$13 million loan – ministers must come clean

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 6 May 2013

There is something disturbing about the way the  Koroma led APC government of Sierra Leone makes decisions about spending.

And the impact of that decision making process on the country’s parliamentary democracy and the fight against corruption is enormous.

When a finance minister goes on a  shopping spree outside of the country to borrow money for unscheduled spending, which is outside of government’s spending plan presented to parliament, questions must be asked.

Sierra Leone’s finance minister – Dr. Keifala Marah was in the US last month, signing a loan agreement with the Director General of OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) for a whopping $13 million, which according to the government – will be spent on the redevelopment of the country’s premier university – Fourah Bay College.

Is this just another ‘get rich quick’ scheme by and for ministers and officials? Dr. Marah told OFID that; “The cost of rehabilitating Fourah Bay College is estimated at $36.65 Million.” (Cocorioko News).

But how will this huge funding shortfall be met? And what are the expected benefits for the economy that has been in serious recession for the best part of six years?

Innocuous as this loan agreement may seem, analysts say that this unscheduled spending was not presented to parliament for approval early this year, when the finance minister read out his Annual Spending and Financing Bill.

Furthermore, there are concerns as to whether the need for the $13 million has been identified as part of a wider Strategic Development Assessment of the country’s education sector.

The government’s annual actual spending on the education sector has been a mere fraction of $13 million.

Most of the allocated budget for building new schools, redevelopment of higher education institutions, staff salaries and other running costs are misappropriated by corrupt officials.

Although no one will doubt the overwhelming need for Fourah Bay College and the entire education sector to be developed, there are concerns as to how much of that money would actually be spent in achieving this goal.

In the absence of a costed Strategic Development Plan for the entire sector, the government is once again open to criticism of incompetence and poor governance.

The need for industry and the country’s businesses to have an input in formulating an Education Sector Strategic Development Plan is crucial. Education and learning outcomes must be linked to the country’s development aspirations.

Parliament must therefore call both the finance and education ministers to present the business case that underpins the $13 million loan agreement; showing clearly how and what the money will be spent on.

This loan comes at a time when the government’s debt is said to be running at over $200 million a year, since it came to power in 2007.

With a sluggish economy that lacks the capacity to provide job opportunities for the country’s millions of unemployed graduates and school leavers, there are questions as to the value for money and cost-effectiveness of spending $13 million in continuing to expand the supply of the labour force.

If by spending $13 million on the education sector now – hundreds of thousands of newly qualified graduates and school leavers are produced, what percentage will be able to gain meaningful employment?

“According to Sierra Leone’s Finance and Economic Development Minister – Dr. Keifala Marah, the loan is geared towards the rehabilitation and expansion of Fourah Bay College (FBC) in particular, which is part of the University of Sierra Leone.

“He said the loan will see the construction of new structures and rehabilitation of existing ones at FBC to meet the needs of students, faculties and administrative staff so that they will contribute to national growth and development.” (Cocorioko News).

The immediate needs of educational institutions such as Fourah Bay College are all too obvious and well documented. Students and lecturers have vented out their anger and frustrations quite forcefully in recent times.

Like the rest of society and the country’s educational sector, higher education institutions are suffering from the lack of electricity and poor supply of clean drinking water; food rationing; inadequate and uninhabitable standard of student accommodation; over-crowding; lack of classroom and teaching facilities; lack of proper medical care; and unavailability of transport – to and from the University campus.

University lecturers and other staff are faced with unacceptably poor working conditions. Far too often, the government says it cannot find the money to pay salaries. Many lecturers are owed several months of unpaid salaries and other entitlements.

Of course, there are urgent and serious problems facing the university and other educational institutions in Sierra Leone, but these problems can be solved for far less than $13 million.

And given the real risk of the best part of that money being ferreted away through corruption and waste, it is essential that parliament recall both ministers of finance and education to present their Education Sector Strategic Development Plan, which informs the decision to sign a $13 million loan with the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID).

With president Koroma now completing his final term in office, the ambition of far too many ministers and officials is to get rich quick – while there is time. Over 60% of ministers are each currently constructing at least three mansions in the capital Freetown and elsewhere.

The IMF has criticised the government of Sierra Leone for its obsession with ‘unscheduled spending’, which is once again driving the country’s debt to unsustainable levels.

How will the spending of $13 million on Fourah Bay College, or even the entire education sector now, increase the country’s economic growth, with industry and business lacking the capacity to create jobs for the army of graduates and school leavers that are yet to find work, since president Koroma took office in 2007?

Where is the demand for more qualified graduates and school leavers coming from? Is president Koroma, yet again putting the cart before the horse?

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