It was February 15, 2018, a day many Sierra Leoneans and I may remember for some time to come. The country held its first-ever presidential debate since the initiation of multi-party democracy. Six presidential candidates answered varied questions on their objectives and plans for the country’s development ahead of the election.
On that calm evening, many families were glued to their television sets. Others moved around with radio sets and cell phone, listening attentively to determine who amongst the aspirants was worthy to lead the struggling country of 7 to 8 million people.
As a young girl at the time preparing for university admission, I had little knowledge about politics and its games, but I had an idea that Sierra Leone needed a visionary leader. My hopes and dreams for a better Sierra Leone thus got me anxious that evening, to hear from you, Mr President, and the other candidates.
“It has started! It has started!” my younger sister shouted when the debate went live. While running in order not to miss any part of it, I almost broke my skinny leg in transitioning from my bedroom to the hall, where everyone had gathered to watch the debate.
As I watched, I overheard you, President Julius Maada Bio, say that a vote for you was a vote for a democratic change and an end to the suffering of Sierra Leoneans.
You stated that the ten years of the All People’s Congress (APC) political party embezzlement and economic mismanagement, created considerable suffering for the people of Sierra Leone, and you made several promises, some of which included: improving the country’s economy, reducing foreign dependency, controlling the price for a bag of rice, and many others if you were elected president.
According to you, before the previous All People’s Congress party took over governance in 2007, a bag of rice was sold at 60 thousand Leones, but in 2018 when they were exiting, a bag of rice was sold at 200 thousand Leones.
Mr. President, during the debate, you stated empathetically that this was too much for citizens just for a bag of rice. You, therefore, begged all Sierra Leoneans to vote for you and the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) for a change of governance and an end to their suffering.
Yes, there was a change of government, but as for a change or improvement in the price of a bag of rice, the answer is no. Ironically, prices have worsened under your reign.
A 50kg bag of rice, as of September 2022, was sold in Sierra Leone for between 400,000 Leones and 470,000 Leones. But presently, the same 50kg bag of rice has increased to 520,000 in just a few weeks.
Mr. President, from what I have observed and from the facts available, the situation looks more hopeless than you met it. The increase in the price of a bag of rice is shooting up every day, making it difficult for most people you lead today to purchase rice, which is a staple food in the country.
The rising cost of living continues to drain citizens of the little they make in this suffocating economy.
It has been four years already since you took office, and you’re almost at the end of your term. But today, not many Sierra Leoneans can proudly say that you’ve fulfilled your promises to them.
Mr. President, I believe Sierra Leoneans believed in your words and elected you with a lot of hope in your promises.
You won against an incumbent government, which speaks to the level of trust Sierra Leoneans had in you and your promise of change.
Mr. President, during the debate, you also claimed that the previous government recklessly mismanaged the economy through misuse and embezzlement of funds, leaving the country in a devastating state, and with a huge foreign debt of 1.6 billion dollars.
“The APC government has been spending like drunken sailors. The SLPP government left a reserve of over 5 billion Leones, and a foreign debt of about 250 million dollars. As I speak to you, we have a foreign debt of about 1.6 billion dollars today. This sort of reckless spending on the part of government has created serious challenges for the people of this country.”
Mr President, those were your words as a presidential candidate, strongly condemning the governance of Ernest Bai Koroma and the APC party, for trapping Sierra Leone in a foreign debt of 1.6 billion dollars.
But today, World Bank data for the year 2020 shows that Sierra Leone’s external debt has reached 2. 11 billion dollars. Data for 2021 data is yet to be published.
Mr President, the rise in our external debt under your supervision clearly shows that the continuous borrowing has increased the debt by 0.36 billion dollars, pushing it from 1.75 billion dollars to 2.11 billion dollars in just two years (2018-2020).
World Bank analysis of Sierra Leone’s external debt stock as of the year 2020.
Mr President, you made us believe that you would help remedy the situation, but the results show otherwise.
At the 2018 presidential debate, you chanted how you had served the country as head of state, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Sierra Leone, and the Chief of Defense Staff, in your youth days as a Military officer who led a coup d’état which overthrew leader, Valentine Strasser in 1996. You affirmed your experience and capacity of leading the country, and how you stood for Sierra Leone when it was at war.
