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Sierra Leone: Squaring up to its challenges

Analysis

Sierra Leone: Squaring up to its challenges

Sierra Leone has had more than its fair share of calamities over the recent past, with natural disasters and outbreaks of Ebola as well as a kleptomaniac administration. With these huge challenges how is the year-old government of President Julius Maada Bio coping? Analysis by Julian Lahai Samboma.

It has been a year since Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio took office in this mineral-rich but desperately poor West African nation of 7.5m people. This makes it an opportune moment to take stock of how the country’s former military ruler has fared thus far.

 It was in 1996 that, as Brigadier-General Bio, the then 32-year-old junta leader handed over power to a democratically-elected civilian administration, after his National Provision Ruling Council (the NPRC) organised multi-party elections in a country that had been brutalised by a fratricidal civil war that claimed up to 50,000 lives and devastated its export-oriented economy.

While you could argue that the new administration would have to accomplish a lot to make even a dent in the plethora of problems inherited from former President Ernest Bai Koroma, a sceptic could argue that Bio and his team do not have to do much to be seen to have done a lot.

Not unlike the classic question of whether the glass is half -full or half-empty, it all hinges on perspective.But whatever that perspective, your point of departure has to be the shambolic state of affairs they inherited – a mismanaged, nosediving economy that had been systematically looted during the decade long hegemony of Koroma’s All Peoples Congress (the APC), with a total debt of $3.7bn.

Add to that a diseased body politic whose citizens had been ravaged by an Ebola epidemic and mud slides that destroyed whole communities, claiming thousands of lives, poor healthcare services, a moribund education system, interparty political violence and, last but definitely not least, endemic sexual violence against women and girls.

And, atop this veritable poisoned chalice, were the lingering reverberations of the decade-long, internecine civil strife, known here as “the rebel war” (1991-2002).

Hit the ground running

It therefore came as no surprise to many when the new President hit the ground running upon taking up the reins of power on 4 April last year. True to his campaign promises –  which he explains further in this exclusive interview with New African he instituted an investigation into corruption and mismanagement under the APC government.

In a rearguard move to close off loopholes for ‘leakages’ in his own administration, he also set in train a process that saw all government revenues going into one consolidated account.

According to Tamba J Lamina, Sierra Leone’s High Commissioner in London, the policy has proved so successful that there are no immediate plans to change it: “By doing that, the government has been able to pay workers without borrowing, and that has happened for the past year, and we were able to service the domestic debt.

“It’s not like Sierra Leone is not generating revenue, the revenue is there but it was going into private pockets,” he told New African, adding that this was the first time in a very long time that the government has been able to consistently pay the salaries of government officials on time.

Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party (the SLPP) government has made education and healthcare provision key pillars in its strategy, with a flagship programme of free pre-primary, primary and secondary education; it has already commissioned two universities geared towards science and technology, as well as up to 48 new health centres across the country.

But no matter how progressive these new policy initiatives, they will come to nought if they are not rooted in an overarching and coherent development strategy for the nation as a whole.

That this was not lost on the government became clear in February when Bio unveiled his ambitious $8bn National Development Plan which, among other priorities, emphasises good governance, the development of human capital and infrastructure, and increasing agricultural production, especially of rice, the staple grain. Bio has made no secret of the fact that he will be relying on IMF and World Bank support to realise his development goals – which will dismay critics of those institutions. “The IMF and the World Bank are necessary evils,” President Bio has said. “As it is, we cannot generate enough revenue to be able to do the things we want to do at home and also embark on our development processes.”

The IMF has warmed to Bio’s government, in contrast to their “increasingly difficult” relationship with the previous administration towards the end of its tenure.

Sierra Leone is rich in mineral resources including diamonds, bauxite and iron ore; it is also blessed with marine resources, as well as fertile soil. Until the mid1970s the country was a net rice exporter, and up to the 1980s, cash crops such as cocoa and coffee were decent foreign exchange earners. As citizens say and experts agree, this impoverished nation has no reason to be poor.

This former military man has generated a palpable optimism in the country, creating the strong impression that someone is now in charge – as opposed to the feeling of drift under his predecessor. Freetown resident Levi Fofana said Bio has come at “the right time”: “The people of Sierra Leone were lied to by the roguish APC, which created a bankrupt state in which swindlers dressed in suits and African robes abused power with impunity.” From this perspective, the new government has done enough in its first year to demonstrate its resolve and determination to get the job done.

Violence against women

But there have also been challenges, not least the shocking spiral of sexual violence against women and young girls. Statistics show that, from 632 cases in 2012, the numbers rose to a staggering 8,505 cases in 2018. Further, over 70% of these incidents are rapes or sexual assaults against girls under the age of 15.

The government may have inherited this problem, but they cannot deny that it continued its upward trajectory under their watch. They attempted to nip this problem in the bud in February by declaring a national emergency and sanctioning life imprisonment for the “sexual penetration of minors”.

Meanwhile, following the conclusions of the corruption investigation Bio instituted on taking office, a judge-led commission of inquiry has begun hearing evidence against officials in the previous administration accused of corruption and mismanagement, some of whom – including ex-Vice President Victor Foh and former mines minister Minkailu Mansaray – have offered to “pay back” moneys they fraudulently appropriated.

This news was met with universal jubilation by people who feel cheated by ex-president Koroma and his cabal of corrupt confederates.

Ultimately, however, President Bio’s ‘new direction’ administration will be judged on how successful his recently-unveiled five-year, IMFapproved National Development Plan is in tackling the plethora of problems which continue to hobble this potentially rich but desperately poor nation.

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