President Bio: Commander In Chief Or Pretender In Chief?

by Sierraeye

In March 2018, retired Brigadier Julius Maada Bio, in a televised debate, took numerous jabs at the Koroma-led APC government, critiquing their overdependence on foreign aid and likening the “reckless” government expenditure to that of “drunken sailors.” In May 2022, President Bio addressed Parliament on the occasion of the state opening of the fifth session of the fifth Parliament. Taken at face value, his account of the current state of the nation indicates a turnaround in virtually every sector, in line with his government’s “New Direction” agenda.

As can be expected, public reaction to the speech was divided. Days later, Members of Parliament were given the opportunity to respond to the President’s speech and what they had to say was equally predictable. Supporters of the ruling party lauded the government’s efforts and rebuked any dissenting opinions, while members of the opposition levelled some of the same criticisms that the previous APC government had received from the then SLPP opposition. In the immediate aftermath of the speech, there was evidence of a third and not insignificant group of Sierra Leoneans, who were essentially indifferent to what the Government had to say. This indicates a growing level of disinterest in such speeches in general. For them, all such speeches, regardless of which regime is in power, are usually tailored and stitched to make everything look good when the reality is gloomy and ugly.

It is interesting to note that just four years after President Bio’s scathing rebuke of his predecessor’s penchant for “excessive expenditure on foreign travel”, he told Parliament that “much to the chagrin of the opposition, I flew a few too many times to various destinations to undo the stigma and the reputational damage to our nation that my government inherited.” The President did not specify what “stigma” and “reputational damage” he was referring to and how his government succeeded in undoing it. He did, however, note that “(T)hose engagements continue to pay off in hundreds of millions of United States dollars in grants and technical assistance from our development partners and friends.”

At this juncture, it should be made clear that the President himself did not write this speech. It was drafted by a speechwriter based on materials provided by ministries, departments and agencies of the Government. Having said that, whoever the speechwriter was should be relieved of his duties for including some misleading claims that seek to distort our historical records. As a nation, we cannot simply shrug off such claims and go about our lives. The fact that a growing segment of the population, particularly among the younger generation, is adopting a nonchalant approach should be a cause for national concern. Clearly, the assertion that all the foreign travel was necessary to undo “reputational damage” was written to justify government expenditure, similar to what Bio had criticized during his run for the presidency.

Asked to expand on what the President meant by “reputational damage,” adviser to the President and Head of Strategic Communications, Dr. Patrick K Muana, states that there was a crisis in the confidence in the ability of the APC to govern. “The then government had failed every international indicator of good governance and corruption, e.g., the Millennium Challenge Corporation, Transparency International, etc.” The implication is that these “failures” by the previous government stemmed from the flow of foreign aid into the country, creating the need to restore the flow by flying around the world to convince the international community that the previous government’s failures have been turned around.

But has this administration achieved success in every international indicator of good governance? The people of Sierra Leone were clearly not meant to think too deeply about these claims or question them..”

Cross-referencing the speech with certain realities documented over the last four years paints an alarming picture that casts a shadow of doubt on the veracity of the entire address. Perhaps one of the most noticeable indicators that the flowery account of the government’s success does not reflect reality is the level of power supply in the country. Before his election, President Bio spoke of addressing the energy crisis by implementing nationwide “solar farms” to harness the power of the sun. While it would be incorrect to say that no moves have been made in this direction, the reality remains that too many Sierra Leoneans continue to experience a poor power supply. Abdul M Fatoma, Chief Executive of Campaign for Human Rights and Development International, draws attention to a World Bank Sierra Leone press release dated January 28, 2021, that states, “(O)nly 23% of Sierra Leoneans have access to electricity, which is below the sub-Saharan average of 30%.” The power sector, he says, continues to be plagued by issues that have persisted since the end of the Rebel War, such as ageing equipment, poor maintenance, theft and vandalism. In his speech to Parliament, the President said, “16% of Sierra Leoneans had access to electricity in 2018; 31% now have access to electricity.

In 2018, there were 184,997 registered EDSA customers; there were 255,993 at the end of 2021, an increase of over 70,000 new customers.” The vast difference between the government’s figures and the World Bank’s figures aside, an increase in access to electricity is not the same as an increase in the quality of electricity provided. Indeed, now that more homes and businesses are connected to the grid, the low quality and unreliable service are thrown into sharper focus. Fatoma warns that “(W)ith huge debt and equity servicing challenges, operation and maintenance barriers, dearth of new investments, poor credit rating and poor business viability image to investors, the dismal outlook of the power sector and other challenges may persist in 2022-2023.”

