May 2018

SIERRA LEONE :
Julius Maada Bio,
a critical period ahead

By George OLA-DAVIES
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President Julius Maada Bio had hardly assumed office in Sierra Leone when he swung into action with a military-like alacrity and precision. He set up a transitional team of professionals to ensure a smooth handover from the Ernest Bai Koroma government, established a cross party peace building team to nip an impending post electoral violence as well as a Presidential Committee to recover government vehicles. By April 22 a new order came from him ordering the recall of all politically appointed diplomats with immediate effect and the retirement of those civil servants that would have attained the retirement age of 60 by the end of May. 

 
As regards the vehicles, some were alleged to have either been stripped of their engines and other valuable parts, or driven across the border to Guinea apparently to be disposed of. By the end of April the committee chairman, Rado Yokie, said they were still to recover more than half of the estimated 4000 vehicles which included ambulances. Most of those located in Guinea have reportedly been taken back to Freetown and following an international alert, INTERPOL has been helping out in their recovery. 
Bio’s choice of the 12-man transitional task force was not without controversy as it falls short of both regional and gender balance. It is heavily South Eastern dominated with only two women. In addition to this task force he also named a 14 man preliminary cabinet ministerial team to run the government in key areas until such time when they are confirmed by parliament to assume their full duties. This group also fell far short of what is expected in a nation that the president himself admits is fractious. The list boasts a substantial number of South Eastern candidates with only one woman.  What is now being awaited is a response to the numerous critics when the next list comes out especially as it relates to the gender balance. The full list MUST be vetted by parliament before they are sworn in.
 
The initial findings of the transition team painted a grim picture of the state of the economy which signals a tempestuous road ahead. In less than a week of its workings the team revealed the country’s external debt level to be $2bn while the domestic debt stands at Le4.9 trillion.  ($ 6.312bn)
 
At a joint meeting with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Ministry of Finance and other development partners to chart a fresh path towards collaborating with his government in Freetown on April 13, Bio was quick to tell his audience how he inherited an economy in its worst shape since independence in 1961: “Before now, Government cannot pay monthly salaries without borrowing or heavy reliance on overdraft facility at the Bank of Sierra Leone which now stands at over $20m. More serious is that today, Sierra Leone’s external debt is at the level of $2 and domestic debt is 4.9 trillion Leones.” The baseline here, he was telling the partners that minus loans and debts, the Ernest Koroma led APC government left behind a $20,611million in bank overdrafts that have so far been unearthed. The IMF suspended its funding support to the previous government barely a month to the presidential elections for what it termed “a weak budget revenue outlook, where measures that were to be taken under the programme to increase revenue did not yield”. That it has confirmed its willingness to resume its operations with the new authorities is an encouragement but by the same token a warning that financial management prudence will be highly expected. 
The current state of the economy, based on these initial findings, is a far cry from that which the late President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah left ten years ago when he handed over to the Koroma government. Kabbah, in a lengthy statement then, painted a glaring and relatively glowing picture of the economy, its shortfall, progress made, projects at hand, those completed, ongoing negotiations and a message of encouragement to Koroma to continue with those projects that had either commenced or on the verge of being implemented. As an advice he told him to reinforce the local capacity so as to avoid searching for outside assistance of all sorts.
 
These initial findings may have just been a tip of the iceberg for what Bio had himself termed: “a critical period ahead.” Before this disclosure he was already at his desk shaping the beginning of what he wishes his government to look like - “Plugging the leakages, creating a healthy fiscal and revenue income for the government.” And in so doing he put some stringent measures in place effective April 9 through an executive order. Among these are the immediate suspension of the export of timber, suspension of duty and tax exemptions for organisations, agencies, companies and contractors, except those bound by the Vienna convention of which the country is a signatory. In addition to this was the implementation of a single treasury account at the Bank of Sierra Leone (Central Bank) to which all government ministries, departments and agencies that collect and retain revenues should transfer their funds. Commercial banks holding such funds should also immediately transfer them to the Central Bank forthwith. 
 
