Abdulai Mansaray: 9 August 2019:
Sierra Leone’s Finance Minister, Mr Jacob Jusu Saffa (JJ Blood) is facing the spotlight, for what some people see as his failure to revive an ailing economy. Others have gone as far as saying that he is now fighting for his political or ministerial life.
We can all recall that JJ has been and continues to be a vital cog in the Bio government machinery, thanks to his role in helping mastermind the defeat of the APC in 2018. But as Finance Minister, he is tasked with the responsibility of reviving an economy that was inherited whilst on life support. It is also common knowledge, that the “economy” and “corruption” are central to President Bio’s government New Direction mantra.
JJ is remembered as the face of yesterday’s opposition on many media platforms, during which he diagnosed the economic malaise and ills of the Koroma government; but as good measure also, prescribed how a Bio led government will cure the patient called Sierra Leone in six months.
The poor state of the economy was like a bone to a dog, as JJ and others buried their teeth into it, at every given air time. (Photo: JJ Saffa).
It is safe to say that JJ was seen as one of the sharpest tools in the SLPP toolbox. So, why are people calling for his sacking now?
It is almost 18 months since Bio and his government took the reins from EBK, and presented the people of Sierra Leone with a controversial GTT Report, which did not make for good reading. If anything, it catalogued the scale of corruption, leakages, embezzlements, and general economic recklessness alleged to have been committed by the Koroma APC government.
The euphoria that usually follows a new government was dampened with the report of a country that was near bankruptcy. The new government was so desperate to highlight the economic and moral deficits of the previous government that, the Finance Minister and the Auditor General traded alternative facts about the extent of financial mismanagement, publicly on radio and television.
The stage was set for no miracles from the nascent government at the time. If anything, the expectation was that Bio’s government would be involved in some heavy lifting, trying to steady a sinking ship.
And the nation was ready to give the new government and “New Direction” time to find a new direction, especially as it was heavily saddled with the twin forces of a comatose economy and an albatross – Corruption.
The launching of the Commissions of Inquiry provided a timely prescription for our problems. The Anti-Corruption Commission, under the leadership of Francis Ben Kaifala went into gear, and has since been handing over “Osusu” monies collected from some corrupt individuals. The Finance Ministry was just too happy to tag along those little successes, and quite rightly so.
Amidst the calls for his resignation or sacking, others have given snippets of some of the successes of the Ministry of Finance under JJ Saffa’s guardianship. In effect, these successes have been reeled out to counter those dissenting voices – and by implication, consider such calls as unjustified. You be the judge.
“Under his watch, the Free Quality Education initiative (President Bio’s flagship program) is being implemented. Salaries are being paid on time. No more overdrafts borrowing to pay salaries. Road contractors are being paid. The Gratuity and End of Service Benefits for former President, Vice President, Cabinet Ministers and Diplomats have been paid, or at least 50% of it has been paid.” (thesierraleonetelegraph.com-08/08/19). They also maintain that: “most of these arrears were left behind by the APC administration of President Ernest Bai Koroma. This messy situation is what JJ Saffa inherited from the APC administration. With a team of dedicated men and women in the Ministry of Finance, JJ Saffa has done his best to consistently fund the implementation of the Free Quality Education and to ensure the consistent delivery of social services”. (sierraleonetelegraph.com)
The slow nudge towards what some see as a recovery programme of our economy, has been judged against the yardstick of tough economic times; that “The SLPP Government inherited a huge debt burden. Presently, 60 to 70% of domestic revenue generated by this government is used for debt servicing, arrears payments and payment of wages and salaries. Only 30 to 40% is used for funding other recurrent and capital projects. To date, mining of Iron Ore is yet to fully resume. Besides, the US Dollar continues to appreciate globally”.
On the other hand, “Business people are grumbling about the introduction of a raft of new taxes. The tax burden is killing small businesses. There are fewer imports of goods now than there was before April 2018.”
