Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 13 April 2019:
Congratulations to the government for its one year in power. As is normal after elections, there are often great expectations of a new government from its ardent supporters and people who generally look forward to a fresh approach to addressing national concerns.
It will however be unfair to pass a definitive verdict on any government after only one year. What is important is to ascertain if the nascent steps taken at the inception will put the country on the right path. After all, our socio- economic indices, by whatever measure have been in the doldrums for a long time.
That said, let us take a look at the government after one year by reviewing the government’s actions in implementing its own stated agenda, from multilateral organisations, respected local observers and from government’s review of its own performance.
Let us start with the most obvious successes. Government has understandably been effusive in its own praise at its successes in starting to implement its flagship free education programme. It has not only matched its rhetoric with providing the funds from the budget but has actively taken the programme to all corners of this country.
The government has done a good job of plugging the holes in areas where the country was losing massively and has started implementing measures to increase revenue.
The economic measures undertaken by the Finance Ministry and the NRA are yielding dividends, which are reflected in government earning enough revenue to self-fund many projects, which had hitherto been thought impossible.
On the social front there is no doubt that the restart of the football league, whatever the ramifications for the relationship with FIFA is a feel-good factor for many young people and is a rallying cause for national unity.
The appointment of young people and women to many positions of responsibility is also commendable as are some of the novel ideas like forming the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation.
There are however several problem areas which even the government would readily acknowledge. The problem of youth unemployment remains bothersome and is easily one of the biggest problems facing this and other governments before it.
As was obvious during the last government, any measures undertaken have merely been cosmetic, scratching the surface on this issue. Whatever the successes with the economy, the poverty situation at a 57% poverty rate remains problematic.
Measures have hardly created any dent in the poverty situation. Incomes are low, prices high and unaffordable for most basic commodities and the poverty situation is palpable.
With the government putting emphasis on Human capital development, the real problem being asked is where the funds will come from to fund its ambitious social programmes, however commendable these may be.
On the infrastructure front, there have been some successes with electricity, roads, water and ICT with various projects being implemented in the throes of being implemented by government with self-funding or external funding.
However, with access to infrastructure being low from the start (Sierra Leone is ranked 46 out of 54 countries in the AfDB’s Infrastructure Development Index of 2016) and the indices very poor for rural areas, the situation is unlikely to improve in leaps and bounds.
The government realizes this and prioritises “accelerating the provision of energy supplies, transforming the transportation systems, improving the water infrastructure systems, improving information and communications technologies and fostering private sector growth” in its Medium Term National Development Plan. The jury is still out on how effectively this will be done.
Apart from duties and taxes, the traditional and expected sources of major revenue-mining, tourism, fisheries and agriculture are not showing marked signs of improvement, and in the case of mining which accounts for over 80 percent of export earnings, this sector showed a 16 % decline in revenue last year.
The hoped-for investment in various sectors and the diversification of the economy which have been the lynchpin of government policy are being realized only at a snail’s pace.
Predictability and consistency of policies would need a paradigm improvement before investors could have the required confidence to invest in certain sectors. There is little doubt that a lot more needs to be done by government to gain the confidence of the private sector.
The IMF provides a very realistic view of the economy. Its expectations are that the legislative landscape will be challenging given that the opposition dominates the parliament. There will also be persistent imbalances on the external account and high inflation will pose macroeconomic challenges over the next two years.
Growth will be considerably lower than projected, largely reflecting weaker performance in the iron ore sector. The suspension of iron ore mining and exports together with the rise in imported fuel prices have negative implications for the balance of payments and budget revenue.
The IMF states thus: “Overall, Sierra Leone’s longer-term growth prospects are promising, but experience has shown that the economy is fragile and will remain vulnerable to domestic and external shocks”.
The IMF also warns that “the government will need to contain recurrent spending while reorienting overall spending towards infrastructure and social protection, including investment in its flagship Free Quality Education and other social programs”.
It further suggests that “the main sources of growth in the medium-term are: (i) The expected resumption of iron ore mining and an increase in other mining activities,1 (ii) reforms and stronger foreign direct investment in the agriculture, fisheries, and tourism sectors; (iii) the resumption of publicly funded construction activities; (iv) scaling up and improving the efficiency of public investment in roads, energy and the water supply; (v) increasing investment in human development; and (vi) deepening structural and business regulatory reforms to improve competitiveness and the ease of doing business.”
