President Bio’s speech – great expectations demand great commitment

Author: Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 18 May 2018:

President Bio’s opening salvo in his speech at the State opening of Parliament left no one in doubt about what he thought of the previous government – no pleasantries, no thanks to the previous government. He went straight for the jugular:

“I am making this address against the backdrop of the worse economic situation that this country has faced since independence and characterized by double-digit inflation, low domestic revenue mobilization, high domestic debt burden, unsustainable external debt, and huge arrears to contractors. Therefore, taking tough policy actions is imperative to tackle the current serious economic situation that we have inherited.”

It soon became obvious that he was taking no prisoners, apportioning blame for what he said was the country’s woeful plight on several players. First it was the turn of Nassit. He blamed Nassit for “misuse of the pension fund; non-payment of contributions by both government and private employers”. “The politicisation and poor leadership of the Trust are now the norm”, he continued.

The Energy sector, the “poster boy” of the APC came in for its own share of the roasting….”the entire sector is ridden with inefficiency and corruption”.

Then came the road sector, an even greater “poster boy”. “The cost of construction of a kilometer of road funded by past Government is the highest in the world.

The quality of the roads constructed is poor and implementation very shoddy. Overall, corruption has marred road construction……..with the operations of the Sierra Leone Roads Authority (SLRA) led to the loss of independence and objectivity in the handling of the affairs of the Authority.”

Et tu Road Maintenance Fund? The President did not disappoint: “Poor governance continuously afflicts the management and sustainability of the Road Maintenance Fund.”

Then President Bio moved on to the regulators. He started in the air and came down to the sea. First the air: “Enforcement of regulations by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) continues to be weak. ….it has a low level of competency and capability.”

The sea: “Some regulatory agencies like the Sierra Leone Maritime Agency (SLMA) …..handle their mandate inefficiently and need significant reforms.”

Before they could block his call, he hung the telecoms companies out to dry: “SIERRATEL is in fact burdened with debt problems. Similarly, SALCAB and the Ministry of Telecommunications have landed high speed fibre optics but there has been little improvement in the use of ICT in the country……Again, because of political meddling, NATCOM’s role as an independent regulator is under threat. It is perceived to be inefficient.”

Then it was the turn of our governance structures. Just in case civil servants were chuckling, he fired a cannon: “Patronage networks and ethnic politics have been important barriers to building a professional and non-partisan civil service for a modern democracy”.

In what was a damning indictment of our learned members of the judiciary, with the Chief Justice and other senior judges listening (perhaps adjusting their wigs not to hear) he gave his views about the misuse of our justice system:

“Sierra Leone’s judiciary has come under serious scrutiny and condemnation under the APC government…….”. He made reference to “the suspension of judges from office without due process and their replacement by colleagues with known sympathies for the APC”.

President Bio talked about “the low capacity of our foreign diplomats, undue interference in the recruitment and performance of diplomats”.

The IMC and SLBC became the icing on the cake: “The IMC has failed to enforce its own ethics and like most democratic institutions, it has not escaped political interference from the past Government……over time the SLBC has failed to discharge this mandate and became virtually the mouthpiece of the former ruling APC party.”

I suppose the logical question will be: ” What did President Koroma and his APC do right in the eyes of the new President? Going by his tirade… “zilch”. In fairness to President Koroma his own report would probably call for another round of “pondering”.

Bold initiatives inspire hope

Having fingered President Koroma and his APC, the President went on to outline his agenda. Many of the initiatives were indeed bold, radically departing from the status quo.

His plans for education, his flagship programme were well received by the faithful. The start of the free education programme in September, doing away with the unpopular 6344 system, the building of schools, special incentives for teachers, all went down well.

There were also plans for a Students Loan Scheme and establishing a polytechnic in every District and allowing the universities to appoint their own Chancellors and Vice Chancellors.

His pronouncement that “effective 2019, investment in agriculture (including animal husbandry) will be a pre-condition for holding political office”, was a bit surprising.

He would also encourage “local banks to lend to the private sector for agricultural purposes.”

A new water reservoir to serve Freetown and a surprising plan to unbundle water generation and distribution as it is in the energy sector is also planned.

Increasing spending on health from 10% to 15% is on the cards as well as providing modern equipment including CT and MRI scanning and other diagnosis and treatment equipment in all regional hospitals.

In the area of roads the government will complete all ongoing road projects including townships roads and commence the planning and construction of several roads listed that link major towns especially in the South East.

Reforming the management of the Road Maintenance Fund Administration (RMFA), setting up a Lands court, utilising professional institutions to help with land use planning and setting up Home Finance institutions could all be said to be good ideas.

It is also good to see the President paying particular attention to promoting national cohesion. The plans include a conference on peacebuilding, diversity management and rebuilding of national cohesion and the creation of an Independent Commission for Peace and National Cohesion.

Strengthening the ACC’s investigative and prosecutorial mandate with respect to audit reports and establishing a special Anti-Corruption Division in the High Court to promote judicial specialization and expeditious trial of corruption cases are part of his armoury to fight corruption.

Plans to remove disaster management from the Office of National Security and establish a specialized agency, National Disaster Preparedness and Management Agency have long been advocated for and are welcome.

Repealing the seditious libel law and providing budgetary subvention to SLAJ as planned will make him the darling of the press.

President Bio even had sweeteners for Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora- “my Government will (i)  review the mandate of the Diaspora Office and assess its validity and (ii) examine the laws relating to dual citizenship with a view to allowing Sierra Leonean Diaspora to fully participate in the politics of Sierra Leone. “ All bold and good stuff.

