Saturday, May 23, 2020 8:55 am
President Julius Maada Bio remains focussed in spite of Covid-19 pandemic and the political crisis in the country
BY ABUBAKAR HASHIM/Sierra Leone
It’s a moment of grief! The entire world stands still! A pandemic that originated from China, has set the entire universe into a cataclysmic trauma, worse than the ugly scenario of world war 2. The fight is against an unseen enemy, avid and voracious, its catastrophe more devastating.
Covid has crumbled world economies. Countries are bailing out key sectors of the economy. African countries are worse hit as they rely primarily on monolithic exports and in unprocessed form.
Amidst this devastation, Sierra Leone, a tiny West African Country, though infected by the world wide pandemic, still exhibits strong macro-economic fundamentals due to earlier recovery processes being undertaken, pre -covid crisis, making the economy resilient to pandemic impact.
Though hit by the pandemic, Sierra Leone was on the verge of a diversified economy away from monolithic exports of ironore and diamonds and was on threshold of recovery before covid struck.
The Finance Minister, Jacob Jusu Saffa remarked that “the country’s reserve can meet up its financial obligation for 100 days”. More so, the country had received commendation and support from international financial organizations, in terms of budgetary support to pave way for fiscal space to tackle the covid crisis.
President Julius Maada Bio’s Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) Government recently clocked two years in governance on 4 April and on 27 April, the country marked its 59th independence anniversary from Britain.
Bio’s period of two years in power has been relatively impressive, though with burning challenges! The economy is recovering from years of devastation but, currently it is being slowed down by covid-19 pandemic, that has apparently overshadowed tremendous gains by the administration. The country had a long history of infrastructure deficits, in virtually all sectors of operations. Bio’s zest to reposition this decrepit state of the economy he inherited along the right trajectory has secured him an unbroken international support from the IMF and other multilateral institutions. Recently, the country was granted a covid debt relief, among 25 other poorest countries in the world, in the IMF loan repayment suspension for the next six months. Meaning, Sierra Leone will save about $80 million from the suspension of debt repayment to the IMF, to pave way for fiscal space to handle the pandemic.
When the country registered its first index case of covid-19 on 31 March Bio and his Government were not caught off guards, as they were fully prepared, with all the structures to contain the pandemic in place.
In order to prevent importation of the virus from neighboring Guinea and Liberia where it first raged at alarming rate, Bio visited all border crossing points with the neighboring countries to strengthen preventive measures. He later dispatched his vice, Juldeh Jalloh to embark on a follow up assessment tour.
The first index case was a 37 -year old man who traveled from France on Brussels Airlines and arrived the country March 16, but was quarantined among other passengers and he later tested positive.
In order to prevent community transmission, Bio’s Government immediately operationalized contact tracing and surveillance for all primary and secondary contacts. Moreover, the administration initiated the activation of a response committee, ban of all flights and social gatherings, closure of all learning institutions and re-activation of the then “Ebola” Emergency Operations Centre (EOC), with a response team headed by the Minister of Defense, Brig(rtd) Kellie Conteh.
Prior to the first index case, there was a nation-wide broadcast by President Bio where he called on the military to fight the deadly virus. He directed the military to deploy to the International airport and all land crossing points, to enhance security and beef up compliance with all public health directives and advisories. He then proclaimed a Public State of Emergency across the country for 12 months, effective 22 March, to prevent, protect and curtail the spread of the virus.
These measures were in place when the first index case was detected, that has snowballed into a multiple transmission, today, predominantly in the capital city of Freetown, the epicenter of the crisis. This necessitated a 3- day lockdown, from 5 to 7 April, which facilitated a full contact tracing of all the primary and secondary index cases.
President Bio declared another 3-day nation-wide lockdown, 3 to 5 May revealing that “epidemiological evidence” indicates community transmission is ongoing in thecovid crisis in Sierra Leone in order to fast track contact tracing, surveillance, isolation and case management.
According to the spokesman of the Emergency Operating Centre (EOC), Solomon Jamiru, the outcome of the three-day lockdown enabled smooth contact tracing to limit the rate of community transmission in the country.
