Why Sierra Leone needs Change | Yusuf Bangura

In just over a 100 days, Sierra Leoneans will go to the polls to elect the President, Parliament and local councils.

The three major candidates in the 2018 presidential election are foreign minister Samura Kamara, who is the All People's Congress (APC) presidential candidate; retired Brig. Maada Bio, presidential candidate of the opposition Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP); and Kandeh Yumkella, a former director-general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, who is the candidate of the newly formed National Grand Coalition (NGC).

Yusuf Bangura, a political scientist who has taught in universities in Nigeria and Canada and worked as a visiting researcher in Sweden, makes a case for change in 2018.

As we approach the elections of March 2018, politicians are busy again on the campaign trail making lofty promises. These elections may mark a turning point in our political trajectory. The tenure of Ernest Koroma’s All People’s Congress (APC) will end, and the nation will elect new tenants to State House, Parliament, and city and district councils. The key question is whether the APC has done enough to improve the lives of the people to deserve a third term, or whether new tenants are needed to chart a new path for our country.

In 2007, Sierra Leoneans faced a similar choice after Ahmad Tejan-Kabbah’s Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) had governed for two terms. Voters decided that the SLPP did not deserve a third term and voted Koroma’s APC to power. Tejan-Kabbah’s government prioritised stabilisation, rebuilding, and reconciliation over development. The focus was on ending the war; disarming and reintegrating combatants; repatriating and resettling displaced populations; stabilising the dysfunctional economy; and rehabilitating collapsed institutions, such as schools, clinics, courts, markets, the military and the police—all of which were necessary for the rebuilding of communities and the state.

No one should under-estimate what was achieved by Tejan-Kabbah’s government. Indeed, we owe our peace to the rebuilding efforts of that period, even though much of the credit should be given to the United Nations, which co-governed aspects of the state. Voters experienced ‘buyers’ remorse’ in 2007 because stabilisation and humanitarian relief do not transform countries or raise living standards. Even though the economy grew at an average of about 7% from 2003-2007, infrastructure, energy, agriculture and other employment-enhancing activities were neglected.

Koroma’s record

In 2007, Koroma recognised the need to break with the humanitarian and stabilization model and put Sierra Leone on a development path. In his Agenda for Change, he prioritised energy generation, road construction, and a growth strategy that would use our mineral resources to diversify the economy and provide jobs to our under-employed youth. With the help of UNICEF, he also launched a free health care programme for pregnant women, lactating mothers, and young children. The restoration of electricity to Freetown during his first 100 days in office was a landmark event, even though the project proved to be costly and poorly conceived.

Voters rewarded Koroma another five-year term in 2012 because they were happy with his work, especially on roads and electricity, even though light in Freetown was erratic during the dry season, and most towns and villages were still dark. Complaints about living conditions encouraged an upgrade of the Agenda for Change to the Agenda for Prosperity, with eight pillars to drive the development process and improve people’s wellbeing.

The Agenda for Prosperity (A4P) has been a failure. It lasted less than three years and metamorphosed into the Post-Ebola Recovery Plan, which essentially is about stabilisation and humanitarian relief. The A4P depended on high global commodity prices, which experienced a sharp dip in 2013-15, forcing the two iron ore companies, African Minerals, and London Mining, to shut down.

The A4P’s idea of transforming agriculture into a business, through agricultural business centres and improving the productivity of farmers, was a major departure from the Tejan-Kabbah years of poor investment in agriculture. However, the FAO estimates that even though local production of food has increased, we are still a net importer of rice, with an import dependency ratio of 18%. Shockingly, the 2017 Global Hunger Index has classified Sierra Leone as the third hungriest country among 119 countries. Despite Koroma’s promise in his 2012 inauguration speech that he would lay his life for the youth, the A4P lacked a growth strategy that would generate mass-scale employment. The youth programme has been largely about creating multiple youth agencies, giving a few loyalists government jobs, offering microcredit and, with World Bank support, providing short-term employment through public works and skills training to less than 10 percent of the underemployed youth.

