Sunday, August 19, 2018 3:39 pm
President Julius Maada Bio has commenced on a sound footing. His best bet in transforming Sierra Leone is to focus more on human capital development than on infrastructural growth, as the vast majority of the people still eke out a living. His impressive resume, coupled with his disciplinarian demeanor, as a once tested and trusted Head of State, will help him in overcoming this huge challenge
ABUBAKAR HASHIM/Sierra Leone
This is the second peaceful transition in Sierra Leone from one elected leader to another and symbolizes a significant milestone in the consolidation of democracy. It will be 100 days on 14th July since President Julius Maada Bio was sworn in as President on 4th April.
Within this short stint in office, President Bio has embarked on a titanic journey, with slight twists and turns. He first issued Executive Order 1, embarking on massive revenue mobilization and Executive Order 2, curtailing excessive public spendings.
This twin move proved worthy as, for the first time in two months, government could pay workers without recourse to overdrafts from the Central Bank. Most Africa leaders fall back to bank overdrafts to pay salaries and settle other recurrent expenditures which is not healthy for African economies. President Bio is, evidently, aware of these teething challenges ahead. He was quick to pick holes in them, right from his swearing-in ceremony at Radisson Blu Hotel on the day of his victory on 4th April.
Then on the inauguration day, 12th March, coinciding with his birthday and that of his Vice, he re-echoed these entrenched challenges. Without mincing words, he was frank, direct and honest, “The economy is in its worst shape since independence”. He continues …”for the past two years, government workers’. salaries were balanced by Central Bank overdrafts, with a huge debt profile of over $2 billion”.
This gloomy economic scenario demands improvement in massive revenue generation, as iron ore prices, the major export earner, have plummeted in the world market. His finance Minister, a one-time World Bank official and apostle, Jacob Jusu Saffa, led a vigorous drive in revenue mobilization, through President Bio’s executive order 1 and 2, detailing methods for revenue mobilization and cut in government expenditures. The executive order descended on tax waivers and duty exemptions to multinational mining companies. It also instructed government agencies, particularly National Telecommunications Company NATCOM, Sierra Leone Cables Company SALCAB and others to pay into the Consolidated Revenue Fund (CRF) all monies held in scattered commercial bank accounts.
This strategy proved worthwhile, with Le 300 billion (about $37million) generated within a very short time of his ascendancy to power. Salaries were subsequently paid without recourse to overdrafts. This is perhaps, the biggest achievement of the Bio Presidency so far.
These two executive orders were followed up by Ministerial and other official appointments by President Bio. His Finance Minister, together with top government officials met with the World Bank and IMF officials in Freetown to chart ways of continued support, especially direct budgetary support to the Sierra Leone economy. A team of government officials, led by the Finance Minister was in Korea for the AFDB meeting in the sprawling city of Busan. The significance of the meeting is to revamp the 19 AFDB projects in the country, particularly those in the agro- based sector, the main focal point of President Bio’s government.
In this present economic scenario, President Bio needs the support and acquiescence of ECOWAS and AU to get the necessary political pedestal for economic development. Little wonder he commenced his first foreign trip to the Mano River Union (MRU) countries of Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia and Guinea on state visits.
Back at home, he embarked on two dramatic cabinet changes, when he sacked his Secretary, David Vandy, replacing him with Julius Sandi, with another surprise sacking of his Attorney General and Minister of Justice, the embattled and rattled Charles Margai, replacing him with the first ever female Justice Minister, Priscilla Shwartz. These two cabinet changes were volcanic and marked a significant milestone in Bio’s determination of steering a nation devoid of sentimental politics. He has also appointed a new Anti-Corruption Czar, Francis Kaifala, a renowned lawyer replacing Adi Macaulay.
Relations with Nigeria and the world
His next port of call after the MRU visits was to Nigeria, where bilateral political and economic matters were discussed with his host, President Muhammadu Buhari. His 2 day visit to Nigeria on May 30 and 31 climaxed the dawn of a new era between the two sister countries whose relations span over 200 years. The Sierra Leone and Nigeria Joint Commission was re-visited to revamp it from its present moribund status to promote trade and investment.
The two countries have mutually beneficial relations, spanning various sectors, including Education, Health, Military, Police, Judiciary and the promotion of democracy, through strenghtening the country’s National Electoral Commission NEC. Nigeria has been supportive in all these sectors. Recently, it donated logistical items for the recently concluded elections to the National Electoral Commission, NEC.
The Nigerian High Commissioner to Sierra Leone, Ambassador Habiss Ugbada is optimistic of a more robust relationship, remarking that the next Joint Commission meeting will be held in Nigeria, where all grey areas will be addressed and amicable solutions proffered. Since his resumption to duty, Amb. Ugbada has embarked on the promotion of Nigeria’s image and unity. This move has earned him commendations at the foreign Office in Abuja.
The brotherly relations have also been commended by past Presidents. In an interview with this medium at State House in Freetown in the thick of the Ebola crisis in 2015, former President Ernest Bai Koroma gave thumbs up to Nigeria as ‘‘the big brother in the region.’’ He told me in an exclusive interview preceeding Nigeria’s 2015 elections that… ‘‘when Nigeria sneezes, West African countries catch cold,’’ This utterance by him was made as apprehension was rife concerning a possible crisis in Nigeria, due to the rising tension prior to the 2015 elections which eventually turned out to be peaceful and was won by President Muhammadu Buhari. West African countries were apprehensive of possible crisis in Nigeria. Stability or crisis in Nigeria will be replicated in the West African region. Nigeria sees West Africa as its closest ally in thick and thin.
Apart from this mutually beneficial relations with Nigeria, President Bio also focuses on other foreign countries like China, UK, US and Multilateral institutions like the AFDB, IMF and the World Bank for imminent support and acquiescence. For Bio’s government to succeed, his tripartite polices of disciplined leadership, diversification of the economy and curbing of corruption must be implemented in full force for his desired objectives to be fruitful. His best bet to transform the economy is placing premium on human capital development than on infrastuctural growth, through a continuous process of a thorough overhaul of the educational architecture, the promotion of small-scale agro-based processing industries that employ 60 to 70 per cent of the people and a re-engineered civil service , anchored on a rebirth of leadership prowess of the ‘‘change mantra’’ he embarked on his campaign to win the Presidency.
Already, the World is supportive to the Bio Presidency through the World Bank, United States International Agency for Development USAID, African Development Bank AfDB and other friendly countries and multilateral institutions that have commenced proactive measures to re-calibrate the economy through agro-based development activities. This sector employs the bulk of the employable population and remains the epicentre for meaningful development. This, certainly, will be Bio’s best bet in re-positioning Sierra Leone on a journey to becoming an emerging developing country, a country where the employable population can feed itself and export to strenghten the value of its currency, Leones, rather than relying on mineral-based exports, with minimal processed value, exposed to international shocks in the global markets. The vast majority of the people eke out a living, earning below $2 a day. This remains his focal point and his best bet to transform Sierra Leone.
Information Minister, Mohamed Rado Swarray remains upbeat about the Bio administration in stabilizing the decrepit economy. ‘‘We are going to succeed irrespective of the inherited challenges,’’ he once told me.
Sierra Leone is a topographically beautiful country. Its people are friendly, hospitable and religiously tolerant. Christians are married to Muslims. Newly-wedded couples, of different religious backgrounds, smile their way to the same church, then proceed to the same mosque, also simultaneously, in the same convoy. Former President Kabbah once remarked in an interview with me that… ‘‘this gesture is an exportable commodity to other African countries where there is religious volatility, Nigeria inclusive’’.