Sierra Leone Telegraph: 4 April 2019:
Exactly a year ago, president Julius Maada Bio took office after a nail-biting presidential election which saw his SLPP party winning State House, but failed to gain control of the country’s parliament.
Twelve months on, there has been very little shift in general public opinion, especially regarding the economy, poverty and unemployment, despite big changes in the fight against corruption and the introduction of free education for all primary and secondary school children.
Whilst president Bio and his communications team at State House are quick to point at the government’s disciplined approach in managing government’s finances and budgets through the single treasury spending and tracking system, the robust and timely collection of taxes, and austerity measures introduced almost twelve months ago across government departments, one thing is clear – economic hardship is biting very hard in Sierra Leone.
There is very little money circulating in the economy. Inflation – the cost of goods and services, has risen by 18% since taking office twelve months ago. The country’s currency – the Leone has lost about 15% of its value since April 2018.
Unemployment – a key performance measure of government’s success n in managing the economy, remains stubbornly high at over 70%.
The economy is struggling to get out of recession. Investors are holding on to their cash – waiting to see what steps the government takes in restructuring the economy, improve the justice system and overall business climate.
Whilst there is general feeling that impunity and abuse of office – fuelled by so called ‘orders from above’ may not be as rampant as in the previous Koroma led government, lawlessness in Sierra Leone remains Sierra Leone’s most protracted social and economic ill.
But turning back to the economy, after twelve months without the Koroma led APC in power, how much have things improved?
If improvements are to be judged by changes in levels of unemployment, inflation trends, economic growth, exchange rates, and interest rates, then certainly there is very little to write home about, as Sierra Leoneans continue to suffer growing economic hardship.
But these problems were not created by the SLPP government, though expected to be fixed by them.
When the APC government was kicked out of office a year ago, Sierra Leone’s economy was already on serious life support. And that was the reason the APC lost power to the SLPP.
Months before general and presidential elections, the IMF and other international partners suspended their funding agreements with president Koroma, as ministers and senior government officials not only recklessly abandoned their offices to campaign to prolong their stay in office, but used scarce public funds to pay for electioneering. Corruption became rampant.
As government borrowing rose, so did money supply became scarce, with commercial banks restricting customers’ withdrawal of cash from their personal accounts. But ministers and senior public officials were withdrawing thousands of dollars on a daily basis.
Interest rates on personal and business borrowing became unaffordable, as commercial banks ran out of cash. Business expansion suffered, jobs were not created, and poverty worsened.
The government’s own bank – the Sierra Leone Commercial Bank, became piggy bank for those in power. Loans and overdrafts were granted to ministers and senior state officials without any intention of paying back.
As the economy contracted and recession bites hard, unemployment and poverty grew. The mining sector which accounted for almost 40% of the economy went into severe shock. Production at Sierra Rutile and the country’s iron ore mining plants contracted.
Government revenue took a nose dive and still fighting to recover
China’s Shandong iron ore mining company pulled out of Sierra Leone just months before elections last year. Iron ore mining is yet to make any appreciable recovery.
There is no magic wand that can be waved at the economic hardship that is biting in Sierra Leone today. Government can throw money at the problem – if it can find the money, by increasing the minimum wage, employ more people to work in the public sector, increase pensioners income, and spend more on public service delivery. But such a strategy can only make things worse.
Government cannot spend its way out of economic mess and growing poverty. The only viable solution, though far from being a quick fix – is job creation. And this is perhaps where the Bio led government is lacking innovation, expertise and clear direction.
Sierra Leone is still not exporting enough high value added goods to earn its way out of poverty.
Prioritising education is great. But an educated society is only good for the economy when a country can create or attract high quality jobs, for which people can be paid good salaries to take home to their families.
A few months ago, president Bio chaired his second ministerial and heads of public service retreat, where he not only read the Riot Act for ministers and senior civil servants to buckle up, he also announced that ministers will be subject to performance contract management reviews, under the direction of the Chief Minister – professor Francis.
What has become of the ministerial performance contract reviews?
Notwithstanding the fact that twelve months in power is not long enough to expect big changes in Sierra Leone, but the people of Sierra Leone are suffering economically, as poverty grows. They are fast becoming impatient.
Twelve months is long enough to see whether ministers in the Bio government are best suited for the positions they are currently occupying, and most importantly, whether they can be expected to make any improvement. Their probationary period is long overdue.
There must now be a cabinet reshuffle, if the president is to keep hope alive.