Is Sierra Leone richly poor or poorly rich?

Abdulai Mansaray: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 06 March 2021:

Sierra Leone has always enjoyed the paradoxical label of being one of the richest poor countries in Africa.  Our country is regarded as rich and well known for its vast endowment in minerals –  diamonds, rutile, bauxite, gold, iron ore, limonite, platinum, chromite, coltan, tantalite, columbite and zircon, as well as promising petroleum potential.

With our wonderful climate and large swathes of arable land, we used to boast about products like rice, cocoa, coffee, oil palm, and in the recent past, piassava. With such resources for a population averaging seven million at best of times, what is our excuse for being such a poor nation?

Are we richly poor or poorly rich? 

Even with such huge resources, we paradoxically rank 182 out 189, according to the 2020 Human Development Index (HDI), and shamefully low in the human development category with an HDI of 0.452.

Like many other African countries, we share a diagnosis of Resource Curse; a term used to describe a paradoxical situation in which a country underperforms economically, despite being home to valuable natural resources.

No one will doubt the impact the decade long civil war, the Ebola pandemic, the mudslides and currently the Covid pandemic, as nature and man-made factors have connived to condemn our country to the back of beyond poverty. However, using these alone as reasons for our economic demise may just be convenient excuses.

We may disagree that our country is rich potentially, but we cannot deny how we have inexcusably connived, through man-made means to relegate our country onto the low rungs of the world poverty scale.

So how did we get here and how did we do it?

There is no single reason or straightforward answer for this.  Interestingly, we are not short of new vocabularies and phrases to express our national economic demise. Phrases like “de gron dry”, “angry borku o” “de game don big”, “de game lock pan me” etc., have insidiously found a way into our local parlance. While the older generation use fond memories to compare and long for the old days, we still hold on to what is increasing looking like a delusion that our country is still rich.

On the other hand, the younger generation, just weaned from the ravages of war and the pandemics, will go green with envy of the good old days.  Let us take a nostalgic drive down memory lane.

Many people recall 1980 as the year we crossed the Rubicon into the downward spiral into the economic cesspit.  Many historians will see 1980 as the pinnacle of the late President Siaka Stevens’ idea of largesse and personal aggrandisement. Against all sane and prudent advice, he played host to the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) conference.

Massive development projects like the National Stadium, Youyi building, Sierra Leone police Headquarters, City Hall, Congo Cross four lane bridge, OAU village, Bai Bureh Road and many more were paid for, using exorbitant, inflation bursting interest rate loans, chiefly from our Chinese in- laws.

The rest became history as we signed our economic prenuptial death knell agreements with the merchants of IMF, headquartered in Washington DC. You wonder why everyone is chasing the dollar.

Now roll back the years when we produced enough and exported oil palm, cocoa, coffee and piassava. We had the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB) to ensure good value for our produce and made farming a worthwhile occupation. We had Sierra Fisheries – a private public enterprise to oversee our fish and marine resources; Wellington distilleries; NATCO; and Sierra Leone Oil Refinery, to name but a few.

In the mining sector, we had Sierra Leone Selection Trust (SLST), which later became National Diamond Mining Company (NDMC), Sierra Rutile Company for bauxite and rutile in the south, Sierra Leone Development Company (DELCO) in the Marampa mines at Lunsar.

Now imagine how many people these companies collectively employed across the country.  There was hardly a family without at least one member in full time employment. These companies provided sources of income for households and the government – thanks to salaries and royalties/shares respectively.

Private miners, especially in the gold and diamond areas provided income and employment. Would it be safe to say that Sierra Leone was rich then?

Let us fast forward to present day Sierra Leone. Where are all those companies and infrastructures like SLPMB, Sierra Fisheries, Sierra Leone oil refinery, and many more? All gone – thanks to systematic gutting, bad management, illegal sales etc. under the watchful eyes of successive governments.

The wind of global economic change has not helped either as we lagged behind in the race to diversify and adapt. Those that survived are mere skeletons and shadows of their former selves.