Implementing such orders before the new parliament convenes caused some moaning by his opponents who charged that the current government is not a military regime or a dictatorship and that the constitution and the rule of law must be respected. But his supporters were quick to point out that such executive orders were not only necessary, they were legally in place and absolutely necessary if the president is to take off on any sound footing.  
What he did not need any parliamentary approval for were orders that civil servants report for duty on time, that government departments and agencies should henceforth host all government-related workshops, seminars and conferences in their premises and not in hotels and that the country should embark on a monthly cleaning exercise. There are visible changing signs with civil servants briskly abandoning their apathetic attitude of reporting for duty whenever they wished. Government offices are now a beehive of activities at 8 a.m. As a military leader for three months, time keeping was one of President Bio’s hallmark and any flashback to those days give his compatriots goose pimples. 
 
Bio has promised to give a new lease of life to a country with enormous natural wealth and human resources capacity which, sadly, had been rid of discipline and proper management. If he is to succeed, there should be a radical and forceful departure from the past. He has to recover suspected looted funds, ensure that justice is done and make the people feel the changes. With the suspension of all timber export, he sent a strong signal for rough days ahead for those contract deals that were deemed unorthodox. Such deals as those for the mining, oil, electricity and Solar energy supply, telecommunications, roads construction, transport and maritime contracts, Ebola and mudslide funds easily come to mind. These came under scrutiny from the Auditor General but were easily swept under the carpet by the past government. This may have been because most of the suspected culprits were well placed and seemingly untouchable figures within the outgoing party.
 
There are indications that a commission or commissions of inquiry will soon be created to look into these matters. Such commission/s will, gladly, not depend on parliament where Bio’s SLPP party does not, for now, enjoy the majority. It is the first time in Sierra Leone’s history that the ruling party does not have the majority in parliament. Passing any government bill will require a simple majority in the 146 house. The ruling Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) has 46 seats, the opposition All People’s Congress (APC) has 68 seats – (at least for now as there are pending court injunctions challenging a number of parliamentarians of the former ruling party members who allegedly flouted the electoral laws especially as they concern their status before contesting). The other two parties in parliament, the C4C, has 8 seats and the National Grand Coalition (NGC) is present with 4 seats. Independent candidates have three seats with the 14 others reserved for Paramount Chiefs. A simple majority will therefore mean 74. In many ways than one this is good for the country’s democracy as it will ensure checks and balances as opposed to the previous parliament that passed a number of laws deemed questionable by a powerless opposition. Already the parliament got off to a chaotic start on April 25 when the All People’s Congress party members walked out before their swearing-in. They insisted that all the elected members, even those with court injunctions hanging over their heads, should be sworn-in. The rowdy scene during which riot police bundled out protesting APC parliamentarians was the worst Sierra Leone had witnessed. Not only did they refuse to be sworn in, they contest the manner in which the house’s affairs are being administered and have therefore refused to sit in the House until their demands are met. This strikes as the beginning of 
Bio’s success at the polls was on the crest of his manifesto which promised ridding the system of its endemic corruption while making education, agriculture, health, tourism, and fiscal discipline the cornerstone of his administration. With an apparent empty kitty there are serious uncertainties as to how he will get around to realising this dream. Judging by his initial actions, there is some hope, however slim, that he has chosen the right path. He has issued strict orders to drastically cut down on both domestic and foreign travels by government and demonstrated by example when he first went to Senegal for his first foreign visit with a six-man team using the Senegalese President’s aircraft and when he went for the Commonwealth Summit in London with w very slim delegation.  

 

Bio has been there before as a military leader, albeit for three months, before handing over to the elected government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah in 1996. He has thanked his critics: “For helping me to improve on my lapses,” and is ready to sit firm on the driver’s seat. His initial team, albeit waiting for parliamentary approval, is full of sound characters. All they need to do now is translate their spoken words into deeds. And for that they need to be firm, disciplined, accountable and visibly productive.
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