Sierra Leone President’s Austerity Measure: is it a Step Too Late?

Dr. Sorie Gassama, Author
Dr. Sorie Gassama, Author

It is no jaw-dropper to me and maybe to many other Sierra Leoneans that the President has suddenly come up with new measures of austerity to control the country’s continuous appalling and nightmarish economic situation. Who couldn’t have guessed so, considering the way things have been evolving. The big question is: Should the president have done this eight years ago? It doesn’t take a genius to know that Sierra Leone’s present intimidating economic situation could have long been averted had judgmatic steps been taken in the very first few years that the present government came to power. What got the country into the current ignominious situation should be a signpost that all future leaders should keep their sight on to avoid a recurrence.  I may not be an economist but I am sure readers will agree with me that the below suggestions could have seen us in a better state than we are today.

Many people, especially in Sierra Leone, use the term “good governance” loosely. In actuality, good governance should start with a thorough analysis of the budgetary situation of the country as soon as power changes hands. The financial structure normally helps the political leader to determine how he/she will run the country. This simply means whether the political leader will prudently count the available pennies or ignore them altogether. Readers will agree with me that a wise leader must be able to forecast the budgetary situation of the country before embarking on any new projects, be they infrastructural or manpower. Failure to do so will always create an economic nightmare beyond imagination. In today’s world, money counts in everything we do, and therefore must be taken into careful consideration.

Unfortunately, the nature of African Politics as it is in Sierra Leone sometimes makes political leaders look the other way if only to please supporters or people close to them. In Africa, it is seen as an inherent duty of the leader to cater for supporters at all costs regardless of whether they fit well for the positions they are offered or not. Square pegs in round holes? Mr. X, who is academically unfit, can be hired regardless of the fact that he is incapable of performing the task he is hired for just because he is a close associate or tribesman, thereby “rigging” the tax payers of not only their votes but of all the money paid to him for assuming that position. New positions are created for supporters even when the budget is such that it cannot sustain those positions for so long without plunging the entire country into an unimaginable quagmire. The government launches big projects not because they will benefit the masses, but because the people landing the contracts are die-hard party supporters. Officials embark on unnecessary overseas travels to attend unproductive conferences that could be attended by embassy representatives in the host countries, thus unnecessarily spending taxpayers’ monies on airfares, hotel bills, and per diems.

Reducing the number of ministerial posts is one good way of avoiding budgetary shortfalls. What is the need for a deputy minister when the substantive minister is there to do the job? Clearly, duplication of political posts brings about lethargy and mismanagement of funds. The interesting thing is that in most cases, both the minister and deputy are incapable of performing the jobs they are paid for because they are hired not by merit but as party loyalist pay-back. In fact, they become lackadaisical because they are confident that whether they perform or not, they are strongly protected. Why then should they bother when their backs are covered from the top?

Another questionable practice in Sierra Leone is the habit of appointing too many advisers to the President. Fired ministers would automatically be made advisers in order to protect their ego while they remain on government payroll at the expense of the taxpayers. A party die-hard for whom no position is available also becomes an adviser to the President and is added to the payroll at the taxpayers’ expense. While all these have, to a large extent, led to the Sierra Leone’s present horrendous economic situation, the below suggestions, if implemented, may help to lead the country out of the woods.

The President needs to slim down his whole workforce. While rich nations can afford deputy ministers, it is a bad idea for a country with a struggling economy like Sierra Leone. It will be helpful for the economy of the country if all those deputy ministerial positions and other non-productive officials become history. After all, those deputy ministers barely have any constructive duty to perform and therefore hardly show up in their offices. What then is the need for them in governance? It is no secret that the best place to hide from a government minister in Sierra Leone is in his/her office. Unfortunately, there is no one to make them realize that they are being paid to do jobs that they must do or go. In Freetown, a piece of document awaiting the signature of a minister will stay untouched for months. The excuse: “Minister done dae pan meeting all dis week.” The non-working weeks keep duplicating endlessly. Subsequently, the workers in the department end up copying the lethargic attitude of their bosses.

I recently visited an office in Freetown where young ladies, who were supposed to be working, spent endless hours discussing what happened in the nightclub over the weekend. Scattered haphazardly around the office were important official documents waiting to be filed for safety. Asked why those documents were not in file cabinets, the ladies answered that there were no file cabinets in their office. They blatantly told me that they were not even aware of what a file cabinet was! Most interestingly, it was 12 noon and the government official I had gone to see had not still arrived in his office.

