Andrew Keili: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 28 April 2021:
Happy Independence anniversary! Sixty years of our independence calls for celebrations. But what exactly do we celebrate? In examining our progress as a nation over this period, one has to put things in the right perspective.
Our population has changed over this period from slightly over 2 million in 1961 to over 7 million now. Admittedly, there have been improvements in certain areas along the way, but an analysis of the past sixty years should not dwell on spotty bright spots that have not proved sustainable.
We should also realise that other countries with which we compete are not standing still in an increasingly competitive world. For most of this period, except for brief periods of military rule, we have been governed by either of our two oldest political parties-SLPP and APC.
Over this period, we have witnessed and lived through a ten-year rebel war. Such a piece should not however be on apportioning blame for our parlous state but to question whether we may not need to have a paradigm shift in the way this country is governed. I would venture to say right from the start that we have had sixty years of running to stay in the same place.
Disunity in our governance system started at independence. Independence festivities were overshadowed by the state of emergency, declared ten days earlier following a campaign of sabotage by the opposition APC which had been urging that independence should be postponed until free elections were held.
Siaka Stevens, its leader was arrested about a week to independence along with his right-hand man, Wallace Johnston, and 16 other party members for planning a general strike. The division of our politics along regional lines has continued.
Soon after independence Sierra Leone’s economy ranked rather high amongst the developing African countries. This was so because of a large extractive industry contributing 23% of the gross domestic product.
The country’s principal exports then were iron ore, diamonds, and rutile, but the economy was vulnerable to fluctuations in international prices. The main household economic activity was agriculture comprising crop products, livestock, forestry and fishing activities. Diamonds contributed an estimated 18 % of GDP and Sierra Leone accounted for 12% of world production of diamonds.
Diamonds and iron ore were responsible for more than 84% of domestic exports. Cigarettes, beer, soft drinks, alcoholic beverages, coffee, certain textiles, cement, tiles, paint and nails were amongst those commodities produced locally.
It is interesting to note that in 1965, one Leone was equivalent to $1.40.
In pre independence years and immediately after independence, Sierra Leone was self-sufficient in rice. In addition to rice and other domestically consumed crops, Sierra Leone produced various export crops such as palm kernels, coffee, cocoa, piassava, ginger and cola-all of them were marketed by the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board (SLPMB) and its totally owned London affiliate, the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Company.
Despite the fairly impressive start, by 1965, Sierra Leone had started experiencing problems with its budget deficit. The net result in that year was a total budget deficit of more than Le 10 million representing 18% of total expenditures.
One of the most pressing challenges African states faced at Independence was their lack of infrastructure. These new countries, like Sierra Leone also lacked the manufacturing infrastructure to add value to their raw materials. Rich as many African countries were in cash crops and minerals, they could not process these goods themselves.
Since independence, the mining sector has contributed between 15% to 20% of GDP and 60% to 90% of export earnings. Despite this, the debate still rages as to whether Sierra Leone has benefitted from mining.
One report (“The heart of the matter”, by Partnership Africa Canada) states thus: “By 1937 Sierra Leone was mining one million carats annually, reaching a peak of 2 million carats in 1960. From 1930 to 1998, approximately 55 million carats were mined (officially) in Sierra Leone. At an average price in 1996 dollars of US$270 per carat, the total value is close to US$15 billion.”
Sixty years after independence, we are still at a stage now where we import a significant amount of our rice needs. Agricultural schemes by various governments with fanciful names have not yielded much fruit. Cash crop exports have dwindled, or for some completely disappeared over the years.
Our manufacturing sector is in the doldrums and our mining sector has been fraught with difficulties-the large mines like DELCO and DIMINCO disappeared because of bad policies and attempts to resuscitate the sector have been tepid. We have failed to realise the vast potential for our fisheries sector. Diversification of the economy is in name only.
Our economy is propped up by donors. Sierra Leone is a fragile state and without massive donor support will not maintain an even keel. The services sector has however picked up somehow and now contributes upwards of 30% of the GDP.
Infrastructure has always been a challenge. Amongst the four internal systems of transportation (railways, vehicles, ships and aircraft), the railways continued to lose ground soon after independence.
By 1965, passengers and freight carried by the Sierra Leone Railways had dropped to 47% and 65% of their 1961 level, respectively, while the total number of road vehicles licensed increased significantly.
Amongst the major causes for this structural change in internal traffic were the changing transportation requirements and the inefficiency and unreliability of railway services. This trend towards road transportation was further accentuated when the Ribbi bridge near Mabang collapsed in 1965. Internal air travel was supported by 13 airfields, of which Lungi was the only international airport.