Standing on shaky ground?

Notwithstanding the bold initiatives espoused, plans for a few sectors may perhaps indicate that  the ideas underpinning these may have to be revisited.  In the case of the mining sector, plans for the review the Mines and Minerals Act 2009 are already far advanced and there are solid reports drafted by experts and with the concurrence of major stakeholders countrywide on a new Mining policy, a new Artisanal Mining policy, the Extractives Industry benchmarking process and several on EITI related issues-all donor funded.

The Government also needs to decide where it places the EITI secretariat and who is the “champion”. There may be no need to reinvent the wheel as these take on board most of the current sectoral concerns and issues raised in the President’s speech including in particular, those of mining communities and issues of transparency, revenue generation and revenue sharing.

The speech is very scanty on the petroleum sector. It really does not address why this sector which incidentally is still under the office of the President (this may need rethinking) is in decline, with most of the exploration companies having taken flight.

It is also surprising that the Presidential Infrastructure Initiative will merely “support my office in the selection, design, planning and management of roads projects, mobilise resources and provide implementation support.” Will this include other infrastructure sectors?

The new Government seems to have some beef with the EPA as the criticisms of this regulatory agency are very detailed and specific and are almost ad hominem.

The speech says “All in all, the EPA has been politicised and made generally dysfunctional without any effective collaboration and co-ordination between itself and the many MDAs so essential for the proper observance and implementation of environmental regulations.”

It further recommends to “review the EPA 2010 Act and place it under the supervision of the Ministry of Lands, Housing and the Environment”. The government may need reminding that the functions carried out by EPA were before 2007 carried out unsuccessfully by the Lands Ministry. The Lands Ministry itself has for a long time faced challenges of its own and is one of the biggest defaulters on environmental issues as they have done a poor job of managing the indiscipline in the land market.

Whatever its faults EPA had over the years increased environmental compliance with EIAs by various industrial establishments. The agency has good technical staff who may be averse to working under government conditions and being subject to one particular Ministry may compromise its objectivity and reduce the level of external funding.

The issue of revisiting the Act, its governance and management, fees and fiscal independence are issues that can be addressed. One however cautions about starving a regulatory Agency of funding.

Government Ministries are replete with inefficient regulatory agencies like the Factory Inspectorate. Furthermore the mandate of handling environmental issues in Sierra Leone is dispersed amongst several MDAs now and there are several of them that are part of the problem. The government needs to put its thinking cap on for addressing issues of the environment!

For us in the private sector greater clarity on issues of introducing a partial guarantee scheme to provide loans to high private sector entities, increasing access to finance and reducing the cost of doing business are clichés we have heard before. No doubt the new Government will flesh these out and move beyond the rhetoric.

One area of concern may be balancing the budget. With 20% of the budget allocated to Education, 15% to Health and 10% to Agriculture, other sectors may have to do with considerably less. To compound the problem, the number of special funds includes an SME Fund for women and Youth, a Youth empowerment fund and Women’s empowerment Fund. Free health care will also be provided for the disabled and aged and one supposes that the current free health care system will continue.

Music to democracy buffs

Democracy and good governance proponents will be mightily pleased that many things they have been clamouring for have been granted them on a plate. Apart from reforming laws and institutions the President has made personal pledges of his own.

The President says: “My Government will as a matter of utmost urgency undertake an overhaul of the judiciary and the justice delivery system in the country with a view to restoring public confidence and facilitate a national dialogue on the justice system.”

He was particularly candid on the area of Executive power and the Presidency: “Sierra Leoneans were disappointed by the unlimited and unbridled use of “Executive Power” over the last 10 years. State governance has been treated as if there are no constitutional injunctions or limitations under the 1991 Constitution. The result has been that the Rule of Law has suffered enormous damage in the last 10 years.” Strong indictment against President Koroma!

He then goes on to make a personal commitment. “I will lead by example, demonstrating the necessary discipline to refrain from acting unconstitutionally and scrupulously respecting the rule of law in the best interest of national development and stability.”

He would therefore “review unlawful acts of the last Government by way of Judicial and Parliamentary review…….:”. What happens after this? The mind races. He talked further on the “reckless use of Supreme Executive Authority and so-called Orders from Above” and about examining the recommendations of the Constitutional Review Commission and the accompanying White Paper.

He went to great lengths to indicate the new government’s commitment to decentralisation and respect for Chiefs. The operational efficacy of Democratic institutions including the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR), the PPRC, NEC, IMC, National Commission for Democracy (NCD), SLBC will be investigated. He laments that “they have been grossly politicised to the extent that they have lost their operational focus and independence.”

Let the games begin

The President’s speech has been uplifting and has met with a lot of support especially from those who feel we were not heading in the right direction. The speech is an indictment on the previous government and from the rhetoric the impression is given that we are going to have a dramatic turnaround.

All well-meaning Sierra Leoneans would wish President Bio and his government well. The task ahead is however certainly not easy, and his team will have to work their socks off. (Photo: Andrew Keili).

Civil society will certainly hold his hand to the fire on the governance commitments. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. No doubt great expectations will demand great commitment on their part.

Ponder my thoughts.

 

2 Comments

  1. I think Sierra Leoneans must be aware who this president is. He is the former member of the NPRC. So lets keep eye on him; and dont forget history. Imagine as elected head of state, he has already visited Liberia and Ivory Coast. I will let you guess the role of these two countries during the civil war.

  2. This is the leader Sierra Leone needs. He is a man who brings the truth to light, fighting against communist power of the last government. I am really happy with him. We all pray for his success in all his daily deliberations.

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