The news in May 2021 that the government was selling 100 hectares of land at Black Johnson to a Chinese enterprise for the construction of a fishing harbour was controversial, to say the least. It attracted the attention of national and foreign press agencies, who condemned the deal, highlighting its potential environmental impact. In an open letter to the President, the Founder and CEO of the Slave Ship – Freedom Ship Movement, Oswald Hanciles, argues that the deal would compromise the existence of some of the last remaining tropical rainforests in the country, which could constitute an ecological disaster. Not only does destroying the natural tourist attraction fly in the face of prior promises to diversify the economy by building the tourism industry, but it also shows a distinct lack of concern for Sierra Leone’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change. Director of Namati Sierra Leone, Sonkita Conteh, confirms that “no environmental impact assessment has yet been conducted, but the government still insists on moving ahead with the project.” For Sonkita Conteh, “(T)he President’s address to Parliament gives both hope and despair. For example, there is room for optimism on land reform, given the laying of two progressive land bills in Parliament. However, the government has largely ignored freedom of information requests about the fishing harbour project at Black Johnson and the repeated warnings that a project of such magnitude in such a sensitive area could have major consequences for the environment,” he says. “Interactions with those directly affected such as landowners and residents have been top-down, clearly undermining the government’s posture as a listening and caring government.” It does not appear that this government learned any lessons from the mudslide disasters of 2017.

On the claim that the government has deepened democracy, the Executive Director for Campaign for Good Governance and Chairperson for National Elections Watch, Marcella Samba Sesay, is of the view that “the government has taken the most daring and commendable step to repeal Part 5 of the 1965 Public Order Act that criminalizes free speech. This action is expected to sediment democratic practices, but the Police have embarked on a self-destructive mission on democracy by arresting voices of dissent and systematically silencing alternative views. Such acts implicitly force a culture of silence in a democracy, undermining the very tenets of freedom, an opportunity that the repeal of the criminal libel presents.”

The Government’s claim that expenditure on foreign travel was necessary to “tell our new story – the story of the new direction – a statement of our intent to transform our nation.” Exactly what new story was he referring to? The story of being the first government ever in the history of Sierra Leone to illegally suspend the Auditor General in the wake of publishing a damning report on staggering amounts of money unaccounted for? The story of a government that has been plagued by corruption allegations of epic proportions since it took over? The story of an Anti-Corruption Commission that is being wielded as a weapon to weaken political opponents while it shields government officials from the highest offices from investigation and prosecution of numerous corruption scandals? The story of the Judiciary being used consistently to victimize political opponents? The story of the Police being used as a means to stifle dissent and opposition? The story of the biggest academic fraud scandal in the history of Sierra Leone reveals that the government is saturated with public servants holding fake degrees? The story of setting a record of being the first government ever to arrest and charge a mentally challenged person? The story of Sierra Leone being one of the most dangerous places for the girl child due to high incidences of rape and sexual abuse? The Washington Post certainly did not hear the Government’s new story. Their May 6, 2022, article titled “Where Pregnancy is a Deadly Gamble” declares Sierra Leone to be “one of the deadliest places on Earth to have a baby. Only South Sudan and Chad count higher mortality rates.” Clearly, the Washington Post did not get the memo that Sierra Leone’s international reputation is heading in a “new direction.” “To be pregnant in Sierra Leone is to be at the mercy of resource-strapped institutions and the global trends shaping them. Survival is too often up to luck. Luck that a nurse or physician is nearby. Luck that the government is paying them. Luck that personnel aren’t charging for care that should be free. Luck that medicine is stocked. Luck that the blood bank has reserves.” This continues to be a reality in Sierra Leone that cannot be disputed.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) must not have heard about the new story. They claim in their February 1, 2019, to January 31, 2021 assessment of Sierra Leone that “corruption is endemic, state infrastructures are deficient at all administrative levels, the majority of the people live in multidimensional poverty and disaffection among youth is growing. Overall, the prospects for political and economic transformation in the near future remain poor –” remains part of the reputation that still very much hangs over our country. A recent report by Global National on street-level poverty in Sierra Leone is heart-rending. It is also embarrassing that it took a foreign news organization to inform us that over 50,000 Sierra Leonean children rely on the streets for survival.

True, there have been some positives. The abolition of the death penalty received a lot of international acclaims. The removal of the ban on pregnant girls attending school, the best teacher award, the development and implementation of a new curriculum and other achievements with free education, and the completion of several bridges are significant and noteworthy. “It is also worthy to note that electoral legal reform has been high on the post-2018 Elections agenda. The Electoral cycle has seen robust engagement around electoral reforms examining Elections Observer Missions (EOMs) recommendations. Many democracy practitioners like me see this as a progressive move toward electoral progress and democracy-building,” says The Executive Director for Campaign for Good Governance and Chairperson for National Elections Watch, Marcella Samba Sesay.

Yet all of this has been overshadowed. Although the President urged us to “resist the rhetoric and divisions which drive a wedge between us,’ the country seems more divided than ever. Institutions have come under heavier strain and there is a sharp decline in trust in these institutions and the people running them, including the Police, the Judiciary, prisons, schools, and universities. In September 2018, former U.S. Ambassador Maria Brewer warned the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) against the tolerance of “sacred cows”, stressing the need for the Commission to expose any corrupt practices within the current administration. In the last few years, however, it has been increasingly clear that the ACC is obsessed with the activities of opposition members while suspiciously quiet about corruption associated with high-level government officials.

