Sierra Leone’s trade minister speaks out

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 July 2013

unemployed youthMany Sierra Leoneans are perplexed by the preponderance of government ministers managing the affairs of state, yet unable to solve the myriad of economic and social problems facing the country.

They say that ministers lack direction. But many also believe that there is lack of clarity and enormous confusion as to the roles and responsibilities of ministers.

Perhaps what is more significant is the perception that far too many of the appointed ministers lack the skills and experience required to effectively discharge their ministerial functions.

President Koroma’s ministerial performance contract lacks transparency and relevance, and is dogged by political and tribal patronage. “Too many round pegs in square holes” – says critics of the government.

With corruption topping the list of causes of poverty in Sierra Leone, and a general lack of organisational and management capability, there is a semblance of organised chaos driving almost every government department in the country.

Many Sierra Leoneans also believe that if not for the taxes paid by the few large foreign owned mining corporations and the aid granted by foreign donors, Sierra Leone would cease to exist as a cohesive functioning state.

The government has not succeeded in broadening the country’s taxation base beyond the Le1.2 Trillion collected by the National Revenue Authority, more than 20% of which is said to be unaccounted for.

Yet president Koroma and his ministers are upbeat about their achievements in office, despite rising unemployment – especially youth unemployment, rising cost of living and poverty and a general feeling of malaise in the country.

Speaking to John Baimba Sesay in Beijing, China, Sierra Leone’s minister for trade and industry – Usu Boie Kamara, on whose shoulders the task of building a thriving and vibrant economy is shared with the ministry of economic development, talks about his efforts in solving Sierra Leone’s crisis.

You have been in China for close to two weeks as part of the President’s delegation. How has it been?

Well it has been quite good in the sense that I have been here for two purposes; one was to look at the possibility of a 500,000 ton steel plant to be established in Sierra Leone. We have had discussions with a Chinese company called COMPLANT.

USU BOIE KAMARA in China 2013I led the delegation, comprising the Minister of Water Resources and the Attorney-General. We had discussions with the Sierra Leonean representative of COMPLANT – Christian Ogoo.

We talked with top executives of the company and we arrived at an outline form of a Memorandum of Understanding, which will provide the basis for a final agreement.

The ball is now rolling to ensure that a steel plant is constructed. This is the second steel plant we are trying to construct in Sierra Leone.

This is long overdue, in the sense that the country has an abundant availability of iron ore resources. It will be appropriate for us to ensure we try to add value to iron ore, so that things like iron rods can be manufactured in the country. This will create employment opportunities for people.

We visited Hanan Gouji Headquarters. We should have a sierra Leonean and four Chinese on the Board of the company, taking into consideration the fact that we own 20% shares. We discussed the operations of the company for the next three years, to ensure the company benefits the people of Sierra Leone.

I am glad to say we have arrived at an agreement on some issues. The company intends to invest not only in their works at Cline Town in freetown. As you may know they have built some houses along the Lumley Beach.

But they want to move down market, so that more people could benefit from this housing scheme, and we urge them to do that. We advised them to ensure the company becomes profitable, as we own 20% of the company’s shares. The company is looking out for areas to invest in the country. It is also investing in countries such as Zambia and Mozambique.

I was also part of the Presidential delegation, discussing with companies here in China to see how best we position ourselves in making use of the capital advantage Sierra Leone has with China.

With plans for a steel plant in Sierra Leone, are we expecting results in the coming months or few years from now?

Not immediately. We have a Memorandum of Understanding for the establishment of the steel plant. There is a lot to be done, especially in terms of financial agreement and technical drawings for the site.

Gouji Investment is now talking about expansion of their operations in the country, which is very good for the future of Sierra Leone. But in setting up a steel plant, you take into consideration a lot of factors and we are looking at these.

Let us now look at your few months as minister of trade and industry. You came in at a time we had crucial issues such as street trading and increase in the prices of basic commodities. How have you managed to tackle these challenges – taking into account their political resonance?

Well, I must say the experience has been refreshing. Once somebody is prepared to learn, and is determined to move the country forward, then there is always a way and the means to ensure that it is done.

Take the thorny issue of street trading. Operation WID is successful. Traders are aware of the direction the government is taking and have been cooperating positively with the Freetown City Council, although there are challenges.

I am assisting the Freetown City Council to ensure that the direction of government in making sure roads are cleared is achieved. We have met several times with the Mayor of Freetown and traders. The Mayor is engaging with them from time to time and getting them involved in the process.

The President has directed that me and the Mayor to look into these issues. But coming to the ministry, as you know it is a very big ministry that works with all other ministries in the country. We are interfacing with all of them to ensure the economy is reinvigorated.

We have been trying our best to look at the manufacturing base we have in the country. A major problem facing factories operating in the country is energy. We have engaged with the energy ministry to ensure viable companies are given power that will in return create wealth for the country and employment for people.

And this is tied up with my visit here in China, which is to try to take manufacturing companies to Sierra Leone. And through the establishment of a steel factory, we will create employment for people and also have a multiplier effect on the economy.

