PONDER MY THOUGHTS: US AMBASSADOR BRYAN HUNT’S MCC INTERVIEW: BULLSEYE!

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BY Andrew Keili

Epic Radio’s recent interview with US Ambassador Bryan Hunt was epic. The host, Mohamed Jaward Nyallay, never one to disappoint, mastered his brief very well with his many pointed questions. The interview was meant to be about Sierra Leone’s status regarding the MCC compact issue, but it soon extended into so many other related issues about EDSA and the electricity sector, government effectiveness, mining, the economy and wider developmental issues. Time was, diplomats from our major development partner countries would carefully weigh their utterances and pussyfoot around issues, leaving their audience wondering about the import of their statements. Not any more, it would seem! The previous US Ambassador, David Reimer’s utterances about the elections were derided as personal views that were based on a supercilious attitude by some. There was a lot of talk about his impugning our “sovereignty” and a yearning for the “new Ambassador” who would be more diplomatic and “understanding”. Ambassador Hunt’s utterances since his appointment however leave one in no doubt he is a straight shooter, albeit one that relates his message respectfully. I will attempt to relate and analyze what he said in the interview.

MCC eligibility issues

Ambassador Hunt affirmed that the visiting MCC mission not only participated in the recent Energy symposium but also assessed various issues related to the MCC compact eligibility, including work done by the Electoral Review Committee as part of the Tripartite process. Ultimately their assessment of eligibility would need to be vetted by a committee of Congress. Jaward asked, “But how do you think the assessment went? In the Ambassador’s view, progress has been made on some of the issues outlined in the committee’s scope of work and issues of electoral irregularities were being addressed by the Tripartite Committee but a lot more needs to be done. The review will go back a few elections cycles in order to address many of the lingering problems that have persisted with elections. There are a considerable number of loopholes in our laws and regulations related to elections that make it easy to make subjective and unfair decisions. The fact that laws have to be in line with a constitution that may be at variance with certain changes makes it difficult to effect changes, unless there is also commitment to make constitutional changes. On being pressed further, he made it clear that even if the compact is finally approved, there will be “conditions precedent” to be met relating especially to electoral reform and reform of the electricity sector.

State of the electricity sector

The MCC, according to Ambassador Hunt would help remove binding constraints to the electricity sector which is so integral to Sierra Leone’s development. Renewables would be front, right and centre in the energy transformation process. Jaward asked further, “But what are your views about the current state of the electricity sector? His response was very direct. “There are problems with the management of EDSA under government control. The Independent Power Providers (IPPs) supply power at highly inflated costs and EDSA has collection problems and a big backlog of outstanding payments to IPPs.” In the Ambassador’s view the electricity sector needs to be reformed. It is necessary to take politics out of EDSA and private sector participation is the way to go. Jaward asked whether there was any appetite for privatization of such an essential commodity. “Not only the donors, but even the government realizes that this needs to be done. Generation should also be taken away from the public sector”, he stressed. On the issue of how fast the MCC projects will be implemented, he remarked that the MCC was a 5-year programme and would not yield immediate dividends as implementation will take time. However, he said “the MCC is not the only game in town.” The World bank and other development partners were implementing other projects to improve generation and distribution. They were also imminently going to embark on a programme of reform for EDSA. There was also an LNG generation programme on floor. Jaward argued, “But some would argue that the MCC is an imposed programme and not people centred”. “This cannot be further from the truth. The MCC study was accompanied by an exhaustive consultation process all over the country involving numerous stakeholders and is very much Sierra Leonean-owned”, the Ambassador affirmed.

Government effectiveness

Jaward asked, “Would we still qualify for the compact if we fail the part of the compact eligibility assessment dealing with government effectiveness?” Here the Ambassador observed that indeed progress had been made but more needed to be done. “Everybody wants government effectiveness, Even the government and its Ministers want it”, he said. He however observed that delivery was a problem in Sierra Leone and it was also difficult to coordinate multiple players to get things done. He thinks that we can only get meaningful development if we pay greater attention to decentralization and improve on the performance of Local Government units.

Craig Dean’s role in the mining sector

It is not surprising that Jaward asked the Ambassador about the Craig Dean issue. A few days before, the Ambassador had a press conference with journalists as a result of the negative press reports on Craig Dean, Chairman and CEO of Gerald Group which owns Marampa Mines, whose PRM Service LLC, which now owns 8.19% of Sierra Rutile’s shares made what was described as “an unsolicited move” to take over Sierra Rutile. The Ambassador defended why he had weighed in on the discussions on the basis that this was a normal part of the US Embassy’s commercial diplomatic function. In his view Craig Dean’s position had been misrepresented in the press (which referred to his “gangsterism” and being a “mafia don”-my emphasis). His company, Gerald had done a good job in the mining sector and there was nothing wrong with his involvement with another company in Sierra Leone. He would not unduly interfere into the process but would nevertheless defend what was a legitimate action by Mr. Dean and his group. One group may own several mines in the same country, especially if the group is reputable. He advised it was more important for government to put greater effort into making the mining sector more attractive to investors. Mining needed to be transparent. The policy should be right and there should be a transparent legal regime. The court system should be trusted and taxation and policy incentives needed to be predictable.

The parlous state of economy and the matter of sustainability

What are the Ambassador’s views on the Sierra Leone economy?  He started off by lauding the gains that had been made since the war but described the economy as a “transitional economy”. On the matter of subsidies ostensibly to protect the poor he was of the view that subsidies do not necessarily work well because they are not targeted and also tend to benefit those who are well off. Sierra Leone has to embark on a path of sustainability. Sierra Leone, he said needed to wean itself off inordinate donor support. He cited the case of Botswana, which at independence in 1965 had three college graduates and 10 km of paved roads. They soon developed into a middle income country because of good governance and good management of their natural resources. Three of the major mines, he said are owned by the same South African company but the government ensures they get a fair share of the profits.

Other issues

The USA’ is helping out with other projects sponsored by USAID and CDC in the health and other sectors. On the issue of the Kush crisis, he considered this to be an emergency that needed to be tacked fast. The USA would be committed to repatriating anybody caught in the drug trade of this dangerous narcotic.

Postscript -my take

It was altogether a very satisfactory interview for which Jaward and his Epic Radio colleagues ought to be commended. I surmise we have a good chance of qualifying for the compact but there needs to be more commitment shown in addressing salient issues outlined in the tripartite process. If we do qualify, there will be a considerable number of conditions precedent, to ensure we are kept on track. The electricity sector is in a deplorable state, its operation is unsustainable and is a big burden on government’s finances. Government needs to have the political will to sort things out. Privatisation of this sector in a meaningful way has been on the cards since a study was done in 2002 and despite several studies and assistance the sector remains in a bad state. We need to show greater commitment to electricity sector reform. There are many areas of governance effectiveness in which we can do much better and we must show greater commitment to these. The Ambassador appears to rightly stress on the importance of decentralization. Sierra Leone’s economy is a transitional economy in a parlous state and decisions we make including those on investments should be such that they ensure we embark on a path of economic sustainability.

Was the Ambassador right to say all of these things or did he cross the line? You be the judge! In my view, Ambassador Hunt scored a bullseye with this interview.

Ponder my thoughts.

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