Sierra Leone’s finance minister fights for his job amid serious economic malaise

Sierra Leone Telegraph: 8 August 2019:

Sierra Leone’s Minister of Finance – Jacob Jusu Saffa is today fighting to keep his job, as pressure mounts on president Julius Maada Bio to transfer him to another ministerial role, following increasing calls for his sacking.

Saffa is accused of incompetence and failing to turn the economy around as promised over sixteen months ago, during election campaign.

Opposition parties and critics say that Saffa cheated his way to the top job as finance minister, by pretending on radio and television on many occasions to have the answers to Sierra Leone’s economic problems.

The APC government of former president Koroma lost elections held last year, after the opposition SLPP launched a massive publicity campaign – led by JJ Saffa, against the credibility and poor stewardship of the APC government.

Saffa accused the Koroma-led APC government of incompetence and negligence in failing to address what he referred to as “bread and butter issues” affecting the people of Sierra Leone.

But today, Saffa himself is now facing similar accusations, as critics call for his dismissal as finance minister.

There is no doubting the fact that the Bio-led SLPP government inherited an economy that was almost bankrupt. (Photo: JJ Saffa – Right, with Chief Minister Francis).

But it is now more than sixteen months since SLPP came to office, and the people of Sierra Leone are getting impatient to see an improvement in their standard of living.

When SLPP won the elections in March 2018, inflation was about 17%. Since then, prices of basic goods and services have gone up by almost 3%, as most Sierra Leoneans struggle to cope with the rising costs of living.

The value of the Leone has fallen by about 20% since March 2018. The country’s over-reliance on the mining industry for its export revenue continues to take its toll. Gross domestic product (GDP) remains low at about 3%.

The government’s latest decision to review all mining contracts is likely to lead to many companies losing their licence. This could result in further decline in government revenue – at least in the short to medium term.

The continuing failure of the minister of finance to restructure and diversity the economy, is certainly destroying every chance of an economic recovery anytime soon.

Much needed investments in the fishing, tourism and agriculture sectors that should create employment for hundreds of thousands of people, widen the country’s taxation base, and boost government revenue, are yet to be made.

When president Bio took office over sixteen months ago, he announced key measures to curb what he referred to as financial leakages across government. But there have been serious failings by the ministry of finance in enforcing those measures.

Rather than think outside of the box and implement innovative strategies that will turn the economy around, the finance minister is instead being accused of becoming an IMF Project Manager, overseeing conditionalities imposed by the IMF.

In response to these criticisms and calls for the sacking of the finance minister, today the editor of the Global Times newspaper and a strong supporter of the SLPP government – Sorie Fofana, who himself was last year appointed chairman of the country’s Cable Company (SALCAB), has written in defence of the finance minister.

This is what he said:

“After he was declared winner of the March 31st 2018 run-off elections, Julius Maada Bio appointed one of his trusted political allies, Jacob Jusu Saffa as Finance Minister. Before the announcement of the first set of Cabinet Ministers, speculations were rife that Jacob Jusu Saffa was to be appointed as Chief of Staff at State House because of the spectacular role he played in the election of President Bio first as flag bearer and later as President.

“In opposition, J.J. Saffa was one of the SLPP spokesmen on the economy. He performed several roles during the campaign. He was Elections Coordinator, Spokesman for Julius Maada Bio and he represented Julius Maada Bio at several meetings with donor partners during the campaign.

“J J Saffa inherited a difficult portfolio, which he has managed, with determination to turn around. 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. It has to be said that the economy is not as rosy as he would have wanted it to be.

“These are difficult times! 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.

“Let us, as a nation, be patient, as the President and his team work tirelessly to address the bread and butter issues that some of our compatriots complain about.

“One local newspaper yesterday called for the Minister of Finance, the Governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone and the Financial Secretary to be sacked. The question must be asked: Will sacking them now change anything? In several European countries, Finance Ministers are hardly sacked. They normally resign. Only people who believe in the President or Prime Minister’s agenda are normally appointed Finance Ministers.

“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.

“It has to be stated 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 when he was appointed Minister of Finance. 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.
Let JJ Saffa continue to dance!”

But will the hungry and desperate people of Sierra Leone continue to be patient? And for how long will the president continue to test their patience?

