Sierra Leone commemorated its 57th independence anniversary on Friday under a new leader, President Julius Maada Bio, who was elected into office only last month to lead what he accepts is “one of the poorest countries on earth” weighed down further by a ruined economy and emptied state coffers. Can he pull the fat out of the fire? Desmond Davies – a Sierra Leonean himself ponders. Additional reporting by reGina Jane Jere
In a strong-worded speech to mark independence day, Maada Bio decried the dire state of affairs his government has inherited from the former All Peoples Congress (APC) .
“At 57, Sierra Leone has changed from the international recognition as the ‘Athens of West Africa’ to a country where 3 in every 5 Sierra Leonean cannot read and write…We are still classified as one of the poorest countries and the most corrupt country in the world,” he lamented in a televised address.
Although the APC lost the presidency, it has maintained its control of the 132-seat parliament with 63 MPs, which could rise or fall, as there are outstanding petitions to be resolved. The SLPP came second with 43 seats. Two new parties, the Grand National Coalition, and the Coalition for Change and a smattering of independents make up the rest of the parliament.
But following this week’s scenes at the opening of parliament where new MPs from SLPP and APC locked horns, forcing police to intervene, how Bio and his government deal with such situations will make for an interesting period of democracy in Sierra Leone. Many are asking: Will the APC frustrate the programmes of the government? Will the former ruling party look for opportunities to remove Bio from power constitutionally? This, though, will depend on the mood of Sierra Leoneans who voted decisively for change.
It is the economy….
But undisputedly it was on the economy – or financial corruption – that the APC failed to win the presidency. The upshot is that Bio’s new government is facing a calamitous economic situation: an external debt of $2bn and domestic debt of Le4.9 trillion.
Speaking in Freetown last month during a meeting with the International Monetary Fund, Bio said: “In addition, the health of the banking system is significantly challenged by the financial conditions of two state owned banks that have huge non-performing loans, some [given] to politically exposed persons…
This, coupled with low levels of economic growth, high incidence of poverty, lack of economic diversification, high unemployment and [a] challenging business environment for private sector development, has further exacerbated the problems.”
Non-performing loans, indeed. These run into trillions of Leones and it will be up to the government to recoup these in the interest of the people. It will also have to chase those who salted away some $23m of pension contributions by ordinary Sierra Leoneans.
Bio noted: “Initial assessment by the Governance Transition Team reveals that my administration will be faced with the worse economic situation since independence. Before now, government cannot pay monthly salaries without borrowing or heavy reliance on overdraft facility at the Bank of Sierra Leone, which now stands at over Le160bn.”
But there is already some good news on the economic horizon, according to Bio. “For the first time in two years, government will pay salaries of Le150bn including [pension] contributions without recourse to domestic borrowing,” he said.
Bio wants revenue collection to contribute at least 20% to GDP. In this regard, the new government has suspended all import duty waivers except those under the Vienna Convention, which covers diplomatic immunity. This makes sense because almost every international organisation operating in Sierra Leone – especially the non-governmental types – was looking to bypass import duties.
The government has also suspended the export of timber logs “with immediate effect”. It has also ordered funds collected on behalf of the government to be transferred “into the Consolidated Revenue Fund with immediate effect”.
Bio told the IMF conference: “As we take on the reins of government and march towards economic recovery, we will be guided by the promises we made to Sierra Leoneans. We promised a change in the New Direction to the people, a change that restores sanity in economic and financial management, a change that provides quality service delivery to the people of Sierra Leone.”
In order to achieve all this, Bio will have to stamp heavily on indiscipline in Sierra Leonean society; where moonlighting civil servants do not turn up for work while pocketing their salaries. Bio has thrown down a marker on this. He said that if civil servants turned up late for meetings with him they will have to explain why.
He appears to be following in the footsteps of a former military man like himself, Colonel Andres Juxon-Smith, who enforced strict discipline during his year in office, from 1967 to 1968. It’s going to be a very interesting period for Sierra Leone over the next five years.
Below is the new President’s full independence day address:
Fellow Sierra Leoneans
Today, we are celebrating the 57th anniversary of our independence. This has been a momentous year that has taken us through the tragedy of the floods and mudslide in August 2017.
But at the same time, for the hopes and aspirations of millions of Sierra Leoneans who voted for change in a New Direction to develop and transform our beloved Nation.
Today, we have a new opportunity as a nation to collectively and individually work together to take this country forward, to develop and transform Sierra Leone that we can all be proud of.
During my Swearing-In on 4th April 2018 as President of the Republic, I said that my election and my new administration is the dawn of a new era to change and transform Sierra Leone.
As a nation we must resolve to use this opportunity to change and transform our beloved Sierra Leone.
We have to resolve as a nation to lay the strong and credible foundation for our children and our grandchildren. This is the only way to create the conditions for a united, peaceful, confident, enterprising, dynamic and progressive country.
As we celebrate 57 years of our independence we have to acknowledge the fact that as a country we are at a crossroad and that we are faced with the stark choice between the corrupt and undisciplined business as usual status quo, or a change to the New Direction where every Sierra Leonean is given the ladder of opportunity to climb and achieve their greatest potential.
We have to ask ourselves that after 57 Years of independence, what do we have to show for? As a nation, we have made great strides in laying some of the critical foundations for socio-economic and political development.
Today, we can confidently say that we have now laid the foundation to consolidate our nascent democracy after holding five successive democratic elections that have seen the transfer of power from one civilian administration to another.
After 57 years of political independence, we are still faced with some of the most critical problems and challenges of development and social progress. At 57 we:
Are not able to pay for our basic and essential services as a nation without depending on external development assistance.
We have not provided effective political and economic management of the state and our natural resources for the benefit of all Sierra Leoneans.
We are still classified as one of the poorest countries and the most corrupt country in the world.
At 57, Sierra Leone has changed from the international recognition as the ‘Athens of West Africa’ to a country where 3 in every 5 Sierra Leonean cannot read and write.
At 57, we are today a divided nation along ethnic, regional and sectional lines with very negative impact on the professionalism and functioning of our state governing institutions
These depressing social and development challenges will have to change. I have been given the mandate to change and transform this country. And I will provide the disciplined leadership needed to take this country forward. I have therefore directed that:
Given the current economic and financial crisis that we have inherited, there should be no budgetary allocation from the Ministry of Finance to fund independence celebration activities across the country.
My government will only fund future independence celebrations across the country when, as a nation, we are able to pay for our critical and basic services without relying on any external development aid.
My Government will only approve future funding for independence celebration activities when our domestic revenue collection make up 20% of our Gross Domestic Product.