Sierra Leone Telegraph: 30 November 2016
President Koroma and key ministers are in China this week to appeal directly and personally to the Chinese political leadership, especially president Xi Jinping. They desperately need help – and they need it fast.
Sierra Leone is at risk of falling apart, due to rampant corruption, economic mismanagement and politicisation of business and everyday public life.
Nine years ago, president Koroma was the new kid on the political block – after winning the 2007 elections, with whom anyone and everyone interested in getting their hands on Sierra Leone’s rich natural resources wanted to do business. And there were few offers, including the Chinese.
Today, president Koroma and his senior ministers need to secure the ruling APC party’s term in office for another five years at the polls in 2018. But staying in power for another five years costs money. The country is bankrupt.
Can China help president Koroma’s ruling APC party stay in power beyond 2018?
Large swathes of the country’s population, especially the youths are getting very restless and jittery about the worsening state of the economy. The opposition SLPP and the media are turning up the heat on the government’s poor record in office.
On a level playing field – in a free and fair election, and should conditions in Sierra Leone continue as they are, president Koroma’s ruling APC are most likely to lose the 2018 elections – a real possibility that is now sending shivers down the spine of senior ministers.
The government is struggling to pay the salaries of public sector workers. Public procurement contracts are being cancelled and contractors are not being paid.
Budget for the holding of parliamentary and presidential elections in 2018 is seriously in doubt. The Electoral Commission is not sure where the money will come from. The international community have pledged to pay part of the cost, but the government would need to raise at least $12 million to foot the elections bill.
But there are more immediate political issues troubling the Koroma presidency. In a few months time he will stand down as Chairman and leader of his party, if constitutional changes are not quickly cobbled together by the ruling APC party executives at the forthcoming party convention.
The power struggle to replace president Koroma has already begun. Even the Chinese are getting nervous about Koroma’s replacement.
The Chinese leadership will want to ensure that any decision as to who replaces Koroma as leader of his Communist ruling APC party – and effectively the next president of Sierra Leone , sits comfortably with their investment portfolio in Sierra Leone, and that China’s political and economic interests in the country are not jeopardised.
As president Koroma prepares to leave office, visiting China possibly for the last time as president of Sierra Leone must be seen as a priority in more ways than one.
But what is shocking is the president telling the Chinese Xinhua News Agency last week that the reason for his visit is to “study the Chinese system of growth through its model of economic development; and how the Chinese are able to create economic zones that have helped diversify the Chinese economy.”
Quite simply, many of the president’s critics regard this statement as crass stupidity, if nothing else.
Here is a president who has wasted nine years in government, focusing more on feathering his own nest and those of his friends, political allies and close family members, admitting he does not have a clue as to how the economy works.
Sierra Leone has become a state sponsored ‘Koroma friends and family enterprise’. He has done absolutely nothing to tackle abject poverty in the country.
Since coming to power in 2007, and despite claiming to have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on road construction – mainly in his northern tribal heartlands – critics argue, unemployment has reached 80%.
Average monthly inflation has doubled the 2007 levels; the Leone has dropped in value to the Dollar – matching its 2007 value; economic growth has fallen by 50% below the 2007 rate of 8%; adult and childhood mortality have worsened – not to speak of the Ebola scourge which took the lives of more than 5,000 people in just eighteen months, due to poor governance and corruption.
The president, his cabinet ministers and senior ruling party officials have woefully failed to use their intellect to implement simple measures, aimed at diversifying the economy away from reliance on mining revenue, despite all the political rhetoric and claims about the president working hard for the people..
In 2011 the president launched his Private Sector Development Strategy to grow local businesses and create jobs. But it was a big scam. After five years of launching that strategy, the costs of starting up and expanding local businesses in Sierra Leone have more than doubled.
Few local businesses are paying taxes – even if they can afford to do so. Political patronage and corruption have become more ingrained into the economic life of the country than ever before.
With more than $200 million given away every year in tax and custom duty waivers through political patronage and high level bribery by the senior leadership in the government, there is no surprise the government is now bankrupt.
So why is president Koroma in China this week, along with his most senior and trusted ministers – Logus Koroma (Transport minister and head of the ruling APC election campaign strategy), Minkailu Mansaray (Minister of mines and presidential hopeful), and Samura Kamara (Foreign affairs minister and presidential hopeful)?
