Class Accumulation and Personal Aggrandisement

In an interview with ROAPE’s Tunde Zack-Williams, asks about his background as an activist and a scholar and his research as a radical political economist who has written extensively on Sierra Leone. Zack focuses on the country’s recent history, it political parties, Blair’s intervention and the disasters of neoliberal reforms.

Can you please tell a little bit about your background? Where you grew up and studied and your research and academic work with ROAPE.

I was born in Freetown, Sierra Leone and on completion of my secondary education, I moved to Liverpool to complete my ‘A levels’ and then to study for a degree in sociology at Liverpool University. I later gained a university award from Salford University where I pursued a master’s degree by thesis only, on ‘Underdevelopment and Economic Planning in West Africa with Special Relations to Sierra Leone’, looking at the Governments’ five-year development plan. My award was for two years, but I was able to submit my thesis after one year, to enable me to take up an Economic and Social Science Council award from the Department of Sociological Studies at Sheffield University, for my doctorate. My thesis was on ‘Underdevelopment and Diamond Mining in Sierra Leone’. I was keen to find out why Sierra Leone, like so many countries on the continent, was rich in minerals and yet poor and underdeveloped.

In Sheffield, my supervisors were Ankie Hoogvelt and one of the founding editors of ROAPE, Lionel Cliffe. I also linked up with Josep R. Llobera, who through his home journal, Critique of Anthropology, introduced me to the works of the French Marxist anthropologist: Claude Meillassoux, Pierre Phillipe Rey, George Balandier, Catherine Coquery-Vidrovtch, Maurice Godelier, and other Marxists such as C.F.S. Cardoso, Paul Hirst and Barry Hindess, who taught me in Liverpool.

On completion of my PhD, I took up a position at Bayero University in Kano, Nigeria and later moved on to Jos University, where I had the unique privilege of working with the late great Omafume Onoge, a superb sociologist taught by Talcott Parsons, but, who totally rejected the work of his teacher. He was a great comrade, a wonderful motivator and an extremely helpful to young academics. I am pleased to say that we were able to transform sociology in Jos into a radical Africa-relevant discipline. After five years in Nigeria, I returned to Britain to take up a teaching position at the University of Central Lancashire, in Preston. I have been involved with ROAPE ever since my return to the UK in the 1980s when I was invited to join the EWG or as Lionel liked to say, ‘The ROAPE Family’. Working with ROAPE is the best ‘job’ for any radical scholar on Africa.

Elections were held in Sierra Leone on 7 March, we thought it would be important for our readers to have some background to recent events in the country. The civil war in Sierra Leone began in 1991 and was declared officially over in 2002 after the UK, UN, and regional African military intervention. Can you speak briefly about the period of the civil war, its causes and consequences?

The election of 7 March 2018 was the first election to be organized solely by the Sierra Leone government since the end of the civil war in 1991, and as such there was great interest in how this would turn out, as the country continues the process of consolidating peace. The country’s politics has been dominated by what Yusuf Bangura has described as a duopoly: that of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), the country’s oldest functioning political organization, with much of its support drawn from the south and eastern districts; and that of the All People’s Congress (APC), with support mainly from the North and Western Area, which includes Freetown, the capital. Since independence, the SLPP has been in power from 1961-1967, and 2002-2007; the APC from 1968-1992, a period of 24 years culminating in the ‘dictatorship of the one-party state’ a major causal factor for the civil war. APC was returned to power in 2007 under the Presidency of Ernest Bai Koroma, after a short period in the political wilderness, with the electorate seemingly punishing the party for its role in precipitating the country’s civil war. The party was able to retain power from 2007- 2018.

“Both parties in the country have been accused of widespread corruption, electoral malpractices, political thuggery and total disregard for the basic needs of working people”

In terms of governance, there is very little that differentiates the two parties: both are sworn to indirect despotism via chiefdom overlords known as Paramount Chiefs, renowned for their extreme brutality and unjust treatment of young men whose grievances impelled many to take up arms, which led to the civil war. Furthermore, both parties have recklessly embarked on widespread embezzlement with impunity. Despite the radical rhetoric of the APC and the trade union roots of its founder, there is no evidence of the party privileging the producers of the nation’s wealth. Its stance on economic and social issues can hardly be differentiated from that of its rival, SLPP. Indeed, because of its intolerance of democratic values and the lack of economic transparency, the APC has done a lot to undermine not only the rights of the labouring classes but also the country’s democracy. For example, in its current term, it has sought to change the constitution and to appoint judges who would ratify their policies to change the constitution, either to extend its time in office and to disqualify opponents on the spurious ground.  It is important to remember that though the APC has ruled Sierra Leone for most of its post-independence years, it has not handed over power either peacefully or, to a civilian successor regime – they had to be removed from power after 24 years by a military coup.

