By Abdulai Mansaray
It is an undeniable fact, that Sierra Leone is a rich country; but also paradoxically true that it is one of the poorest countries in the world. If such an illogical logic is anything to go by, how come we are where and what we are? But thanks to the perennial afflictions of corruption, mismanagement and bad governance, that have been laced with tribalism, nepotism, and abject sycophancy, our country has been reduced to a basket case. It will be delusional if we don’t admit that our country’s economy is in dire straits. We have to be honest with ourselves and accept that our country’s economy is on a life support machine. The recent focus on our economy, which has seen growing calls for an overhaul of the Ministry of Finance, is a clear manifestation of the people’s frustration, which embodies the opinion that our economy is in neutral gear. Many have concluded that our economy has not shifted any gears, since President Maada Bio took over the reigns of government. That is a matter of opinion.
Many of us, as undesirable as it is, are not shocked by the current state of the economy. President Bio took over with all the fanfare and hope that usually follows a change in government. Sadly in his case, the take over came with a hazard warning; that the coffers were EMPTY and that the country was toying with the symptoms of bankruptcy. Those that see the replacement of the Minister of Finance Mr J.J Saffa as an antidote to our economic woes have hastily forgotten that Bio’s government inherited a country with a blood supply of AUSTERITY MEASURES. They forgot so soon, that due to the waste, corruption, bad governance and among others, our country had been economically haemorrhaged, and needing a massive resource transfusion. President Bio’s government diagnosed that the arteries and capillaries, through which our economy was bled needed some sutures and blood clot. But after 18 months of intensive care, we are no where the intended targets today. The general opinion of the public is understandably one of disappointment; as price increases in basic commodities continue to threaten air traffic.
It is an open secret that our little country, with a correspondingly small population of 7 million cannot overdose on the abundance of resources that we have been blessed with. Against the backdrop of our abundant natural resources, it sounds like these resources have become a “blessed curse”; of the proverbial man that sits by the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean and washes his hands with spittle. So how did we get into this quagmire? If our country should get out of this mess, it would require a monumental effort from all its citizens. One of the trending angsts has been about the exchange rate of the dollar, which is reportedly going for Le 1 million=1 dollar. My idea of economics is to buy a piece of bread and give the “korthor” the change; so I am not going to pretend that I have a clue about the country’s money matters. But if we are to build our economic muscle, much will be dependent on our Gross Domestic Products (GDP); among other things. If that is the case, what has Sierra Leone got to offer? I am not talking about potentials and minerals buried in the ground and that are yet to be actualised. If our country is to compete on the foreign exchange platforms of the world market, shouldn’t we have something to EXCHANGE, literally, in the first place? So what have we got?
In the last 3 decades, successive governments have systematically demolished our cash generating establishments. In those days, we had Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB), Sierra Leone Fisheries, National Diamond Mining Company (NDMC), Sierra Leone Petroleum, etc. In Sierra Leone today, we cannot even afford to process our raw materials. Even the basic gara (batik) clothes are now replaced with cheap imitations from China. We used to import and process crude oil, with all its cost cutting benefits. Today, we import refined fuel at market prices. Gone are the days when palm produce, coffee, cacao, Piassava, etc. were our cash cows. When the iron ore Marampa mines was resuscitated, our country gained a very rare accolade as one of the fastest growing economies in the world. But thanks to world market price fluidity, we reverted to type. Many have identified the Ebola epidemic, the mud slide and the decade long war as causal factors for our economic demise. We cannot dismiss these as not having an impact. However, Sierra Leone should be able to recover, but only if we are able to manage our resources. Sadly today, fake news has become our main export commodity.