We can all agree that these are tough economic times; and the forecast for worldwide economic growth is not great. According to IMF World Economic Outlook, July 2019, global growth remains subdued; thanks partly to America and China’s petty trade war. As if that was not enough, the Brexit related uncertainty keeps jolting the markets against rising geopolitical tensions and, roiled energy prices. These uncertainties have squeezed consumer spending as many try to hold on to what they have at the moment. The low interest rates and the softening of inflation have contributed to debt service difficulties and constraints on money policy to counter the downturns.
But that is too much worldly matters for the man at Congo Market. Morlai is not concerned about what goes on at Wall Street; his concerns are the prices of bonga, fufu, and gari and oleh leh at Kroo Town Road market.
On June 28, 2019, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) completed the first review of Sierra Leone’s performance under the program supported by an Extended Credit Facility, and disbursed $ 21.62 Million.
Many people may see this as a compliment to, and good report card for JJ Saffa and his Ministry of Finance. But the irony is that this money came with hazard warnings, which included removing fuel subsidy. As we know already, the surest way to raise prices on consumer goods is via fuel price increase, which has a domino effect on every sphere of our lives.
With such a show of confidence from such an international body and at face value, some may wonder why there is a call for JJ’s sacking. But on the other hand, many would like to see it like one inheriting a dilapidated house. When you take tenancy of a broken building, the expectation is that, you do repairs to make it better.
If one cannot make the home improvements, the expectation is to at least maintain its current state. One would not expect the building to deteriorate further. This could be a layman’s allusion, that if the SLPP government cannot improve the lives of the people, the expectation is that things should not get worse than it was under the APC government. Whether it is worse or better, you be the judge.
But as we all know, the government could be involved in firefighting; servicing debts it claims were taken and bequeathed to them by the APC. In addition, the government is also embarking on its programmes that carry its own identity. (Photo: Koroma’s final appearance in parliament – in tears).
Technically, it’s like the government is trying to get rid of ants, while standing in an ants trail. We recently heard about the construction of the Lungi Bridge, for example. Every well-meaning citizen would love to have such a vital link across river.
Many recognise the need for the bridge, however, there has been some criticisms, irrespective of its need. The perceived advantages have been well catalogued. But many see the estimated cost of $2.1 Billion, irrespective of who will pay for it as an expensive past time, which is bordering on the frivolous.
If you square such an undertaking against the fact that most Sierra Leoneans can barely have a square meal a day, you can see why they feel that the government has had its priorities mixed up.
There are those with the opinion that the government should tackle the minor but essential repair jobs like national food security, sanitation, healthcare, housing, education, electricity, etc. first; and then walk our way through the bigger stuff. This looks like the reverse theory from Unoka’s manual in “Things Fall Apart”; that “the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them”. In this case, many would like the sun to shine on those who kneel first.
With increasing chorus of the “grun dry”, the call for JJ Saffa to be sacked does not come as a surprise. But is it justified?
Some may say that the job of resuscitating an economy that was inherited whilst on a life support machine is too big a task to complete in 18 months.
Others will argue that if you cannot resuscitate it to full life, the Bio government should at least keep it breathing; and those 18 months are long enough to do that.
Either way, we should be ready for a bumpy ride, as the world economy prepares for an uncertain future. In the meantime, the President has suspended all overseas travelling for his government ministers. Bio promised to plug leakages and wastefulness. Perhaps this is one way of addressing this, and that the honeymoon is over.
But can Bio go a step further: Reduce the number of Cabinet Ministers?
Many see the number of our Cabinet members as too “bloated” for the size of the country – thanks to the late Pa Sheki. Too many chiefs and less Indians?
Let us take a quick rain check here. The legal maximum number of PAID Ministers in the UK is 109, but the government is composed of the Prime Minister and 22 Cabinet Ministers. The population of the UK is 60 million. The Population of Sierra Leone is 7 million. Do you want to know how many Cabinet Ministers and ministers we have in Sierra Leone? Go try dae.
Our Lives begin to End On the Day We Keep Silent About The Things That Matter ( M.L King).
Don’t forget to turn the lights off, when you leave the room.