Salone News

Do They Have Plans When The Wells Run Dry?

8 November 2005 at 22:56 | 585 views

Sierra Leonean writer Karamoh Kabba has a deep interest in his country’s socio-economic development and he pulls no punches when he has to make his views known. He is sometimes praised, sometimes attacked. But he remains undeterred and very focused. This article is vintage Karamoh.

By Karamoh Kabba

“A senior UN official estimates its [Sierra Leone] annual aid requirements at Dollars 350m for the next few years. ‘The major problem the country faces at present is that it is unable to raise the resources that a modern state needs, and on the other side, with the exception mainly of the British, all the major donors are phasing down their assistance,’ he says” (Financial Times)

The scenario above is the precarious state of the economy that awaits the next president of Sierra Leone. If Charles Margai, who has resigned from the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), does not register a new political party, Sierra Leone will likely be left with the following: Solomon Berewa and Ernest Koroma, in the presidential contest of 2007. Meanwhile, the last contingent of The UN Mission in Sierra Leone (Unamsil) will be departing in December along with its buying power, leaving behind businesses that depend on them in an economic desert. Not only that, the economic aid too is plunging. Now, what plans do these political aspirants have when the donors say to Sierra Leone: enough is enough?

President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah’s recent statement, “I must say that some donors are generous but some make pledges which they do not fulfill,” referring to donor commitments is one of the indications that the government of Sierra Leone is walking on a tightrope without donors-that the government has made no effort to change its status from a donor-driven economy to a self-reliant economy. It is ironic that officials in the donor nations too may be pondering: The government of Sierra Leone has failed to keep its obligation in cracking down on corruption. And much of our donations have ended up lining the pockets of corrupt politicians. The following statement in the Financial Times adds some credence to the sense of irony: “The UK and other donors have been pressing the government to tackle official corruption more firmly, but have been reluctant to protest openly about it as they have in Kenya.”
Foreign aid has been the source of government workers’ salaries and financing of many government programs. The Financial Times also states that “With foreign assistance providing half of Sierra Leone’s national budget, the country relies heavily on external funds flowing into public sector projects.” It is reasonable to assume that these funds are like ademptions: they do not flow into public sector projects with transparency; they are almost reduced in half by the time they complete their tedious bureaucratic processes to reach the handicapped countries, notwithstanding the cost of financing the projects management workers. They are all foreign experts whose salaries are hundred times what these countries pay their local workers for the same jobs. What that means is that by the time the donors depart, the donations would have been in adeemed status, especially after politicians line their pockets. The only bequests to the handicapped nations become mounds of debts.

One would wonder why such a handicapped government as Sierra Leone would be reluctant to crack down on corrupt government officials who are left loose to use donor funds as if they were money to burn. Yet, abounding on the lips and pens of many journalists, civil societies, political party supporters and friends of presidential candidates in Sierra Leone and abroad are such bootlicking concoctions of words in clichés like “Berewa is a Hurricane”, “The Red Hot Sun” and “Margai, the Comeback Kid”. They go about, “scratching where they didn’t itch, and laughing when they were not tickled,” instead of demanding their putative leaders’ plans.

What is more, these amphigories for political favors are compounded by a notorious practice called “coasting,” a ploy journalists use to kill stories in the pressrooms that are supposed to enlighten the masses about unscrupulous activities amongst politicians and influential citizens. Sometimes, journalists succumb to the wish of politicians because there is a culture of shooting the messenger in the Sierra Leonean.

During Vice President Berewa’s recent visit to London, it was reported that he reduced himself to inconsequential name-calling of people who he perceives are critics of him. Fortunately, these people live in the Diaspora; otherwise, I will assume he was earmarking them for vengeance. Paul Kamara, a journalist, was charged and convicted under the 1965 Public Order Act with seditious libel while the anti -corruption unit is yet to make a significant prosecution. This should not intimidate Sierra Leoneans from asking these aspirants for their plans before they give up their votes. Standing up for what one believes is a noble thing to do regardless of the price one has to pay sometimes and Martin Luther King Jr. resonates this in his I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech, “And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you.”

