Today, the world celebrates the beginning of a new decade with hope of a better future, driven by economic progress, new technology and increased wealth creation. But for the people of Sierra Leone, there is little hope of a better and brighter future.
The people of Sierra Leone have experienced ten years of economic struggle, with rising and chronic unemployment, low economic growth, alarmingly high government borrowing, rising cost of living, low investments in key sectors of the economy, and collapse of the value of the currency – the Leone.
Although successive governments promised to do all it takes to transform the country from a poverty stricken and foreign aid dependent nation, it seems the political will to take tough policy decisions, and put country before selfish, partisan interests is in short supply.
When president Julius Maada Bio was elected in March 2018, he too promised to end the suffering of the people of Sierra Leone. He promised to change how the country is governed. He promised to end impunity and lawlessness. He promised a New Direction.
But how much has changed in Sierra Leone since March 2018?
The country now has a free education programme for all state-run primary and secondary schools, which critics say is being crippled by lack of funding, low teacher morale, and growing household poverty.
There is also a new government mantra in town. Instead of the former president Koroma’s “attitudinal change and my government is running the country like a business” chorus from State house, president Bio’s mantra – “we are building the nation’s human capital” is yet to gain traction.
President Bio says investing in developing the country’s human capital is key to the country’s economic future, and its chances of capitalising and benefiting from the fourth industrial revolution pioneered by new advanced technology and innovation. Fine words indeed.
While many in Sierra Leone would agree with him, there are just too many hungry people in the country; far too many children are still dying before their fifth birthday; most adults dying before their 50th birthday due to poor health and poverty.
Access to clean drinking water and electricity, are posing immense difficulty for the vast majority of Sierra Leoneans across the country.
And with over 70% of adults out of work, including thousands of qualified university and college graduates, president Bio’s dream of taking the people of Sierra Leone to the promised land by investing in a technological revolution is proving hard to sell.
Far too many farmers are struggling to increase their production yield due to lack of investment finance, use of low productivity seeds, lack of modern farming techniques, and weak supply and value chain structures.
Far too many small and medium sized businesses are struggling to survive.
In his second New Year’s message to the people of Sierra Leone, president Bio is calling for the people, not only to be patient, but to be the change that they too would like to see in the country.
This is what he said today:
Fellow citizens, welcome to a new year – a time to bid farewell to 2019 and a time to look forward to 2020. As we look back into 2019, we were shackled with high domestic and foreign debt repayments, unfavourable mining lease agreements, low domestic productivity, high youth unemployment, high inflation and currency depreciation.
Throughout the year, our confidence and optimism as a nation were shaken by mild economic turbulence and unavoidable shocks we inherited.
Typically, Sierra Leoneans have made light of the situation with the usual humorous jibe, “the gron dry”.
But in 2019, we also made huge progress. We launched the medium term national development plan; increased domestic revenue mobilisation by streamlining and automating revenue collection and deposit processes; clarified and reduced the tax and duty burden on businesses; made it easier to establish and run a business including providing aftercare at the highest levels and provided more support for small to medium enterprises. We do this with the firm belief that private enterprise is the engine for economic expansion.
As we look forward into 2020, our Country is at peace with falling crime rates, lower prison populations and no security threat. At Bintumani 3, Sierra Leoneans suggested ways to further lower tensions and establish a permanent infrastructure for peace.
We have moved to repeal criminal libel laws that successive governments had used to suppress free speech. We continue to open up civic spaces and we encourage our citizens to speak up and make our democracy stronger and better.
In spite of the cynicism about foreign travel, we have, through those travels transformed the reputation and image of Sierra Leone abroad by comprehensively telling our friends and partners who we really are and where we are taking our nation. And they have watched our unrelenting and determined fight against corruption.
We passed the MCC’s “Control of Corruption” indicator with very high scores. They have watched us crack down on fraud and waste and reform public institutions and practices. And you know what, the IMF, EU, DFID, World Bank and our international partners have all expressed confidence in what we are doing and they have re-engaged fully.
We have actively promoted business in Sierra Leone through various investment conferences and foreign delegations have visited our country to explore investment opportunities.
The fisheries, tourism, and agricultural sectors are set for significant foreign private sector investments in the near future. We are focused on rice-sufficiency, cash crop production and agricultural value-chain addition.
As we go into 2020, more than two million children, especially girls, have access to free quality education, free teaching and learning materials, expanded healthcare services, school buses and free school feeding in some areas.
We have intensified our national campaign against early child marriage, introduced robust enforcement and tougher sentencing guidelines for sexual and gender-based violence.
Teenage pregnancy, menstrual health and hygiene are no longer taboo topics. Our women are at the centre of our country’s future development and security and we have recruited more women into our armed forces than at any time in our country’s history.
We are investing heavily in STEM disciplines especially for girls and through the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation, we are harnessing the power of data and technology to support governance, business, healthcare, education, and agriculture.
We recently launched the first drone corridor in West Africa and the first block-chain-based national digital identity platform that will improve financial inclusion among other benefits.
Soon, we will convene a national forum on the future of education. We do so mindful of our national development priorities and goals and knowing that for our children to lead and participate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the global economy, they must be equipped with a 21st century education.
We enter 2020 in a Sierra Leone where mothers in labour and critically ill-cases can now be rushed into a nearby hospital or community health centre by an ambulance they can call toll-free from the comfort of their homes.
We will continue work on lowering maternal mortality rates, expanding primary healthcare, training and recruiting more healthcare workers, and refurbishing or building new health centres all over the country.
In 2020, we will turn sod for the construction of an ultramodern diagnostic health Centre using funds recovered from corrupt officials as seed money. Our public sanitation and waste disposal investments have yielded public health benefits.
We enter 2020 with a renewed commitment to fighting climate change while improving clean energy access in off-grid rural areas and tackling energy poverty through the nearly-completed regional grid and other new initiatives.
We enter 2020 with extensive judicial reforms that have led to more access to justice. Our social protection programmes continue to support vulnerable families and we have launched a $50 million urban-mobility project.
We are also rehabilitating key trunk roads from Kailahun to Freetown and building new bridges nationwide. Big impact and high-value infrastructural projects will commence in 2020.
Our youth empowerment projects and our support for sports development, especially the Sierra Leone Premier League, have been very significant.
Fellow citizens, together we have started an inspiring journey. The challenges are huge but they are not insurmountable. Your expectations are high but they can be met. Your aspirations are boundless but they can be fulfilled. Nothing is impossible, even the miracles you expect us to perform.
Therefore, I call for your relentless optimism and hard work to develop our nation. If you share my belief that we can make Sierra Leone a better place, I urge you to share the responsibility with me for doing so with a firm commitment to make, act and be the change you want to see.
My family and I wish you all a happy and prosperous New Year. I thank you.