Today we have deep mining that requires deep pockets, which only non-conglomerate pseudo-hustling companies can afford. Those days when we used to pick diamonds under eaves of houses after a heavy rainfall overnight are gone.

Can any of the current companies operating in the country now even boast of employing more than or, even near a thousand workforce? The nearest we came to that was when African Minerals and London Mining were operating. Even at that, the majority were employed in the railway track-laying phase. They laid them off after the manual labour phase was completed.

Our natural resources have not been depleted but where is the expertise, the desire, and the influence to even negotiate adequately from a position of strength, when these “new investors” know about our desperate situation?

The end of the war brought our country into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. This attention brought us millions of dollars in aid, loans, NGOs etc. to provide the foundations necessary for sustainable developments in our failed state.

What happened to all that? What do we have to show for it today?

With the local refining of crude oil, fuel was relatively cheap. That has gone, but even with world market price falling today, the cost of refined petrol is Le 9,034.0, and resold to Sierra Leoneans at Le 8,500.00. So, who pays the difference? Government subsidies.

That may be just one example. The only “viable” product we seem to have, which is even on life support due to poor management, hazy competition and Chinese handling is timber. Even though this could be cautiously harvested, there is a price for posterity to pay. Our tourism industry does not even make it on people’s bucket list.  The less said about our aviation industry the better.

The big question is this: What does Sierra Leone have in terms of foreign exchange and/or revenue generation? Ebola did hit the nerve centre of our economy, which coincided with the collapse of iron ore prices, and now Covid seems to have put the final nail in the coffin.

As a nation, why do we think “de gron dry?

We dismantled the SLPMB, reduced farming to subsistence level and made it less attractive. Is it any wonder that our streets in the urban areas are filled with able-bodied youth shouting “top up, top up” all day? Is it any wonder that the end of the war saw the largest migration in recent memory from our rural to urban areas?

We continue to get our priorities wrong and open academic institutions daily, when we lack the outlets to accommodate these accomplished skills. What is the point of more universities when we cannot even employ those that have qualified donkeys years ago?

Our Private Public Partnerships are almost non-existent, leaving the government as the largest, if not relatively the only viable employer. With many people chasing fewer jobs, tagged with the inherent cancer of and pressure from nepotism, tribalism, corruption etc., any wonder our unemployment rate is perennially high?

Is it against such a backdrop that the Rtd Brigadier Maada Bio brigade keep shouting that he has performed well in the two and half years he has been in power?

They point to Bio’s contribution to human capital development through the Free Quality Education programme for over two million school going children, the provision of school buses exclusively for schools, increased teachers’ salaries by 30%, controlled government borrowing/deficit and paid $ 1.2 billion of domestic debt left by ex-president Koroma’s government.

They say that the government recruited and appointed 3,798 civil servants at both junior and senior school levels, recruited 300 females in the army to promote gender equality. The Bio supporters also talk about the commissioning of 48 hospitals across the country, the approval of 106 schools, supplied 506 ambulances across the country, and commissioned the construction of two universities in Bonthe and Kono districts.

The Bio sympathisers compare his performance with the past government, that salaries for government workers had increased by 15% and that the government appropriated Le 18.3 billion to the Freetown City Council to transform the capital.

SLPP followers believe that other projects like the solar lights in Moyamba, the commissioning of the Mattru-Jong, kenema/Tongo fields/Kono roads, reconstruction of sixty-eight streets in kenema, the Magbereh Bridge, and many more point to Bio’s success in his short reign.

The Bio brigade makes a case that these policies will return our country to its foundation for sustainable development. The green corner is hopeful that corruption has been cauterised. Others believe that corruption continues, but unlike the past, “de money nor dae go round”.

Is that why “de groin dry?” Will the country get back on its feet when these policies and development projects bear fruits? How long do we have to wait?

So, what happens in the meantime? Is “SIERRA LEONE POORLY RICH OR RICHLY POOR? Take your pick. Do not forget to turn the lights off when you leave the room.

