Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond


Sierra Leone:
At the Crossroads

FREETOWN—As Sierra Leone’s new order administration enters its fourth year of struggle with the old order’s legacy of corruption and economic decline, the goodwill of the governed has turned to impatience. In the face of mounting hardship, there is even a growing nostalgia for the Siaka Stevens era. President Momoh himself admitted to delegates at the APC party’s recent Makeni convention that “my first three years in office have been far from satisfactory especially in terms of results in our recovery efforts." Many ordinary people feel that party functionaries and civil servants, bent on self-enrichment, are oblivious to the needs of the people they are supposed to serve.

Recent incidents illustrate the government’s lack of sensitivity. First was the importation of between 50 and 100 Pajeros, Mitsubishi's luxurious and costly answer to the Land Rover. The exact number is difficult to verify, but the Pajeros are there for all to see, ferrying government ministers around the country. The purchase of these vehicles, said to cost over Le3m each, at a time when the government cannot pay its workers is widely viewed with cynicism. More than one man in the street has observed that if ministers were forced to travel with buses and taxis once in a while, the country’s transportation system would suddenly become more reliable.

Another controversy surrounds the government’s use of the Freetown fire brigade to prepare for the Makeni convention. While the men and equipment were away, Freetown’s landmark PZ building was destroyed by fire. Only the Port Authority fire force's belated intervention prevented the blaze from spreading to adjacent buildings. Even the convention itself has been criticized. At a rumored cost of around Lel0m and held during a declared state of economic emergency, it was dismissed by many as an extravagance.

The economic emergency has proved either a bonanza or a disaster for government employees, depending on their positions within the system. Salaries for all but those in top posts are regularly in arrears from two to five months. Workers whose departments generate funds for the state, such as Customs and Income Tax, have remained on the job raising funds for themselves (far in excess of their salaries) through bribes and sales of government property and services. Police and soldiers, who are generally paid on time for security reasons, find additional income at the expense of taxi and lorry drivers and their passengers. Upcountry check points like Mile 38 and Masiaka have degenerated into little more than excuses to extort money from travelers.

Freetown’s traffic police dourly extract their tax from the overloaded, ragtag collection of Belgian taxis plying the streets. Other workers like agricultural workers have simply abandoned their posts and fend for their families by other means.

Sierra Leone’s diplomatic corps has also been seriously affected by the crisis. According to one ambassador, many overseas missions are more than six months behind in paying salaries and operating expenses. This has led to embarrassing cutoffs of telephones and electricity to some embassies. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is planning widespread cuts in local staff and recalling many junior foreign service officers to Freetown in order to reduce costs.

Even members of Parliament have no immunity when it comes to matters of money. Backbenchers have received no salaries or travel allowances for several months, and Parliament has been unable to field a quorum for its most recent sessions.

Most seriously affected by the economic squeeze has been the educational system. A vast majority of the demoralized teachers refused to report for second-term duty after the Christmas holiday. Teachers in those few schools that have opened, mostly in Freetown, simply send their students out for sports activities. Only children of the wealthy, in private schools or with tutors or studying abroad, are currently engaged in serious academic studies. Some salary arrears were finally paid in early March, so there is hope that the third term might be salvaged. But the crisis may have long-term consequences and bodes ill for those students unfortunate enough to have GCE and selective entrance exams this year.

Another strong indicator of the government’s ineffectiveness is the growth of the parallel market. Sierra Leone’s shops and street markets are well stocked with goods purchased by foreign exchange moving outside the banking system. While locally-brewed Star beer is hard to come by, the country is awash with cans of imported beer. Paying rates upwards of Le70 to the US dollar, the black market has the upper hand in competition with the banking system that pays only Le45.

The banks themselves contribute to their own demise: they are cumbersome mutations of their archaic British counterparts, exhausting patrons with bureaucratic excesses. Many traders and businessmen have abandoned them altogether, preferring to deal in cash. The result has been a shortage of currency in the banks. Customers often wait more than one hour to cash checks or make withdrawals, only to be handed enormous stacks of Le2 notes, the 10s and 20s being in short supply. The currency notes themselves have deteriorated, especially the Le1 and Le2 notes, which have been handled so many times that many are nearly unrecognizable.

With the parallel market and inflation running high, the effect on the average Sierra Leonean diet has been profound. Reliance on imported rice has pushed the price to Le8 per cup and around Le1200 per bag. Beef has nearly vanished as Sierra Leone’s cattle are increasingly marketed in Liberia for US dollars. The scarcity has driven prices to Le40 a pound in cattle-rearing areas, and Le60-80 in Freetown and some areas of the south and east. Dried fish or beans are now the chief suppliers of protein, and cassava takes the place of rice once or twice a week in many households.

One inadvertent benefit of the economic crisis has been the resurgence of agriculture. Where the rhetoric of the green revolution failed to inspire, the reality of high food prices and low or no salaries has produced action. Many teachers, instead of teaching, are growing cassava and vegetables. Agricultural workers have left their posts to run their own farms. Petty-traders are planting wherever they can find small plots. Even politicians, under threat from the president, are joining the march back to the land.

President Momoh has shown that he understands the problems. But the question of how to discipline and motivate a gluttonous body of public servants to take corrective action remains unanswered. In his perceptive speech to the Makeni convention, the president summed up Sierra Leone’s plight: “Solutions to our socio-economic problems have always appeared intractable. This is because there is an entrenched and determined core of wicked and greedy economic manipulators whose main aim is to squeeze life out of the very country they feed upon. No sooner we move in the direction of solving one economic ill, another surfaces. This is the hydra-headed monster we have to fight; therefore we must engage ourselves in this fight with all the might and determination we can muster.” But time and public goodwill are running out.

This article first appeared in West Africa, no. 3736, 27 March 1989, as written “by a special correspondent” to protect my identity in case the Sierra Leone government took offense.
Copyright © 1989 by Gary Stewart


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