Flying, But At What Cost To Us Mr. President?

John Baimba Sesay

When a new government is elected to office, there is always a relish on the part of the presidency to travel to countries to familiarize itself with other governments and in the process strengthen her ties of cooperation at both bilateral and multilateral levels.  It is all but important that a new president meets other leaders around the world, especially for a developing nation that would need support for her development agenda. However, the biggest challenge is the level of a nation’s economic realities. If, for instance, a nation is going through serious economic challenges, one well-balanced decision it would make is to cut down on spending.

Wings like A Dove

Sierra Leone reportedly spent tens of billions of Leones on the President’s foreign trips in 2019 alone. By August last year, the President instructed ministers and senior government officials to desist from travelling abroad until further notice. The measure was to help reduce rising government spending. This followed public outcry about the considerable costs of the President’s trips overseas to taxpayers.

In late 2019, Parliament enacted the Finance Act 2020 which, if it had been allowed, would have changed the Public Financial Management Act. That Act, subsequently returned by the President to Parliament after public outcry, made provision for a non-accountable imprest for daily international travel expenses excluding purchase of tickets incurred by the President, Vice-President and the Speaker of Parliament.

President Julius Bio has made over 40 trips in his first two years at the helm. This has attracted sharp public criticism. The President has flown to Liberia to receive an honorary PhD, the United Arab Emirates on a state visit and to attend the Annual Global Education and Skills Forum, to the People’s Republic of China to strengthen ties of cooperation, to Japan to attend the seventh Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD7) and most recently to South Africa to attend the mining indaba in Cape Town, South Africa and the African Union meeting in Addis Ababa. We heard of dozens of investors coming. We remain hopeful, as a country. What else if not that? 

By mid-2019, he got some rest when he “disappeared” only for the nation to learn that he was in Kenya, East Africa, in a luxurious safari resort on holiday. An online newspaper, Sierra Leone Telegraph had referred to president Bio’s ‘disappearance’ then as an ‘earth-shattering’ mystery. Going by the biblical quote as contained in Psalm 55:6- “If only I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and find rest,” within two years the President it would appear has literally developed wings like a dove.   

Whatever the case and outcomes, this President is a flying one and maybe, this is needed at all times for the good of the country. But at what cost are such overseas trips on the country.  And would such public funds be used to meet social needs like access to safe drinking water, health care, solve the perennial electricity challenge, all of which are core to ensuring proper governance structures?

Answers from Civil Society & Politicians

SierraEye tried in vain for two weeks to talk to the Minister of Information and Communications, Mohamed Rahman Swarray to find about the successes of the government two years after taking office.

We also wanted to discuss the overseas trips of the President and to find out some of the tangible results from those trips, cost to the country economically, government’s reaction to public criticisms over the numerous travels and issues of transparency around the President’s delegations. Several promises were made by the Minister to respond to questions sent to him, but none came by the time we went to press.

Civil society is a vital component in the promotion of good governance. It thus provides people with the needed platforms to contribute to the process of governance. In Sierra Leone, though there appears to be a shrinking space for their work, civil right groups have remained true precursors in the pursuit of openness and government’s transparency. Like the media, at least some have stood the test of time since the election of a new government some two years back.

Abdul M. Fatoma of Campaign for Human Rights and Development International, Sierra Leone says, when people take a look at the frequent trips, they can look at his (President) justifications and see variance from what he had earlier said “because when he came, he promised the people of this country that he was going to ensure financial discipline on the use of money.” Government, Fatoma said, hasambassadors and a foreign minister and directors in ministries who could be travelling. “There is a need to also cut down on his trips the same way he did with ministers unless when extremely necessary,” he argues.

“Most countries we meet to strengthen our ties with have representatives here in Sierra Leone,” Fatoma said. “What we should do is to look at critical issues back home. When you look at even the website of the British High Commission to Sierra Leone, it does not present a good picture for the country. It talks about poverty, high level of corruption, lack of water supply, electricity, etc. These are the things that should be invested on, and with that citizens from other countries would be advised that Sierra Leone respects the rule of law, human rights, and promotes the fight against corruption genuinely. Without improving on these things, no matter the number of trips you make to those western countries, the same message continues to go out.”

Marcella Samba Sesay is Executive Director, Campaign for Good Governance, a civil society group that promotes the building of institutions crucial to democracy, ensuring a transparent and accountable government and pushing for active citizens’ participation in the political process, amongst others. Sesay says there are critical issues around the frequent trips by the President, one being lack of transparency. “He doesn’t travel alone; he goes with an entourage. Transparency around those travelling with the President is questionable. When this government took over, they were transparent by way of making public those travelling with the President. But as the travels keep increasing, the level of transparency depreciated.” This, Marcella Samba Sesay says, is worrying from the viewpoint of ensuring an open and accountable government and for a country with economic challenges.