 I visited another office on a rainy day only to be told by the lone female worker present that there was no work on that day because it was raining. Asked whether it would be a good idea to deduct that day’s pay from their salaries, she answered “No oh.” God help us, for a country like this can in no way progress. The President will do the taxpayers a favour by paying unannounced visits to offices and replacing those types of indolent ministers, government officials and other workers with people who have the nation at heart.

Another bunch of people worth getting rid of are those numerous but worthless advisers. The name alone sucks! The ministers can simply play the role of advisers to the President and some may be capable of giving salient pieces of advice. Why have an Adviser to the President on medical matters when there is a Minister of Health?  Shouldn’t it be the duty of the Health Minister to advise the President on health issues? Paying someone else to do that is a duplication of duty, a waste of taxpayer fund.

It is of the utmost necessity for the President to put a cap on overseas traveling. News of his recent visit to New York with a large entourage went viral. Most members of the large entourage might not necessarily have any role to play at all in the General Assembly other than admiring the skyscrapers in the Great Apple and bloating their stomachs with fat meals in restaurants. The millions of dollars spent on airline fares and hotels can be spent on profitable projects that can directly benefit the taxpayers, such as providing Fourah Bay College (FBC) with a state-of-the-art IT lab which the college presently lacks. I was shocked to find out that a University so profoundly acclaimed does not have a computer lab. It is unimaginable that anyone could graduate from a university in this century with no knowledge of computers. How do students go about with their research work with no connection to the World Wide Web? Someone may help me answer the question. A nation with an unprepared workforce can in no way progress.

As the situation is, it is no exaggeration to say that the country is rife with deep-rooted corruption. Corruption is so glaring that it has become a normal competitive procedure, a sacred duty. It seems that Sierra Leoneans have so become immune to corrupt practices that they turn a blind eye to what goes on around them because it is now considered a normal way of life. This makes me ask the question: What is the job of the Anti- Corruption Agency? Is it just another office meant to gratify party stalwarts? If its purpose is to end or minimize corruption, it is correct to say, with all due respect, that it has woefully failed the people of Sierra Leone. The powers-that-be will do the nation a great service to look into the financial dealings of some government officials. How can someone earning a monthly salary of less than a thousand dollars afford a three-hundred-thousand-dollar mansion? Sierra Leoneans deserve an answer to this. It is simply a question of accountability. Some even have two or three mansions and acres of land in addition. If the Anti-corruption Commission is viable and wants to be taken seriously, this is one area they have to start scrutinizing very keenly.

Having been a strong and prosperous little country in the past, Sierra Leone has been progressively declining over the years. I spend sleepless nights pondering over the fact that in the 21st century, my people still don’t have what it takes to make them look human, which are potable water and electricity. Yet, we talk about progress. It is possible that the word “progress” is being wrongly used; “regress” may be a better word. What is so progressive about a country where water-borne pipes still float above ground? What is the progress in a country where people go for weeks without light? What is the progress in a country where children go to school on empty stomachs? What is the progress in a country where children line up, as can be seen on Social Media, to receive a handful of rice or they perish? What is the progress in a country where citizens only go to the hospital in order to die because of lack of care? What is the progress in a country where 90% of the youth are unemployed? No wonder there is a lot of banditry in the capital Freetown with armed gangs springing up from everywhere. This lends credence to the adage, “An idle brain is the devil’s workshop.” The truth that follows is that idleness breeds the type of monsters that are peregrinating the streets of Freetown, causing horrific havocs.

The following may be pieces of advice coming too late, but may be useful for the next government: ministerial appointments can be more effective by merits rather than by who you know; a political leader must always have the interest of the people in mind; appointing well-qualified people who are capable of delivering positively can be very important and rewarding; ministers, like all other government officials, must be evaluated on a regular basis and moved if they cannot perform. What is the need of keeping someone in a ministerial position for ten years knowing fully well that they are incapable of delivering? The President must at the moment reflect on what each of his ministers has accomplished that is of any benefit to the nation since their appointment to the office almost nine years ago. The fact that the President had hardly done any effective reshuffling of his cabinet demonstrates that he is satisfied with his ministers’ performances. Saying this, I will comment on two ministries that have lagged behind tremendously; these are the Ministries of Education and of Agriculture. While various other ministries have achieved nothing spectacular, a look at the two will serve as vibrant examples of a disappointingly lacklustre performance.