Instead of “coasting,” which has a denigrating effect on journalists, they too should become instrumental in voter education by grilling these presidential aspirants in public debates. The reward from using the mass media’s capacity to reproduce statements of political intentions, aspirations, and plans is more than “coasting”. The mass media can use its capacity to disseminate the news as an incentive to lure politicians to debate the issues. Journalists can use print and broadcast media as a means of monitoring and following up with politicians as they tackle these politicians’ commitments make as to how they would run the country without donors.

And such debates should be organized by the Journalists and moderated by some reputable ones, who are known for being uncompromising inquisitors, well-armed with pertinent questions designed to invoke the real men and women who are dressed in political suits. This will not only become a source of voter education and credence to journalism in Sierra Leone, but it would also make big headline news that will translate into big money business for the mass media industry.

his process will help the public to know whether its leaders are indeed “hurricanes”, “red suns” and “comeback kids,” or simply wimps, infernos and armchair warriors based on their performances in public debates.
For example, if an aspirant is asked the following question in a debate: ‘Our recent history is marked by indiscriminate raping of our children, wives and mothers in a war that was caused by excessive corruption in government. You are now all suited-up for the same position. We are worried about repeating our recent violent history in these precarious economic times. With that in mind, what would you do if someone rapes your wife?’ To this question, either a good leader with sound resolve under pressure would respond with deliberation by discussing judicial procedures to seek justice or spontaneously by lashing out; “I would kill that bastard!”
A bad leader without a resolve,on the other hand, when faced with such a tense situation, would ramble aimlessly in a search of answers he thinks the voters would want to hear. It is only through such means we would be able to tell goat heads from sheep heads or virtuous leaders from impetuous ones.

To come back to the donor issue, donor organizations do not teach us how to catch fish. The development packages that accompany foreign aid, in fact, seem only to teach us how to eat fish. The government of Sierra Leone’s reliance on donors without grassroots plans to redeem itself appears to present the country as a nation of lazy people who lie around thriving on being treated as a ‘non-profit nation’ by donor nations. Evidently, there is an influx of foreign Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) workers in Freetown while the pool of unemployed youth is growing. This is because donors impose NGOs on Sierra Leone to run most of the programs they finance as if Sierra Leoneans are Bruneians whose Sultan has westerners working for them while they indulge themselves. But make no mistake, unlike the Bruneians only the politicians have the means for indulgencies in Sierra Leone, guaranteeing the smoldering anger of the large pool of unemployed youths. Simply put, these donor nations are telling us that we have no development programs beside the strings they attach to their aid packages. Evidently, the only “development programs” the politicians can boast of are new aid proposals.

Recently, the presidential spokesman boasted of an aid package that was in the pipeline. And Kabbah was nonplussed when threatened with the prospect of donor non-compliance in fulfilling their promises. Even the outbreak of natural disasters in the world is not a wake-up call enough for the leaders of Sierra Leone. It does not take a thinker to know that those countries that are now affected by natural disasters will be at the top of the international aid priority list that could leave donor countries exhausted. But Sierra Leone politicians nonetheless go about wolfing down, and wallowing in the luxury of "free" donor funds. In this manner, Sierra Leone has become what one writer calls, a “money Bermuda Triangle” where money disappears as soon as it reaches there.

As elections approach, the presidential spokesman makes a flippant statement, saying amongst Kabbah’s promises to the people to be accomplished by 2007 is a bridge across to Lungi. The longest bridge in the world, the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge, is 1,991 meters long and cost $3.6 billion to construct. In today’s economy, Lungi Bridge may hardly fall short of that figure or could even exceed it. Exposing the presidential spokesman’s illusory promise of a Lungi Bridge is the simple question: what economic benefit will a Lungi Bridge bring to Sierra Leone? What percent of the population will ever have the need to drive across the Lungi Bridge?
With less than ten international flights landing at Lungi International Airport per week, how much funds will a toll generate towards economic recovery or at least toward the cost recovery of such a massive infrastructure? It will even cost less and make sense to construct a new international airport in one of the growing provincial towns and a modern highway that will connect the airport to the capital city with the capacity to stimulate decongestion of Freetown and jobs creation in the provinces. Not only that, it will also kill two birds with one stone by adding to the only and worn out highway out of Freetown.

