On Tuesday December 3, 2008, news organizations reported the Finance Minister, David Carew registering his utmost disappointment over the donors unfulfilled budgetary support pledge, a situation he considered not helpful in the implementation of key government programs for 2008 and beyond. According to the report, Minister Carew was not only disappointed, but was angry with the donorsí unfair treatment of a cash-starved economy like ours.
Minister Carew is quoted to have said, "We are begging them to give us what they have promised as we have based our program on their promises." The Minister was being frank in his admission of the countryís revenue base as shaky by the closure of the largest diamond company, Koidu Holdings, and most recently with Sierra Rutile Company loosing its new dredge just when it was prepped to double production is no good news either for the ailing economy.
Minister Carew was admired when he stood before the chamber of parliament Thursday November 20, 2008 and told the MPs their demand for a USD$4,000 salary increase was simply unaffordable. He is at his best when he speaks the economic language ordinary folks can relate with. On the flip side, the ministerís latest outburst and triumph of the economy as performing better than it had ever in the nationís history during his December 15, 2008 appearance on Cocorioko, is but a hard nut to sell. Poor folks, bearing the brunt of the nationís economic woes, cannot and will not understand the meaning of this economy performing better when their lives have not seen any improvement by any stretch of imagination, and to many it has even got worst. How will these folks understand the significance of the IMF returning after a brief spell of time, as an accomplishment when the cost of a bag of rice, the nationís staple food which all depend on, continues to jerk up from LE 70,000 in 2007 to LE 150,000 in 2009? It is just difficult for folks to understand, how this economy is performing better, when prices of essential goods and services have soared, from transportation, food items, to school fees, medical dues, to rents, all of which are simply unaffordable to many folks and their families?
It really doesnít matter where one lives to understand that the countryís working poor are going through very tough economic strangulation, and anybody who pretends otherwise either do not feel their kind of pain, or is being selfish or completely out of touch.
The United Nations in their 2008 Human Development Index (HDI) again ranked Sierra Leone as probably one of the least developed or the poorest in the world? These grim statistics, from a short life expectancy, to high maternal and infant mortality occurrence, to an illiteracy and poverty rate as high as 70 %, and with more than 70 % of folks living on USD$ 1 per day, as a matter of fact should make us all take a deep breadth, and rethink our way of doing politics. For these are not just numbers; they are our brothers and sisters who deserves attention and wants to be treated with respect.
The more than 70 % of folks living on USD$ 1 per day have suffered for very long time. They are anxious, and want the rules re-written for them, so they too can have a share in the national cake in a country that should never have been poor in the first place looking at the wealth of resources the nation has been blessed with. These folks are expecting to see this economy work for them too, not just for the MPs or ministers, government officials and their cronies, families and kinsman? The average teacher teaching in RC Model School in Bo for example will want to see his or her salary be competitive to their colleagues teaching in a primary school in the Gambia. The lack of incentives has made this noble profession, unattractive just like it has been in the past. Itís not only tough to graduate, considering the high tuition, and struggles the student has to go through, but itís much tougher to land a teaching job even for folks whose career path is teaching. The few lucky ones have to wait three months down the line to receive their first paycheck, and when it comes not decent enough to buy a bag of rice, and pay for kidsí tuition or rent and cover medical care. Back then and even now, itís difficult to find a smiling and happy teacher. For those that irks for happiness, it means resorting to other activities including unethical ones. It means, organizing extra classes even when unnecessary, and charging for these classes. It means producing mandatory pamphlets for every course taught, putting additional tax burden on the poor unsuspecting parents, and the students who have to go out to get the books or be damned. It also means, selling items like water and ice cream, on the side water or making vegetable gardening, or at worst fixing the questions and selling the grades where necessary.
The storyline is the same for all government employees, who have to demonstrate some coping mechanisms to make ends meet.
Disturbing news from the Exclusive in its December 20, 2008 publication is one which touches on the rising increase in prostitution, robbery and drug peddling unraveling right under the hanger of our security apparatus, in the city centre of Lumley and Goderich Streets. The spike in these illegal activities is indeed a serious threat to the security of not only city dwellers but the nation as a whole. And in the wake of the seizure of some 750 kg of cocaine in the air strip of the country jetted in by Colombian drug lords and abetted by local officials, the Economist clearly states "the country is in a race against time to become a "narco-state" like their pal Guinea-Bissau, just up the coast, already fallen prey."
