By Abdulai Bayraytay–Former Presidential Spokesman
Following our president, H.E. Mr. Julius Maada Bio’s address to the nation, as a patriotic Sierra Leonean living in Pennsylvania, United Sates of America (U.S.A.); a neutralist, and a progressive, I thought as much that I should express my views. I commend the president for making a statement; the citizenry has longed to hear from him amidst the turmoil. He delivered the speech with a clear and concise tone. The first segment of his speech was very effective in terms of uniting the country, and fostering peace. He calls for the solidarity of the nation, asking the populace to join hands in the interest of our shared values. The later segment of his speech, the president highlighted his development agenda in a forceful and conciliatory tone. With that said, the speech is not devoid of flaws.
Above most, the president’s address came a little late. As the saying goes, “a stich in time saves nine.” Like many others, I believe if the president had came out immediately after the violent and deadly menace at the Pandemba Road, maximum prison, subsequent riots in other parts of the country may have been averted. Also, the president’s speech failed to cease the moment to unify the country. In a segment of his speech, he castigated the opposition, the All People’s Congress (APC)’s failure to condemn the barbaric acts in their statement following the prison events. The president questioned the opposition party’s silence in the face of the acts of terrorism, and violence perpetrated by the hooligans. He further went to the extreme length of accusing the opposition of supporting and financing the violent perpetrators. Every well-meaning Sierra Leonean wished the president had continued to appeal to the opposition parties to choose unity instead of division, and to be on the side of peace instead of fanning the flames of fire. Literarily speaking, the president would have invoked the words of the former United States’ First Lady, Michelle Obama, “when they go low, we go high.” Instead, his attack on the opposition is one of the implications, “when they go low, we go low.” I don’t blame it entirely on the president, but his advisors, and his speechwriters as well.
In the interest of our fragile democracy, it is not just the ruling government that should aspire to go high, the opposition party should geared towards that goal as well. To the APC, and the other opposition parties, your focus should be on objective, and constructive criticism of the incumbent. Please refrain from the goal of making the state “ungovernable.” There are winnable arguments like the worse economic situation of our country that any opposition party could articulate. Even before the Covid-19 saga, the economy of Sierra Leone has been in the tank. The exchange rate has been deteriorating to an alarming rate. As such, the inflation rate has risen more than 40% since the previous government. Sooner, or later, people may need a wheelbarrow to collect the Leones for a $100 bill exchanged. We fervently hope that we don’t get to that stage. I’m afraid to even state the percentage of the unemployed, or underemployed in our country, it’s nearly more than half of the country’s population. The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly worsened the economic indices of even the most developed nations in the world, let alone developing countries like Sierra Leone. As patriotic Sierra Leoneans, we should wished for the success of the ruling government, for the betterment of our country, but the failure of the incumbent to put in place sound economic policies, should be a fear game for the opposition to call on them. The opposition also has the responsibility of sensitizing the populace about the pervasive inequities, inequalities, excesses, and the economic imbalances. Studies have shown that in “free and fair elections,” most, if not all of the incumbent governments have failed to retain power when the economy is in shambles. Protest votes are inevitable: people vote with their hands, but for their mouths, and for their stomachs—their welfare, so to speak. In as much as the opposition parties should support the incumbent, they are expected to wait for the people’s mandate in the next elections.
In view of the above, to meet the mandate given to them by the people of Sierra Leone, and to uphold the priorities of keeping the people safe, and to improve on their welfare, president Bio’s government should focus on governing. They should avoid falling into the trap of political distractions; they should ignore the social media detractors, and other activities that are incompatible to their government’s developmental agenda. Detaining political opponents like Paolo Conteh, Sylvia Blyden, and others will not foster development, but a distraction aiming at derailing the government’s agenda. I am not a lawyer, but consulting legal luminaries in Sierra Leone, and here in the U.S., I was made to reckon that proven an accuse guilty of a treason offence is perhaps one of the most herculean tasks in a court of law. We get it. Owing to the Covid-19 situation, the courts are temporarily closed. However, in the interest of peace, and to save the government from such distractions, president Bio should follow through his promise in his speech. He should recommend a speedy and impartial trial of the high stake detainees. This could be done by any improvised means.
To the goal of an effective government, president Bio should consider restructuring his cabinet. The appointment of competent, patriotic and expatriates; a well-diversified cabinet that is devoid of sentiments, cronyism, and regionalism is quintessential to the development of our nation. It could be recalled that cronyism contributed to the backwardness of our educational sector emanating from the previous government. Because of his close relationship with then Minister of Education, the former president, Earnest Bai Koroma, retained Dr. Minkailu Bah in the position as Minister of Education despite all the hews and cries from donor agencies, and well-meaning Sierra Leoneans like myself. The then president served his personal interest rather than the country’s interest. With all due respect to Dr. Bah, someone I have great respect, and admiration for; he was one of our elderly statesmen when I served as Secretary General of the Fourah Bay College (FBC) Muslim Students’ union; I believed he was better suited for other ministries, the likes of Energy and Power as an engineer. The Bio government should learn from such mistakes. In so far, perhaps the best cabinet appointment in the current government is that of the Minister of Education, Dr. David Moinina Sengeh. Like many others, I believe this young man is qualified, industrious, and ingenious. Hopefully, he will elevate our country’s educational standards as soonest. On the other hand, president Bio’s pick of J.J. Saffa as Finance Minister, may be synonymous to former president Earnest Bai Koroma’s pick of Dr. Minkailu Bah.