The total road network in 1965 was estimated to consist of 4,300 miles of which about 360 miles were bituminous highways. Telecommunications within Freetown and especially between the capital and the main Provinces, Districts and Chiefdoms were very inadequate.
External telephone services between Sierra Leone and Liberia were opened in 1966 bringing the country’s external connections up to seven countries. The New King Tom Power Station added about 13 MW in 1964/65 which was 81% of the installed power in the country.
With the inauguration of the Guma Valley Water Scheme, Freetown started receiving a water supply of at least 18 million gallons per day, which was estimated to meet water requirements up to the year 2000.
Things have improved, but not by much. There are currently an estimated 11,555 kilometres of road including 1,031 kilometres (9%) of paved road (Average of 18 percent in Africa). Only 67 % of the population has access to potable water and 55% to improved sanitation. Access to electricity still remains at 15% (being considerably lower in rural areas).
Both Guma and Salwaco face considerable problems with water supply. Long held plans for the construction of the new Orogu dam to augment water supply from Guma have never taken off. Independent power providers are helping with generation, although the national utility is highly subsidised.
There are however good prospects for extra power from the West African Power Pool. There have been some improvements in generation and extension of power supply to some provincial cities. It is early days yet to tell whether these will be sustainable or face the same problems faced with power supply in large provincial cities in the past.
Telecommunications has improved considerably over this period and the laughable period of waiting outside SLET to make external calls is history. Mobile phone usage is high and pervasive, although only 11.8% of the population uses the internet.
What most of us remember of the old days is the high quality of our educational system with a considerable number of foreigners from other African countries studying in Fourah Bay College. Our reputation of being called “the Athens of West Africa” was well deserved.
On the negative side however, it is surprising that only 10% of the population above 10 years was literate, and the dropout rate of primary school students was as high as 50% in 1965. Our literacy rate is now 51.45% and schooling figures are considerably better, especially now that we have the free education flagship programme of the current government.
Educational standards however remain a challenge. Problems faced with technical and vocational schools in the 60s still exist to this day-training of our middle level manpower is a challenge and we need to surmount this if we are to move ahead.
We have always fared badly with our health indices. In 1962 the life expectancy was 32.3 years. This has now improved to 50 years. Maternal mortality ratio is still high at 1,100/100,000. The Health sector is in a state of crisis.
The poverty rate in Sierra Leone is high at 57.9%. Sierra Leone is experiencing a demographic transition, characterized by a high birth rate, a declining death rate, and a rapidly expanding population.
These dynamics have resulted in a young population, with 42 percent of the population below 15 years of age. Sierra Leone ranked 183th place in the table of 189 countries in the 2019 UNDP’s Human Development Index.
By and large however, our failures have been more that out successes. Life expectancy and youth unemployment figures are still abysmal. 70 percent of youths are underemployed or unemployed.
We cannot feed ourselves and food prices have remained high. Households spend on average 63% of their total expenditure on food.
The judiciary has remained severely challenged over this period, despite attempts at improving the situation. Questionable judgements in political cases have given the impression that they are easily amenable to the whims of the Executive. The performance of Parliament especially in passing laws has also given the impression that the Executive is much too powerful and unrestrained.
To seriously embark upon addressing all our myriad problems would need us to address our governance challenges however-and these are aplenty! The government and opposition always appear to be at each other’s throat.
Politically, we are still divided as a country along tribal and regional lines and top members of the party in power always wield inordinate economic power. It is however noteworthy that although we seem to have put our finger on what is wrong, successive governments have adopted the status quo to stay in power.
Following up on the recommendations of the TRC, adopting a new constitution, addressing the issue of decentralisation to take power closer to the people, re-examining our “winner takes all” governance system and initiatives on national cohesion like the Peace and National Reconciliation commission all appear to have all been given short shrift.
To compound our problem, new challenges have arisen which include rapid urbanisation, largely self-induced natural disasters, teenage pregnancy, youth unemployment, violence and indiscipline and several others.
Sorting out our problems in a highly politically charged atmosphere is no mean feat however and we should really reflect on whether we are heading in the right direction.
It is sixty years after Independence and many would argue that it is still very much a case of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” (the more things change, the more they stay the same).
The saying “Insanity Is Doing the Same Thing Over and Over Again and Expecting Different Results” is arguably credited to the acclaimed genius Albert Einstein. Come to think of it-perhaps we have been insane over the past sixty years! Time to sober up! Ponder my thoughts.