After COVID-19 Index case was discovered in March, 2020, a State of Emergency was proclaimed throughout Sierra Leone purportedly to keep citizens safe from the virus. Section 29 of the Constitution of Sierra Leone mandates the President to make such proclamation when the country faces a health or security crises.
In a state of emergency, the President enjoys sweeping powers. He orders the arrest and detention of citizens indefinitely without charge.
He can also order the confiscation of property owned by a private individual either with or without compensation. The President can also curtail fundamental rights of citizens without recourse to any law or agency. He has power also to suspend the operation of any law in force as long as he does so in good faith to restore order and normalcy in the emergency period.
Most importantly, the President enjoys absolute immunity in respect of anything done by him in an emergency as no court can inquire into his actions after order has been restored.
However, rules must be drafted and tabled before parliament for approval so that law enforcement institutions would be guided on their conduct towards the public in the emergency period. The afore-mentioned conditions relates to the emergency that has just been lifted by government.
The proclamation of the state of emergency culminated into drastic measures implemented by government notably the dusk-to-dawn curfew. The curfew initially ran between 9pm to 6am and at such hours, everyone caught on the street would incur the wrath of security operatives.
During such time, government expect shop owners, cinemas and bars and pubs operators to shut down operations. The curfew period was definitely one in which most informal sector institutions commence their trade.
But, no alternative exists for them as they have to comply with the law. Cinemas, bars and pubs shut down earlier, a situation that costs them their personal savings and revenue to the state.
Money lost though could not be quantified in exact monetary terms, it is safe to say they run into hundreds of millions of Leones. Other traders in the informal sector were also badly affected during the state of emergency.
Petty traders, fearing police arrest and brutality, would have to fold their businesses much earlier than the 9pm prescribed to begin their long trek.
Most times, the women traders are at the mercy of thieves. The traders who occupy the streets of Freetown come from distant communities particularly in the east. Others come from as far as Waterloo to trade in the city centre.
Returning home in the evening during normal period is an arduous task let alone in a curfew period. These traders most times would face arrest and brief detention by police officers, and asked to pay a fine. They get back their freedom only when a stipulated fine had been paid. Those who refuse to pay fines, most times, are indefinitely held in police custody.
Owing to police harassment, traders in distant communities would prefer not to come at all. They prefer to sell in their communities, and put up with whatever they make for the day. The informal sector known for its contribution to the economy receded significantly.
Councils across the country lost the much-needed revenue making it difficult to provide the required services to their people. The state of emergency also made local councils to over rely either on central government or the donor community for financial assistance so that they could meet their obligations to councils. Economic hardship brought about by the curfew was also worsened by the closure of borders between Sierra Leone and Guinea.
The combined effect of the curfew and closure of borders resulted into an uncontrollable inflation especially in prices of food and personal wearings. In the emergency period, a shirt sold at Le50, 000 (fifty thousand Leones) prior to the outbreak of the virus shot up close to Le80, 000 (eighty thousand Leones) or even Le100, 000 (hundred thousand Leones). A similar situation also prevailed in several commodities making it difficult for the have-nots to live a comfortable life.
Making ends meet in various home was a great problem and the threat of economic hardship became more potent and dangerous than the virus. Recurrent consumer price index reports have always indicated that inflation in Sierra Leone is still double-digit.
The 2019 Consumer Price Index is a clear case in point. The transport sector perhaps is the hardest-hit. The sector owed multiple obligations in the emergency periods causing intermittent waves of strike actions. Commuters are always at the wrong end during protests by drivers.
During the state of emergency, the number of passengers to be carried by vehicles and tricycles were reduced. Buses which used to carry six passengers on a seat were ordered to carry only four, and taxi cars which carried three were told to carry two.
These restrictions compelled many drivers to ply provincial routes where they hoped to make money.
But, the inter-district lockdown made the drivers to reconsider their actions. Apart from the order to carry less passengers, curfew period would also not spare drivers. A great number of drivers were hounded during the emergency period, and most paid large sums of money as fines.
Drivers were also held responsible for carrying passengers who do mask up. The drivers are either detained or asked to pay a fine for the actions of passengers.
Owing to the multiple obligations, drivers came to see government’s action as obvious forms of embarrassment, harassment and intimidation. The emergency period also created frequent shortages of fuel especially petroleum products thus worsening a polarised transport situation.
On several occasions, drivers would choose not to ply the streets in fear of police harassment. Air and land transport was also equally badly affected. Airports and wharves were shut down to prevent those carrying the virus to come in.
For a considerable period, many flights suspended their operations in Sierra Leone. Foreign currencies which government made from the tourism industry also do not come.
The tourists have run away from Sierra Leone waiting for normalcy to be restored. The pronouncement of the emergency also created a situation where government paid workers that do not come to work.
Teachers and other public servants were paid without teaching. The emergency period inflated government expenditure in the face of weak economic activities.
It is safe to say government spends more than it receives. The state of emergency has gone, but the wounds it left behind are hard to cure. How would Sierra Leone look like in coming years.