Both parties have historically been enmeshed in the politics of primordial loyalties, leading to widespread dissatisfaction and alienation from the centre. Both parties have been accused of widespread corruption, electoral malpractices, political thuggery and total disregard for the basic needs of working people.  Meanwhile, the nation’s land resources (diamonds, iron ore) and sea resources (fish and oil) are being mortgaged to international companies without any public discussion or accountability. These actions have brought widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling APC, as the standard of living of people continues to deteriorate.

It is this sense of hopelessness stemming from years of social and economic deprivation triggered by corruption and the fallout from years of structural adjustment policies imposed on the Sierra Leonean people throughout the 1980, that impelled young men and women to take up arms in 1991 to rectify the situation, by getting rid of the corrupt APC regime led by Joseph Momoh, that refused to conduct free and fair elections. In the post-civil war years hardly anything has changed: if anything the corruption of the Kabba regime of 1998-2007 seems amateurish compared to the widespread malfeasance under the regime of the Ernest Bai Koroma. His Government has been accused of squandering millions of dollars raised from overseas, destined for Ebola victims; also money destined for pilgrims undertaking the haj; as well as money raised for victims of last year’s flood.

The government has been accused by its critics of failing to account for proceeds from the sale of the 476-carat diamond handed over to Koroma by a miner thought to have been sold for $7.7 million. Meanwhile, the social and physical infrastructures are at breaking point as children are educated in dilapidated buildings; virtually all Sierra Leone school children in the country are schooled via a dual shift system: one set in the morning and one in the afternoon, due to lack of teaching infrastructure. Many state employees go for months without wages or salary. Sierra Leoneans are appalled that large portions of their natural resources, such as fisheries, diamonds, iron ore and fertile land have been mortgaged to foreign concerns.

“A sense of hopelessness stemming from years of social and economic deprivation triggered by corruption and years of structural adjustment policies imposed on the Sierra Leonean people throughout the 1980s, impelled young men and women to take up arms in 1991” 

There is widespread dissatisfaction with both parties and Sierra Leoneans had become tired of the political intrigue of the two parties whom they described by the sobriquet as ‘Alhassan’ and ‘Alusine’, meaning that they are identical twins, with the same bankrupt and exploitative policies. However, the arrival of a third force, the National Grand Coalition (NGC), led by Alhaji Dr Kandeh Yumkella, seems to have offered a new alternative and injected new enthusiasm into the election campaign in the mind of voters. Kandeh Yumkella, popularly known as KKY is leader of the recently formed third force, the National Grand Coalition, which is a new political group, recently registered as a political party to contest this year’s election, not before overcoming some legal shenanigan placed in his path by the APC government, who fearful of the enthusiasm of the NGC campaign decided that the best way to defeat Yumkella was by denying him the opportunity to stand by claiming that he held dual nationality status from his period in the United States. Despite the production of documents showing that he had renounced his American citizenship, the APC still pursued their fight for his disqualification.

Yumkella is not new to Sierra Leone politics: his father was a founder member of the opposition SLPP and Yumkella’s initial wish was to be given the party’s backing; to enable him to run as their presidential candidate, and this is not surprising, since he was a minister in the last SLPP government under Tejan Kabba. However, Yumkella faced strong competition from an SLPP stalwart in the person of ex-Brigadier Maada Bio, a member of what Jimmy Kandeh has referred to as West Africa’s ‘militariat’; who in January 1996 seized power from Captain Strasser to lead a blood-thirsty regime that killed over two dozen innocent people on trumped-up charges including sedition and planning to overthrow his military regime.   

Yumkella’s failure to obtain SLPP backing and the subsequent founding of the NGC presented an opportunity for the country to engage in ‘new politics’: one that demands accountability, transparency, clearly defined line between public and private property, the rule of law, separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary; as well as bringing an end to the hegemony of the duopoly who, largely pedalled ethnicity, violence and thuggery. Barely a few months before the elections, Yumkella announced the founding the NGC challenge the duopoly with a programme, which the country has never heard of: including demands for political and economic accountability, urging voters to bring to an end the hopeless duel. Unfortunately, critics have pointed out that it is doubtful if the NGC will have enough time to convince voters that they are a truly different brand of politics. At the same time critics have pointed out that the NGC has attracted some unsavory characters, particularly from the Sierra Leone Diaspora. The party’s performance in the first round election was quite disappointing to its supporters, which point to the entrenchment of the duopoly, with their chiefly support in the rural areas. It took the APC the best part of a decade from its inception to its first victory in a national election to unseat the SLPP in the 1967 general elections.

Some claimed the intervention was Tony Blair’s greatest moment, as a case of successful humanitarian intervention. What’s your understanding of the impact of the intervention on Sierra Leone?

In the book When the State Fails: Studies on Intervention in the Sierra Leone Civil War, which I edited with contributions from a number of Sierra Leonean academics we tried to address the issue of Britain’s intervention and the lessons to be learned from the traumatic experiences of the civil war.