The Ebola pandemic sounded the death knell of the A4P, as many companies, such as Addax Bioenergy, folded up; the country was cut off from the rest of the world; and GDP contracted sharply by 21% in 2015—wiping out the growth gains of 2012-13 when the country was touted as having the fastest growing economy in the world. Under different management, some companies have restarted limited operations, and growth is projected to return to a modest level of 5% in 2017. But the needle has not moved much as we continue to languish at the bottom of the heap in most development indicators.

Sierra Leone has once again become a site for humanitarian relief and stabilisation. The Ministry of Finance runs a cash budget (Ahn to moht), which necessitates weekly meetings by a cash management committee to monitor revenue flows, expenditure commitments, and payments. It explains why there have been serious delays in disbursing funds to ministries. The International Monetary Fund has increased funding but under tight conditions on borrowing and expenditure; and the government announced wide-ranging austerity measures in March 2016. Inflation is about 20%; prices of basic commodities, such as rice, have skyrocketed, with the price of a 50-kilogram bag of rice experiencing about a 60% increase between 2015 and 2017; and the leone has depreciated sharply in relation to the dollar by about 65% between 2014 and 2017.

The development challenge

Sierra Leone is once again at a crossroads in its search for development. A successful development agenda requires a stable macroeconomy and three fundamental policy initiatives. The first is a growth strategy that will diversify the economy in terms of sectoral contributions to GDP and employment. It could mean putting the accent on light manufacturing, with productive linkages with agriculture, as was done by the East and Southeast Asian countries; or promoting a modern services sector that is linked to industry, as India is reported to have done recently; or using agriculture as a base to diversify into manufacturing, through agri-business. It is only when countries get their growth strategies right that they can generate sufficient employment with good incomes and end poverty. Dependence on the minerals sector alone, which is capital intensive and prone to capture by big business and a selected elite, won’t do it.

The second requirement is quality education and health systems. Education and health have intrinsic values and are powerful instruments for growth. Industrialists need healthy and productive workers that understand production processes and can cope with technological change. And farmers need to understand modern farming techniques. Delivering quality education is not just about building schools, admitting more students and spending more money. The real challenge is about improving the quality of teaching; ensuring that students are competent in maths, science and literary subjects; having manageable class sizes and a clean environment, and motivating teachers through training and decent salaries. The universities-- especially Fourah Bay College, which is in a derelict state and requires books, journals, teaching facilities, and qualified staff who publish in their disciplines--also need a massive overhaul.

Infrastructure development is the third part of the triad. This deals with energy, roads, water supply, telephone networks, transportation, drainage and sewage systems. Electricity powers factories, modern agriculture, small businesses, and homes. Roads connect towns and villages and integrate domestic markets. Water is life. A good telephone network is vital for personal communication and business operations. And proper drainage and sewage systems prevent flooding and disease. Progress has been made on roads and electricity, although what has been achieved is a fraction of what needs to be done. Umaru Fofana’s recent report about the baby twins who died in Kamakwie because of the poor condition of the roads is heart-rending. And despite countless promises of 24 hours of electricity in Freetown, many parts of the city are still dark, and supply is unpredictable for those with access during the dry season. Thanks to mobile phones, significant strides have been made in telephone access, but the landline network, which provides greater security, is poorly developed; and despite the availability of fibre optic, internet connection is slow and costly. And the recent floods and mudslide have laid bare the government’s utter failure to upgrade our drainage system and protect our natural environment.

The development triad requires democratic and inclusive politics. Many would argue correctly that the developmental states of East Asia transformed their economies under authoritarian conditions. However, in Sierra Leone, lack of democracy has often nurtured cronyism, large-scale corruption, and kleptocracy. And non-inclusive politics has created a divided public, which invites periodic violence. The benefits of development spread more widely when a developmental, inclusive and democratic party establishes structural ties with working people.


Which of Sierra Leone’s parties is likely to advance the development agenda? The presidential election is likely to be a three-way race: Samura Kamara and the APC, Julius Maada Bio and the SLPP, and Kandeh Yumkella and the newly minted National Grand Coalition (NGC). There are five big reasons why Kamara and the APC will not reboot and get back to the business of development. The first is that the party has run out of steam. It is now too mired in patronage and corruption, with the missing Ebola funds and stealing of hard-earned pilgrims’ payments for the 2017 Hajj by government officials with links to State House being the most scandalous. Because of corruption, Sierra Leone failed to qualify for a grant that may have been in hundreds of millions of dollars from the US-sponsored Millennium Challenge Corporation in 2013. In addition, it will be difficult for the party to ditch the very bad deals it struck with mining companies, estimated in 2012 to have cost the state USD224 million through overly generous concessions. The party is too embedded in the dynamics of rent-based accumulation in the mining sector to be able to commit to more demanding job-creating growth strategies.