If president Koroma is to be believed, they are there to study the Chinese economic model of success.
Accusing a president of lying is a very serious responsibility, and one that should not be taken lightly. But when a president tells the poor people of Sierra Leone -many of whom are dying of malnutrition and starvation that he is off to China to study their economic model of success, questions must be asked.
Is the president telling lies to cover his true reasons for going to China?
After nine years as president and with less than two years left before he and his ministers leave office, they have today arrived in Beijing, China, on study leave to learn about how to manage Sierra Leone’s economy. This is shameful indeed.
Putting aside president Koroma’s hoodwinking of his people, the truth about his visit to China this week must be seen in the context of prevailing circumstances in Sierra Leone, be they economic or political.
Immediate cash to rescue the economy
President Koroma is more than $300 million short of cash to run his government and to continue to operate business as usual, with no prospect in sight for a better life for the majority of the population that are living on less that $1.50 a day.
Can the Chinese leadership provide a bailout for the Koroma government?
Mamamah airport project
It is now more than two years since president Koroma and his ruling APC requested help from the Chinese to build a new international airport in the north of the country. But opposition to the project has been widespread and fierce.
Estimated at $400 million to build, the new airport proposal was to be financed by a loan from China at 12% interest and with the agreement that when completed the airport will be managed by the Chinese.
There are serious questions about the cost-effectiveness of the project and its value for money proposition.
To make matters worse, there has been no feasibility study conducted for the project, nor has a business case been presented to parliament for approval – along with the government’s request for the Chinese loan.
Both IMF and World Bank officials have expressed serious concerns about the country’s affordability of a new airport costing $400 million, at a time when its president is globetrotting with a begging bowl asking for donor aid to pay for healthcare.
But it seems the Chinese ambassador to Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone government ministers, and ruling APC party executives are keen to see construction of the new airport commence well before the 2018 elections.
The country’s foreign affairs minister Samura Kamara had made it abundantly clear that, the government’s objective for the airport project is political, rather than purely economic. He too has accompanied president Koroma to China.
But it is reliable understood that the Chinese leadership in Beijing are not entirely convinced that given the country’s life threatening priorities – healthcare, sanitation, access to water and electricity, a new airport should be at the top of the government’s shopping list.
Without the Chinese government financial support, president Koroma’s dream of an international airport named after him when he is long out of office will not materialise.
Will the Chinese leadership in Beijing grant president Koroma his wish this week?
New investments in agriculture and fishing sectors
The massive financial impact of falling global prices for iron ore and the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone cannot be denied. It is estimated that the Koroma government has lost about $200 million in export revenue. But the government’s over-reliance on the mining industry for its income had been heavily criticised, even before the global economic downturn in 2008.
The government is now hoping to attract investments in other sectors, especially large-scale agriculture, fishing and tourism.
But since declaring that Sierra Leone was opened for business in 2011 at an international donor conference in London, president Koroma has not been able to win the confidence of large swathes of investors.
The country quite simply lacks the basic requirements for an attractive industrial location – an educated skilled workforce, reliable supply of water and electricity, a strong climate of law and order, good healthcare system, and a relatively affluent population.
The Chinese have managed to prop Sierra Leone’s ailing economy with billions of dollars, invested mainly in mining, agriculture and infrastructure development.
But will president Koroma convince the Chinese leadership in Beijing to do more?
Stronger security ties with China in preparation for the 2018 elections
The president and his ruling party officials are desperate to get their hands on sophisticated communications surveillance, detection technology and expertise to help control the use of social media – especially Facebook and Whatsapp.
No other nation in the world is better at using technology to control the use of the internet and social media by their citizens than China.
And after the recent arrest of female university student – Theresa Mbomaya by the Koroma government, for sharing a Whatsapp message the government says is subversive – calling for an all-out national strike, president Koroma will be in good company this week in Beijing. (Photo: Student Theresa Mbomaya received an awarded this week in Freetown from children’s rights group).
Senior ruling APC party executives are worried about the use of social media by young people to express their dissatisfaction with the government. With elections due in 2018, there are fears among ministers that, social media may usher in regime change through the ballot box.
Will the Chinese authorities supply the Koroma government with the surveillance technology and expertise needed to control the use of the internet in Sierra Leone – especially social media?