Things looked promising for Sierra Leone when it ceased to be a UK colony and became an independent nation on April 27th, 1961. Its first Prime Minister, Sir Milton Margai, was a popular moderate, neither corrupt not authoritarian. Unfortunately he died unexpectedly in 1964, and was succeeded by his half brother, Sir Albert Margai, who attempted to establish a one-party state. Siaka Stevens, the winner of a 1967 general election, was ousted within hours by a military coup.
From then Sierra Leone's history has been a depressing succession of coups and counter coups, of a brutal 11-year civil war, and of a succession of corrupt authoritarian regimes ruling by terror. From the 1990s its economic activity declined, and its economic infrastructure melted away. Over the next decade the formal economy was virtually destroyed in the civil war.
As so often in Africa, some of the problems were down to tribalism. Sierra Leone has about sixteen ethnic groups, each with its own language. The largest and most influential are the Temne at about 36 percent, and the Mende at about 33 percent. Each group vied for a share of power, and a stake in the looted riches this gave access to. When they were denied this at elections, they sought it militarily by staging or supporting coups. The factions had their weaponry and soldiers funded by "blood diamonds" looted from the countries vast reserves of them.
With the 20-20 vision of hindsight, the ex-colonies should not have been formed into big centralized nations, with tribes not used to living alongside each other forced together under unitary government. It was almost a recipe for civil strife. But it was their own leaders, many of them educated in the West at places like the LSE, who demanded this. They opposed what they sneeringly called “the balkanization of Africa.” In retrospect, we might have looked at the Swiss model, with each tribe having its own cantons, virtually self-governing under a loose federal structure.
Adam Smith said that prosperity just needed “peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice.” Sierra Leone had none of these. The free market is so effective at creating wealth that you can do many things wrong with a country, and it will still work. There are, however, three things you cannot do: genocide, civil war and socialism. Alas, poor Sierra Leone had elements of all of them.
It is rarely too late, though, and even now Sierra Leone could tread that upward path, nearly 60 years after its early promise. If it gave local power to different ethnic groups, created conditions enticing for local entrepreneurship, and established an independent judiciary that could spotlight and punish corruption, it could prosper. After what its people have been through, it would be nice if it could.