioural Change) has recently been renamed the Agenda for Prosperity for Sierra Leone. But ‒ despite some undeniable improvements in some parts of the country ‒ potholes continue to make up a large portion of the total amount of street-space; and, according to my friend, they thereby reflect the country’s persistent state of “non-development”.[1]

Over the last couple weeks I have often “tested” the pothole/looking glass analogy in discussions about the current state of the country. It has usually met approval and was almost never fully rejected, though some discussion partners thought it somewhat unjust “because Ernest has been trying”. Still, the only person to wholeheartedly praise the “development record” was a well-connected and well-to-do Freetown acquaintance of mine. She relayed that − thanks to the government’s efforts − she now really enjoyed riding her jeep on the few newly refurbished streets of Western Freetown. By contrast, jobless, unpaid, and/or underemployed men break out in sarcastic laughter whenever I ask about “development”; and female petty traders smile apologetically while informing me that they do not feel knowledgeable enough to discuss the topic ‒ because they really haven’t seen much “development” with their own eyes so far.

Many interviews and conversations, both with old friends and with new informants, sound to me like replays of interviews and conversations from my 2009 research. At first glance the talk in the ghettos (street hang-out spots), palm-wine bars, and markets has not changed much: “We are suffering!”; “the big ones (chiefs, politicians, and other more or less powerful people who control and distribute resources) only care for their own families, while there are no good schools and no proper health care facilities for us and our children!”; “Sierra Leone has all sorts of minerals, but we see no benefits”; and most of all, “there are no jobs!”. A casual observer of the country’s recent “development record” may easily be surprised by these complaints. After all, Sierra Leone is supposed to have free primary education, free basic health care for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and children under the age of five, and the country has been attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), which – according to mainstream economic theory – should come with job creation, technology transfer, and various other growth-and-development-inducing trickle-down effects.[2] But, as it is put in Sierra Leone’s lingua franca Krio, “i no betteh”: these “improvements” are not ‒ yet? ‒ the real thing, no “proper development” at all. For example, primary education is not actually free in the sense that everybody can afford it. Parents still have to pay for uniforms, for school materials, and often for teachers who receive no regular or sufficient salary. While it is acknowledged and somewhat accepted that many teachers are struggling to make ends meet, there is much resentment for teachers who frequently press their students for money ‒ and/or for sex. A young female university graduate and mother of a young daughter explained to me that she had suffered unwanted sexual advances all throughout her education from secondary school to her MA course only to find that she still wasn’t done with it: “Anytime I go to a job interview the bosses ask me for sex if I want the job!” However, she has decided not to give in to their demands. She explained that she wanted nothing to do with Sierra Leonean men anymore, who, in her estimation, have internalized the logics of exploitation and are generally unable to see women as equal human beings to the degree that “there is no love, just sex and money”. It is a story that I have heard over and over again; often from women who have seen no other way but to try to secure monetary assistance for their education through various boyfriends (who, in turn, often feel fooled by women who “are only after money”). When I asked the university graduate about her views on “free primary education” she only smiled, shook her head, and relayed the story of a teacher who required each one of his pupils to provide him with one chicken before he allowed them to take final exams: “He should have the biggest poultry in Sierra Leone by now!” Also, even mentioning the term “free health care” can provoke angry reactions. True, everybody can go to a government hospital and expect to see a nurse or even a doctor, “but unless you pull money they just send you home to die” (female petty trader in Kenema). It would be easy to attribute such angry reactions to “exaggerated expectations”. After all, for now, “free health care” is only meant to be provided to specific segments of the population ‒ pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and children under the age of five ‒ and with regard to some of their specific vulnerabilities; and yes, the available data indicates that progress has been made in the battle against Sierra Leone’s devastatingly high maternal and infant mortality rates.[3] But falling sick in Sierra Leone remains a highly fearful, often unaffordable, and consequently deadly business and many people are increasingly unwilling to accept this as the “normal” state of affairs. And really, why should they? It hasn’t helped that the introduction of “free health care” in 2010 was followed by a series of medication-“disappearances”, which has been attributed to corrupt medical personnel and has been taken on by the Anti-Corruption Commission.[4] But there are persistent rumors about doctors who replace proper medications with ineffective pills ‒ and then go off and sell the good drugs to top up their salaries.