The “indefinite suspension” of Auditor General Lara Taylor-Pearce and her Deputy Tamba Momoh in November 2021 speaks volumes about the country’s current reputation. The timing of the suspension, ahead of the release of what would almost certainly have been a damning report of this administration’s management of public funds, did not go unnoticed by the international community. The INTOSAI (International Organization of Supreme Audit Institutions) General Secretariat released a statement calling for the reinstatement of Mrs. Taylor-Pearce, noting that the “opportunistic timing” of the suspension decision “has drawn major criticisms from diagonal accountability actors (CSOs and media) locally and internationally,” who questioned the constitutionality of the decision. At the time of writing, the case filed at the Supreme Court on behalf of the Auditor General has not been assigned.

The final nail in the coffin for the various claims of undoing the stigma and reputational damage to our nation is that the Judiciary, which is supposed to be the last bastion of hope, has become more politicized than ever. This is seen in court rulings and judgments, including those delivered on May 31, 2019, in the election petition cases involving 16 APC parliamentarians, which led to 10 APC parliamentarians losing their seats. Citizens saw their Judiciary brazenly and openly failed them by allowing people who were not elected by majority votes to go to Parliament as representatives of the people. This is in direct contravention of Section 146 of the Public Elections Act 2012, which states that “if the election is declared void, another election shall be held”. All these issues have transpired without any debate in Parliament

The claims that all government’s jet setting has resulted in the acquisition of hundreds of millions of dollars in grants and technical assistance from development partners. The implication is that these international players are so impressed by the country’s “new story” and supposedly enhanced reputation that they are now willing to donate hundreds of millions of their taxpayers’ monies. Ahead of the 2018 Presidential Elections, Bio went on record talking about the need to mobilize domestic revenue to “create the savings necessary to support the government, instead of having to depend on other countries or development corporation partners to fund our existence as a government.” Now, acquiring grants from those same countries and development corporation partners is being presented as a significant achievement. Are we supposed to be rejoicing? While other countries and international partners assist us for many good reasons, including the desire to stimulate economic growth and development, the Government’s statement contributes to a negative global perception of our country. It suggests that the motivation for travelling is to get free money, rather than earning it through the hard work of sound economic policies and good governance at home. Promoting the politics of foreign aid makes the government look desperate. If, as the Government said, our national narrative is not merely for our private vanity and is directly linked to our economy and our standing in the world, is it prudent to be bragging about receiving handouts and charity? The picture painted is that we are an incompetent nation that cannot survive without grants and assistance and that the government is content with pursuing an economic policy that is dependent on foreign aid. This is the very thing for which he criticized the predecessor APC government. It indicates that the government is unready and unwilling to move in a genuinely new direction.

The damage caused by the overreliance of African countries on foreign aid is well documented.  Studies have shown that grants and technical assistance are given not as a reward for a “good reputation” but rather for geopolitical and trade reasons. They can be used as a weapon of trade to further political aims and leverage political influence. In his article titled, “As a system, foreign aid is a fraud and does nothing for inequality,” Kenan Malik of the Guardian newspaper argues that Americans are the primary beneficiaries of U.S. disbursement of aid to the developing world. He writes that foreign aid has “created new markets for American industrial exports and meant hundreds of thousands of jobs for Americans”. He says that half of all international development aid is “tied”, meaning that recipient countries must use it to buy goods and services from the donor nation. “As the USAid website used to boast (until the paragraph became too embarrassing and was deleted in 2006),” he says, “the principal beneficiary of America’s foreign assistance programmes has always been the United States. Close to 80% of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s contracts and grants go directly to American firms.”

The Spectrum Research Repository further notes that “foreign aid retards and distorts the process of economic development of the recipient countries and results in dependence and exploitation. It also replaces domestic savings and flows of trade.

A study from the Harvard University DASH repository done by Alesina, Alberto and Beatrice Weder titled “Do corrupt governments receive less foreign aid? shows that grants and aid have nothing to do with the good work of governments. Bilateral aid from more affluent countries and multilateral aid, technical assistance and debt forgiveness programs are not given to reward good governance and efficient governments. Although donor countries and international organizations argue that they favour reforming governments, the study shows that corrupt governments receive as much aid as less corrupt ones. The study further indicates that “Being less corrupt does not help with donors; if anything, it hurts.” The same study found that the U.S. appears to give more assistance to more corrupt governments. Therefore, it would seem that the rhetoric that a good national reputation is rewarded with foreign aid is incorrect.

The current administration clearly knows all of this – they criticized the previous administration for it. The President and his government must be more concerned about their reputation within, as that is what defines them and earns them votes. The government’s attempt to boost its image abroad must match its attempts to do the same within. It must not put on one face for the international community and a different one for its citizens. To do so renders it a caricature government that does not seem to understand what it means to move in a “new direction”.

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