NEW DIRECTION’s 3rd ANNIVERSARY

The Swearing-in ceremony, three years ago, of President Julius Maada Bio at Radisson Blue, a popular hotel in west Freetown, marked the genesis of a five-year presidential mandate. Expectations for a rapid political change began at the day of the swearing-in ceremony.

But, the change is contingent on the style and quality of leadership to be provided by the New Direction. The leadership determines Sierra Leone’s place among its people and the community of nations. Although public expectations were high and varied, the most urgent two were fixing the economy and agriculture for enhanced livelihoods.

A significant improvement of the economy and agriculture is a treasure for the state and a pleasure for the people.

Sierra Leone, at that time, grappled with a ruined economy and high hunger levels. Records show that Sierra Leone led a debt-financed economy and a country on the brink of economic collapse. The economic collapse is owing to what politicians would refer to as the twin shocks and the Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016.

Official World Bank data indicates that Ebola Virus caused a financial loss of US$2.8 in the Mano River Basin (Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia). Sierra Leone takes a fair share of the loss as the country lost almost US$2Bn. The country’s inability to export caused serious depreciation in the Leone exchange rates of up to massive 30% in 2016. It was against this backdrop that the New Direction appeared on the political stage with a promise to create a platform to right the mistakes of the past.

After three years, this article examines eight thematic areas of governance: Economy, Agriculture health energy, education, fighting corruption, Human Rights, and international relations with constant reference to the SLPP (Sierra Leone People’s Party) Manifesto of 2018. In Page-9 of the manifesto, New Direction Government made a commitment to transform the country’s economy for the betterment of lives.

Government strongly believes that improving the economy through sound economic policies and management is not an end but a means of developing the human capital, public infrastructure and governance structure. It also believes that a strong nexus exists between enhanced economy as well as human and infrastructural development.

In its analysis, the manifesto indicates that Sierra Leone’s economy stood at 6.1% after the end of Ebola. It subsequently receded in 2017 owing to economic slow-down. The country’s GDP was also rated at 11.1%.

Records also show that Sierra Leone is still  a primary producer and therefore a  price taker    at the World Market.

The country spends more on imports than she receives for her export. The appalling economic situation has placed Sierra Leone into permanent unfavourable terms of trade and balance of payment deficits. It was against this backdrop that the New Direction Government promised Sierra Leoneans to offer an economic turnaround.

The New Direction’s economic transformation of Sierra Leone would focus on revenue mobilisation, public expenditure, debt and exchange rate as well as public sector management. With these policies in place, the New Direction Government hopes for a thriving and viable economy in its years of leadership.

To fulfil the promises, the New Government, took some stringent economic measures upon coming to power in 2018. One of such measures was the introduction of the single treasury account to save the country’s finances.

However, government found it extremely difficult to create a tax-friendly environment, a situation that led to the departure of key investors from Sierra Leone. Most went away with foreign currencies. The arrest of a Lebanese investor at the Lungi International Airport with hundreds of thousands of United States Dollars is a case in point.

As the government faces a struggling economy, inflation shot up astronomically. Prices of basic food items do not match the pocket of men in the street rendering the Finance Minister’s street economics farcical.

The Minister of Finance, Jacob Jusu Saffa always say the economy is based on ‘Bread-and-Butter’, but to get honest loves remains a back-breaking toil. No food on the table means hunger and starvation for millions of Sierra Leoneans. Despite the suffering, government says it is pursuing economic policies for a turn-around.

Apart from the economic sector, the New Direction also placed agriculture on top of the national agenda. It hopes that through farming and planting, the teeming Sierra Leonean population would be fed. Studies and researches have always shown that Sierra Leone is an agrarian nation with 60% potential to contribute to GDP and the entire economy.

In P-20 of its manifesto, SLPP Government committed itself to pursuing prudent policies to ensure an enhanced and diversified agricultural production for Sierra Leoneans.

“In the New Direction, the overall goal of our agricultural policy is sustainable and diversified production of food including crops and animals on a scale sufficient enough to feed the growing population as well as providing gainful while maintaining the natural resource base,” the manifesto reads in part.

The manifesto focuses on the specifics of investment in agriculture, in food, cash and livestock production, improving irrigation water and land management, agricultural governance and research. These promises are somewhat a mismatch to the agricultural realities.

Although the New Direction Government takes credit for few tractors and some power tillers it distributed to farmers, realisation of the main objective of food security remains an illusion. Government again is on the verge of establishing youth farms in 191 chiefdoms in Sierra Leone.