It does not require an economist to figure out that U.S. $3.6 billion can link every town and village in the country with good roads. Sierra Leone has some of the worst roads today in Africa and amongst them is the road to Kono District, the diamond-mining hub of the country. I will assume a good road network linking towns and villages has more of an economic viability to Sierra Leone than a bridge, especially in a nation that must revitalize its mining and agricultural sectors to jumpstart a manufacturing sector that does not exist, for a speedy economic recovery. It makes commodious good-sense for a country under such economic constraints as Sierra Leone to embark on projects that will improve the lives of the public, instead of those of only the affluent. Not even if a quarter of all the vehicles in the city drove across the bridge everyday would it generate enough funds of economic significance.

It makes no sense to raise peoples’ hopes like that when the government cannot provide electricity for the city and the towns and villages, much less, a massive bridge. Is Kabbah’s government that myopic not to realize that the amount of electricity to light up such a bridge every day is about a quarter of the total power that is needed to light up the city? Will the Lungi Bridge supply the city with light or will it tap the limited power supply from the city? Of course, a bridge of such magnitude will be a death trap without a constant supply of electricity. Nonetheless, the leaders in Sierra go about boasting of massive development projects that have no economic benefit to the country or its poor people around elections time. To prove the improbability of what the politicians are telling the people, let me show you the numbers for December 2004 for fiscal year 2005:

The 2004 budget is weak on proposing structural reform and the IMF has recommended greater fiscal discipline. The government projects that domestic revenue will total Le333.2bn (US$127m) in 2004 and total expenditure LE839.7bn, resulting in a fiscal deficit of 24.4% of GDP excluding grants. The Economist Intelligence Unit believes that these figures are optimistic, and that both revenue and spending will be lower. Revenue will rise in 2004 compared to 2003, as tax revenue increases in line with the establishment of more businesses and the management difficulties in the new National Revenue Authority are ironed out. However, Sierra Leone’s porous borders, and the associated loss of revenue through smuggling (particularly of diamonds), will continue to limit revenue growth. There will be continued pressure to increase spending, given the huge rehabilitation and rebuilding work being undertaken following the war, but delays in disbursals from donors will create a funding shortfall. We forecast that the overall fiscal deficit (on a cash basis including grants) will remain at around 9% of GDP during 2005-06, which will be met through domestic borrowing. (The Economic Intelligence Unit Country Report December 2004)

Now, let us discuss the Sierra Leone report card: First, there are no new businesses; the only new business for the leaders is the upcoming elections. Furthermore, the existing businesses that depend on Unamsil are going to suffer immensely when Unamsil leaves. Second, the management difficulties in the new National Revenue Authority the authors of The Economist Intelligence Unit are referring to in a diplomatic language are nothing but corruption. Third, the figures in the country report mean that donor contribution to our total expenditure is Le506.5bn.

To explain this in simpler terms, say, for example, your household has been involved in in-fighting for several years that destroyed all your sources of income and made you to become dependent on your friends for more than half of the income you need for your family’s livelihood. Say your monthly income is Le30,000, and needs Le80,000 to survive in a month. Your friends give you Le50,000 every month on a condition that you must use the money prudently. That means, you should not be in the bar drinking while your children are starving. And that your friends will only give you Le50,000 over a certain period. This means, your friends expect you to engage in some kind of a business or look for a job to attain a sustainable living condition. But instead, you become a dreamer of living in a mansion and eating in restaurants. So, your friends come to you one day and tell you that “although we intend to keep our promises to you, we are going to delay and cut down on our commitments because we have a more pressing situation at Magburaka where the Rokel River flooded its banks and destroyed the houses and sources of income for many hard working Magbass employees.” At this news, you become nervous and go on an accusation mode that some of your friends are failing to keep their promises.
Meanwhile, your yard is a lustrous orchard of orange and mango trees. Down the hill is a fertile swamp without any crop. A little further down is the river Baffin with a big school of tilapias, and on its bed, the finest diamonds in the world collide against each other. Yet, you buy ready oranges and mangoes at high prices with part of the money your friends help you with from one of them who comes and gathers your fruits in your orchard. When your friends press hard on you, you say, “well, I need someone to work my land” even though you have strong and healthy children. Another of your friends takes up the mining of your diamonds and gives you 3% of the proceeds and takes the rest to his/her own town, leaving you still begging your friends to extend their support for you and your children.

