June 10, 2014


Sierra Leone in multiple crises


The Chief of Staff in the President’s office is one of the most powerful officials in government, even though largely unseen by the general public. He or she controls access to the President and passes the President’s directives on to ministries and departments of government. Following the sacking last night by President Koroma of his Chief of Staff, Richard Conteh (see State House press release), the governance structure of the country could well be said to be in crisis. The Chief of Staff oversaw the performance contracts and performance reviews with ministers of government that the President instituted with some fanfare when he came into office. It now turns out, from the State House press release that the Chief of Staff’s performance was itself well below par.


The State House press release all but accuses the erstwhile Chief of Staff of corruption involving among other matters a waiver on an export ban on timber. The export ban on timber first came to general knowledge following video evidence in the media late in 2011 that Vice President, Alhaji Sam Sumana had negotiated a bribe to help timber exporters circumvent this ban. At the time and subsequently, these allegations almost cost the Vice President his job, as the relationship between him and his boss, the President, was said to be very strained. The matter eventually blew over. Now we learn that at some point (exactly when is unclear), the President had himself approved an executive waiver of this ban on behalf of a specific individual or group of individuals. Whether this executive waiver was announced to the public is unclear. The now disgraced Richard Conteh is accused of extending this executive waiver from the thirty containers approved by the President to an unlimited amount, all in favour of this individual or group of individuals. What must other cabinet ministers be thinking, who themselves only a few months ago were the subject of performance reviews spearheaded by the very Richard Conteh who is now the subject of investigations by the CID?


There have been other ministerial sackings in recent months. In February this year the Minister of Energy and Power, Oluniyi Robbin-Coker, was sacked by the President together with other senior officials (see State House Press Release). And in October 2013 the Minister of Works and other senior officials were relieved of their duties without explanation. (see Natinpasadvantage (part 3). Both these Cabinet positions remain unfilled and the affairs of the respective ministries are directed from State House. Both sets of sackings were made with little or no explanation from the Presidency, although the general belief is that they were due to poor performance in the respective sectors. These are two areas that have been central to the President’s first term Agenda for Change and current Agenda for Prosperity. He has made improvement in the national electricity supply and development of infrastructure, particularly roads, the overriding mission of his Presidency. And yet Freetown’s residents are still without power much of the time, sometimes for days on end. The situation in the rest of the country is even worse. As to roads, the purview of the sacked Minister of Works, it is true that some high priority roads have been constructed and others have experienced a solid renovation and upgrading, but it’s also true that many roads that have not benefited from the attention of the politicians have been abandoned and are in abysmal condition.


The Ebola crisis appears to be gaining momentum, notwithstanding efforts by Ministry of Health officials to downplay it. In press interviews senior ministry officials still seem unsure of the figures they are giving out, unsure of the transmission mechanisms, prevention strategies and treatment options. One gets the sense that the resources available are insufficient although as always civil servants are careful not to criticize their political masters. There is the impression that everyone is waiting for ‘the donors’ or ‘our partners’, the WHO, MSF etc to come in and solve the problem, and there is the fear that they too may be afraid. Afraid of this terrible killer that no one knows very much about. Afraid to go near this disease, and even to go near anyone who has gone near the disease. The nightmare scenario would be some kind of mass exodus from the affected areas in Kailahun, bringing the disease into Sierra Leone’s cities, particularly Freetown, hugely congested in a narrow strip of land. The Ebola crisis comes hot on the heels of a WHO report showing Sierra Leone dead last in the world in maternal mortality (see Sierra Leone dead last in maternal mortality).


Amid all this, the Minister of Education shows up with a suitcase full of fake certificates, forged by would-be teachers applying for newly advertised jobs. According to the Minister in some districts in the country up to 90% of individuals applying for teaching positions are presenting fake certificates. Sierra Leone’s educational system is in a crisis, albeit a long running crisis, and there is no sign of a remedy. The results at WASCCE are abysmal (see Dysfunctional Education). There is no better predictor of future development than this, and our results indicate Nigeria and Ghana will be even further ahead in the medium term. That there could be this level of incompetence seeking to fraudulently make its way into an already debilitated educational system is cause for even greater alarm.


Add to the above three a whole host of other concerns, rapid urban migration and congestion, environmental degradation, poor access to water and sanitation, low productivity, to name but some, and it is difficult to see the promised prosperity ahead.


Crises will come to countries, sooner or later, and they should prepare for them. Unfortunately the government has spent scarce resources unwisely, and now may not have enough left to meet these new trials. Millions have gone on poorly thought-out projects, whilst our real priorities have been left unattended.