Loud and Clear

MAN THEL’MANE’ (LET US TALK)

With Sulaiman Banja Tejan-Sie

 MUCH ADO ABOUT HARDSHIP UNDER THE SLPP: LIES AND CALUMNY FROM MARINE HOUSE On board buses, mini-buses (poda podas), kekehs (tricycles), in restaurants or local eateries, at social gatherings, ataya bases (tea shops), bars, clubs and in homes all across the country, the main topic that keeps tongues wagging even in school and university tittle-tattle, centres around our country’s dire economic situation; especially the skyrocketing prices of especially essentials like rice, bread and groceries not to mention the galloping inflation manifested in transport fares against the backdrop of mounting fuel prices.

Unfortunately, every discourse around our economy almost always takes on a partisan dimension, and the participants in such discourses see, perceive and employ everything in their points scoring exercise through a partisan lens. We superficially compare the prices of goods and services as they exist or existed between alternative governing political parties, without recourse to the wider economic outlook especially global interventions and shocks. This perception is the result of the growing suspicion of the citizenry that governments or politicians’ reference to the macro-economic outlook to determine the health of the economy under their watch is always an excuse for their inability to efficiently manage the economy. To wit: especially the inflationary trend of particularly essentials and the foreign exchange rate which directly affects their everyday living conditions in an economy that imports everything from the basic staple rice to toothpaste. As it was under the APC so it is under the SLPP. Agreed, under the former APC government, Ebola was used as an excuse for the near collapse of the economy but it was much more than that.

True, Ebola had a devastating effect on the local economy, especially as a result of the manifold restrictions on movement and assembly. Production of basic commodities took a downturn. Many expatriates and foreign investors fled the country which meant that key investments folded up and the obvious consequence of job losses followed. Ebola dealt the economy a serious blow but the direct consequence of the pandemic itself pales into insignificance when compared with the open and unprecedented free for all looting of the economy that marked President Koroma’s shameless kleptocracy of a government. Even more nauseating, was how Koroma’s government ministers and other senior functionaries conspired to loot ‘Ebola blood money’. Such naked plunder of resources meant to save the lives of dying Sierra Leoneans was unimaginable. Over 15 million dollars of Ebola funds disappeared within the first six months of the outbreak. Such unconscionable thieving caught the world’s attention. It was headline news on the BBC and other major western media outlets.

Both the ACC and Commissions of Enquiry findings into both the Ebola funds and the looting of the purses of MDAs made painful reading. Of Ebola funds alone, over 15 million US Dollars disappeared in the first six months of the pandemic and over 95 million United States Dollars were looted from MDAs with the Ministry of Education alone accounting for 68 million dollars of that loot!!! Such was the enormity and plenitude of the plunder that in the dying embers of his pitiful misrule, President Koroma was forced to declare austerity- an austerity that was not lifted even at the time the Koroma regime exited the office. Even more odiously miserable, was that the ACC set up to investigate cases of public graft refused to investigate the then ruling party’s national plunder of a magnitude never before seen in the history of post-independence Sierra Leone. Instead, a kangaroo-like tribunal was set up by the then toothless Public Accounts Committee of Parliament which for obvious reasons just suspended a few finance officials for six months and left the real plunderers off the hook again obvious reasons.

To date, President Koroma’s prickly former Defence Minister is yet to account for about 49 (Forty-Nine) ambulances that were paid for by foreign donors for the Ebola fight that was never delivered mind that even the ones supplied failed to meet the required specification. Sierra Leone under the Koroma government!!!!! Worse of all, the government of President Koroma remains the only one that inherited a debt-free country. By the time former President Koroma assumed power from President Kabbah, the Bretton Woods institutions had written off the entire foreign debts of Sierra Leone and other poor, struggling states under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) relief programme. Naturally, the main opposition party in particular also wants to get one over the SLPP government by exploiting the current high cost of living largely occasioned by the twin global shocks of COVID 19 and the ongoing Russian – Ukrainian war. Both crisis’ have encumbered economic growth with their concomitant high energy bills and skyrocketing costs of essentials which everyone saves the opposition insists are compelling reasons why the SLPP should be rejected and they are given the peoples’ mandate to rule at the 2023 polls. The main opposition party in and out of Parliament has consistently failed in their over four years in opposition to provide Sierra Leoneans with an alternative economic policy from what currently obtains or to tell us what they would do differently as expected of a responsible and patriotic opposition. Dr Samura Kamara – the former flagbearer and leading contender of the main opposition party in a radio interview a few weeks back on BBC and some local broadcast media when confronted with what he would do differently as an IMF, Commonwealth groomed economist with vast experience in public finance, refused to proffer any solution or alternative, but retorted that the electorate should wait until after his election as flagbearer for the 2023 polls before he can avail his countrymen a glimpse of his alternative economic policy. Sad that the main opposition leader at best knows only how to oppose but does not have any viable policy to proffer on the country’s economic problems until the mandate of the incumbent is over and he becomes President. How, irresponsible. At a time, the country was battling with the adverse impact of the severe exogenous shocks – the after-effects of the Ebola epidemic and the collapse of iron ore prices in 2014 that culminated in the cessation of its production and exports in April 2015, the then government was busy comprehensively looting our coffers. The former government’s tales that the country’s horrible economic performance under their watch was large as a result of the Ebola pandemic carries very little currency. Had they seriously plugged the graft holes and taken the required steps to bring their national looters of our treasury to book, and made them pay back the millions of stolen loots we would never have been in the predicament in which we found ourselves at the time. Under the watch of that government inflation then reached 15.26 % in November 2016 from 8.1 % in 2015. The exchange rate also depreciated 20.4 % (year on year) as of June 2016 which generated inflationary pressures. So, things were not as rosy as the main opposition will want us to believe – that they are better managers of the economy in the wake of a global crisis. Even against the backdrop of COVID that brought the entire world economy to its knees compounded by the Russian-Ukraine war that has seen the prices of particularly wheat and hydrocarbons skyrocket through the roof, the main opposition in its bid to make political capital out of a larger global impasse, is casting all the blame on the current government for the increase in fuel prices which has, of course, triggered the consequential increase in the prices of basic commodities. Let’s reverse a few years back and prove how treacherously dishonest that assertion is. In the first place, it was the former government of President Koroma that metricized the sale of fuel from the gallonage system which was a ploy to deceive our very gullible public into believing that they had reduced the price of fuel since a litre cost far 3 less than a gallon.