During a discussion with traders, laid off mining workers, and a pastor in Koidu (Kono District) they related such harmful practices to “the vicious cycle of poverty”. It goes as follows: Because everyone is afraid of poverty and most people have many responsibilities (i.e., dependents) they just grab as much as they can as soon as an opportunity arises no matter the costs to their fellow Sierra Leoneans. According to my discussion partners even “the big ones” follow this logic; and they do not even try all that hard to hide it. As an example they pointed out that one paramount chief in Koidu had openly declared ‒ in a radio interview no less ‒ that he regularly received “an envelope” (bribe) from Koidu Holdings/OCTÉA Limited, the foreign-owned company that dominates the industrial diamond mining sector.[5] According to their account the paramount chief went on to explain that he saw no reason to be ashamed of taking part in this business practice; after all, he was a man with many responsibilities ‒ and he knew for a fact that even the vice president (a Kono “son of the soil”) received his envelopes on a regular basis. No wonder then that local and national authorities have failed to protect the interests of Kono miners, who have repeatedly sought to draw attention to their various grievances including dangerous working conditions, insufficient salaries, withheld bonus payments, and mistreatments by the expat-management:

The people [Koidu Holdings management] openly tell us that our government is in their pockets…the police takes its share, the military takes its share, the local government officials take their own…so who can talk for us? This is our situation. It is so appalling. Because those people who should talk for us have already taken the side of the company. (Interview with laid off workers/former strike leaders in Koidu)

Following initially peaceful protests a strike organized by Koidu Holdings workers in December 2012 escalated into what became termed a “riot” and was smashed by a police intervention that left many wounded and two people dead by gunshot wounds. There are conflicting accounts about the course of the escalation. Whereas the police version describes thoroughly professional conduct on the side of the intervening forces,[6] the former strike leaders assert that the “riot” only started with the involvement of police forces that took advantage of the general confusion and went on a looting spree, in which they were then joined by other opportunists. While the strike was unanimously condemned by government officials, neither the workers’ grievances nor the inflicted wounds and fatalities were found to be worthy of an official statement. Rather, the reaction suggested that any protest against foreign investors’ business practices must be regarded as unlawful and even as deeply immoral since FDI is needed for the country’s “development”. The strikers were depicted as riotous criminals.[7] In perfect compliance with this official framing the strike leaders and their known associates were sacked by Koidu Holdings/OCTÉA Limited. Some went into hiding; others were imprisoned for months and only released through the involvement of Amnesty International. Those who agreed to talk to me in October 2013 still felt that they were being closely watched. One even stated that he knew that he could be killed by the police at any time: “If they want to do it they will just say that I attacked them first, they will find a reason.” The former strike leaders emphasized that they felt deeply discouraged. They had tried to do the “right thing” namely draw attention to their grievances in the hope that ‒ after all ‒ they would be heard. Wasn’t that what one was supposed to do in a 21st century democracy?

A saying that I sometimes encountered during my 2009 research seems to have acquired new meaning. While talking to marginalized (in all conceivable respects, socially, economically, politically) youths in Bo Town they sometimes suggested that it would be a good idea to sell the country. After all, “you people” (us Westerners) certainly liked beaches, beautiful landscapes, gold, diamonds etc.; and all those things were to be had in Sierra Leone: “Let us just come together and sell the country and everyone takes his own share and goes away with it.” It has become clear that the country is, in fact, being sold. But the profits remain intangible for most Sierra Leoneans, who are being told that they need to self-optimize in order to attract foreign investors and meet their high standards. Implied is the deceitful promise that ‒ if one only tries hard enough ‒ one will eventually be able to reap the benefits. In a recent workshop held by the Attitudinal and Behavioral Change Secretariat (a government agency) its executive director,

called for a standard transformation in the attitude of the youth by transforming themselves and cultivating a culture of hard work, commitment and devotion to self-improvement and motivation: ‘If you do not work towards prosperity you will not achieve it […], we should have positive attitude and strive for excellence to acquire the required skills that will make you useful and employable,’ he said.[8]

Given the condition of the educational system, the lack of job opportunities, and the frustrating hardships of everyday life and survival in Sierra Leone one is left to wonder whether even the executive director himself finds his own message useful and appropriate. That he does is not out of the question. It would be too easy to dismiss such statements as pure propaganda. After all, self-optimation and self-marketization are neoliberal “secrets to success” that have proven highly influential and even mind-forming across the globe. In addition a paramount chief in Bo District ‒ who was politely annoyed with my critical stance ‒ patiently argued that there just may not be an alternative route to “development” (however, non-existing alternatives are also a classic neoliberal theme). Were Sierra Leoneans supposed to work with their hands and cutlasses for the rest of eternity? And how would they be getting the technology and knowhow they needed and wanted if not through FDI? Development aid had certainly not provided them, and the paramount chief suspected that this was at least partially due to ideological reasons. In his experience, he explained, many white people actually thought rural life in Sierra Leone to be beautiful, natural, “fitting” for the local population, and all together worth preserving, because they were unable to see that it really was an everyday struggle for mere survival. He felt that FDI would allow Sierra Leoneans to circumvent such uninformed sentiments. But he also agreed that FDI has its own problems. Whether or not Sierra Leoneans are ready to become “useful and employable” to foreign investors, their prospects still remain uncertain, to say the least. Several recently published reports document both the rise of FDI-inflows into the country and the extent of exploitation and de facto disappropriation that has accompanied these inflows.[9]

It is hard to say, but my impression is that one major difference between my interviews and conversations today and in 2009 relates to “new violence” in Sierra Leone: During my 2009 research I experienced that most people expected so called “political violence” (sponsored by political parties ahead of elections)[10] but felt that a “new rebel war” was unthinkable and out of the question. This certainty has received some cracks. There is a general feeling that things simply cannot continue as they are, because people are losing patience. For example, during my 2009 research, I regularly asked about “problems that may have a potential to spoil the peace in Sierra Leone” ‒ and I soon learned that interview partners expected me to first of all acknowledge that there would never be a “new rebel war” in Sierra Leone, before they were ready to elaborate on the dangers of corruption (or “tribalism”, favoritism based on personal networks), the persistent lack of job opportunities, and political violence. During the last weeks this same “peace declaration” on my part has often been met with worried uncertainty.

