The problem with Sierra Leone’s chiefs

March 1, 2012

The economic institutions that keep Sierra Leone poor are not just national. Most people in Sierra Leone still live in villages, and their lives are governed by chiefs. Chiefs raise taxes, hire the local police, dispense justice and control the most important resource in rural Sierra Leone today – land. The chiefs are the “custodians of the land” which in effect means that they decide who gets what. Here are two imposing Paramount Chiefs photographed in the 1980s, Madam Yatta K. Saffawab II and M.K. Mustapha Ngebeb IV (from “Portriats of Paramount Chiefs of Sierra Leone”, by Vera Viditz-Ward and Roslyn A Walker, Smithsonian, 1990).

Only economic institutions that guarantee some degree of property rights, so that people know that they will be able to reap the benefits of their investments and efforts, will generate prosperity. But there are no property rights to land in rural Sierra Leone — at least not in the sense that we understand it in the United States. Nobody has a written title, though some dynasties and families do have traditional user rights to use certain pieces of land. Most out of luck are “strangers” meaning anyone not born in a particular chiefdom (like say the two of us in Cambridge, Massachusetts). A stranger has to “beg” (the word the Sierra Leoneans use) for land and even if he or she gets it they cannot plant any perennial crops, like bananas, cocoa, coffee or oil palm because this would be tantamount to trying to establish de facto property rights on the land. Jim once asked a chief in Kono district what would happen if a stranger tried to grow coffee or oil palm. “We’d come and cut it down” he said. During the same visit as the chief was showing off his plantations of cocoa, Jim asked (rather naively in retrospect) “for example, how did you get the right to use this land?” “That man used to farm it and he gave it to me” said the chief, pointing out a man on the other side of the road. “What would have happened if he hadn’t given it to you he asked” (again rather naively) to which he got the rather puzzled question back “why wouldn’t he give it to me, I’m the chief?”.

Lack of property rights and arbitrary allocation of land, without regards to who will be more productive in using it, are not the only extractive institutions in rural Sierra Leone. The perennial extractive economic institution, labor coercion, is also widespread. Chiefs also use their power to coerce youths to work for them on their plantations and in building roads and other local public goods.

So what comes out from decades of repression and lack of economic opportunities at the local level, and blatant thievery at the national level? We’ll see in our next blog.


One comment

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With all do respect to the men who have written this book and this article. Here we are again with Europeans coming into Africa and giving a negative report, based on little fact and no African voice to counter their opinions. The chiefdom system in Sierra Leone is one of the few systems that has not been destroyed by the larger cheifdom of the British Crown. This system serves and protects citizens from complete ruin and poverty from encroching foreigners coming in and taking complete control and ownership of the land and ensuring that the people of Sierra Leone keep the land for themselves and their children. THis article claims that the chiefs are the reason for the poverty in Sierra Leone, becaue they are not allowing foreigners to come in and take over their land. The article claims that they asked a chief how he got his land, they said that the chief told him that the land was given to him by a man in the villiage, according to writer this implies that chiefs just steal the land of their subjects but this is far from the truth , I know for a facts that most chief’s inherit their land from their family. Every family in the villiage has their own land and can farm their land. The the article also claims that the land can not be use for farms. We have seen when some outsiders have come in, and none of them want to do farming, they all want to mine diamonds and use destructive techniques to rape and destroy the land and leave with billions of dollars worth of minerals , diamonds, and gold with out giving even 1% of the profits to the people who live on the land. Then, adding insult to injury they come back and write books stating that it is the Chiefs of Sierra Leone who are making the people poor. When the Chief’s are actually the only ones stopping outsiders from coming in and completely taking the land from the people. The chief’s are wise and they know that some people who are coming into Sierra Leone do not have good intentions. I think these Europeans and Americans should go to England and ask the queen if they can farm her land and if she would give some of it up to them. This would be disrespectful in England and it is still disrespectful in Africa. In the end this is about money and people coming in to rape the country for their personal gain and when they are not allowed( by the chiefs ) they come in and write books and articles like what we see here. Thank you, a humble citizen of The Villages of Sierra Leone.

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