''All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing'' - Edmund Burke


S I E R R A  H E R A L D

Vol 8 No 5

The tendency sometimes to protect perpetrators for the sake of peace...doesn't help society. Impunity should not be allowed to stand. - Kofi Annan on Waki report

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Monday, Jul. 28, 1980

SIERRA LEONE: From Athens to an Ill-Run Sparta

Corruption and repression in the realm of "the Pa "

The spotlight of publicity turned briefly on Sierra Leone earlier this month, when the Organization of African Unity met in the tiny (pop. 4 million) West African state and installed its President, Siaka Stevens, as the O.A.U.'s chairman for the coming year. But when the big bash was over, Sierra Leone was left with more problems than ever: an authoritarian government, a languishing economy, all-pervasive corruption and $200 million in bills from the summit conference. As TIME Nairobi Bureau Chief Jack E. White discovered during a visit to Sierra Leone, the country's plight is disturbingly similar to that of neighboring Liberia, where Stevens' friend and predecessor as O.A.U. chairman, President William Tolbert, was killed in April during a coup staged by noncommissioned officers. White's report:

"Sierra Leone under Stevens is like Liberia under Tolbert: a time bomb waiting to explode." That grim forecast comes from a Western diplomat who has had long experience in both countries. Indeed, even a casual visitor is likely to spot similarities between the two West African republics. Both countries became havens for former slaves in the 19th century. In Sierra Leone, the "creole" descendants of these settlers still dominate the country's business and educational elite—as did scions of the freed slaves in Liberia until the recent coup. Sierra Leone gained its independence from Britain in 1961; seven years later, Stevens took power after a revolt led by low-ranking soldiers. That power grab bore a certain resemblance to the army-led coup in Liberia, headed by Master Sergeant Samuel Doe, that ousted the long-entrenched Tolbert regime.

In March serious rioting broke out in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, when the government announced a hike in gasoline prices from $2.50 to $3 per gal. The rioting was reminiscent of the savage protests that erupted in Morovia last year after Tolbert increased the price of rice. Stevens, a burly former union leader whose folksy style has earned him the nickname "the Pa," concedes that "we could get into trouble," when his government announces another boost in fuel prices, possibly this week.

Sierra Leone was once known as the "Athens of West Africa," because it is the home of the area's oldest institute of higher learning, Fourah Bay College. Today the country is more like an ill-run Sparta. Since he took over as President, Stevens—who is 74 by his own reckoning, but may be as old as 85—has gradually molded Sierra Leone into a tightly controlled one-party state. Two years ago he pushed through a new constitution outlawing all opposition to his All Peoples Congress (A.P.C.). Although he served as opposition leader during the government of his predecessor, Prime Minister Sir Albert Margai, Stevens now claims that the idea of competitive politics is alien to Sierra Leone's people. Says he: "We don't understand the concept of a loyal opposition." In December the governor of the central bank, Samuel Bangura, objected to what he described as Stevens' plans to pocket a large portion of Libya's $5 million contribution toward defraying the costs of the O.A.U. summit. Bangura was found dead outside his mansion. Police at first called his death suicide, but after an outcry they charged a 17-year-old girl, two gardeners and a night watchman with his murder.

A few days before the opening of the O.A.U. conference, police combed the streets of Freetown, rounding up every potential dissident in sight. When the Tablet, the only opposition newspaper, published a vivid account of the story, a band of rock-throwing toughs assaulted its offices. Though police witnessed the attack and failed to intervene, Stevens claims no responsibility for the assault. "These are just small boys," he says of the Tablet's editors. "I can't be bothered with them."

Stevens may find it more difficult to brush off the mounting criticism within his own party of the exorbitant costs of the O.A.U. summit. Two years ago his government pledged that it would spend no more than $100 million on preparations for the conference; Western diplomats believe that the total bill may come to twice that figure—a heavy burden for a country with a per capita gross national product of $210. Moreover, there is widespread suspicion that the Pa personally profited from the meeting. Lebanese businessmen who chipped in to a $3 million fund that was supposed to help underwrite the summit charge that Stevens pocketed a large amount of the money. Says a Western diplomat in Freetown: "He often confuses the national bank account with his own."

As titular head of the O.A.U. until next July's meeting in Nairobi, Stevens is expected to lead the battle for economic sanctions against South Africa. But his government has tight links with the apartheid regime; 49% of the national diamond corporation is owned by an offshoot of South Africa's De Beers Corp. Stevens insists that "the South Africans once had a monopoly on the diamond trade in this country, but we are trying little by little to break it." That plan has focused recently on efforts by a Stevens business associate, American Entrepreneur Maurice Templesman, to help Sierra Leone get financing from the World Bank for an ambitious deep diamond-mining venture. A sometime escort of Jackie Onassis, Templesman has hired New York Lawyer Theodore Sorensen, once the chief speechwriter for John F. Kennedy, to represent his interests. In Freetown, it is widely suspected that Stevens takes his cut of his country's dealings with De Beers. That rumor may have prompted the angry remark of one black nationalist leader at the recent summit, namely that African nations doing business with South Africa "ought to be disciplined by the O.A.U." Since all too many countries on the continent have trade dealings with Pretoria, the chances of any such disciplinary action against Sierra Leone are very slim indeed. ∎

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