Sierra Leone’s 2023 elections and the “howness” of economic transformation

by Sierraeye

It’s the system, stupid.
Imagine looking out to sea somewhere along Sierra Leone’s vast coastline and watching a container supertanker and a pam-pam or dugout canoe heading into port. The captains of these two vessels face different options and prospects and operate by different rules. They operate in different systems. If we want the pam-pam to outperform the supertanker, we can just change the captain, we need to change the system within which the captain operates.

When diagnosing our problems, we often blame office-bearers for systemic challenges. If we make recommendations to one without considering the system within which they operate, our suggestions will be useless. The same applies to Sierra Leone’s economy: the system will constrain the captain’s options. In fact, the system might even determine what sort of captain we get. We must also share responsibility as actors within the system for shaping it and sustaining the very behaviors we claim to condemn.

Ethnoregional political patronage limits options
To understand the structure and relationships that shape politics and policymaking in Sierra Leone today, look at a political party map of Sierra Leone that the Institute for Governance Reform (IGR) produced after analyzing results from the 2018 elections. Ethnoregionalism gives us the map we see. IGR’s map of Sierra Leone is red (APC) to the north, green (SLPP) to the south, with a pocket of rainbow (NGC) in the northwest corner and a smattering of yellow (C4C) tucked away in the east.

Ethnoregional loyalties and patronage—not ideologies, manifestos, or policy promises—shape election outcomes. Ideas, ideologies, policies, and past performance (for an incumbent especially) matter, but not as much as ethnoregional patronage.

Personnel is policy
Such patronage isn’t unique to Sierra Leone. Every incoming elected US president has some 3,000 positions to fill, many of which go to the biggest fundraisers or people to whom the president feels indebted. US President Ronald Reagan’s director of personnel, Scott Faulkner, once said, “personnel is policy.” Patronage-based appointments can harm the US or Sierra Leonean public interest.

Leaders want a team of loyalists they can trust to deliver on their agenda. But trustworthiness isn’t just loyalty to the boss. Competence, capability, expertise, experience, networks, reputation, and wisdom matter too. Individuals and teams need these qualities. A group of brilliantly talented individuals who won’t or can’t work together is hardly better than a bunch of close-knit incompetents. Voters should consider limiting their support to political contenders who put forward credible teams before the elections.

Bottom line: economic transformation for inclusive growth
Political actors in Sierra Leone agree they need to turn our economy around. For as long as Sierra Leone’s productivity remains low, the country will remain trapped in poverty and at the mercy of the ebbs and flows of demand and prices for its export commodities (mainly minerals and agriculture). The answer is economic transformation to shift the workforce from low-productivity agriculture into higher-productivity manufacturing and services while drastically improving agricultural productivity.

This is easier said than done. Any economy is a complex system of many interrelated moving parts. There is no magic bullet, lever, or wand. Our policymakers must make careful decisions using the best available evidence (and there’s a lot!).

Public-private partnership
Teamwork and coordination are critical. And not just among government actors. Private sector actors (and workers) are vital partners to the government in managing the economy. There’s no one genius with all the answers and fragmented, siloed approaches to policy design and implementation don’t work.

As we approach the 2023 elections, let’s consider the why, what, how, who, and when of policies and strategies to transform our economy and lives. The why is economic transformation leading to inclusive growth that works for millions of Sierra Leoneans. The how is a more collaborative, cooperative, coordinated approach to governance in terms of conceptualization, design, and implementation.

Playing the long game
Economic transformation is a long-term goal stretching far beyond the 60 months of one party’s tenure. We need a 60-year time horizon. For this, we need national cohesion. It is unrealistic to separate economics from politics. The two go hand-in-hand. Consensus-building across political divides is essential. Sierra Leone already operates with a five-year Medium-Term National Development Plan (MTNDP). A Long-Term National Development Plan (LTNDP) spanning decades should guide the MTNDP. Power will sometimes change hands. But this shouldn’t change the LTNDP. The LTDNP is the roadmap from which each administration carves out its MTNDP. But the LTNDP isn’t the place for lofty ideals, fairytales, and empty words. It must be concrete, credible, and actionable but flexible enough to allow changes in response to our uncertain world of threats and opportunities.

Speaking of fairytales, all these fancy words here will come to naught if we can’t get the right people in the right places at the right time under the right conditions with the right resources and mandates to do the right things. Remember, “personnel is policy.” Because politics has become so toxic, many Sierra Leoneans with stellar professional track records shy away from public service. And the fact that most, if not all, institutions appear to increasingly operate based on “orders from above” rather than with a reasonable degree of operating autonomy means it will be harder and harder to persuade good people to take up positions. President Obama cautioned while visiting Ghana, “Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.”

Container supertanker or pam-pam economy?
So, we return to where we started: In the end, it’s all about “the howness,” as a senior government advisor in a previous administration once put it. We’d probably want a supertanker container economy, not a pam-pam one. Sadly, the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Politicians will make election promises, but will they keep them? Hopefully, citizens will remain active in holding officials to account. That’s the social contract we need.

Rev Martin Luther King Jr once said, “A man dies when he refuses to stand up for that which is right. A man dies when he refuses to stand up for justice. A man dies when he refuses to take a stand for that which is true.” A question for us all is, are we dead already, dying, or alive?

© 2023 Chukwu-Emeka Chikezie is writing in his personal capacity

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