11 Comments

  1. A very nice piece Mr Mansaray, but I think this sounds even better to inquiring open minds; “Do not say why is it the former days are better than these? For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this “(Ecclesiastes 7:10) Perhaps the writer will be kind enough to tell us what were his motivations for creating such a partial, one-sided interpretation of how things really were; I am now 65 years old and my understanding of past events in Sierra Leone are completely different from yours Sir. Correct me if I am wrong – Wasn’t the OAU founded in 1963 by 32 African states with the main aim of bringing the African continent together for the purposes of resolving the challenges facing the continent?

    Then why would anyone blame Siaka Stevens for holding his end of a ‘mutual gain bargain’ in an agreement he promised the OAU to carry through on as many other rational African leaders had agreed to do? Our people would not have been complaining today if the OAU had succeeded in its mandate to successfully implement its progressive ideas, that would have brought economic stability and political integration to our failing continent. I thank you for your attention Sir.

    • Mr Tunkara, I try very hard to resist the temptation to respond to my articles here. That is the idea; to generate meaningful conversations among us. However, my point for blaming Siaka Stevens for holding his end of ” the mutual gain bargain” is because, we were not fiscally equipped to do so. He went against all economic advice, including his Bank Governor Bangura’s at the time to do so. It was not considered prudent or otherwise.

      We can appreciate the “development projects” that came with it, but at what price?. Do you know how many African leaders dodged their turn to host it, simply because they could not afford it? Are we surprised that until his death, it was Ghadaffi that took responsibility to finance most AU meetings of late? Even that was done to cement his sphere of influence in the region. MrTunkara, it is only now that African leaders have realised the negative financial impact of hosting such meetings in their individual countries; that it is not financially viable.

      It was just an extension of the megalomania of our leaders. Which country last hosted the UN General Assembly? It has always been at its headquarters in the USA. Spot the difference? Hope this helps to clarify my view. Let’s keep the big conversation going, and in doing, let us listen in action.

    • Mr Mansaray’s brilliant opinion piece and how he laid out some of the historical contributory factors, with a wonderful diagnosis of some of the political and economic timelines that influence both our past and present, it was work well done. In all fairness, it has now made it easier for some of us to reconcile, how that past is influencing our present everyday lives. Given the reaction to the historical facts, I am left wondering, that maybe not enough of our history has been taught in our schools and colleges in present day Sierra Leone.

      To put it into context, I wonder how many of our college graduates know that Sierra Leone hosted the OAU? How many of our secondary school students know when president Kabbah declared the civil war over? Before you google the answers, you have to have interest in learning about the history of our country. I think the Ministry of Education needs to review our school curriculum, about what we are teaching our students regarding the history of modern day Sierra Leone.

      There are three modern historical events that have helped shape our country’s development prospects. The end of the second world war in 1945, events leading for the demand for independence and events from the time of Independence in 1961 to 1990. Unfortunately, the way the 1990 generation which makes up a large percentage of the population that experienced the RUF war years for eleven years, have a different take on how Sierra Leone was like, compared to us the older generation. That is why this piece is so welcome and important, because if you do not know your past, you will never know how the future is influenced by it.

  2. History is well told, when facts are differentiated from fiction. Sometimes when somebody speaks about issues of national interest, I feel good within myself. Perhaps the early days of Independence were the neophyte stage of technology. So, a good number of Sierra Leoneans were unaware of development. This was the period of its own. Think of it, the age limit for retirement is 60 years. Can we still say we do not have people or systems of such, operating in some workplaces? If truly these are some of the issues that have made Sierra Leone lagging behind in development, don’t you think this is the reason why we are struggling with development. Sierra Leone is rich with natural resources. The question I will ask is it truly ours? We are only the gatekeepers.

    How many factories do we have that refine our natural resources into finished goods? Sierra Leone has arable land for agriculture. Tell me what is going on with the land tenure system? With the advent of technology, a good number of Sierra Leoneans can now do research on so many things. I keep on saying that we need to talk about issues and not personalities. Sierra Leone will someday become a better nation, if we are honest with ourselves to talk about issues and not personalities. Let us try to incorporate people who have the solutions to issues of national interest. Today, I am one of those that truly admire the Anti-corruption Commissioner Mr. Francis Ben Keifala. My President, your president, our president, His Excellency Julius Maada Bio is likely making history in Sierra Leone.

