When you lean over in a canoe on a river, the boat tilts but then rights itself. But if there is too much pressure on one side, the canoe tips past a certain point and becomes a capsized canoe. It has flotation pads at both ends, so it doesn’t sink, but the situation of the canoe has changed from a floating maneuverable craft to a new stable, but the sad, state.
The tipping point from one condition to another can occur unexpectedly to those who have never experienced a capsizing. People in undemocratic countries are not surprised when their government turns over, but those of modern democracies like Sierra Leone grew complacent, even though we know that democracies that appear stable can capsize. Sierra Leone turned into a tyrannical state between 2007 and 2022. Within these years, there has been a massive increase in the number of people living under tyranny, with the majority of Sierra Leone’s population living in a country that Freedom House classifies as not having “free” government systems.
It is tempting to think, “It can’t happen here.” But Sierra Leoneans are more concerned about that now than they have been in decades. From the 2007 to 2018 general elections, many nationals think it is “likely” or “somewhat likely” that state actors will successfully overturn the results of a Sierra Leone election because their party did not win.
We, the present authors, are worried that putatively upright Sierra Leone after the presidency of the late Ahmad Tejan Kabbah is today in danger of descending into tyranny. A tyranny—once capacities for control and despotism are constructed, in some cases including expansive government employment, dependency, and largesse—can be nearly impossible to reform. The key to the descent into tyranny, and the stability of tyranny once it is achieved, is this: Tyrants use tyranny to fortify their keep and to protect themselves against the sanctions due to them for their crimes.
Calling tyranny “stable” may seem paradoxical. Tyrannies suffer from chaotic upheavals and violent paroxysms. But the state of tyranny itself is stable, like a capsized canoe. Ordered liberty is better for everyone—aside, perhaps, from the despotic faction and their affiliates. It is difficult to restore the rule of law once it is debased. Rectification would call for changes in personnel, operations, and attitudes. The relative power and privilege of the despots would disappear with rectifications. Tyrants use the tools of tyranny to protect themselves against the sanctions due them.
How can that faction be so base and corrupt? It’s hard to understand the psychology of depravity and delusion; some say Satan is at work. And if we are feeling hopeful about God’s goodness deep inside the despot, consider yet another difficulty: Even if more virtuous reformers persuade the despots of the errors of their ways, there may be no way for them to credibly guarantee that the despots will escape sanctions, such as forfeiture of ill-begotten wealth, prison sentences, or execution for their crimes. The inability to commit to clemency may make it impossible to admit to wrongdoing and “cut a deal.” Also, there is, in any case, the disgrace that comes with the restoration of liberal norms and condemnation of the fallen.
What prevents systems from capsizing are the virtues of liberality and liberalism. So long as enough people disapprove of illiberality, as systematized, for example, at Twitter, Facebook, and Google-YouTube, and of anti-liberalism, the system can right itself and avoid capsizing. Election integrity is vital, of course.
In Sierra Leone, we are accustomed to thinking that modern democracies are always like a pendulum—a swing far in one direction is balanced by a swing back in the other direction. But the descent into tyranny can mess with the whole pendulum mechanism, preventing the counter-swing. We are concerned that the mechanisms that, thankfully, have thus far prevented us from reaching the tipping point and capsizing after the eleven years of brutal civil war are being dismantled. The dismantling is being done to some extent intentionally, by despots and wannabe despots, who act variously from greed, depravity, delusion—God knows what! 2023
Politics is always a matter of lesser evil, but our point is not directed at only the greater evil. In the Sierra Leone context, we observe illiberality and anti-liberalism among some who vote for the Sierra Leone People’s Party and some who vote for the All People’s Congress. The people who advocate the seizing of control of the government often do it for (what they see as) the best reasons: achieving a good society. One function of liberalism is to call out and oppose, the influence of the government on social affairs, even when it is done with the hope of putting the “right” people in charge.
Some of the founding fathers of liberalism can help us understand how to oppose tyranny. The thinkers, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke represent the original liberalism that now is aptly called not only “classical” but “conservative.” Hume, Smith, and Burke opposed radical alteration in the institutions of government. The original liberalism is conservative when it comes to altering the polity drastically.
However, the conservative element of conservative liberalism depends in part on how liberal status quo institutions are. Events that led to the eleven years of brutal civil war in Sierra Leone are a sharp illustration of why a liberal does not always oppose fundamental reform. And they illuminate our main theme: the hazard of descending into tyranny.
The act of oppressing the suffering majority by the selected few, but very powerful within Sierra Leone is simply inconsistent with liberal values. Tensions grew when the government of Ernest Bai Koroma tried it, with many intellectual voices in and out of the country pointing out that “all men are created equal” and asserted clear precepts about personhood and citizenship. The system descended to further evils which led to the election of the Bio led Sierra Leone People’s Party to power. What precipitated the change were movements and growing recriminations against the oppressors, for being unjust. The then oppressive government of Ernest Bai Koroma responded with more injustice. They could not control the suffering majority. Oppressors and the oppressed resorted to “cancel culture” and heightened oppression, to protect the profoundly illiberal and anti-liberal institution of the legal oppression of fellow nationals. The system passed a tipping point into a more fully institutionalized system of repression, with the outlawing of voices advocating a change of tactics and a code of conduct that made any questioning of oppression socially unacceptable.
Liberalism involves a self-correcting system of propriety that calls out violations of liberal norms in defense of liberal institutions. In the face of illiberal institutions, the liberal must sometimes be a challenging voice; in the context of liberal institutions, the liberal looks like a conservative, calling out initiatives corrosive of norms and a presumption in favour of liberty. Sierra Leone is unique, or was until recently, in having a framework that allowed a “fusion” of conservatives and libertarians: the status quo to be “conserved” was a liberal coalition built around “Unity, Freedom and Justice” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
What we saw in the eleven years of brutal civil war and among despotic actors in governments today is the use of despotism to perpetuate their position and to shield themselves from the just correction of their injustice. As long as they hold the whip, the injustice may not only persist but grow worse and worse. The fate of the oppressed in the eleven years of the brutal civil war was horrible indeed. The shackles grew tighter. Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service is hiring. If we do not figure out a way to defuse despotism in Sierra Leone, our own future may be permanent slavery for the suffering majority.
The horrors of August 2022 and fascism led some to believe that liberal civilization was soon to perish. However, some people, in some parts of the country, waged a war against totalitarianism, in a movement mobilized under the banner of “freedom” or “liberal democracy.” After the brutal civil war, positive criticism is not just against the selected few oppressors, but against the spread of authoritarian ideology. In our future, will there be Winston Churchill and Václav Havels to resist the despots? Or will the governments of all the two major political parties belong to a network of tyrannical governments?
It is not just dystopian fiction—that has furnished us with the image of a once-liberal civilization under the presidency of the late Ahmad Tejan Kabbah now capsized. Some of the great liberal writers have warned us against the very real march toward a capsized civilization. May we heed their warnings. They told us that the governmentalisation of social affairs is a tool of would-be despots and that it hatches despotism even if not by design. We must bravely speak out against the governmentalisation of social affairs and against the unjust sentiments and beliefs that forward it.