Sierra Leone Journal
Dispatches from Pre-War Freetown and Beyond


Sierra Leone:
New Era for the Post Office

WASHINGTON—The 1980s was a difficult decade for the Sierra Leone postal department. Beset by deteriorating service and chronic theft of mail by underpaid—often unpaid—workers, the postal service forfeited public confidence and lost much of its business to private couriers and ordinary travelers carrying letters from Europe and America to Freetown. But a new era of reform and improved service is about to begin according to postal department director, Kanji Daramy, who spoke with West Afirica while in Washington to attend the Congress of the Universal Postal Union.

The beginnings of change actually occurred in 1986 shortly after Daramy took office. A study by management consultant Allan Lock of the Universal Postal Union recommended restructuring the postal service as a corporation to provide service and make a profit like a private business.

Government accepted the suggestion, and in January 1990 the postal department will become a wholly owned government corporation, independent of the civil service, to be known as the Sierra Leone Postal Service Limited or SALPOST. “It is a company,” says Daramy, “in order to insure that it is removed from direct government control. It has autonomy and independence in terms of its budget and in terms of managerial decisions and in terms of its manpower development policy.” The new corporation will be headed by a board of directors selected and approved by President Momoh. Daramy will become managing director.

Poor service and mail pilfering were primary causes of the reorganization. Daramy points out that the postal service is a customer intensive business—every letter generates two customers, the sender and receiver—and that “the bureaucracy in the civil service does not actually lend itself to support and to satisfy customers in this kind of way.” The new company, reorganized outside the civil service, can then increase workers’ wages, a step he feels will discourage theft. “We can set salaries independent of the government; we are generating the money,” he says. “We think that by creating more incentives people would think twice before they go to steal letters.”

If service can be improved, Daramy hopes to rekindle public confidence and woo customers back from private couriers like DHL and Redcoat. The new Express Mail Service with its four weekly air dispatches to Europe is an example of the kind of innovation being attempted to beat the competition. “When there’s competition, you don’t have to shy away from it,” he says. “You’ve got to face it. It’s the reality. And the only way you can effectively control it is to make your own services good or even better than the competition.”

Closely tied to the conditions of postal theft and inefficiency is the problem of sending money through the mail. Sierra Leoneans abroad think twice and often refrain from sending money home for fear it won’t reach the intended person. As a result, many families have lost an important income supplement, and the country has lost a lucrative source of foreign exchange. In hopes of reversing this condition, the government is introducing an international postal money order service. The first agreement is with the United States and enables Sierra Leoneans to purchase money orders at any U.S. post office encoded for cashing only in Sierra Leone. Such money orders bear the names and addresses of both sender and recipient and can be cashed only at the general post office in Freetown upon verification of the recipient’s identity through either a passport or national identity card. Money orders are numbered like checks so if lost they can be traced and, in theory at least, the money recovered. Daramy hopes similar arrangements can be negotiated with other governments.

Left unaddressed in this scheme is the problem of parallel foreign exchange markets. Postal money orders can only be cashed at the post office for the official government rate of Le65 for one dollar while on the black market one dollar brings more than Lel00. Daramy acknowledges that this is a problem but points out that black market currency dealing is illegal and the money order is safer: “If I wish to send money to my country and have two possibilities, one is illegal but it fetches more money and the other one is legal but it fetches less money but it’s very safe, between the two I would choose the legal means because I know by so doing in the event of loss I will not lose all my money.”

Daramy is optimistic that the postal service is on its way back to respectability. To help with restructuring, the UNDP has just approved a three year assistance project to provide equipment, consultants, and fellowships for postal workers to study abroad. The Commonwealth Secretariat through its technical arm is providing an expert to serve as director of business policy and corporate planning. The West German government is sending a management consultant to determine capital requirements and make recommendations for German assistance. The U.S. government is donating jeeps and trucks to ease transportation problems. “So at least we are not alone,” he says. “We are having support from the international community in our development process which I feel is very encouraging.”

This article first appeared in West Africa, no. 3779, 29 January 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Gary Stewart


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