For the past nine years, education in Sierra Leone has taken a downward turn and has been aimlessly and interminably rolling down the precipice. Most children coming out of high school can barely read, while most college graduates fail to meet past standards. This is simply known as academic suicide. The teachers can in no way be faulted in this; the man who is in charge of the ministry, the Minister of Education, carries the blame squarely on his weakening shoulders. I came to understand that he specialized in Electrical Engineering, which makes him very unqualified and therefore unfit to be a Minister of Education of a country that was once proudly known as the Athens of West Africa. Rather, he may be qualified to work in the Department of Engineering at FBC.

To be a Minister of Education, one must be qualified in the discipline of education and hold a terminal degree in Educational Leadership. Additionally, that individual must have many years of experience as an educator, with good knowledge in the field of Curriculum and Instruction (CUIN). Appointing an individual to head a ministry for which he/she lacks the necessary knowledge and experience is nothing short of seeking the interest of a single individual at the expense of a whole nation. The main function of the Minister of Education is to change things in the educational arena for the better and there are many noteworthy things a progressive Minister of Education can do in less than four years. Sadly, our present Minister has been in that position for about eight years and will leave it with no landmark for posterity to recognize as a beacon of enlightenment. Is the President to blame to appoint an ill-equipped person as head of a delicate ministry? I guess he could carry the blame had he himself been a real educator. Today, unfortunately, Sierra Leone is known not as the erstwhile citadel of education but as a country moving backward into a dark tunnel.

It is true that the government may have so much at hand thereby making it impossible to provide for all that society needs. That brings about the necessity of having people around the President who know what they are capable of doing. Ministers who know what they are doing can go a long way to improve their respective ministries through their own efforts. When ministers with the right qualifications and necessary know-how wear their working shoes, they can move positively and be useful to society.

During my recent visit to Sierra Leone, I drove along the Freetown-Makeni highway heading towards the city of Kabala in the North. I noticed that most of the arable lands, as could be seen, have been left to fallow for more than two decades. This is so even when the population is starving for want of food. While most of the rural dwellers have abandoned their villages and farming activities for urban areas, a good Minister of Agriculture with his working shoes on could have made use of two opportunities: Convince those rural farmers to go back to their farms by offering them incentives, and proposing state farms. This can be brought to fruition by making available as many tractors as possible with not a penny from the state budget. There is a way to do this provided it is made a priority. Unemployed youths and prisoners can be hired to work in state farms while they receive wages that can help them move forward. This reduces unemployment and helps those incarcerated to start life once they come out of prison, thereby reducing crime. Returned rural farmers, who have been provided with tractors and seeds, will in turn give back to the state stipulated amounts of their yearly harvests and sell the rest to the state at a mutually agreed price. It ends up as a win-win for both the state and the farmers and will result in Sierra Leone being self-sufficient food-wise. With our rich fertile soil and abundant rainfall, Sierra Leoneans should be the last people on earth to starve.

With all this said, I must make it abundantly clear that a leader whose main goal is to improve the economy of his country must consider electric power generation as very important. There can be no progress without constant electricity supply. Light industries can play a great role in boosting the economy of a country. This cannot be possible without electrification. West African countries like Ivory Coast, Ghana and Mali have booming and stable economies because of reliable electricity. A capital city as dark as Freetown will do nothing but ward off future investors. To invest in a country, investors must make sure that the end result will be profit. How can you invest in a light industry when there is no power to run the machinery? In the above-mentioned countries, most consumable items are produced on-the-spot, making them affordable for both the middlemen and final consumers. Electric energy, which should occupy the driver seat, has been long ignored in Sierra Leone. The Agenda for Prosperity should have long realized that a country can hardly be prosperous without effective power supply and should have begun with effective revamp of the power supply structure of the country.

I wish the President and his ministers and officials of government would spend some days racking brains on how to turn around a broken state, how to seek the path of success that has eluded them for so long and how they can woo those professionals in and out of the country to make their own profitable contributions for the betterment of our people.

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Critique Echo Newspaper is a major source of news and objective analyses about governance, democracy and human-right. Edited and published in Kenema city, eastern Sierra Leone, the outlet is generally referred to as a level plying ground for the youths, women and children.

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