It is hoped that the farms would create jobs for the youths and increase food production. How would government convince the bulk of youth commercial motorists, tricycle riders and others to see a fortune on the farm remains government’s biggest headache at the moment?

Despite plans for the farms, agriculture is still in in its abyss. A bag of 50Kg is now above Le300, 000 (three hundred thousand Leones), a situation that makes it quite difficult for those without means. Although agriculture is key to state governance, the health factor also features prominently in the SLPP manifesto.

Sierra Leone’s health situation could be described in one term-eclectic. The health sector is eclectic through neglect by successive governments. For many years, Sierra Leone’s health system has been in deep ruins. In the face of a depleted health system, Ebola struck in May 2014 and worsened an already deeply polarised situation.

In its situational analysis, World Health Organisation estimated life expectancy in 2015 at 50 years compared to 53 and 59 in neighbouring Liberia and Guinea respectively.

The Demographic Health Survey, 2008 indicates that infant mortality rate increased from 89  deaths  per 1,000 live births to 92 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2013.

In 2015, WHO placed per capita government expenditure on health at US$14. It is also reported that government’s expenditure has never exceeded the 15% threshold in the Abuja Declaration. In 2016, it says, 1, 190 health facilities and less than 200 physicians providing healthcare for the 7 million population. The dysfunctional state of the health system is partly blamed on the low public investment in the sector.

As usual, the New Direction Government also promised to revamp the health sector for a healthy Sierra Leone.

Promises were also made. SLPP Government said few years back that it would enhance health planning, develop a new National Health Policy and Action Plan, review laws and policies relating to regulatory bodies among others to translate the New Direction into concrete programmes.

However, government in three years of existence is yet to concretise the promises contained in its manifesto. Sierra Leoneans continue to seek medical services in Ghana for protracted illnesses. Investment in the health sector is low despite calls by civil society and inter-state organisations to double budgetary allocations to the health sector.

Currently, health and sanitation is captured in GOAL-6 of the Sustainable Development Goals, 2030, a document that succeeded the Millennium Development Goals 2015 after nations fail miserably to live up to commitments contained therein. Sierra Leone is one of them. The New Direction also has not effectively capitalised on the Free Healthcare policy launched in 2010 by the former Koroma administration. The scheme which catered for pregnant women, lactating mothers and under-five children is constantly under threat by leakages in the distribution of drugs, limited manpower and poor motivation of health staff.

Although much ink has been spilled in the Post-Ebola Recovery Strategy, Sierra Leone’s health sector is still a liability instead of an asset. A significant number of the country’s population especially the rural poor do not have access to health facilities. Consequently, effort and resources directed at the health sector is yet to yield dividend.

Sierra Leone’s rating between 2000 and 2002 as one with the worst records in maternal and infant mortality is still clearly seen. At the launching of the Maternal Health Project for Kroo Bay community by the country’s company, Orange Sierra Leone, the Minister of Health and Sanitation confirmed that Sierra Leone has relapsed to the age-old maternal health problem.

Sierra Leone is again rated as one of the country with the highest number of maternal and infant mortality rate. The Minister assured that Sierra Leone would walk towards ensuring the prescribed benchmark of at least 70 deaths per 100, 000 live births. But, the promise is a wait-and-see affair.

Sierra Leone is also on a catch-up trajectory with other countries in the sub-region in energy. The New Direction inherited over 200 Megawatts from the previous administration. Phase-One of the Bumbuna Hydro power Project was already completed and the Karpowership was there. The rural solar electrification project was in full swing.

But, in what appears a judicious utilisation of the country’s finances, the Karpowership contract was terminated by the New Direction Government.

The contract, it says, is extravagant and not in the interest of the people of Sierra Leone. The termination came with a big cost as Sierra Leone still grapples with apparently insurmountable energy problems. Southern and eastern cities of Bo and Kenema respectively could go for weeks without electricity.

On several occasions, the Minister of Energy, Alhaji Kanja Sesay has been accused by residents in Bo city  of incompetence and discrimination in the supply and distribution of energy. Persistent blackouts are not infrequent in many communities especially  emerging communities in the  nation’s capital, Freetown.

In a trial-and-error or Hit-and –miss approach in the energy supply, the Karpowership once resurfaced on the high seas of Freetown and later disappeared. Government still heightens its effort towards ensuring a reliable energy supply, but situation remains a constant source of worry.

The anomalies that permeate the energy and other sectors of the economy are also visible in the education sector. Education is a flagship project of the New Direction Government.

As a result, the New Direction pronounced a Free Quality Education (FQE) scheme to consolidate Basic and senior school education in Sierra Leone.

