PONDER MY THOUGHTS: SALONE @ 63: INDEPENDENCE IN DEPEPENDENCE

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BY Andrew Keili

Sierra Leoneans are celebrating this year’s independence under very difficult economic circumstances. With the accompanying pervasive hardship, the government has urged citizens to pray for the country in preference to usual celebrations with gaiety. I am unapologetic that my usual “Independence anniversary pondering” this year, meant for serious reflection, will do little to lift the sombre national mood.

At independence 63 years ago, Sierra Leone did not have a solid foundation in governance, education, technical professional and middle level manpower or infrastructure on which to anchor our nascent state. After independence, we have experienced a lot of governance challenges including coups, a prolonged period of one party governance, and a rebel war that devastated our economy. On the positive side, post war, we have had several successful elections and peaceful transitions of government.

As with several other African countries in the same situation, Sierra Leone has been affected by several factors. The internal factors include leadership inertia, bad governance, corruption, high inflation, unstable currency, high balance of payments deficit, political instability, civil war, environmental degradation, high unemployment etc. External factors include foreign debt, external aid and several others. Sierra Leone has also experienced extreme poverty and food production has markedly declined.

Certain things have improved over these 63 years, although it would be embarrassing to benchmark such improvements against some more successful countries that attained independence at the same time. Though not well maintained and in severe deficit as well as not keeping up with the pace of population growth, the national road network is much improved, there is greater access to water supply and electricity in urban and rural areas. We have not performed particularly well in the UN Human Development index but have moved the needle more lately on education and health. In short, we should be doing much better.

But why haven’t we done as well as we had hoped to do at independence? The simple answer is “insanity”. Yes, insanity! The quote: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” is apt. Let us step back peek at what we have been doing wrong over and over again.

Leadership failings

The quote, “standing on the shoulders of giants” could as well be rewritten as “standing on the shoulders of midgets”, when we consider how our leaders have failed us-the whole political leadership structure, although in fairness, the buck stops with the Head of State. We are often bereft of good examples we would like to emulate. They are often too busy with various shenanigans to perpetuate their stay in power or engendering their succession by stooges by various means. Unfortunately, we make cult figures of them and give them the impression they cannot put a foot wrong. Supporters acquiesce to their whims at the detriment of the country. We have the propensity to create demi-gods of our leaders.

 Not firmly United

We are acutely divided by politics. Division had already started with independence when festivities were overshadowed by the state of emergency, declared ten days earlier following a campaign of sabotage by the opposition APC, which had been urging that independence should be postponed until free elections were held. Its leader, Siaka Stevens, was arrested about a week to independence along other party members. There were divisions right from the time the SLPP majority party formed the first post-colonial government in 1961.  The 1962 elections revealed the depths of ethnic and regional polarisation in Sierra Leone and the superficiality of the ideological differences between the opposing parties.  Today our politics is sharply divided between SLPP and APC with ethno-regional ramifications.

 Governance-the politics of exclusion

We are still practising the politics of “majoritarialism” which divides people arithmetically into a majority and a minority and saying that the minority must yield to the majority. In a society like ours where parties are mainly formed along tribal and regional lines this has led to the politics of exclusion and the politics of acquiescence. The State has become dominated by the party in power. A President is at liberty to dish out jobs to political supporters, friends and sometimes even family members, with little consideration for other factors such as meritocracy, regional balance etc. The “weaponisation” of Commissions of Inquiry for political purposes, when a new government replaces one of a different political stripe is now commonplace. Politics becomes existential.

There are often threats to the national constitution and party constitutions to satisfy personal whims to consolidate power, give a leg up to certain favoured individuals or deliver a knock-out for others. The national constitution with all its inadequacies is used as a weapon and we pay lip service to its revision. Since 2008, a good 16 years ago, two constitutional review commissions have been instituted-the Peter Tucker Commission and the Edward Cowan commission. The reports have been debated to death but no action taken. Each government tries to insert clauses that would be advantageous to its survival.

Private sector in peril

The refrain. “the private sector is the engine of growth” is liberally used by all governments in power, without putting oil in the engine.  A vibrant private sector is critical to economic growth, income generation, employment and ultimately poverty reduction. A competitive, fast growing and liberal economy led by the private sector is necessary. We must however address the problems of the private sector which include access to capital, legal impediments, unyielding bureaucracy, a financial system largely insensitive to the business community, lack of support services (mainly infrastructure services), poor macroeconomic environment and attitudinal problems (the foremost being corruption). We still run loss-making State Owned Enterprises, subsidising them and pay lip service to privatisation. Some 22 years after privatisation of the electricity sector was recommended we do not have the political will for its implementation.

5. Judiciary and law enforcement MIA

Often the judiciary and law enforcement agencies are not only Missing in Action (MIA) on most salient national issues but actively participate in them to bend the rules. The spurious judicial judgments in many high profile political cases at the detriment of our democracy, controversial rulings in intra party fights and the general slow pace of justice have succeeded in denting our democratic credentials and the rule of law. Law Enforcement is weak, leading to pervasive lawlessness. It is disconcerting that with our water problems in Freetown, we have not been even able to protect the GUMA catchment area within which people cut down trees and build with abandon.

Overly centralised governance system

There is little economic empowerment if power is kept at the centre. We must push for fiscal decentralization to accompany the political and administrative decentralization that we have at the moment. Unless Local Councils become almost financially independent, they will be at the beck and call of Central Government. Right now, all the councils are facing financial problems. We look forward to the day when we can have most of our services provided without coming to Freetown.

7. Hazy national vision and failure to plan

The argument is often made that we have our national vision espoused in our development plans. These plans do not however survive changes in government and there is little thought given to the opposition buying into the plan. A new development plan by a new government becomes a badge of honour with lofty promises with little thought to sustainability.

We often allow our leaders to espouse their vision, based on the sense of the grandeur and many discerning advisers throw caution to the wind and support the leader, who becomes unbridled. Sometimes others in authority help our adoption of big projects with little attention to their feasibility, cost and sustainability and we either end up with white elephants or facilities that the populace can ill afford.

Our vision as a country is hardly about structural economic transformation as a pathway to sustained, inclusive economic growth. A number of countries that started with similar conditions and resource endowments have succeeded in structurally transforming and diversifying their economies. For example, Mauritius has made some progress in transforming its economy from a sugar-dependent economy into a major financial services hub, with a vibrant export sector in tourism, textiles, clothing and jewellery. Kenya’s dynamic private sector is helping to lay a foundation for stronger growth in services, such as financial services, telecommunications, and tourism.

We need to tackle the problem of our natural resources especially our mineral resources seriously. Tackling the resource curse is one of the most promising avenues to reducing poverty. It is ironical that our very own food producers-the farmers are the most food insecure. We must also solve our energy problems. Access to electricity and water supply is a prerequisite for achieving development goals.

Sixty-three years after independence we are celebrating our independence in dependence. Our development does not meet the needs of the current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. We keep doing the same things over and over again and getting the same results. Its high time we reflect on these issues.

Happy Independence anniversary!

Ponder my thoughts.    

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