Speaking Volumes: Political Change in a West African State

December 15, 1995

Stephen P. Riley on Martin Kilson's Political Change in a West African State.

The West African country of Sierra Leone has been much in the news this year. Civil conflict, the taking of British hostages, massive refugee movements, violent "child soldiers" and mercenary forces, and a disrupted economy have brought the former British colony to collapse.

Sierra Leone's grim condition has been described as symptomatic of "The Coming Anarchy" by American writer Robert Kaplan. Kaplan's Hobbesian vision comprises undermined nations, resource wars, more crime, and environmental and population crises.

This is far removed from the Sierra Leone I encountered when I first travelled to its capital, Freetown, in 1978. I was encouraged to visit after reading Martin Kilson's Political Change in a West African State. Kilson's book is a minutely detailed, historically based survey of politics in Sierra Leone since 1896 that focuses on how the newly educated and traditional chiefly elites exploited their dominant position in society.

In 1978, 17 years after independence, Sierra Leone was cunningly if poorly governed by the ageing president Siaka Stevens, an ex-Ruskin College trade unionist known to his enemies as "Shaking Stevens". The weak economy was based on coffee and cocoa exports and the trade in alluvial gem diamonds. It was peaceful and poor, with gross inequalities based on social, regional and gender divisions.

Kilson examines this form of post-independence politics and its social and economic consequences. In the mid-1960s, he predicted a move towards authoritarianism as the elites sought to keep power. He argued that the new, largely parasitic political elite would "resort to bureaucratic corruption" to fund themselves and would exploit the economically productive peasantry and expatriate capitalists.

Much of Kilson's study now reads as very dated, particularly his use of the arcane terminology of United States modernisation theory. However, Kilson's vivid descriptions of chieftaincy politics and the patronage powers of the politicians at the centre of the patron-client system still ring true. His cast of characters, from Siaka Stevens downwards, is extraordinary. Kilson also provides a corrective to a common assumption about the "charismatic" powers of politicians. He suggests they needed "supportive wealth" as well. He also argues that there was a symbiotic relationship between the new political parties and the traditional chieftaincy, where the parties depended upon the chiefs and vice versa.

Quite apart from the compelling detail, Kilson articulates some classic, general themes in politics. His prophetic view about the slippage into authoritarianism in many post-colonial societies has become a commonplace. The resort to bureaucratic corruption to maintain political support is not unknown even in the United Kingdom and the US. The crisis in traditional perceptions of authority, and their political implications, also have a contemporary resonance.

Kilson's work, the first major study of Sierra Leonean politics, enabled me to enter that world and I continue to be fascinated by it. My work has broadened into research on the resource dependency and the external indebtedness of similar states.

Kilson also reinforced my view of the significance of bureaucratic corruption as a feature of all politics, which led me to co-found Corruption and Reform: An International Journal.

In Sierra Leone in 1995, much of the state outside the capital is ruled by youthful rebels called the Revolutionary United Front. As their ideology is anti-elitist, anti-Western and critical of all post-independence governments, Kilson's ideas continue to explain what some have thought of as a modern and horribly real version of Conrad's Heart of Darkness.

Stephen P. Riley is reader in politics, Staffordshire University.

The arguments about the importance of rural class protest, and the depictions of "virtual peasant revolts against traditional rulers and authority", have also been challenged.

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