By Joe Moses.
Maada Bio’s New Direction Government has inherited a lot of age-old problems that he might possibly not resolve in the first five years of his Presidency. There are many reasons for the persistence of these problems, and it looks like the President wants to resolve them without, first of all, trying to diagnose them. He will administer the wrong antidotes and the problems will remain unabated.
I will begin to enumerate these problems and attempt to proffer solutions to them because I have diagnosed almost all of them during my various careers as human resources consultant, diamond sector consultant (sitting on the Kimberley Process Technical Team for West Africa) and newspaper editor of at least two Sierra Leonean Newspapers.
The first issue has to do with the Sierra Leonean Economy and our seeming inability to stabilize and increase the value of the Leone. Today the Leone trades against the US Dollar at 780 on the parallel market, and this is affecting the prices of essential commodities in Sierra Leone. One main problem with the value of the Leone is that our foreign exchange earning capacity in Sierra Leone is too low. We do not have many Sierra Leonean industries exporting goods to other countries and our agricultural, mining and fisheries sectors are not seriously productive. The Foreign exchange stock we have in this country is too small, and we are using it to make huge procurements abroad. We are also awarding contracts to foreign companies that receive payments in dollars and there are many fair-sized companies operating in Sierra Leone that are repatriating their profits in dollars.
Sierra Leone imports most of the food items we consume and these include rice, meat, egg, chicken, onions, oil, salt, etc. We also import vehicles, clothes, medicines, and other materials and equipment. We are spending millions of Dollars year after year to make these procurements, but we cannot recover the spent dollars by way of international trade or other services to foreign countries. Other eaters-up of our foreign exchange stock are the diplomatic missions abroad and external travels. If we cannot recover these spent dollars, then we should make efforts to protect the foreign exchange stock we have in Sierra Leone.
In a discussion, I once told the current Minister of Finance, Jacob Jusu Saffa, at the Stop Press Restaurant that we should follow the prescriptions of Professor Adebayor Adedeji’s book, Africa’s Alternative Framework, wherein the author prescribes serious investment in Agriculture amongst other things, for Africa’s economic survival. It is true that we do not have industries, but most of our countrymen are into Agriculture. We can save the hundreds of millions of Dollars we spend on exporting rice, meat, chicken, eggs, pig’s feet, cow’s feet, gizzard, etc, by increasing our agricultural investment in these things, so that we can save the money spent on importing them. One reason the Leone is losing value against the dollar is because the Dollar is scarce on the local market, and when a commodity is scarce, it becomes expensive.
There are many small foreign companies in Sierra Leone (telecommunication, road construction and toll collection) that are repatriating millions of dollars to their home countries every year. With the approval of the IMF, the Government of Sierra Leone should have at least 30% equity in these small businesses so that it can increase and save its foreign exchange earnings. For instance, if we are still keeping the Chinese toll road for the next 20 years, the Government should have at least 40% equity in it. The Government should also have equity in the betting and telecommunication companies, because they have low capitalization but are highly profitable.
The second thing to do is assess the viability of parastatals and state-owned companies. They were not created to merely provide jobs for supporters of political parties. These are business entities that should provide essential services to the nation and survive on their own. Unfortunately, they have been generally mismanaged, and the Government serves as guarantor for the millions of Dollars Loans they borrow to support themselves. This situation must stop. Government should start thinking about restructuring parastatals. They are overstaffed and ineffective.
The third thing is the civil service and the numerous commissions and shadow state offices created to provide employment to APC party supporters. These include the Attitudinal and Behavioral Change Secretariat, Office of Diaspora, and other offices I do not know by name. The cost of running most of these offices is very high. We should start shutting down some of these offices or trimming and putting them under some existing institutions. ABC Secretariat must go; Office of Diaspora must go; Financial Intelligence Unit should be trimmed and put under the Central Bank. The Legal Aid Board should be trimmed and put under the Ministry of Justice. The Corporate Affairs Commission should be trimmed and put under the Ministry of Trade or Mines. Many other Government institutions deserve examining and work study. Certain embassies abroad should either be merged or closed altogether.
The APC also created new districts and chiefdoms for reasons best known to them. All of these actions have financially overburdened the Government of Sierra Leone. New Chiefdom Councils and new districts require additional personnel, equipment, finance, etc. The new districts were specifically created to give political advantage to the APC in its stronghold, not for any demographic reason or administrative convenience. The presidential election results proved that there was no demographic basis for re-districting the Northern Province to create Karina and Falaba Districts. In fact redistricting for electoral purpose should not be the initiative of a Government. It should be the initiative of Boundary Commissioners and Electoral Commissions. When a Government does it, we call it Gerrymandering. This term was coined after Elbridge Gerry, former Governor of Massachusetts, who increased constituencies in areas that supported him in elections.
Corruption is another issue that deserves serious attention because revenue leakage often makes it impossible to attain revenue targets. Though imprisonment has been widely used to punish corrupt people, it is advisable to be forcing them to pay back what they have stolen, so that we can fill in our revenue gaps. Imprisonment has a lot of drawbacks. You reduce the GDP by jailing productive people; you harden offenders by stigmatizing them through imprisonment and mingling them with hardened criminals. I believe that there is no logical basis for jailing economic offenders because there is no penological scale to weigh economic offence against imprisonment. Recover the loots, and then all other things will come later.
Finally, education. Free education in good, but quality education is better. This sends me back to my advice on corruption. Many pupils are buying grades with money and sex, and this practice must stop. Conference marking or second marking of examination scripts might remedy these problems. There should also be fixed standards against which we rate performances of pupils and schools year after year. Sierra Leone should once more be the Athens of West Africa. The current trend should be reversed. I see a lot of poorly educated and ill-informed people visiting the radio and TV stations, talking about issues they know nothing about. A case in point is the recent allegation of a diamond becoming a stone. Those who know about the World Kimberley Process Certification Scheme will tell you that it is impossible for a Vice-President to steal and sell a diamond of that size. Anybody selling a diamond of that size and value should be a registered producer or exporter, who should state the origin and chain of custody to the National Minerals Agency and submit all legal documents pertaining to ownership, before the diamond can be sold through legal channels abroad. The World is doing its best to ensure that conflict diamonds do not enter the legal supply chain. Juldeh Jalloh and his government have been maligned by irresponsible and poorly educated people. There are many honest people in this Government that I have known since my undergraduate days: David Francis, Jacob Saffa, Juldeh Jalloh, Edward Suluku, Mohamed Swaray, etc. Other good guys I have known out of school are Morie Manyeh and Charles Margai. Society changes men, but they have not yet become criminals.
Stupid Sierra Leoneans
Finally, my appeal to my media people is to stop allowing uninformed, satupid people to misinform Sierra Leoneans. Many Sierra Leoneans will become and remain stupid if we allow stupid people to be giving interviews on things they know nothing about. The repeal of the criminal libel law can only be meaningful to us when we always put out the truth to the people.