I have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) in May of this year, in support of a four-year Country Programme for the development of agri-business and small scale enterprises.

This runs to about forty-million dollars. We have got some of the money from UNIDO to finance some of the projects, but we still need more donor support and investors. We are looking up to the World Bank, IFC, IMF, AFDB, and the EU to help us deliver this Country Programme.

The programme is geared towards adding value to agricultural produce. This will not only help in gaining knowledge, but increase the wealth of the country and help to improve the welfare of the people.

But what about price control, even though we all know Sierra Leone runs a free market economy?

When I was appointed minister, the first paper I took to cabinet was for the appointment of Trade Monitors. As you know with a liberal economy, we don’t have price control as such, but there are issues we are trying to address and one is price control.

We are in the process of employing Trade Monitors who will work with the Standards Bureau to ensure sub-standard goods are not brought into the country. They also will be working with other stakeholders to ensure profiteering and other challenges are addressed.

The second aspect is to look at the question of giving economic space to Sierra Leoneans.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThere is an erroneous view that the Citizens Trade Act that was enacted in the 1960s give Sierra Leoneans the right to command the economy. But that has been misused over the years, because a lot of the people whom you think are sierra Leoneans have naturalized or taken citizenship.

So we are working on ways to ensure indigenous Sierra Leoneans have a stake in the economy.

You are aware the Ministry has instituted the Local Content Policy. This Policy aims at ensuring that the commanding height of the economy is in the hands of Sierra Leoneans.

It will give preference to the use of local labour and services, and also emphasis would be placed on organizations to give preference to the training of Sierra Leoneans.

The Ministry is now working on ensuring that the Law on Local Content is promulgated by the end of this year. This would give teeth to the Policy.

ADB manr river 5So we are trying to energize Sierra Leoneans. In fact we are in the process of disbursing Two Billion Leones at a 5% interest to Sierra Leoneans to help them develop small scale businesses.

One of the components of the Country Program MOU that I have signed with UNIDO is the development of small scale enterprises. We want to empower our people, since a major barrier to business expansion is money.

We are trying to get affordable loans for them. We gave out loans last year through an agreement with Commercial Bank.

But again, the major components of the UNIDO Country Programme are agribusiness, SME Development – especially for the youths and women, and Skills training for young people across the country.

On the question of the commercial banks, you mentioned loans. What have they been doing?

Before now, people take loans from government and they default. So for now, the banks manage the loans and they deal with the people directly. We will ensure more loans are given to people and this is one way of reducing poverty and making the economy stronger.

If you look at the global economic index, you will see that Sierra Leone is doing well in the “Doing Business” ranking. But now we need to translate that to the man on the street.

But how have you been working with the National Revenue Authority, the Clearing and Forwarding Agencies, to ensure we can maintain or uplift that ranking?

This is paramount and it has some links with the MCC – the compact which we have won. We are working with stakeholders, such as the Office of the Administrator-General, Law Officers Department, and Customs.

But as you know, when dealing with different people and different departments, you have to exercise patience, as not all will be responsive at a given time.

But as the President said, this is an important objective for the ministry and we have to keep our eyes focused to ensure we don’t drop down the ‘doing business’ ranking, as well as try to achieve double digits in that ranking in the next few years.

We need to address issues especially at the sea port, and you must have heard about problems recently at the National Revenue Authority. I have set up a committee, comprising of people from the ministry of transport and aviation to look at the port, since that is one area that militates against our ranking.

We have a good cooperation with that ministry and they have been working with other stakeholders to ensure we reduce the time it takes to clear goods, which has an impact on our ‘doing business’ ranking.

Another area we have concluded is the Sierra Leone Produce Marketing Board, which is being privatised through an Act of Parliament. We are working with the National Privatization Commission on that.

We are working on the issue of rice importation in the country to ensure that it is affordable. We are going to sign an agreement with the ministry of agriculture and food security to make sure rice is not only affordable but available.

But can you say you have been enjoying great political support from the president?

Yes, the President has been very supportive. He has always been concerned about the welfare of the people and is giving full support to all ministries to ensure the Agenda for Prosperity is realized.

You helped destabilize the main opposition SLPP, by taking votes from them to the APC when you joined the APC. You must be enjoying your stay in the APC, right?

One thing in life is, you must be guided by your conviction and I have always stood for the advancement of the country. That is what I do in politics. I work with people who try to advance the welfare of the people of the country.

That is why I found it easy to move from my former party – SLPP to the APC without any problem.

The difference between the two parties is that in the APC, the people have the interest of the country more than those who think they are PhD holders .They are more interested in the advancement of the country than those who think they are intellectuals. I feel more at home with people who have the interest of the country at heart.

Do you see your party in governance for the next decades?

It all depends on performance, because people now understand that you have to perform, not just talk, but ensure people’s lives are changing. And that is what we are doing as a political party. We are working towards the Agenda for Prosperity.