First, we have to return to the question why Blair sent British troops. The pretext was to evacuate British and Commonwealth citizens as the violence spread to the capital, Freetown. Second, the aim was to save the United Nations peacekeeping force from humiliation following attacks from the Westside Boys, a faction of the rebels fighting the government, who had captured UN military vehicles and a number of UN soldiers. Third, we recall that the Sierra Leone conflict was the first test for Tony Blair’s New Labour ‘ethical foreign policy’ much heralded by Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook.

“The intervention of British troops was followed by heavy doses of neo-liberalism, resulting in further shrinking of the state and the proliferation of non-accountable non-governmental organizations”

Clearly, Sierra Leoneans were grateful for the intervention of British troops, which eventually brought peace to their country. However, it is doubtful if they were so thankful with the ‘liberal peace project’ that was imposed on them, the object of which was, according to one commentator, protect ‘the hegemonic and economic interests of the Western world in Africa.’  

The liberal peace was followed by heavy doses of neo-liberalism, resulting in further shrinking of the state and the proliferation of non-accountable non-governmental organizations, and decentralization which left young people at the mercy of unscrupulous traditional rulers. Again, in When the State Fails, Jimmy D. Kandeh was skeptical as to whether neo-liberalism orthodoxy can either act as an antidote to armed conflicts in Africa or, as a model for development in post-conflict societies, since it seeks to transfer the ‘best practices of Western societies to the rest of the world via the Weberian state and seeks to achieve this at lightning pace.’  Indeed, the post-war regimes in Sierra Leone, in particular, the outgoing regime of Ernest Koroma, can be truly described as a kleptocracy – where is Mr Blair to clip the wings of his vassal?

Can you give a brief description of the imposition of neoliberalism in the country after the conflict?  

If I can answer this question broadly, I was accused by a comrade (in ROAPE) of describing Morten Jerven or his work as ‘Marxist’. Indeed, what I welcomed in Jerven’s book is the emphasis on how ‘bourgeois economists’ (and that’s a phrase I used when the book was launched at SOAS) have got many things wrong about Africa {[read a discussion of Jerven’s book on]. My reference to Andre Gunder Frank and Rene Dumont was simply to draw a comparison to the challenges these two authors posed to bourgeois – for Jerven ‘mainstream’ – economists and domestic policymakers. In my view Jerven’s point about growth in Africa, helps us to date the origin of the contemporary ‘African crisis’, in particular, that though there were peaks and troughs, growth continued until the period of the OPEC oil price increases, which culminated in growing balance of payment problems, which led to the long road to the IMF and World Bank, culminating in the destructive structural adjustment programmes (SAP).

SAPs did not address the specific needs of African economies; they simply forced overproduction of primary commodities, and thereby lowering the cost of raw materials for Western industrial producers, whilst the cost of importing manufactured goods increased as the currency under SAPs continued to depreciate in value. The lords of the capitalist world impelled African leaders to transform the African state into a class instrument for accumulation and personal aggrandisement, where the wealth produced in Sierra Leone, for example, ends up in the developed capitalist centre, in the form of real estate or huge bank deposits – resources that were designed to drive development.   

In these elections, please describe for us the major players, who have been in power and what the situation is currently like in the country. In addition, what role has foreign powers and investors played in the country since 2002?

Basically, there are five major players in this election. First, President Ernest Bai Koroma, the outgoing leader and head of the ruling All People’s Congress, who has been in power for the past decade, but went beyond his constitutional right to stay in office and this was challenged all along by the opposition parties. It is a truism that Koroma who was an insurance broker has transformed himself into one of the richest men in the African continent. Koroma was bent on continuing in the path of his predecessor, Siaka Probyn Steven, who ruled Sierra Leone with an iron fist and destroyed the democratic foundations laid by Sir Milton Margai, the country’s first Prime Minister and in its place built a one-party dictatorship. Koroma continuously interfered with the constitution in a bid to reinstate the one-party state that brought misery and civil war to the country. Unfortunately for Sierra Leoneans, the APC are masters of winning elections, and they have never handed power to a civilian successor- may be 2018 will bring a new dawn for the party whose symbol is the rising sun.