That brings me to my next viewpoint. As an Economist, trained at Fourah Bay College (FBC), and at Temple University, in Pennsylvania, U.S.A, I thought as much that I should proffer my economic advice to our president, Bio in his quest to improve our country’s economy. As a first step in solving the economic imbalances in our country, I recommend that the minister of Finance, and the Bank Governor be replaced immediately. Indeed, J.J. Saffa is an SLPP loyalist, and he did a lot to bring the party to the reins of power. He deserves to be compensated, but not at the expense of the nation. Without any doubt, J.J. Saffa will deliver more when repositioned to other capacities. For some people that may not know it, J.J. Saffa has a background in Development Economics, a Macroeconomic branch that is lauded with literature, but very thin in quantitative analysis. Yes, J.J. Saffa taught me Development Economics at FBC. His knowledge of Microeconomics, Quantitative Economics, and Monetary Economics maybe very terse, or limited if you like. At our current economic fiasco, we need economists that have the vast experience, and the astute knowledge in Monetary, Quantitative, and Fiscal economic policies to head the Finance Ministry, and the Central Bank.
One of the reasons for the exacerbating inflation rate, and the geometric deterioration of our exchange rate is the humongous Balance of Payments (BOP) deficit the economy has been experiencing under the failed leadership of the Minister of Finance, and the Bank Governor. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or the Gross National Product (GNP), and the Net-Export (Export less Import) are constituents of the balance of payments. To boost these stochastic economic variables, I recommend that the government should go smaller or leaner. The “free rider problem,” an economic phenomenon that says: “anything that belongs to government, belongs to no one, thus should be used freely.” As such, for government to realize more revenue via taxation, some of the government own businesses, or state run services should be privatized. Imagined a competitive situation where private investors provide electricity in our country, the days of blackouts will be rendered to oblivion. Opponents to this viewpoint will point at the possibility of exploitation of the masses when we allow private businesses to provide essential services or products such as electricity or water supply. To them, I say the government should allow an open, and competitive business practices. Take the case of mobile cell phone use in our country. Just reflect on the comparison between the emergence of the amenity when very few mobile phone companies where in operation to the heighten competition now in the business. The prices have lowered or the services becoming more affordable; the services are better now, and the government’s revenue earned from the taxes collected from the mobile phone companies is higher than the seemingly monopoly days. Hence, the government should cut the ‘red/green’ tape to local and foreign investors, reduce the bureaucracy, and open the economy for a fair and competitive business. This will augment the government revenue via exercise, or sales taxes; it will improve the employment capacity, and it will help to correct the economic lopsidedness. For instance, there will certainly be an increase in productivity (GDP) growth that will translate to an improvement in our balance of payments deficit. The BOP deficit will also be stem, by the potential improvement of the Net-Export, which will contribute to a favorable exchange rate that will account for a reduction of the inflation rate in the country.
Finally, president Bio should reconsider his Free-Education policy. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all in for this policy with the conviction that for a country to develop, the labor force, especially skilled labor, is pivotal. However, the old adage, “There is No Free Lunch in Economics.” That is, expenditure must be matched by revenue/income received. Education is perhaps one of the most viable, but expensive commodities on planet earth. This may attempt to explain why most of the developed countries are very wary of endorsing a Free-Education policy. Here in the U.S., Free-Education is limited to public schools, from first grade to high school level. Admittance to such schools is limited to residents of the school’s zip code. This is so, because, residents of those localities fund the public schools through the local, real estate, and sales taxes they pay to the local government. In some cases, the local government’s income/revenue received exceeds the expenditures on the public schools. In essence, there is no Free-Education. The questions for the Bio government are: where is the money coming from to fund the Free-Education; what other essential government sectors may have been deprived of funds? These are questions that assembled National Council of Economist should grapple with. A quantitative, and qualitative analysis of not just the short-run, but the long-run effect of the Free-Education policy should be done. Nonetheless, I think the emphasis should be on promoting vocational education. Basic automotive technicians, healthcare aids, carpenters, commercial vehicle drivers, construction workers, and many more technician works of life that requires short trainings, are in high demand, and will always be. The apprenticeship model that is very successful in developed countries like the Netherlands should be emulated. Our youths are eager to be employed. Perhaps, introducing loans system to cover tuition and educational costs should be considered. The future in our country is not desolate, we shall return to the days of peaceful, united, healthy, and a happy country in the near future. Long live Sierra Leone, and Long Live Sierra Leoneans.
Mohamed Majid Kamara, MA, CPharm