Sierra Leone: End of the Exception

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Thirty-one black African nations have gained their independence in the past decade, and they all share a curious distinction: in not a single one of them has any government ever been voted out of office. The record is not exactly a testimonial to democratic stability. Political assassinations and military coups have transformed half of the continent's emerging nations into emergency nations, and the governments of most of the rest have hung on either by openly rigging elections or outlawing their political opposition entirely. Through it all, the diamond-rich enclave of Sierra Leone always claimed to be the glittering exception—the only black African state in which the government might actually permit itself to lose an election.

When last week's polling began, there seemed a very good chance that the regime of Sir Albert Margai might indeed be voted down. The Prime Minister, whose hulking size and frequent outbursts of temper have won him the nickname "Akpata"—a Mende word that means "our wild fat man"—had long been accused of widespread corruption. His refusal to answer the charges did nothing to improve his government's image, nor did his longstanding attempts to establish a one-party state. Last month, Sir Albert opened the election campaign by refusing to allow opposition candidates to run against him, his brother, or two trusted Cabinet ministers. Popular resentment welled up in a wave of rioting that forced the government to declare a state of emergency throughout much of the land.

Martial Law. The resentment carried over to the polls. There, rejecting the government's candidates, the voters gave Siaka Stevens' democratic-minded opposition party what appeared to be at least a narrow parliamentary majority. Unfortunately, the final results never did get to be announced. As soon as it became apparent that Stevens would have a majority, Governor General Sir Henry Lightfoot Boston summoned the leader of the opposition party to his office and swore him in as Prime Minister. His term was the shortest on record. Hardly had the swearing-in ceremony ended when Army Commander Brigadier David Lansana, a friend and confidant of Sir Albert, put both Stevens and the Governor General under arrest. He declared martial law and announced that he himself would rule the country for the time being. Then he nullified the results of the elections.

Lansana did not last much longer than the man he deposed. At week's end a group of dissident officers staged a countercoup, arrested both Lansana and the man who stood to benefit most from his annulment of the elections—Sir Albert Margai—and locked them up with the Governor General and the victorious opposition leader. Then, with the nation's four most powerful politicians out of the way, they named an eight-man "National Reformation Council" to run the country. Headed by 39-year-old Lieut. Colonel Ambrose Patrick Genda, who was deputy army commander until Sir Albert fired him last year, the council's announced goal is to put Sierra Leone's frail democracy back together again—if it can.