Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What might have been -- or -- Of birthdays, cocaine, and counterfactuals

Today is Sierra Leone’s 49th Independence Day, and Freetown has been celebratory for days – from the first-annual Green White and Blue Ball on Saturday night, to the annual lantern paradeyesterday and a launch of free health care for women and children today. Spirits have been high, and the country seems to be standing a little taller in its almost-50-year-old shoes.

But the headline event, the capstone of this birthday celebration, was meant to be a concert tonight by Senegalese-American R&B star Akon. Sadly, that performance – by the biggest artist to visitSierra Leone in decades – has been scuppered by a surprisingly severe early-season rainstorm. And to make it worse, the storm seems to have shorted out Freetown’s electricity supply, and the filling stations are low on diesel.

Therefore, instead of grooving away at the national stadium, I’m stuck at home with a noisy generator and just a few hours before the house goes dark. Nonetheless, in the spirit of my newly-rediscovered optimism and in honor of Salone’s independence day, I think I’ll use this unexpectedly quiet evening to give a little more credit where credit is due.

Specifically, I want to talk about cocaine and counterfactuals.

In 2008, as I wrote about at the time a plane from Venezuela landed at Freetown's Lungi Airport filled with 600kg of cocaine worth $54 million. The plane was seized, its contents held safely and later destroyed, and its pilot and crew – including 9 foreigners from Latin America and the United States – were tracked down, imprisoned, and ultimately convicted, along with dozens of Sierra Leoneans also found to be involved in the trade. Two South Americans were even then extradited to the US to face charges there, and many high-profile and very well-connected Sierra Leoneans – including a brother of the then-Minister of Transport and Aviation and a former manager of the national football team – found themselves in Pademba Road Prison, where many remain today.

At the time, as you may notice from the tone of my blog, I was quick to poke fun at the government’s response. After confiscating the cocaine, they shut down a major Freetown thoroughfare (Pademba Road) for months and placed armed guards throughout the surrounding streets to prevent any daring prison break by the South American drug lords or their collaborators. Watching the somewhat bumbling Sierra Leone Defense Forces manning likely-ammunition-less anti-aircraft guns along residential streets, I was struck by a mix of unease and amusement. Even the extradition seemed overly dramatic: the prisoners were whisked away in great secrecy in the dead of night just after their conviction in the Sierra Leone high court. Even the involvement of my own government didn’t convince me; we all know the Americans can be a bit hysterical from time to time.

“How important could these guys be?” I asked disdainfully at the time. “Come one, would the drug lords really send anyone important to a tiny country in West Africa? Surely these are minor foot-soldiers, or they’re being punished for something, and the drug lords won’t risk any other manpower to come spring them from Pademba Road.”

Since then, as I’ve learned more about new narcotics routes through West Africa and on to Europe, I’ve tempered my criticism. And then I read this New York Times Magazine article, "Africa's Drug Problem", and it really shut me up.

The opening story of that article is eerily familiar to those of us in Sierra Leone. In 2008, a plane from Venezuela landed in a small West African country. As in Sierra Leone, the plane was filled with more than a half-ton of cocaine, and the crew were arrested. Unlike here, however, the cocaine vanished and the crew were later released – both incidents apparently with the help of the army.

Today, Guinea-Bissau is on the shortlist of incredibly fragile states in West Africa destabilized by the cash and criminality of the international narcotics trade. As journalist James Traub says in the NYT article, “Guinea-Bissau and its neighbors offer to South American drug traffickers what the impenetrable terrain of the Hindu Kush offers to Al Qaeda and the Taliban — a place beyond the reach of law.” According to the article, the narcotraffickers have openly purchased Parliamentary seats, Cabinet appointments, and even coastal islands in Guinea-Bissau.

Sierra Leone, in contrast, is launching free health care and attracting international celebrities in droves.


It is often difficult to get credit for averting disaster. Stop an epidemic before it really takes off? Deter terrorists before they begin to plan an attack? At best you will be quietly acknowledged. More likely you will be accused of “crying wolf”, and wasting resources or energy on something that turned out to be a non-event.

The thing is, we are not very good at appreciating a counterfactual – that alternative “what might have been” reality that could or would have existed if we had done, or not done, something differently. If the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control predict a major epidemic and then are successful in preventing it – perhaps through expensive investments in prevention and control – many people will use their success against them, pointing to the non-epidemic as evidence that they made a big fuss over nothing.

Similarly, if you take steps to prevent your country from being a narco-state, snarky foreign residents like me may well ridicule you for overreacting.

In reading the New York Times Magazine article, I’m struck that President Ernest Bai Koroma’s government has not gotten enough credit for its actions in 2008. Surely he knew that the South American drug lords and their local counterparts would likely offer millions if not billions of dollars for his (and his government’s) complicity in their trade. Maybe they even made the offer. But he didn’t take them up on it – and instead made a very public, very firm stance against drug trafficking.

The traffickers, looking for the paths of least resistance, most likely then opted for easier routes rather than risk incarceration in Sierra Leone. And certainly that’s a good thing for Salone – if not for the countries on those easier routes.

I certainly don’t pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the West African drugs trade, and I know there are still rumors in town of ill-gotten wealth (“See that guy with the Hummer? Guess where he made his millions…”) and of domestic cocaine use (another tragic consequence of the trade) here in Freetown.

But there’s no doubt that Sierra Leone has taken a very different path in the last few years than has Guinea-Bissau, and it seems to me that Bissau’s story could serve as an important reminder to Sierra Leoneans of what might have been – and perhaps a reason to give a little more credit where credit is due.

Perhaps, due to the government’s response in 2008, Sierra Leone avoided a much darker alternate reality, in which this long-suffering country reverted to instability, coups, and a general breakdown of the rule of law. Instead, Sierra Leone is celebrating a peaceful (if damp) 49thbirthday, and nearly 10 years of post-war peace and stability.

In 2008, two Venezuelan planes landed in two West African countries. In one, the army stole the cocaine and freed the dealers. In the other, the government confiscated and destroyed the cocaine and convicted the dealers – and their powerful local counterparts.

And that, as they say, made all the difference.

Happy Birthday Mama Salone. Well done.


Laura said...

Good on them. It's a tough decision to make, even for honest people.

Matt said...

good post and a great observation. such a paradox on how to get people to value or appreciate 'what might have been' purely because it's so easily distorted (e.g., it wouldn't really have been that bad vs. it would have been a disaster!) and impossible to test. the parallelism in this case helps proxy for that test.

random and only tangentially related--the recent averted bombing in NYC strikes me as a similar type of what-if for terrorist strikes (and this rundown by FP: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/26/the_almanac_of_al_qaeda?page=0,7)... and in most cases i feel that these terrorist what-ifs are used to unnecessarily raise hysteria and fear.

and then there are the what-ifs on both sides of the foreign aid argument.

intriguing area for sure. :)

Sandra's Latest... said...

Yay Salone. Great post. I remember that drug bust! And the roads around the prison being shut down for weeks. Good on President Ernest Bai Koroma. Hoping the peace will continue on...

Sandra's Latest... said...

PS: I'm glad you started blogging again :)