Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Sierra Leone: Bleak Prospects in the Face of Abundant Opportunity.

Sierra Leone Diamonds
Bob Marley's aphorism, "in the abundance of water the fool is thirsty," which is probably the most memorable verse in his 70s hit "Rat Race," aptly describes the conditions prevailing in many Sub-Saharan countries today, roughly 50 years post independence. Sierra Leone us a poster child of all that is wrong with Sub-Saharan Africa.

How can a continent blessed with so much natural wealth and such a resilient people, be so poor in terms of human material development and progress? How can there be so much poverty and squalor in the face of so much mineral, agricultural and marine wealth. How can a country like Sierra Leone, with a population of only 6 million and some of the richest diamond deposits in the world, consistently rank among the poorest countries in the world and become only notorious for the severity of its natural and human conflicts and the weakness of its governance institutions.

Many young Sierra Leoneans cannot even imagine today that there was a period in Sierra Leone when the capital city Freetown had 24 hours of continuous electricity and that during those days, sporadic blackouts were met with cries of "blackout!" resounding through the main streets of that once beautiful city.

At the risk of waxing nostalgic, I sometimes tell some of my young friends that when we were growing up in Freetown in the mid 70s, it was a truly beautiful city, without the human and vehicle congestion that has blighted the face of the once hopeful metropolis. Freetown those days was without the poverty, squalor and sense of resignation that has come to define its population. I still remember nights when we would sneak out to see adults gyrating happily in bars to the tunes of Prince Nico's "Simplicity" and "Sweet Mother." In Grammar School I used to walk to Lumley Beach to study while watching the Atlantic waves rushing in. We thought things were bad then. It was the beginning of the nightmare.

The Road to the Diamond
Sierra Leone is at a crucial crossroads. The future of Africa will be a future of increasing population growth, depleting mineral resources, increased deforestation, the proliferation of virulent strains of drug resistant infections, a higher demand for public services and the potentially devastating consequences of global warming. It will be a future full of uncertainty, complexity, challenges and limited opportunities. At the threshold of this uncertain future, a country like Sierra Leone seems to not only be inadequately prepared, but most of the leaders seem to be blissfully obliviously of the potential implications of these challenges. The country seems to be headed into the future, unguided, like a running car that has lost the functionality of its steering.

If things continue as they are at the present, the future of Sierra Leone is truly bleak. However, all is not lost. Sierra Leone is a small country with excellent human capital. The country has over a decade experienced a massive brain drain of its educated citizens leaving for other countries, due mainly to conflict, the lack of employment opportunities, stagnant or declining real wages and a public sector job market characterized by nepotism, political patronage and tribalism.

In my discussions with a lot of Sierra Leone professionals in the country's scattered diaspora, many are prepared to take a substantial reduction in earnings to go back home and help put the country on a better path. However, job prospects for Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora have mostly been open to political allies of the leadership, most of whom lacked the skills needed by the country and headed back home to jobs for which they were highly unqualified and unprepared for. 

Late President Tejan Kabba
A Trusted Leader
The dismal performance of these diaspora returnees has just perpetuated the growing myth that most Sierra Leoneans in the diaspora are incompetent. A lot of local based professional have justifiable had to view their diaspora counterparts with scorn and contempt. It can however be safely said that there has been no concerted effort on the part of the current government to seek competent professionals for crucial positions. Employment opportunities have mostly been open to the loudest defenders of the ugly status quo. It has been a case of incompetence in, incompetence out. As Idrissa Conteh, one of Sierra Leone's finest journalist once said when we were together in school, "when there is not there, you cannot force there to be there." In computer terminology it is GIGO-Garbage in, garbage out.

However, Sierra Leone is a democracy. It is possible that the next leader of the country, whether they are from the ranks of the opposition or from the ruling party, will not have the primitive mindset of the current President, Ernest Bai Koroma, a man whose fondness for sycophancy is matched only by his affinity for regionalism. 

A few weeks ago, I was appalled by a set of interviews given on BBC by the new Information Minister Mohamed Bangura, a political opportunist whose glaring display of ignorance and lack of diplomatic fitness is matched only by his juvenile command of the English language. To have a fellow of such caliber masquerading as the information minister of our country is a bitter pill that many enlightened Sierra Leoneans now have to swallow. Even with all her negative history, this is the only time  in the history of Sierra Leone that ministers of government are among the lowest caliber of folks in the country. A few months ago the Deputy Minister of Social Welfare, a visually impaired musician, was openly insulting the parents of the substantive Minister in front of the employees of the ministry. It was the lower employees who were begging them to behave, appealing to them like two small children in the schoolyard playground. Even the President had no option but to let them go. If a new leader, whoever that happens to be, will just try to put the right people in the right positions, that would be a major step in putting the country back on track. It would be a step in the right direction.

But as of now, Sierra Leone is a vampire state subject to the whims of foreign vulture capitalists. In a vampire state, the leaders are like vampires or bats, sucking the lifeblood out of the masses. In Sierra Leone today, even in the midst of all the poverty and squalor, the President and those in his favor live like royalty, building mansions in the midst of shanty towns and tenement yards. The poor people are forced to contend with backbreaking labor for a currency whose value continues to decline by the hour. Many young people are forced to turn to alcoholism in order to blunt the impact of the grinding poverty. Many young women from respectable families are turning to prostitution to make ends meet. They do not even hide it anymore.

In a bid to attract foreign investment, Sierra Leone has had to contend with unscrupulous capitalists who negotiate terms that are only beneficial to those in power. The businessmen willing to invest in the volatile country have shored themselves against the uncertain business climate by negotiating contracts that have no benefit for the country either in the short or long term, but only act to mask the rape of the country by providing a semblance of employment. These much touted investors usually close down shop at the smallest whiff of uncertainty. Some just grab enough minerals to make some profit before they close down at the earliest opportunity.

Unfortunately, the destiny of Sierra Leone lies in the hand of voters shackled to the chains of tribalism. Even with the dismal performance of those in power, people will still vote for them because they either speak the same language or come from the same region. African leaders are the most blessed in the history of leadership. As long as you can identify your political outfit with a particular tribal identity, you can rob the masses blind and they will still vote for you. The vote will not be any show of support for your performance or policies, but a vote for a sentimental affiliation to the party. Until we find a way for our political parties to lose that tribal attraction, African democracy will continue to be government of "the brothers pretending to be for their brothers, while robbing everybody blind." It is a sad state, but that is the state of Sierra Leone today. Will things change? Only time will tell.

Sheku Sheriff

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