Of course people should be scared on the implications of drug money finding its way into the economic systems. Should that happens, if not already, greed, selfishness and corruption will take center stage. Justice will be denied mainly to ordinary folks, as it will be up for sale to the highest bidder. The temptations for bribery from drug kin pins and their surrogates will be huge for a low ranking police officer who hardly gets by and paid only USD 70 a month, or the judge who legislate from the bench on very low salary remunerations. Violence and criminality will escalate, as hard drugs get fed to young men and women who have nothing else to do but must earn their living. Our budding democracy will be undermined, when greedy and power-hungry politicians resort to political violence and intimidation through Ďthuggeryí to grab on to power at all cost, using drug money and addicted youngsters to carry out their diabolical plans.
The Christmas and New Yearís mood in Freetown and the county side according to narratives although peaceful, can best be described as Ďhummí. Nobody is in hurry to be the Ďbrotherís keeperí of the least of their own since they too are being squeezed in this economic down-beat. The average Ďvamboií in the village, now understands the word Ďglobalí as its gets fed to them every day by officials, who constantly reminds them that they are not alone in their struggle since the whole world including Ďuncle Samí is also being jinxed. True as it may, with Americans loosing their jobs by the day, at least their government can shower up hope and present a bold plan to recovery, through an economic stimulus package with the injection of massive capital in the economy to create jobs.
What about us, do we have a plan? According to Minister Carew, his strategy of stimulating growth and job creation is to engage the private sector, institutions he believes are much more reliant than the donors, and he thinks this is succeeding? But the Economist in a latest print publication "life on 70 cents a day" Dec. 11, 2008 disagrees " Before the war, Sierra Leone had more than 30 factories or processing plants. Now it has four: brewing, bottling and making concrete. ÖThe diamond mines provide jobs but they are well away from the main population centers. Few outsiders will invest until the country has regular electricity; at the moment, what little electricity there is usually comes from expensive diesel generators. A new dam and hydroelectric power station crawl towards completion. But these have taken more than 30 years to build, so no one is betting on them joining the grid yet."
The truth of the matter is, Sierra Leone has never being good at job creation. As it is, if these jobs do not come faster than expected, the sagging unemployment rate of 65 % (according to a recent UN estimate) will continue to grow even more. A 2006 study by GTZ and the Government of Sierra Leone reported an estimated 500,000 job seekers in the country (Mariama Kandeh, Concord Times: Youthsí Unemployment - a Time Bomb).
It is in the light of these current economic doom, the finance minister has proposed in his 2009 budget, a 20-30 percent payroll growth for folks improve their living conditions, an increase the SLPP MP Elizabeth Lavalie diced December 5, 2008 calling it as insignificant. She has instead proposed a LE 300,000 ($100) minimum wage for all civil servants instead of the LE 150,000 ($50) the minister was recommending, which she says cannot even buy a bag of rice, originally being sold LE 70,000 but now going for LE 150,000.
In the wake of a huge funding gap of USD$ 900 million to implement a USD$ 2.1 billion poverty-reduction strategy for 2009-2011, folks are now saying, "the time for blame game is not now when there is so much to be done to improve our lives, when the future of our kids are at risks." The youths are re-echoing over and over "men dae nor glady oh," translated to be "men are not happy." Majority are humming the same song; stop the bleeding in the revenue generating sectors at NRA, NPA, customs and excise, in the diamond trade and timber. The problem this nation faced is holistically tied to the ingrained corruptions happening all over the place. There is so much to go around; only if this cancer called corruption is stopped?
The Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) should be commended on negotiating for greater reforms and mandate to go after graft takers. This commission now needs to move beyond rising only red flags with big time offenders as was done for Income Electrix or with Freetown city council huge payout to demolish dilapidated building, but must seek to bring perpetrators to justice. Corruption is never stopped by fishing out the small fishes whilst systematically leaving the big Ďplayersí to roam at will, knowing they have a protected status? No matter how long it takes, the Income Electrix transaction which has seen the nation loose some 30 million dollars and could cost tax payers USD$ 100 million a year should and must be prosecuted?
According to Amadu Massally, Global Coordinator, DENI: Direct Expatriate Nationals Investment, all is not lost, as he is hopeful that his initiative, the DENI project is position to rally Sierra Leonean nationals in the Diaspora raise USD 150 million for the government in less than 12 months.
But as the Economist clearly pointed, "donors are more or less have been giving generously to merely staved off a collapse, but the roots of conflict-chronic poverty, youth disenchantment and huge regional disparities-still go deep, and until they are tackled, Sierra Leone will remain a fragile state at best."