As the country marked its 59th independence anniversary on 27 April, the number of positive cases had reached 99. The next day, 28th April, it took a jump of 5 cases to pass the hundred mark, to reach 104. Since then, the positive cases accelerated, within a short time frame, to a rise of 121 cases, totally 338 as we go to press.
The reason for this astronomical jump are not far-fetched. Brig. (Prof) Sahr Foday, Head of case management at the Emergency Operation Centre (EOC), the body responsible for management of covid-19 cases, remarked that the “jump in cases was because of active searching and identifying of cases, for on-ward transmission to hospital”. He further revealed that “the country had increased testing capacity and a more robust surveillance system. These are the main reasons for the explosive jump in positive cases”, in his estimation.
This strategy paved way for surveillance, monitoring, contact tracing and testing of cases to scale up, while the number of treatment bed in isolation centers increased from 30 to 315, with more under construction.
The Ministry of Finance also opened 2 accounts at the Central Bank of Sierra Leone for Covid-19 responses. President Bio’s government paid in Le 25 Billion while multiple donations were realized from various private organizations.
The rapidity of the transmission was also felt at the heart of state governance when one of President Bio’s security details was tested positive for the virus on 20 April. This necessitated a self-isolation of the President for 14 days, working from home, a difficult decision he took in the interest of the country. This is so, as neither him, nor any member of the first family was infected. He came out of isolation and tested negative, along members of his family.
In spite of the deadly pandemic, President Bio’s government has instituted sound economic pillars, pre-pandemic, that enabled the country’s reserves to last a while during the pandemic.
The Minister of Finance, Jacob Jusu Saffa, revealed that “the country’s reserve of about $ 500 million which is about 3.5 months of imports can last for 100 days”. He, however, sounded a note of warning that the growth rate for 2020 of 5.1 percent is expected to drop to 2.8 percent at the end of the year, insisting that all economic sectors will be affected, though amidst a resilient economic trajectory.
In order to provide palliatives for the people, the Central Bank of Sierra Leone released a Le 500 Billion loan facility to Commercial Banks for the production, procurement and distribution of essential goods during the crisis. Governor of the Bank of Sierra Leone, Professor Kelfala Kallon, revealed that only 1 percent will be charged as interest rate, as it is a concessionary loan to promote the private sector in order to import essential products for the people.
In a bid to strengthen covid response, the Bio government has established a Scientific and Technical Advisory Group for Emergencies STAGE, comprising 12 eminent experts, drawn from diverse fields of studies. STAGE will be responsible for providing scientific advice, insights from research and state of the art technological interventions. First of its kind in the country’s history, the body will work in earnest with the covid team to sanitize the health sector.
In spite of the pandemic and its devastating consequences worldwide, President Bio’s government has delivered on its “2020 year of Delivery Project” he initiated early this year. The 2020 Budget on wages and salaries reform has commenced operations on 24 April, full payment of 30 percent salary increment for 34,350 teachers in both government and government- assisted schools was effected. This was one of the pledges on the 2020 budget tabled in parliament on Friday 8 November 2019 by the Finance Minister, Saffa. Government has also allocated 21 percent of the 2020 budget to educate 2 million children irrespective of gender, ethnic or regional sentiments.
The budget 2020 tagged “fiscal consolidation for Human Capital Development and Job Creation “also proposed a 30 percent increment to support human capital development, effective April 2020. That promise has also come to stay amidst covid 19.
The area of budget transparency is another major score card of the Bio administration. The public participation in Budget processes and transparency with budget oversight is a telling criteria of a resounding budget globally. A report, titled “Open Budget Survey Report 2019, launched by Budget Advocacy Network (BAN) in collaboration with International Budget Partnership (IBP), scored the government relatively high.
Sierra Leone scored 31 out of 100 indicators ranking number one, ahead of Nigeria, 22; Ghana, 15; Gambia, 9; Liberia, 6; Equatorial Guinea, 0; Sao Tome 0; among others.
In area of transparency, Bio government scored 39 out of 100 indicators.
The open Budget Survey is the world’s only independent criteria, comparative and fact – based, anchored on research instrument that uses internationally acceptable criteria to access public to central government budget information.