“The lords of the capitalist world impelled African leaders to transform the state into a class instrument for accumulation and personal aggrandizement, where the wealth produced in countries like Sierra Leone ends up in the developed capitalist centre”

The second major player is Brigadier Maada Bio for the SLPP, usually referred to as ‘Paopa Maada’, i.e. willy-nilly he was going to get the party’s nomination. Bio believed that he was destined to lead the SLPP (which he did in the last election and lost), and eventually his country. Like Koroma, who comes from a major ethnic group, the Temnes from the North and Central; Paopa Maada comes from the other major ethnic group the Mende. These two groups (in what Yusuf Bangura calls bipolar ethnic structure) account for over 60% of the total Sierra Leone population. As noted earlier, Bio became notorious during the civil when some thirty people were summarily executed by the junta that he led, allegedly for plotting to overthrow his regime. A rumour among Sierra Leoneans (unsubstantiated so far) is that he could be arrested if he enters the USA. In the first round of the election both Bio (for the SLPP) and Koroma’s protégé Samura Kamara did well to move on to the second round, this is not surprising given the ethnic bifurcated nature of the population as well as the duopoly, which defined party politics in the country. They both did well since in the bifurcated state that is Sierra Leone, to carry one of these two major ethnic constituencies undivided is a great asset. In the current campaigning, SLPP supporters have tended to be loyal and disciplined in their support for Paopa Maada.

By contrast, the APC leadership under Koroma, after trying to play one potential candidate off against the other, he has been accused by opponents within the APC of breaking party rules, by personally choosing Samura Mathew Wilson Kamara, a former banker with the central bank as the party’s candidate.  This is not a new phenomenon with the APC, and despite its external ‘socialist’ façade (red colour and the rising sun) the party is not strong on socialist values: unions and workers play little role in decision making, its policies are not geared towards empowering the ‘damne de la terre’ of society, indeed, it valorises the rich and empower them to literally get away with murder. Its leadership is more an oligarchy than a democratic central committee. When the party leader and first President of Sierra Leone decided to retire from office, he did not ask the party to choose a successor, nor did he nominate his heir apparent and deputy President, S. I. Koroma, instead he decided to name his Force Commander, Major-General Saidu Momoh, a fellow member from the minority Limba ethnic group (8% of the total population) to be his successor. Samura Kamara’s detractors point out that he is a Koroma’s puppet and that should he win, Koroma will return as a back-street driver, and like Joseph Momoh, there will be no need for him to be called to account for his stewardship.

You are a radical scholar-activist of African politics and have worked in the field for decades. Can you tell us about your experience, and lessons, from these years and the continued importance of a project of radical transformation and politics in Africa?

My search for an intellectual home within radical scholarly activity is the product of growing up in Sierra Leone, an unequal society, where children are treated as lesser mortals, especially those without guardians. The statistics on Sierra Leone relating to children are abominable: one of the highest infant mortality rates, poor figures on access to education, especially for girls. My desire has always been to understand the social forces behind oppressions and underdevelopment in Africa in order to call time on reactionaries. As noted above I have been lucky to have encountered people on the left, who provided me with theoretical space to reflect on these and other issues as tools not only for my own development but also for investigative reasons. Thus when I took up teaching in Nigeria, I was surprised that  many of my students had not heard of people like Frantz Fanon or Amilcar Cabral and it was my task to introduce them to works such as The Wretched of the Earth and Towards the African Revolution, Black Skins White MasksUnity & Struggle.  I do believe that radical scholarship can aid and inspire social, economic and political transformation in Africa in order to end poverty, servitude, economic backwardness and social mystification. Africa’s resources continue to be plundered by an unholy alliance of the domestic comprador classes and the lords of the capitalist world through what Sarah Bracking has called ‘the financialisation of late capitalism…and these iniquitous structures derivative of global neo-liberalism…’. For me, this represents the worst form of accumulation by dispossession, as a vast amount of potential investible capital leaves the continent for corporatized financial structures in offshore destinations. For Bracking ‘…it is the recent processes of financialisation coupled with the increase in inequality it has wrought that has created the space for elites to be unaccountable and to seek to hang on to power through a credible threat of violence.. .’

The organisation of the rural masses to which Cabral devoted his life, is crucial if economic and political freedom is to be won and consolidated. As an academic, I always welcomed what Walter Rodney called ‘grounding’ with my students: in which difficult issues are raised and debated.  In these debates and discussion, I act as facilitators as my students debate issues including social stratification, power, class, ethnicity and race, gender and sexuality, local and global poverty.

Indeed, as Cabral observed, ‘African revolution means transformation of our present life in the direction of progress. The prerequisite for this is the elimination of foreign economic domination, on which every other type of domination is dependent…’. For Cabral, the organisation of the rural masses is crucial in order to win and sustain freedom and should be the leitmotif of activism

Tunde Zack-Williams is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Central Lancashire. He was President of the UK African Studies Association from 2006 to 2008. His books include Tributors, Supporters and Merchant Capital: Mining & Underdevelopment in Sierra Leone (1995); The Quest for Sustainable Peace: The 2007 Sierra Leone Elections (2008); Africa Beyond the Post-Colonial: Politics & Socio-Cultural Identities (with Ola Uduku) (2004); Africa in Crisis: New Challenges & Possibilities (2002). He is an editor of the Review of African Political Economy and was a member of the Africa Panel of the British Academy (2008-2011).


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