Opinion

Why Nations Fail

The cow eats where it is tethered

By Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson
March 1, 2012

We saw the fancy school and the nice new houses in Sierra Leone’s president Ernest Bai Koroma village, Yoni, in our last blog. Koroma is in good company among Sierra Leone’s presidents.

The school in Yoni will educate the children of the elite of the All People’s Congress Party (APC), which ran the country from 1967 until 1992 and then returned to power in 2007. The first APC president, Siaka Stevens, used to like to quote the aphorism, “the cow eats where it is tethered”. And eat he did. He created a whole gamut of extractive institutions enriching himself and his APC cronies, and impoverishing Sierra Leone, which experienced almost nonstop economic decline after independence in 1961.

Like many other post-colonial leaders in sub-Saharan Africa, Stevens used the agricultural marketing boards that the British had created to expropriate farmers by setting a fraction of the world price for the main export commodities, such as palm kernels, cocoa and coffee. Not that the British were saints, actually they were already doing the same thing, except not quite so excessively. Stevens looted the country’s diamond wealth, and handed out monopolies, such as that on the import of rice, the main staple food, to his friends.

Stevens did not only suck the economic potential out of Sierra Leone by his thievery. He in fact actively destroyed infrastructure. The next picture shows Jim at the derelict Hastings railway station.

But actually there is no railway station there anymore. The railway going all the way from the capital, Freetown to Mendeland, which until 1967 used to transport coffee, cocoa and diamonds, was pulled out by Stevens and destroyed.

At this point, you might think Siaka Stevens was just mad. But actually there was quite a bit of method to his madness. This was all part of his strategy to hold on to power. After all, unless you have control of what we refer to as extractive political institutions, which concentrate power in your hands without any accountability and which suppress all opposition, how can you run the sort of extractive economic institutions that Stevens was so keen on gorging on? And to control these extractive political institutions, Stevens had to destroy all opposition. Mendeland was the power base of the rival Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP). So Stevens decided, whatever was good for Mendeland was bad for his political control, and just destroyed the rail line and together with it much of the trade with Mendeland. Stevens probably also like the aphorism “you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs”.

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