Another area of delivery is the fight against corruption. For decades, the country has languished at the bottom of the international corruption rankings. More recently, however, Transparency International ramped up the country 10 places, 119 out of 180 countries in its corruption percentage index. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, MCC, an independent US foreign Assistance Agency, also recorded a jump for the country in its annual anti- corruption scorecard. Even Sierra Leoneans are also reporting improvements in the government’s fight against corruption. In a survey published by Afro barometer in 2019, 66 percent of respondents remarked that the government was doing a good job tackling corruption, the second most positive response in Africa.
The commissions of inquiry, headed by a Nigerian, Justice Biobele Georgwill has wrapped up its sittings on the past government. The findings are damning. 110 persons were investigated, with 84 indicted. The report revealed Le 323 Billion and $ 94 Million were misappropriated and unaccounted by the former government of President Ernest Bai Koroma. The revelations of the inquiry are scathing and serves as a deterrent to even serving government officials in the Bio government.
Another equally important area of delivery is the international supports the country is receiving in quick rapidity, particularly during the pandemic. The European Union EU is investing E60M into the Sierra Leone economy, through a new job and growth programme. It will boost sustainable and inclusive economic development and job creation, especially in the agricultural and educational sectors. More importantly, it will contribute immensely to covid-19 recovery strategy and is fully aligned with the government’s vision for national development as expressed in the Medium- Term National Development Plan MTNDP 2019-2023.
MTNDP emphasizes human capital development, in particular education, investment in skills and establishment of a diversified infrastructure. The MTNDP is Bio’s pillar, post pandemic, to sustain economic growth and development, thereby transforming the economy. This transformation is achievable, rapidly, through mainstreaming technology and innovation. The National Digital and Innovation Strategy (NDIS) was launched by President Bio on 1 November, 2019, putting the country among global leaders in the digital economy for effective service delivery.
In demonstrating an air of political tolerance and national unity, President Bio has appointed two polical gladiators from the two main opposition parties, the APC and NGC, Alfa Kanu and Julius Spencer respectively. The former as Strategic Advicer on Social Mobilisation and Food Security in the office of the coordinator of covid response, while the latter as Special Advicer in Public Health Information to the covid response coordinator
These two appointments demonstrate Bio’s commitment to national cohesion and inclusive development.
In spite of these delivery, scores of the Bio-led administration, there are some burning challenges confronting him. A huge challenge of the Bio- led administration is the significant depth on poverty in the country, irrespective of the rapid recovery process. The 2018 Sierra Leone integrated Household survey launched in 2019, by Statistics Sierra Leone, estimated overall poverty incidence at 56.8 percent and extreme poverty at 12.9 percent. The depth of poverty, as a result of long standing maladministration, resulting in defective policies by past governments, really overshadows the signs of the recovery process by the Bio-led government. The economy, though recovering, is not a sufficient parameter to elbow the depth of poverty in the country, as indicated in the Sierra Leone Integrated Household report 2018 by Sierra Leone Statistics. True, the economy has witnessed recovery process under the Bio administration and was on the verge of take -off when covid-19 struck.
Post covid-19 will entail dynamic strategy by the economic management team of the Bio led administration to reposition the economy to pre- covid trajectory.
Amidst the on-going covid crisis, there is a political crisis sweeping the country.
At 59, however, the country is heading towards a trajectory of hope and resilience! With this momentum, coupled with international support, Sierra Leone is on a journey of re-birth before it clocks 60 next year.
President Bio has accused the main opposition party, All People’s Congress APC of orchestrating a spate of violent incidents, deepening a political standoff that risks undermining the country’s efforts to contain the corona virus outbreak
At least 18 people have died in 3 separate parts of the country in recent weeks, including a disturbance in Freetown central prisons on April 29, which started after an inmate tested positive for the virus
In a televised address, Bio claimed members of the APC party were behind the violence, stating that” these attacks were premeditated, orchestrated and executed with a clear objective to make the state ungovernable “
The APC however denied the accusation, stating “it is shocking”
The UN has called on all parties to work together to avoid distractions in the fight against covid-19 crisis, which has so far infected 408 and killed 19 as we go to press. This figure is likely to increase as the country is yet to reach of its peak.