Sierra Leone Mudslide: Unnecessary Deaths in a Land Savaged by Slavery and Imperialism

August 21, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


Hundreds of people, as many as a thousand, were killed by a massive mudslide last week in the West African country of Sierra Leone. The mudslide struck in the early morning of August 14. A torrent of mud flowed down from Mount Sugar Loaf, about five miles outside the capital city of Freetown. It swept away and buried everything in its path, humans, the flimsy houses they lived in, becoming deadlier as it picked up debris.

Houses were completely submerged with mud, killing residents—many still asleep—trapped inside. The Regent district, a slum on the outskirts of Freetown, was wiped out. Thousands of people are homeless, right now, their homes under mud and flooding. People gather to seek out news of missing loved ones.

Criminal (Non)Response of the “International Community”

News accounts of the triggering events and aftermath of the mudslide paint a picture of a nation of eight million people almost defenseless against the mudslide, the aftermath, and the threat of more mudslides. The hardest hit slum of Regent is composed of “illegal” dwellings built by people driven from the countryside into the city, but unable to find legitimate work and income. Over a million people are crammed into the city, the majority of them into slums. Rational urban planning, building codes and environmental regulations are non-existent. Relief supplies are nearly absent. People are digging out bodies with their bare hands. Even the morgues are unable to keep up with the bodies, and authorities are relying on body bags supplied by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

The country’s medical resources were overwhelmed by the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2016 that killed at least 4,000 people. That outbreak exacerbated poverty, homelessness and hunger. Now medical experts fear an outbreak of cholera, diarrhea, and typhoid from contaminated water. And the conditions that gave rise to the mudslide still exist, and the threat of new devastation hangs over the heads of people in the capital and other parts of the country.

One woman told The Guardian, “Everything is gone. We’ve lost everything—our house, everything. The mud came down with the water so fast and my son did not escape. We found him lying in the mud. He was just a boy. They took his body with the others to I don’t know where. God help Sierra Leone. Why are we cursed? What are we supposed to do now, with nothing?”




Meanwhile, the response of the “world community,” in particular the rich nations of the world, has been criminally negligent. Humanity has brought into being technology, resources and science that could have been brought into play to anticipate and respond to the mudslides, if not prevent them. But those resources are in the hands of a global system of exploitation and oppression, and the needs of that system are utterly incompatible with the needs of the people of Sierra Leone in this crisis.

The European Union pledged a measly $350,000 in aid. The small African nation of Togo pledged more. Only China and Britain pledged a million dollars or more of aid. And, in a true statement of part of what the Trump/Pence regime means by “Make America Great Again,” the United States made no pledge of aid for the mudslide crisis at all!

Scars of Slavery and Colonialism

But it’s worse than that. The conditions that have been exposed so sharply by the mudslide are a direct product of the slave trade, colonialism and capitalism-imperialism.

Sierra Leone and its capital city were in the heart of the slave trade. Survivors of the hellish journey to the Americas were whipped, tortured, and worked under the most brutal conditions to lay much of the basis for the rise of capitalism worldwide, and for the wealth and power that is the United States today. All this left a traumatic imprint on every aspect of life in Sierra Leone.

The scars of the slave trade, and colonialism, are still raw and deep in Sierra Leone. In 1895, Britain drew borders for Sierra Leone, declared the country their “protectorate,” and waged a bloody war of suppression against independence fighters. Gold mining, manufacturing and agriculture served the emergence and wealth of the colonial, imperialist powers, who truncated indigenous capitalist development. Plundered gold for coins was a key component of the emerging capitalist monetary system, and the colonialists branded Sierra Leone and adjacent areas “the Gold Coast.” As a result of this lopsided, distorted development, infrastructure—roads, social services, communication, education, healthcare—such as they are, were built to serve slavery and colonial plunder.

In the book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Walter Rodney wrote: “Taking only one example from the British colony of Sierra Leone, one finds that the railway which started at the end of the 19th century required forced labour from thousands of peasants driven from the villages. The hard work and appalling conditions led to the death of a large number of those engaged in work on the railway.” Those railways, like everything else built up under colonialism (and after that, new forms of imperialist domination) didn’t connect people and products within Sierra Leone, it served the export of cotton, minerals, and other products. Local agriculture was crushed by cheap imports injected into the country through the global circuits of imperialist exploitation. And Rodney observes that this “international division of labour allowed technology and skills to grow in the metropoles [the emerging capitalist countries.

Sierra Leone only achieved independence in 1961. In the 21st century, Sierra Leone has been wracked by civil wars and ruled by brutal tyrants. Life for the masses remains defined by and chained to the needs of western capitalism-imperialism. The legacy and present-day impact of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism is concentrated in the fact that life expectancy in Sierra Leone is the lowest in the world, 51 years—decades less than in the West.

Environmental and Climate Change Factors

But it’s worse than that. Environmental degradation due to climate change and unregulated economic “development” left the people on the outskirts of Freetown in a precarious situation. Mudslides are basically a product of two factors: rainfall that overwhelms existing channels, and deforestation and other factors that prevent the ground from absorbing water.

Experts have identified that man-made global warming is driving substantially greater extreme weather events, and the last couple years have seen dramatically increased rainfall in Sierra Leone.

Deforestation has also increased dramatically in recent years. According to the watchdog group Global Forest Watch, Sierra Leone has lost nearly 800,000 hectares (nearly 2 million acres) of forest cover in the past decade, with loss accelerating in 2015. The unregulated cutting down of trees is the result of war and the desperate conditions people face.

 Product of a Criminal System

The system of global capitalism-imperialism set the stage and triggered the events that set off the horrific mudslide in Sierra Leone, and left the people of that country in the nightmarish conditions they confront right now. Karl Marx, the founder of communism, wrote, with bitter irony:

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalized the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production. 

This is the foundation of the wealth and power of western capitalism-imperialism, including the USA. When ghouls like Donald Trump, and for that matter all the promoters and apologists for imperialism, point to the wealth and power of this country, they are talking about the product of a system that created the hellish conditions the people in Sierra Leone face today.

All this, and the utter lack of a proportionate response from the rich countries of the world, is obscene and unacceptable! The global powers must respond with necessary aid now. And the people of the world must step up work to overthrow this system ASAP.


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