The Campaign for good governance (CGG) has also given its views on the government’s performance in a recent press release. The release states:
“We commend the launch of the free quality education programme, the allocation of 21% of government’s budget to education and the commitment to ensure that over 1.5 million school children benefit from this initiative…..We also acknowledge government’s scaling up of service delivery and poverty reduction investments in social protection and health services. We commend the bold steps in the fight against corruption. We note the on-going Commission of Inquiry (COI) with an objective of examining the assets of senior government officials who were in office from 2007 to 2018 in order to ascertain whether their standard of living was commensurate to their official emolument. We note the increased number of prosecutions of public officials and the recovery of corruptly acquired money to the tune of approximately twelve billion Leones (Le 12,000,000,000) as high markers of accountability in governance. We applaud the release of the Government Green paper for peace and social cohesion…….”
CGG however laces these sentiments with words of foreboding for the government. It calls for de-politicisation of the process for setting up the Peace and reconciliation commission and for partisan sentiments to be avoided in peace engagements. It also warns against the over reliance on Executive Orders to make policy, stating that Executive orders do not build consensus and diminish the power of the legislature.
CGG’s Press release continues: “We implore government to continue to make every effort to utilize the findings of the COI to institute governance and accountability reforms in public administration and service delivery.”
It calls on government to ensure the restoration of parliamentary due processes and sanity in parliamentary operations and calls on the law enforcement agencies and the judiciary to scale up their independence from the political executive.
CGG continues by urging the government to restart the constitutional review process and expresses its concern about the depreciation of the Leone, rising cost of basic goods and their implications on the quality of life of Sierra Leoneans, calling on government to take remedial steps to reverse this situation.
CGG ends its press release with the statement: “Finally, we are concerned about the inequitable distribution of state resources. We note a negative trend that seems to be concentrating resources in certain areas; while insidiously incapacitating local government across the country to actualize their own development plans.”
All in all, the government seems to have a mixed bag of obvious successes, laced with some concerns accompanied by warning bells in certain areas.
There are better judges of the government’s performance than I am, but based on some of the aforementioned issues and other personal views, I will be bold to put in my penny’s worth of advice.
The apparent railroading of items through Parliament and disrespect for parliamentary procedures whilst ignoring the protestations of the opposition will not augur well for our national democracy. The continuation of this will be detrimental for national peace and harmony.
The pressure made to bear on political leaders for jobs for party supporters is one that each government faces, and the realist would agree that some assuaging of the demands may be justified. It is however tempting for a government to go overboard in doing so.
One cannot however run away from a few hard truths. The capacity problems we have in our country and the lack of due process in doing so ensures that we may be left with a lot of square pegs in round holes with concomitant effects on the performance of the economy. Additionally, it does not engender national cohesion.
The government needs to be aware of this and meaningfully develop the private sector giving people a leg up to fully participate in it. It is impossible to cater for more than a handful of political supporters; the public sector is already overburdened.
Many businesses are hurting, and their cries must be listened to and addressed. The Central Bank Governor himself has complained about excessive taxation making us uncompetitive.
The Finance Minister, to his credit has been making meaningful overtures to the private sector but he must be backed in this effort by other MDAs, who may have the temptation and proclivity to operate in “silos”.
Government must listen to the lamentations of a tax-overburdened private sector.
Additionally, investor confidence will only be buttressed when there is predictability, security of tenure, clarity and consistency of policies.
The government, more than anyone else should realise that its ambitious social programmes can only be achieved if the revenue generating MDAs markedly improve on their performance. This pertains a lot to MDAs in the mining, fisheries, tourism and agriculture sectors. This fact must not be lost on government.
Most well- meaning Sierra Leoneans have commended the government in its fight against corruption. The happenings at the Commissions of Inquiry, the Anti -corruption Commission and the results of various audits, including the most recent performance audits of MDAs indicate persistent corruption, wanton fleecing of this country and a total disregard for systems and procedures in many instances.
The temptation to generalize accusations and dwell too much on lamenting over inherited economic problems is all too strong. It may be prudent however for government to leave such to the ACC and the Commissions of Inquiry and for government Ministers and other functionaries to get on with the tasks for which they were appointed.
All of these will however come to naught if there is no national cohesion and good governance does not prevail.
All well-meaning Sierra Leoneans should wish the government well as it embarks upon the difficult task of managing the affairs of this country for a second year at the end of which we may be able to pass a more definitive judgement on its performance.
Ponder my thoughts.