Meanwhile, all you care about is how much control you can have over your family to have an advantage to lavish the help you get from your friends. This is exactly what the leaders of Sierra Leone are doing at national and international levels. And elections time is the only time to ask them how they intend to change that.
Recently, I read in an article that Sierra Leone is the only country in the world where pregnant women are transported in wheelbarrows to the nearest medical centers for child delivery. Would the Lungi Bridge provide accesses to these poor people in such a difficult situation in these remote villages? Of course not, but it will reduce the risk for about 10% of the country’s population of very rich people and very powerful politicians from drowning in ferries or crashing in decrepit helicopters, and increase the all-time high infant mortality of the country. Though, talking about it around elections time will give them the votes to stay in power hence the end of the discussion about the Lungi Bridge until next elections.

But the opposition politicians always seem to be seeing the problems clairvoyantly from the outside. But that does not mean they are more capable of tackling the problems, because they too have the tendency to do the same things once they are voted into power. This tells us that, in deciding how to vote elections, party politics have to be a secondary reason to individual leadership character for voters in elections. In an interview with World Press magazine, Oct. 1, 2002, Ernest Koroma, the All Peoples’ Congress (APC) opposition leader was asked:
“A recent BBC report referred to Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, as a boomtown. Would you say that’s accurate? How would you characterize the current economic state of Sierra Leone?”
Mr. Koroma gave the following answer: “We shouldn’t get carried away. It’s true: Things are much better now, largely thanks to the efforts of international donors. But we still don’t own our mining, fishing, and agricultural, and cocoa industries. We’re not supporting ourselves. Remove the donors, and we’re helpless. We need to put efficient managerial machinery and effective governance in place in both the private and the public sector.... We need to construct the legal framework that will attract investment. I’m not talking about foreign aid. I’m talking about real investment.”

The politicians should be preoccupied with such questions from every angle. Journalists should not just leave them to parcel themselves in little packages for sale to their friends and paramount chiefs, who in turn call them by all these praise-singing monikers. While the ruling party leaders’ minds are roaming wild on the implausible Lungi Bridge, citrus fruits, such as oranges, mangoes and bananas, good sources of vitamins, reach the consumers almost in a perished condition because of bad roads or no roads at all. Even worse, they must be consumed during the improvised fruit season by adaptation. There is nothing such as a fruit season in neighboring Guinea because of its fruit processing and canning industry. There are tons and tons of fruits perishing in orchards in Sierra Leone, during the so-called fruit season, yet the people go hungry, and die of starvation.

The European would not come to Sierra Leone to set up fruit processing plants with the capacity to remove a few hundred jobless youths off the streets. This is the time for Journalists to take a leadership role in civic competency and ask these politicians how they intend to get the children of Sierra Leone off the streets. The donors will not instruct the universities to produce new graduates to come down from the colleges with business proposals that can be backed by government funds and monitored by government officials to create employers. For example, a simple background in food processing chemistry is all that is needed to operate and make available in the market place citrus fruit juices all year round.
The leaders, Journalists, the civil societies, party supporters and friends of presidential candidates have not been introspective; they have been spending the most part of their energy asking and looking forward to donor promises and singing praise-songs to the powerbrokers in the hope of having a share of the donor funds. Preparing grants is much more difficult, demeaning and conceding of national sovereignty than preparing proposals to make money by way of investment. And the grants are only promises, but what if the donor nations do not follow through as in the awkward cap-in-hand situation that left Kabbah complaining frantically about donor nations’ noncompliance with their promises to their non-profit nation cause? Would the Journalists, professionals who ought to be a body of trustworthy surrogates, sit by and watch the people go to the voting booths blind, thereby sowing the risk that they will go to war once more, raping children, wives and mothers, not being able to tell who is who? The question for the journalists is Would they continue to “coast” the power that-be, and thereby side with those who are ruining our country, or would they choose to become partners in the nation-building process by starting a noble process of demanding good political manifestos from the aspirants and coaching the voters will be up to the journalists.

Photo: Karamoh Kabba: Very focused and determined.

Karamoh is the author of A Mother’s Saga, Lion Mountain and Morquee-A Political Drama of Wish over Wisdom