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Commentary: What has come of the Privatization Initiative in Sierra Leone
By Awaress Times
Jan 13, 2006, 14:28

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It was over a year ago in December 2004 that the National Commission for Privatization acting on behalf of the Government of Sierra Leone announced its intention to divest 51 % shares it holds in the bank. Interested investors were to submit written statements of expression of interest to the Commission Secretariat by Friday 28th January 2005 and were expected to be Financial Institutions with proven track record of successful management and ownership of a commercial bank.

Because of that restrictive provision in the announcement, which triggered a number of articles in the local press, minority shareholders and concerned citizens held a meeting at the China House on 19th January 2005 and adopted a statement recommending to the Government that the Sierra Leonean public, staff of Rokel Commercial Bank and national institutions be given first option for the purchase of the Governmentís 51% holding in Rokel Commercial, Limited, which the Government acquired from Barclays Bank, when the latter sold its shares for a nominal sum of £1 (one pound Sterling).

The recommendation was duty Considered by the Government in consultation with the Bankís Board of Directors and the NCP latter issued a press release in June 2005 which is reproduced below for ease of reference:-

The National Commission for Privatization (NCP) wishes to inform the public that in order to protect the interest of all stakeholders and ensure a fair and just process, it has reached a decision to terminate the current privatization programme for the Rokel Commercial Bank. This is because the Commission observed certain flaws with the transactional process that increased the risk of affecting adversely the integrity of the programme.

The Commission has also decided to sell the shares of the Rokel Commercial Bank representing Governmentís 51 % equity, to Sierra Leonean investors. This means the finalization of the divestiture process for Rokel Commercial Bank may now be delayed by about eight weeks.

Meanwhile the chairman and some members of the National Commission for Privatization have held meetings with the Board Chairman and Managing Director of the Rokel Commercial Bank, Foresees Consultants representing the interests of minority shareholders and the President and members of the Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce, Agriculture and Industry respectively to inform them of this development.

If, as the release states, the finalization of the divestiture process for Rokel Commercial Bank may now be delayed by about eight weeks, it stands to reason that this should have been completed not later than end August 2005. Already we are in January 2006 some 17 weeks beyond the eight weeks mentioned in the release and the NCP has kept distinctly silent about the stage in which the privatization process is at the moment.

What is even more disturbing is that since the privatization programme began in 2003 as outlined in the NCPís strategic plan for the divestiture programme of State Enterprises 2003-2006, not a single state Enterprise has been privatized. This is in contrast to the NCPís own plan which called for all but one of the 24 State Enterprises listed for privatization to have been concluded by 31st December 2005.

It must be realized that the NCP is a public body accountable to the people of Sierra Leone. The Commissionís strategic plan was drawn up by that body and was not imposed on it. Its inability to meet with its own targets is a massive failure for which the Government must seek an explanation and the public informed.

Reports in certain sections of the press indicate that rather than addressing issues for which the NCP was established, it is busy interfering in management issues in some state enterprises including issuing directives for a key appointment to be made in one such body, a responsibility that is outside its terms of reference.

It is a little surprising that Parliament, minority shareholders, The Sierra Leone Chamber of Commerce; Industry and Agriculture, The Institute of Directors (SL) and the public in general have not shown more interest in the work and programme of the NCP.

After all the main objective for setting up the Commission is to serve as a policy and decision making body with regard to divestiture and reform of public enterprises a significant component of the governmentís economic management programme. Indeed so concerned was Government about the work of the Commission that it spelt out the strategy the Commission should adopt and I quote,

"Loss making enterprise engaged in production or trade in services, and operating in competitive markets should be privatized without further delay i.e. outright sale.

"For large public enterprises especially utility companies, measures to improve their efficiency should be instituted in the initial period since outright sale may not be financially or politically feasible in the short term. In the interim, management contracts, performance contracts, joint venture leases will be offered while the legal, organizational, managerial and financial aspects of such enterprises are being restructured before they are offered for sale."

Clearly the Commission seems to have taken an approach inconsistent with that approved by Government. Loss making enterprises continue to operate, whilst profit making enterprises are those targeted for privatization.

The Commission should explain to the public why it has not adhered to its mandate as outlined above and the stage in which the divestiture programme of the Rokel Commercial Bank, among others, is at the moment.

© Copyright by Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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