Under the scheme, pupils can attend government schools free-of-cost. It is the complete realisation of a campaign promise, and fundamental step in building the country’s human resource base. The pronouncement of FQE portrays SLPP Government as one that subscribes to the notion that a country will never rise above its literacy standards.

It also believes that investment in human resource  development has no equal anywhere in the world. The results of the FQE investment would hardly be seen today but would be seen in the not-too-distant future.

However, the euphoria generated on the day the FQE scheme commenced has been lost to a myriad of problems that weigh down hard on the policy. The academic foot soldiers (the teachers) who should be the first target for motivation  were never targeted.

Teachers’ emolument package is still nothing to write home about. The beggarly salaries have made teachers resort to  anti-social activities in the classrooms seen in petty bribes and illegal fees for extra classes.

At the launching of a pre-school in a village in Kambia district, local authorities including the paramount chief complained that the corrupt behaviour of teachers is slowly poisoning the quality education scheme.

A teacher of 20 years standing,  Ibrahim Bangura will not hesitate to refer to government’s education project as a “mere masquerade.” “Those who seek knowledge from us ride in comfortable buses while we walk to school,” Bangura cried foul.

The recent 30% increment in salaries of teachers is a mere drop in the ocean; teachers’ take-home package cannot take them home. The percentage can take them nowhere. A semblance of the situation in schools is also seen in colleges and universities.

Strikes and other industrial actions have come to hallmark the education system in Sierra Leone. Bangura argues that government would hardly succeed in its education project if teachers’ welfare is not placed on top of the national agenda. The identity of the  New Direction Government remains incomprehensible if the seeming relentless fight against corrupt is not mentioned in its description.

In its early years of existence, the New Direction pronounced reiterated its ferocious fight against corruption because it believes that corruption is not only a governance issue but a threat to national security. Months after taking over state governance, the New Direction recouped Billions of Leones from suspected  officials of the former government who choose an out-of-court settlement.

The recovery set in motion a ferocious campaign that resulted in cheques being handed over to President Julius Maada Bio by Chief of Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), Francis Ben Kaifala.

Africa and the world as well as Sierra Leonean patriots were impressed with ACC for its rare achievements. Little doubt the ACC Chief is honoured in Africa and beyond.

However, ACC is slowly losing relevance to the fight against corruption through favouritism.

ACC, most times, would not hesitate to take sides with government officials. Chief Minister, David Francis stands out as a bright example. Despite publications of corruption with concrete evidence  by a US-based media agency, Africanist Press, against the Chief Minister, ACC has never invited him for an interview let alone a full-scale criminal investigation.

Publications by civil society organisations  have also portrayed the New Direction Government as corrupt to the core.

Afro-Barometre, Institute of Governance Reform and a consortium of civil society organisations: Centre for Accountability and Rule of Law, Restless Development and Christian Aid have pointed accusing fingers at Office of the President, parliament and the police as the most corrupt.

ACC, no doubt, finds it difficult to go into action believing that his power, luxury and comfort emanated from State House and parliament.

As a result, Sierra Leone is not yet free from the claws of corruption although it was indicated by the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) Report, 2004 that corruption is one of the main causes of the Sierra Leone’s civil war (1991-2002). It can be said without any fear of contradiction that corruption is one of the conditions that constituted elements of disorder in the evolution of the state of Sierra Leone.

It is still present in the country, and it is a source of constant fear for Sierra Leoneans. In spite of the presence of a Human Rights Commission, respect and recognition of  human rights and due processes remains a challenge. Unlawful arrest  and detention of high profile personalities is not uncommon and killings by security operatives is not infrequent.

Of all killings, the shooting down of over 30 inmates in April, 2019  during an alleged attempted  jail break at the country’s main correctional facility exposed Sierra Leone’s negative side towards respect for human rights.

No one was held accountable for the killings; a floodgate of impunity was widely opened. No one can tell where the prisoners were buried to date. Torture is also a hallmark of the country’s legal system. Teachers accused of exam malpractice were displayed at the cotton tree for a whole day with their hands tied down. The action would have provoked riots in the country had it not been an apology from Office of the President.

Sierra Leone has come a long way in its democracy and good governance, but much more remains to be done. The New Direction government is navigating troubled waters; President Julius Maada Bio is captaining through rough seas with two years more to go.

Sierra Leoneans say, President Bio stands very close to the exit door, but would he go out in 2023.

The answer is:  only a miracle will save the New Direction Government.

However, a second term cannot be ruled out as development projects are still in stock for a second coming.

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