Second, the party has regressed much further in democratic politics. Koroma is now larger than the party, having been allowed to choose the party’s standard bearer and his running mate. An undemocratic party stifles internal debate and renewal. Third, the choice of Kamara (North) and Chernoh Maju Bah (Western Area) suggests that the party has given up on the South and East, which account for about 40% of our population. Fourth, Kamara is likely to be beholden to Koroma, who did not even give him the opportunity to choose his own running mate. If Kamara wins and Koroma remains as chairman and leader, as is being hinted, Koroma will be the most powerful man in the country as he can remove the president and vice president from office by causing the party to dismiss them from the APC. Fifth, even though Kamara is a decent man, and has worked in our financial institutions for more than 30 years, he comes across largely as a bureaucrat without a passion for new ideas.

What about Bio? Since 2012, the SLPP has been riven by disputes, many of which were orchestrated by executive members who owed allegiance to Bio and frustrated credible competitors out of the party. Besides, Bio’s excess historical baggage still looms large to render him unfit for the presidency. Tejan-Kabbah told the nation in 1997 that before Bio’s NPRC left office in 1996 ‘hundreds of billions of leones’ were paid out on dubious transactions with top NPRC officials, relations and business associates; that Bio gave his brother, Steven Bio, the authority to ‘conclude all and any military contracts anywhere in the world’, as a result of which the latter concluded contracts ‘running into tens of millions of dollars’; and a few days before he left office, Bio himself ‘caused the government to pay into his private firm, P. Banga Investment Limited the sum of Le.235,000,000..for the replacement of helicopter engines which did not belong to the Government’. Bio is also banned from entering the USA, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission implicated ‘all the leaders of NPRC’ in the extrajudicial killing of 29 citizens. In addition, Bio is widely accused of introducing a politics of thuggery or paopa in the SLPP. He has not demonstrated any firm grasp of development policy issues.

This brings me to Yumkella and the NGC. It is too early to assess the NGC on its commitment to democracy and capacity to mobilise working people. However, its discourse on ending the duopoly of the two main parties, dispensing with the tyranny of party colours, and embracing inclusive politics is a breath of fresh air. Indeed, this may well be Sierra Leone’s first party that is truly multi-ethnic after the break-up of the all-inclusive SLPP in the 1960s. The NGC’s commitment to transformative development, as expressed consistently in Kandeh’s vision in interviews and speeches, is laudable. Kandeh is very passionate about development, communicates his ideas clearly, and is well steeped in development work, having served as Director General of the UN Industrial Development Organization and the UN Secretary General’s chief advocate on energy for all. The key point here is not his status as an ex-official of the UN, an organization that is not known for breeding politicians with transformative agendas. What is remarkable is that Kandeh has absorbed the enormous knowledge and networks available in the UN system while maintaining his critical mind and passion for change. He has excelled in every endeavour he has undertaken from school to university and at the workplace. We need someone with his mindset for excellence to end the habit of getting by with only what is ‘available’, which is often expressed as: ‘if the best is not available, the available becomes the best’. Well, the ‘available’ is often mediocrity and has not served us well.


Let me conclude. As Jimmy Kandeh has recently shown, there is nothing in our history that suggests that we can only be governed by the APC and SLPP. The APC was almost dead in 1996. No prominent Northerner wanted to associate with it because of its deplorable record between 1968 and 1992. Even Koroma was believed to be a member of the PDP. The APC secured only 5% of the votes in the 1996 elections. The party owed its revival to Tejan-Kabbah, who, it can be argued, killed the PDP and UNPP through patronage and absorption of many of their elites into the SLPP. What our history suggests is that third parties die easily as key members are absorbed by winning parties. The challenge for the NGC is to prepare for the long haul, build intra-party democratic systems of governance, and nurture durable links with working people1.

I’m not a paid-up member of the NGC, but prefer them to the APC and SLPP in these elections.


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