NEW DIRECTION, STILL A DISTANT GOAL

NEW DIRECTION, STILL A DISTANT GOAL

By John Baimba Sesay

It has been a great start, a new year but with huge challenges. The year ushered in a new development roadmap for the country, the New Direction, the country’s new administration’s framework for socio-economic growth.  What has been done in their first ten months in office? In this edition, we take a look at the economy, education, agriculture, justice and sport sectors.

The economy:

Sierra Leone continues to make progress, but with a number of protracted challenges. Since 2009, the country been making gradual shift in terms of funding her development, from being overwhelmingly dependent on donors to more self-funding. There has been an increase in domestically-financed capital spending and this has been an encouraging development for the country. 

The key factors that have had an adverse impact on the economy in recent years included the Ebola outbreak and the decline in prices of raw materials like iron ore which led to the closure of Shandong Iron and Steel Company. The African Development Bank Group on Sierra Leone’s economic outlook noted that “the fiscal deficit continued to worsen to an estimated 7.7% of GDP in 2018 from 6.8% in 2017, due largely to a shortfall in revenue mobilization and overspending related to elections.”

In his 2018 budget speech in parliament, Jacob Jusu Saffa, Sierra Leone’s finance minister, said prospects for the economy were promising but there were a number of risks that could inhibit the achievement of the anticipated macroeconomic objectives.  According to the Minister, these risks include: 

  • A continuous slump in the price of iron ore, our main export commodity, could delay the resumption of iron ore mining with negative implications for growth, revenue and foreign exchange earnings;
  • A further rise in the international prices of petroleum products and its implications for domestic inflation, given the full pass-through into domestic pump prices;
  • Delays in the disbursement of budget support and subsequent implications for financing priority programmes in the 2019 Budget.

A major priority of fiscal policy for the coming years is to pursue fiscal consolidation, taking into account increased domestic revenue generation. The new year also saw the country’s revenue assessing and collection body, the National Revenue Authority, improve its revenue collection drive, due to what Minister Saffa called the “fiscal consolidation efforts pursued since April 2018.” However, revenue from taxation appears to have overtaken revenue from the mining sector.

The implementation of measures aimed at restoring fiscal discipline is most welcomed. The Single Treasury Account, the harmonization of the national wage and cutting down on tax waiver concessions are all positive and reassuring developments. These measures had been in existence before the new administration came in. If continued, sustained and consolidated, they could provide a strong basis for the growth of our economy.

Free, Quality Education

In August 2018, the country launched the free quality education scheme, as one of the government’s flagship programmes to be phased over a five-year period, with over 1.5 million children expected to benefit from it.

Speaking at the official launch, Minister of Basic and Senior Secondary Education, Alpha Timbo was optimistic, the initiative “will no doubt increase educational outcomes; and human resource capital will be strengthened to meet the growing social and technological revolution in a globalized world.” To signal its commitment, government increased budgetary allocation to the sector from 12 to 21 percent, with the finance ministry allocating over forty billion Leones as school fees to all government and government assisted schools.

Development partners like UK Aid, World Bank, Irish Aid, World Food Programme and UNICEF have been supportive, too.  Government is said to have received $17.4 Million from the Global Partnership for Education to implement a programme that will focus primarily on early childhood development, early learning assessment and systems strengthening.

However, the initiative faces a number of challenges. To ensure good output in the classroom would require a reduced pupil to teacher ratio. Most schools have over the estimated 50 pupils per class proposed. In addition, according to a parent Philip Thoronka, the problem with extra charges still exists. Teachers have also asked for better conditions of services, a crucial element to help motivate them as they play their part in the delivery of free, quality education.

As expected, there was an overwhelming increase in the number of pupils that enrolled at the start of the academic year. This led to some schools not getting the books promised by government as part of the free package.  54 out of 90 containers of English and Mathematics books for Secondary Schools procured through UK Aid arrived in the country and are being distributed to all the districts since January 14th, 2019.

“Challenges are being faced in the distribution process because of poor terrain and bureaucracies with Town and City Councils in accessing funds for such distribution”, said Brima Turay, Deputy Director, School Broadcasting and Public Relations Officer, Ministry of Basic and Senior Secondary Education.