The CGG boss agrees that some of the interactions by the President overseas would not bring immediate benefit. “But equally so, we need to understand and juxtapose the trips and the real dividend the country is getting,” she said, emphasizing that Sierra Leone is “actually spending huge money on foreign trips by the President.” With such frequent trips by the President, CGG believes, there are Ministries, Departments and Agencies that won’t get the revenue needed to provide service to the people. The country should be looking at the economic realities versus the dividend in terms of what we are getting from those trips. There are many home initiatives that are important. Hunger level in the country is alarming, especially in rural communities. So, as civil society suggests, we also need to look at what we can do with the quantum of money spent on travels.

Mohamed Kamarainba Mansaray is leader and Chair of the Alliance Democratic Party (ADP), a left-wing anti-elitist party formed after he fell apart with the then ruling All People’s Congress. Mansaray remains critical of the current administration, not least when it comes to issue of public funds. He thinks the frequent presidential trips abroad are “a complete waste of state resources.” The President, he said, keeps flying but often returns home with nothing tangible to show. In 2018 alone, he said, “the country spent close to 30 billion Leones on the President’s foreign trips, and one wonders where we are heading” given the economic challenge the country is faced with. “Regardless of the travels if nations are ready to help us, they would help”, he said. 

Tangible Results:

Foreign trips by presidents should bring about actual results, be it in the short or long term. In the case of President Bio, there are some tangibles. By the end of last year, the Chinese sent to Sierra Leone 7,000 tons of food aid to help cushion the effects of the growing hardship facing Sierra Leoneans. The food aid led to a corruption scandal, which led to the dismissal of the Minister of Basic and Primary Education, Alpha Timbo, and several other public servants. The country conducted feasibility studies for the rehabilitation of the Wilberforce Military Barracks and the construction of the Foreign Service Academy. Additional support came in the form of setting up a VIP convoy with bikes, cars and support cars. 

By April 2019, a delegation from Dubai Port World, Abu Dhabi Port and Manawala Abu Dhabi Airport Company were in the country on a two-day working visit to explore investment opportunities in our port and marine sector, local media had reported. The President also received a delegation from UAE which was a follow-up to his last visit to the Arabian Peninsula nation, according to a State House press release.

However, there has not been the kind of turnout of credible investors that the country expects given the many trips the President has made in two years. This may not be unconnected to the level of rising political tensions and the failure on the part of the government to reduce those tensions and create the platform that would guarantee real investors’ confidence.

President Bio was at the UK-Africa investment summit in January. The Summit helped to strengthen the UK’s partnership with African countries and further demonstrated that the UK was aggressively looking to form solid trading & investment relationships with African nations.African nations made use of existing opportunities. Forinstance,as an outcome, Nigeria scooped hundreds of millions of pounds deals from the summit, the same with Ghana. Ivory Coast reportedly signed investment deals costing £302 million. In the case of Sierra Leone, the delegation returned home with a paltry £101,000, a donation made by Chelsea center back, Antonio Rudiger, as support to the country’s Free Quality Education programme.

Way forward

For Marcella Samba Sesay, after twenty months in office, she would “advise the President to look inwards and minimize the trips. Look inwards and see what we can do as a nation and think together.” This is a similar sentiment shared by the ADP Leader, Mohamed Kamarainba Mansaray who argues that the President has people he appointed to positions of trust, people that he can delegate some of his trips to, “but if he doesn’t trust them to be travelling, then it is sad,” concluding that “for good two years in office, we have seen nothing but a complete failure on the part of this administration.”

This is a view shared by Abdul Fatoma. For him, it is time the President tests the potentials and abilities of the country’s envoys. “If the President has to meet with a country’s foreign minister, we can have our foreign minister or even an ambassador to do that.  Sadly, most times he travels; none of his colleague presidents would meet him. So, we can have ministerial meetings. If we are talking about African Union (AU) Heads of States meeting or Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) or Mano River Union (MRU), that is good, but for, example the United States, most of the time, it is senior government officials meeting our president, which I think does not sound respectful to us as a country,” Fatoma said.

Sierra Leone cannot afford to be spending billions of Leones annually on foreign trips by the President but gaining little or nothing in return. We are a nation with an economy that is not only challenged but highly reliant on donor support, with less than we can locally boast of in terms of export. Our tax base, in terms of revenue mobilization, is weak, compared to other nations. There is a need for a review of trips on which the President could embark on; at least some could be delegated to relevant ministries/ministers.

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