    His systematic address to Sierra Leoneans needs (the human capital development-free education to all pupils; fight against corruption; rule of law by providing sitting High Court Judges in all districts through the Chief Justice office; linking ferry crossing towns with bridges; restitution of town mayors, chairman and Chiefdom authorities with salaries payments, benefits and gratuities; road infrastructure; tourism; wages and salary commission committee; taking light energy to districts by district; our international relations; embracing technology for modern development. This is truly something to note. “If a man will constantly think about these metaphysical truths, he will develop in time the capacity to perceive them by direct intuition instead of reflection. However, to do this kind of thinking properly, the mind must be made steady, poised, concentrated and easily detached from the world of lies”.

    • Isn’t it something! Hahahah. Samuel Marconi Kamara here lecturing people about staying the course facts, yet he turns around making up a bunch of fallacies. Forgive me Mr. Kamara, but you appear to be living in an alternate universe and gradually becoming a notorious propagandist.
      Where exactly are the electrifications, road constructions, and the many monumental developments you are talking about? Name just one district in the entire country that is currently enjoying your imaginary accelerated development you are talking about. I hope you are not talking about proposal or launching of projects that are yet to see the light of the day? Sierra Leone should have been a paradise by now if we are to go by that, since almost all past regimes have made similar proposals. Please my brother, you are not dealing with a bunch of ill-informed illiterate villagers here.

  3. Mr. Mansaray, I was reading your article feeling like I want to be like you. You brought too many things to our attention today brother, may God continue to bless and increase your knowledge, I pray for your two parents if they are alive, may God continue to serve them with good health. All your articles in this noble platform, teach us about the past and the future. Talking about the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB) – we used to translate it at the time as “Sierra Leone people pwell money for banga”.

    The national diamond mining company (NDMC), if you wanted to see or witness wonders, every Friday go to “Yengema” – those days would never come again. Mr. Mansaray, may God guide and protect you and your family wherever you are, you make me proud as a Sierra Leonean.

    Actually the late H.E. Dr. Siaka P. Steven’s APC no longer exist. Believe it or not, my whole body nerved when I was reading your article. Your education you using to benefits not the nation without hurting no one, and I believed that the Almighty God loves you and His Angels as well. There are too many mistakes and misspellings why because, I don’t have access to computer, using my little device. If I decided to edit my writing I will loose everything. Thank you.

  4. Ok, so you have highlighted the dismal state of our country. There is nothing new or strange here. WHAT ARE POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS TO ALL WHAT YOU HAVE SO ELOQUENTLY POINTED OUT? If there are no solutions, then these problems would continue to multiply until Kingdom come!

  5. Yes, we need our history lessons now and again to remind our fellow countrymen, and women where we are coming from, and the challenges we faced during our journey from Independence to the present day. If we do not know our history, we are doomed to make the same mistakes of the past, that have kept a country like ours that is rich on paper with human and natural resources. But sixty years after Independence is still trying to chat its way in the world pecking order. We cannot say what if the challenges facing us today are not all that different from the challenges that faced previous generations.

    The only way our country can overcome this malaise that is holding us back, is good leadership and holding our elected leaders accountable and the respect of the rule of law. The constitution of Sierra Leone, should be the guiding principle under which all national decisions making is referred to. There are laws written in our constitution against corruption, respect of free press, respect of individual human rights, freedom of association, your responsibility as a citizens towards your fellow citizens. If we ignore our history and our constitution, we are ignoring it at our perils.

  6. Mr Mansaray , I most confessed, you are of the best among the few bests. Yes, I say so because I know so. I cannot stop reading your text. Indeed, your analysis is spot on. I wish we all can put politics aside and reflect on the question. For me, we are richly poor. May God guide continue to guide and protect you.

  7. Your analysis of Sierra Leone within the last 40 years or so is spot on. I’ll read over and over again and in MY OPINION you have done justice to those who blame a government that has only lasted 3 years. You for always memba ousai u buck u foot. Thats the scenario you have just explained.

Tell us about your views

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.