You said many referred to you as a “Father of Democracy” because you promised democracy and you delivered.
“So, when I make my promises, it is against a credible track record you can rely on,” you emphasized.
Mr President, you further stated that you would improve the economy through domestic revenue generation in order to reduce foreign dependency.
“We have a serious problem with our economy, to deal with this problem, we have to introduce some discipline in the way we spend the people’s money; first is expenditure control,” you said.
Again, you stated that your government would introduce discipline in spending public funds, initiate stringent measures, and mobilize domestic revenue.
Nonetheless, Sierra Leone’s Auditor General’s Report of 2021 states that your government’s expenditure in 2020 increased by 43%, from Le6.41 trillion in 2019 to Le9.18 trillion.
Further, the same report states that the estimated cash losses identified in the course of the audit for the year 2020 amounted to Le113.1 billion.
The cash losses are monies used by some ministries under your government that were not accounted for during auditing.
Mr President, what happened to the promise of fiscal discipline?
Estimated cash losses identified for the year under review (2020), combined with other backlog audits covering the 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019 financial years, and cumulates to a total of Le 153.9 billion. These losses, as stated in the audit report, are in respect of the general-purpose financial statements (GPFS), public enterprises (PEs), Ministries and Departments (MDs) and Local Councils.
Mr. President, the cash losses for the years under your governance in no way seem to reflect the promise of expenditure control measures.
Indeed, the economy you promised to improve is still gasping for breath, and Sierra Leone today is ranked the 5th poorest country in the world, with low GDP.
Mr President, why make promises you can’t fulfill?
Nonetheless, an assessment of Sierra Leone’s economy by the African Development Bank states that the economy is estimated to have grown by 3.2% in 2021, after a contraction of 2% in 2020.
The growth, as stated by African Development Bank, was driven on the demand side by higher exports from mining and agribusiness, and on the supply side by the resumption of iron ore production alongside a recovery in other key sectors.
Also, it said that the outbreak of Ebola and the Covid-19 pandemic partly contributed to the situation the economy finds itself in.
Mr President, the 2020 audit report stated that the level of both external and domestic loans remained very high; and that government in 2018 prepared a debt clearance strategy, which is basically a plan which should serve as a guide in settling domestic arrears which had piled up over the preceding years before the coming of your government.
The debt clearance strategy was vital for the management of the old debts as well as the new commitment of the government. Although this strategy has been formulated, the implementation of the terms in the strategy has been very slow, and one may be right to describe it is a walking dead strategy.
Background of Sierra Leone
Mr. President, as you know, Sierra Leone gained independence in April 1961 from the United Kingdom. Your predecessors have made tremendous progress since the country’s decade-long war ended in January 2002. Those leaders over time have carried the weight of rebuilding the country and fostering reconciliation.
Today you are ruling a country rich in minerals like diamond, gold, bauxite, rutile, iron ore, limonite, platinum, chromites, coltan, and tantalite among others.
Despite all the country’s mineral resources and human capital under your supervision, Sierra Leone continues to face daunting challenges in improving its economy, creating jobs for the youth, fighting corruption, and combating political division among many other difficulties. The state of affairs under your government leaves citizens with nothing but hope for change.
With all said and done Mr. President, Sierra Leoneans and I still believe you can do something about the current situation. Though you failed to deliver on some of your promises, we still look up to you to solve our problems, just as children look up to their fathers.
We believe you can still salvage the situation by investing more in the production of local rice.
If we can locally produce enough rice in Sierra Leone, citizens will not be subjected to buying expensive foreign rice; and local employment will improve.
And, ceasing the importation of foreign rice as a government means the monies can be channeled into local rice production for the development of the country. This will move Sierra Leone from its prevailing poverty crisis system to the production of a system ready for export.
The conclusion Mr. President is, Sierra Leone’s economy needs urgent help, and certainly, more borrowing cannot save it either. This is where the implementation of the fiscal discipline in spending and the domestic revenue generation you mentioned is desperately needed, sir.
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The writer of this opinion, Bangura Marian Amaria, is a Fellow of the Next Generation Investigative Journalism Fellowship at the Media Foundation for West Africa.