However, one could also argue that losing patience is by no means necessarily a bad thing and that violence is but one conceivable outcome. In spring of last year (2012), but based on my 2009 data, I wrote a conference paper in which I described a “culture of non-resistance” resulting from my informants’ firm belief that it was necessary to “patiently bear everything” for the sake of peace ‒ be it poverty, corruption, exploitation, intimidation, what have you.[11] Today, I would not write that same paper again. Losing patience may offer a chance, an opportunity structure, for non-violent but critical movements to develop and promote correctives to official “development” discourses and policies. Whether authorities would find a way to tolerate and even constructively engage with such movements is a different question. For now, recent reactions to protests and the recent imprisonment of two critical journalists[12] rather suggest a negative answer.

Anne Menzel is an independent consultant with International Alert. She just recently defended her PhD thesis on unpeaceful relations in post-war Sierra Leone at the Department of Political and Social Sciences of the Free University Berlin. Anne is currently planning a new research project on contested development in Sierra Leone, which will explore the “development situation” via a focus on new and old forms of governance, domination, complicity, and resistance.


[1]Mats Utas pointed out to me that Freetownians have been calling water-filled potholes “government glass”. It seems likely that “Ernest’s looking glass” is a renewed version of this older expression.

[2]The Sierra Leone Investment and Export Promotion Agency (SLIEPA) has produced a promotion video, which, among other things, advertises Sierra Leone’s “under-fished territorial waters” and fertile lands to prospective investors; “food crops like palm oil and sugar offer additional opportunities as biofuels”. See (13.11.2013). For now the link is still active, but the webpage also displays that it is currently being redesigned with the support of the European Union.

[4]See IRIN News, 18 July 2012:  SIERRA LEONE: Drug diversions hamper free healthcare, (29.11.2013).

[5]The company’s current slogan is “Our diamonds doing good”, see (13.11.2013).

[6]See Awareness Times, 19 December 2012: “In Sierra Leone, Police Speak on Kono Shootings & Deaths”, see (29.11.2013).

[7]For a brief description of government officials’ reactions to the strike see the joint press release by Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD), Medico International, Campaign for Just Mining (CJM), and the Association of Journalists on Mining and Extractives (AJME), 5 February 2013: “What Hope for Prosperity?”, (13.11.2013).

[8] See Concord Times, 16 August 2013: “Sierra Leone: ABC Secretariat Holds Youth Confab On Positive Change” by Memunatu Bangura, (13.11.2013).

[9]The Oakland Institute 2011: Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa. Country Report: Sierra Leone. (13.11.2013); Welthungerhilfe 2012: Increasing Pressure for Land: Implications for Rural Livelihoods and Development Actors. A Case Study in Sierra Leone. (13.11.2013); Network Movement for Justice and Development 2013: Land Rights Project: The Social, Economic, Political, Environmental and Cultural Impact of Large-scale land investment deals on local communities in Sierra Leone. (13.11.2013).

[10]See, for example, Christensen/Utas 2008:  Mercenaries of Democracy: The “Politricks” of Remobilized

Combatants in the 2007 General Elections, Sierra Leone. African Affairs 107(429):515–539.

[11] Menzel, Anne 2012: Widerstand auf leeren Magen? Widerstandsunfähigkeit, Peacebuilding und lokale ‚ownership‘ in Nachkriegs-Sierra Leone (Resistance on an empty belly? Non-resistance, peacebuilding and local ‘ownership’ in post-war Sierra Leone): Paper presented at the annual colloquium of the German Association for Peace and Conflict Studies , 22-24 March  in Villigst,  (13.11.2013).

[12]See for example Reporters without Borders, 25 October 2013: “Editorial criticizing president prompts multiple proceedings”,,45375.html (13.11.2013).


  1. Excellent piece, a lot to mull over here. And if it makes you feel any better, there is probably still a substantial part of my shin lying in a ditch in Kenema

  2. Very similar to my own experiences. I remember at a ‘Youth Peace Prize’ awards ceremony one of the recipients began their speech with a lot of development jargon: empowerment, participation etc. But then rounded off emphasizing that youth were experiencing a ‘fragile peace’, one in which there was palpable animosity at the lack of jobs, government corruption and having to effectively pay one’s way through school.

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