 In a nutshell, President Koroma inherited fuel at a gallon price of Le 12,000 under President Kabbah in 2007. When they quickly metricized the measurement of fuel on their assumption of office in 2007, it was Le. 4,000 per litre which quickly rose to Le 6,000 per litre which means that by 2008, the price of fuel had risen from Le 12,000 per gallon under President Kabbah, to a whopping Le 30,000 per gallon under the watch of the Koroma regime. So, the skyrocketing prices of fuel were triggered by the inept and rapacious Koroma regime. The global twin shocks of COVID and the Russian war have naturally caused the exponential rise in the prices of hydrocarbons as it is an imported commodities. Today, despite the aforementioned twin shocks, the economy grew by 3.2% in 2021 after a contraction of 2% in 2020 according to the African Development Bank Group report on the Sierra Leone Economic Outlook. Growth according to that report ‘was driven on the demand side by higher exports from mining and agribusiness, and on the supply side by the resumption of iron ore production alongside a recovery in other key sectors.” From 2020 to 2021, inflation declined to 11% from 13.4% (due mainly to improved production and trade). Gross foreign reserves increased to $ 695.0 million at the end – of June 2021 from $653.8 million a year earlier (4.6 months of imports). Our country’s financial sector though still struggling is generally sound with a capital-adequacy ratio of 41.8 % and high levels of poverty persist at 56.8% in 2018 due partly to income inequality and youth unemployment which stands at an appalling 70% attributable to slow growth and lack of economic diversification- a factor largely inherited from the former government. Growth is projected to accelerate to 4% in 2022 to be driven mainly by mining, the recovery of agriculture, manufacturing, construction and tourism and then marginally improve to 4.2% in 2023. So these figures show that things are not as grim as the political capital-hungry main opposition would want us to believe, especially with this government spending a mind-boggling 20% of the entire economy on the Free Education programme and also employing close to ten thousand teachers and nurses!!!! As we approach the 2023 elections there are existing downside risks which include the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, an unexpected surge in COVID – 19 cases, especially in our donor partner states in Europe, USA and China, and a more than forecast rise in international fuel and food prices and freight costs, and a fall in iron ore prices. The ruling government, however, remains committed to addressing these distractions by boosting COVID vaccination outreach on a door-to-door basis, as well as accelerating much-needed reforms to continuously diversify and transform the economy to make it more shock-absorbable to external recurring shocks. It is disingenuous therefore at this time of a major economic crisis which threatens our living conditions and by extension, our security, that part of the political class will take a ‘rain check’ on proffering an alternative to government policy direction as expected from a patriotic and responsible opposition in a functional democracy. That notwithstanding, the people will choose in June 2023. Their choice will not be solely based on the present state of the economy which is large as a result of global shocks, but mainly on which political party they trust will effectively and prudently manage and salvage the economy from the current debacle taking into consideration their individual history, integrity, capability and credibility. The road forward is rather bumpy. Any protraction of the current financial crisis will surely be an added burden to the already existing debt distress we face. Despite successive rounds of debt relief, domestic debt is still ballooning for most low-income countries and Sierra Leone is no exception. The current crisis carries the undesirable risk of reversing the hard-won earlier achievements made by this government in improving the debt situation and in resuscitating our relationship with the Bretton Woods Institutions. Our only way out from sinking back to the debt trap of yester-years should be to prioritize spending and adopt a much more cautious approach towards non-concessionary as well as domestic borrowing. Economic diversification is crucial but difficult to pursue and achieve during a major crisis like the current one, we must however continue to keep that in mind while laying a solid foundation for such diversification which is necessary and urgent in reducing our nation’s vulnerability to external shocks.

With what President Bio has achieved in these four difficult years Sierra Leone has endured, I do not doubt that when decision time comes as difficult as these years have been, it will not just be about a plate of rice but more about our future; Free primary and secondary education for over 2.6 million children, employment for ten thousand more teachers and nurses, increase in retirement pension from 30 new Leones under the former government to 250 new Leones under the current government, Urban and rural electrification which means that 40% of Sierra Leoneans can now access electricity up from about 15% under the former government, new medical facilities and more access to vaccines, increase in the salaries of particularly lecturers, teachers, medical personnel etc. and of course the massive gains in the fight against corruption from less than 50% under the former government to a whopping 83%. Enough of the lies and calumny of the main opposition party. I believe the people will vote on the side of truth come June 2023.

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