We all know that after the end of the war, our country became a charitable case. It is also true that donor countries fell over themselves to redeem our failed state at the time. A lot of NGOs poured in to rebuild our infrastructures; so as to provide the foundations necessary for our economic recovery. But as we all know, those funds were plundered with reckless abandon. We can talk about corruption till the cows come home. But a large chunk of what was embezzled by our corrupt officials was not from what we produced but from what was DONATED to us; to get us out of our economic quagmire. But when you have officials and politicians with the conscience of chain saws, the outcome is always predictable.
Bio and his government took over with an audacity of hope. There is nothing wrong with being hopeful, but many are now seeing that hope as misplaced and hasty. Judging by the slow pace of our recovery, some may be inclined to conclude that President Bio and his team did not have a full grasp of the task that lay ahead. With our economy deeply buried in a sink hole, it was always going to be difficult to move into first gear. However, we cannot continue to use the actions of the past government as an excuse. We all know that things went wrong. But Bio and his government have the authority, by virtue of the ACC, which has parliamentary blessings to recover those stolen funds. This is about the law, not political expediency. But with Maada trying to stamp his government’s own signature of policies like Free Quality education, Health care and so forth, it is inevitable that the government will find itself stuck in the bog. It may be a case of one step forward and two steps backwards.
Sierra Leone needs to go back to the drawing board. It is all well and good to embark on lofty ideas about development and so forth. But in doing so, we need to prioritise. There are a lot of examples around the world, which we can emulate. When the former President of USA George Bush, presided over 2 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on credit cards, the effects were not felt until Obama took over in 2008. His first 4 years were dedicated purely to the recovery of the US economy from recession. Obama embarked on stimulus packages, which were very unpopular at the time. The Republicans used every trick in the book to thwart his efforts, but he persevered. Obama succeeded in steadying the ship. Interestingly today, Donald Trump is enjoying the economic boost that owes its origin from Obama’s fiscal policies. Perhaps, Maada could take a leaf or two from Obama’s manual.
If we are to recover from the alleged damage done by the previous government, then Maada should spend more time doing some heavy lifting in the garage; to repair the damage caused by EBK and his cohorts. You cannot build your house on quick sand. We need to get the foundations right; the ones upon which we can build to move forward. We cannot develop the country on shaky or non existent foundations. We all agree that Bio inherited an economy that was heavily bastardised by the previous government. And now that our donor partners are suffering from Donor fatigue, what have we got to say for ourselves? We know full well that a large part of what was stolen was not from what our country produced, save for the badly written and agreed contracts with companies like Koidu Holdings, Sierra Rutile or African Mining, is the government going to recover those stolen funds? That is the hope, but a lot of people believe that this recovery programme is at a snail’s pace.
To say that Sierra Leone’s economy needs to recover and recover fast is like saying that the Pope is catholic. But if we are to do so, we need to go back to the drawing board. We need to build the foundations stronger. We can do so if we get our priorities right, in the first place. There is need for development. But we can’t develop on shaky foundations. Perhaps, some programmes need to be shelved in the short term, to make room for steadying the ship. Those who are calling for changes in the Finance Ministry have very plausible reasons to do so. But when you drive a broken vehicle, changing the driver may not be the best of solutions. Let’s get the vehicle fixed first. Maada has put the breaks on all overseas travelling for officials at the moment. He has visited many places since becoming the tenant of State House. The hope is that he has learnt a lot from these places, and especially from Rwanda. Rwanda experienced one of the bloodiest wars of genocidal proportions. It is the proverbial phoenix that is now rising from its ashes. If Rwanda can do it, so should Sierra Leone. We just need to read the manual from their President, but above all need to have our country’s interest at heart. So let us prioritise, prioritise, and prioritise. Let’s get the basics right.
Don’t forget to turn the lights out when you leave the room.
In 2015, President Buhari of Nigeria instructed the Central Bank of Nigeria to block food importers requests for foreign currency in a bid to boost local agriculture. Many experts believe that the policy of restricting food imports does have its merits, but it cannot be introduced in isolation. It will be suicidal to implement the same in Sierra Leone; as such a policy would require a massive increase in local production.