5 Comments

  1. Mr. Azeez, I am disappointed that you could not answer my question. Instead, you posted a narrative that is totally irrelevant to the question that I asked. When you write, you assume responsibility for every word that is contained in your narrative.

    Thus, you must be very carefully not to contradict yourself in the process. I was not drawn to your narrative due to the mention of Donald Trump’s name. Instead, it was the flaws in your economic arguments that attracted me.

    • Well, it is true. Sacking J.J.S. might or might not solve economic woes of Sierra Leone. That is why one should think wisely before saying “anything”.

      My friends spoke a lot of mess before assuming power. “Elephant haid noto pikin lode”. Managing an economy is the most critical and difficult task in governance.

      But as far as I know, JJ should not have seen his work as a difficult aspect, after all he was one among the most brilliant ECONOMICS students during his University days.

      So I wonder why he is not able to improve Sierra Leone’s economy after 16 months. This is terrible. “Economics” as a subject in school, i very simple but when asked to implement, there lies the problem.

      You may try, but the tools might not work. Most economists do not know that taxation is one of the most important tools that can shape up or destroy a country’s economy.

      Whatever the case if you are a Finance Minister, you should know how to encourage economic businesses in your country especially when your country relies greatly on foreign investments.

      If your country cannot do secondary production, bring out moderate taxes on production so that you encourage a large base of businesses, thus increasing commodity quantities and at the same time, commodity prices will be reduced due to an increase in production.

  2. As my own idea, I think he should still maintain his job and let us all as citizens help the Government to develop the country. Let us all come together as one and develop this nation.

  3. Let me state here, sacking the Finance Minister could not be a solution to fixing our shrinking economy . Another player would come and still the country faced with the same economic challenges. JJ Saffa may be a good guy at the right place but at the wrong time. He indeed MAY be! His postures and political talks during election periods and his promise to fix the economy could all be haunting him today I know. But there is more to it than being SACKED! My poor ideas here:

    Encourage more foreign investments by ensuring the enabling environment. Sad to recently read that some mining companies were shut down. If true this would have an adverse effect especially in terms of bringing in much needed forex.

    You cannot also be cancelling agreements signed by the previous administration and expect credible investors to keep coming. Each agreement you cancel has the potential to drive off a dozen or so potential ones out of fair of one day, going through the same.

    Reduce the number of external trips. A short to medium term solution but workable. Each trip would cost the country huge money and all in forex. When newly appointed, officials tend to be going on what I would here refer to as ‘job honeymoon’ to ‘flex’ and ‘bongolise’. This is costing us millions of forex. Enough of that after almost two years in the job, else things gonna get bad.

    Invest in agriculture. I recall a policy statement by the president sometimes back that being involved in farming would be a precondition for all political appointments. Not sure that has been the case. Go beyond the rhetoric, go practical and diversify the economy.

    Our reliance on mining revenue comes with huge setback. Go full time agriculture. Increase budgetary allocation to that sector. This is a long term solution but one that would help because with time it helps us increase on our export ability. When I say agriculture, I am not talking of political agriculture where only political patronages see the end of day.

    We rely so much on import, with less or no export. The mining companies that used to export are either not operating now or have reduced their operations. This isn’t good for a growing economy. Forget the political values to supporting a given district; If we could, for instance, look at Kambia in terms of rice farming or Kailahun and believe they could help us get more into full time agricultural activities, government should support them. Pour more cash on them through the decentralisation process (work with the councils).

    We haven’t also fully exploited our potential in the tourism sector. And for that sector to flourish it must be well sold (marketed). This sector can help us get the much needed forex. We have ourselves as a people not given much to local tourism. We hardly would go out, spend some cash and relax thus utilising our touristic beauty. The Gambia and even Senegal are making millions of forex through tourism. Time to explore what it can offer us.

    Don’t also forget rates paid for clearing goods at Water Quay. If you pay more because of taxation, it affects business because the end user suffers. Let government look into this too because forex also plays a role here.

    Good to have auctioned some forex but at what impact? Chasing those running black market would worsen the situation. Check the banks. The fact is SOME of those running the banks, be they commercial or state owned banks should ensure once forex is released on sale, it should be out for public purchase and not be kept or be given to people to sell illegally.

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