Turay also disclosed that “Out of 2,205 requests for the replacement of teachers, 1402 have been processed and 1,304 have received pin codes” with finance ministry committing funds for the recruitment of 5,000 teachers this year.

Respect for the rule of law 

As provided in its 1991 constitution, Sierra Leone is a constitutional multiparty democracy. The judiciary is a vital organ in ensuring adherence to the rule of law and the protection of the fundamental rights of citizens.

In his speech at the state opening of parliament, President Bio, promised to lead by example by “refraining from acting unconstitutionally.” An independent judiciary is crucial in a democracy or else, “the efforts of government, the protection of the citizens’ rights, economic development, societal peace and concord would all be in vain,” said Dr. Abdulai O. Conteh, a jurist of longstanding.

2019 didn’t start with much fanfare for the country which continues to witness long undue delays of cases in court, with remand prisoners spending a considerable time in prison awaiting trial, in some cases longer time than the sentence for the crime accused persons serving years on remand in much to the hindrance of their fundamental rights. The need for judicial reform is long overdue, though huge resources keep coming for such efforts particularly so from the British, who have contributed over £40 million towards reforming the justice sector. 

The new dispensation promised working towards advancing the rule of law. The New Direction manifesto promised to “undertake an overhaul of the judiciary and the justice delivery system in the country with a view to restoring public confidence in its independence and impartiality and make justice accessible and available for all. There is a need to increase the number and quality of judges and magistrates.

There are challenges in ensuring an independent judiciary. In February, the president declared rape and sexual penetration a national emergency and called for life imprisonment of offenders without parliament amending the provisions of the Sexual Offences Act, 2012. Subsequently, the Honourable Chief Justice, through a memorandum, dated 7th February 2019, directed all judges to comply with the directive. The Sierra Leone Bar Association in a press release dated 16th February 2019, urged the Chief Justice to withdraw the said directive “and allow parliament to perform its function.”

Commissions of Inquiry (COI)

Our exclusive interview with Dr. Abdulai O. Conteh gives an explicit description of the COI, their history and effects on governance in the country. At the launch of the Commissions, the Honourable Attorney-General and Minister of Justice provided Government’s reaction to the hotly debated issue of the rules of procedure and evidence of the Commissions. The Bar Association issued a release criticizing her for commenting on a matter which was sub-judice.

The Bar Association believes that some sections in the instrument establishing the COI contravene section 150 of the 1991 constitution and had urged the Attorney-General and Minister of Justice to ensure that the provisions of the constitution were fully complied with. The Attorney-General responded that the Commissions of Inquiry will and shall not wait for the Rules of Court Committee to make the rules of procedure before commencing its sitting.

Agriculture sector

The economy depends largely on agriculture and mining, with the former providing employment for about 75 percent of the active labor force. If fully commercialized and privatized, the sector can be an ‘engine’ for socio-economic growth. Years back, the country prioritized the Smallholder Commercialization Programme (SCP) as a way of kick-starting the National Sustainable Agricultural Development Programme.

As President Bio said during his speech at the state opening of parliament, 2018, the overall goal of the current administration’s agricultural policy is “sustainable and diversified production of food on a scale enough to feed the growing population as well as providing gainful employment.” The immediate focus had been on:

  • attracting and increasing investment in agriculture,
  • sustainable investment in mechanized commercial agriculture and
  • increasing food crop production.

This would require political will. But a core challenge is the political promise by the president, that “effective 2019, investment in agriculture (including animal husbandry) will be a pre-condition for holding political office.” The presidency and the agriculture line ministries were expected to work out “the details to implement and monitor this policy directive.”  It remains unclear if this policy statement has been rolled out by the new administration given the number of political appointments.

Also, by 2010, budgetary allocation to the agriculture sector had been increased to 10%. Yet, the new administration is still “committed to increasing budgetary allocation to the sector by a minimum of 10 percent in the next 2 years.” Beyond the political commitment is the urgent and practical need to raise agricultural production and ensure that there is competitiveness in the sector given that this is one of several sectors that touch the lives of the common man.

Conclusion:

Close to a year in governance the new administration has made some gains but below expectations. The review done only covered few sectors. Overall, the New Direction seems to be still a distant Goal.

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