18 November 2009

Sierra Leone: Song Sparks Governance Debate

Freetown — Nothing has ever sparked a debate on the state of governance in the country like the song released by one of Sierra Leone's most popular artists, Emerson Bockarie.

The song, "Yesterday Betteh Pass Tiday", recorded in Krio, means "yesterday is better than today" directly translated into English. It has sent shock waves and started debate all over the country, not because of poetic lyrics or a dance rhythm, or the zouk style popular in Sierra Leone, but because of its trenchant social commentary.

The song compares the performance in government of the previous Sierra Leone People's Party (SLPP) regime and the ruling All Peoples' Congress (APC). Bockarie points out that government in Sierra Leone was bad under the SLPP, but is worse now.

The song highlights corruption, the high cost of living, nepotism, tribalism, poor service delivery, poor government salaries and a static economy, concluding that things have not changed for the better under the new government.

"We identify with this song because Emerson said it all, nothing seems to move," said Sahid Sesay a secondary school teacher in Freetown. He said the government had given a 20 percent increment in salaries, but this had had no impact "simply because all the prices of everything in the market have gone up".

The APC government came to power on a platform of change, and in his inauguration speech President Ernest Bai Koroma announced he and his team would show "zero tolerance on corruption".

Mohamed Turay, a research assistant at the Fourah Bay College in Freetown, said: "I think the government is still yielding in principle to an anti-corruption strategy in order to satisfy requirements for donor funds, without fully implementing it. The commission is still crippled by a lack of political will."

Turay cited the case of Afsatu Kabba, former minister of energy and power, who clearly flouted the procurement rules by giving out a contract to Income Electrix, an independent power provider, for the supply of 25 mega watt (MW) generator whilst there were other favorable companies that would have cost government less and that even when the contract was awarded only 10MW was installed and commissioned.

"But nothing came out of it. She is now sent to head the ministry of fisheries and marine resources. How can we say the government is serious about fighting corruption?" asked Turay.

He also said the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) Act directed that public officials, including their spouses and children, were to declare their assets. While the president had declared his, most of the ministers and other public officials had not declared their assets, in spite of the commission.

Valnora Edwin, the director of a Sierra Leone non-governmental organisation called the Campaign for Good Governance, said there had been a slight improvement in some governance structures.

Edwin noted that the new ACC Act of 2008 had been strengthened, and the commission now enjoyed real independence. "But I think we should see that there are no sacred cows," she hastily added. "We are also seeing that the government has been trying to bring electricity to the city, but it is yet to be fully operational, and it should not only be for the capital but for the whole country."

Edwin added that the transport and road networks were poor, and the communication tariffs very high. "The country's telecommunications are not working, and the private phone companies are charging a lot of money. All of these contribute to a poor environment for investors."

She said: "No one will come with investments to the country, and the few that are coming are transferring the high cost of overheads onto the consumers, so the cost of living will always be high.

"I think we still have not got the right kind of people to push the country forward, so it is the same situation as with the previous government which was fraught with poor governance structures, prevalent corruption and a diving economy. "The health sector is the worst, as there has been a shortage of personnel. Doctors are still in short supply. There are no specialised nurses, there is no research, and medicines are inadequate and expensive. We see this in the high rate of infant mortality and maternal mortality," Edwin said.

There are still difficulties with the supply of purified pipe-borne water in the capital, Freetown, let alone the districts. These shortcomings follow the gloomy 2008 State of Human Rights Report by the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone (HRCSL).

Although accepting there had been good scores by the government in not inhibiting the registration of media organisations, and the restructuring of the judiciary to better handle matters in the districts, the report stated that Press repression, poor prison conditions, a corrupt police force, the inadequate protection of the rights of women (including an effective and efficient response to violence against women) were still a reality.

The report also said Sierra Leone faced enormous challenges in the fulfilment of human rights (especially economic and social rights). The HRCSL recommended that the government "should ensure the availability of a comprehensive health service, including drugs, ambulances, doctors and other health personnel in hospitals and health centres throughout the country".

The public relations officer of the ministry of health, Abasss Kamara, accepts that Sierra Leone has the worst infant and maternal mortality rates in the world, but claims the government is taking great strides to deliver in the health sector, and drastically reduce these mortality rates.

"We have developed a five-year National Health Strategic Plan to address reproductive and child health. We have already instituted a three-month plan to target health centres and hospitals in five districts and the capital, which will be upgraded in training and equipment to respond to maternal health care," Kamara said.

He revealed: "We have already launched a tele-medicine project, and doctors in Sierra Leone will be able to consult with experts all over the world - especially in India - to facilitate surgical procedures. This project will ease the shortage of manpower and expertise in the medical sector."

The minister of information, Ibrahim Ben Kargbo, told IPS the government had promised to fulfil all its pledges to the people of Sierra Leone.

Kargbo argued that some of their policies had been translated into tangibles. "One can see that the country improved its overall ranking by climbing eight places to 148 (from 156 in 2009) in the annual Ease of doing Business Index, which ranked 183 economies. "This means we are creating a good environment for business, jobs and money flow."

The Ease of Doing Business Index was created by the World Bank to survey regulations directly affecting businesses, and does not directly measure general conditions such as a nation"s proximity to large markets, quality of infrastructure, inflation, or crime.

Kargbo continued "Overall, Sierra Leone emerged ahead of its neighbours, Liberia (149), Cote D'Ivoire (168) and Guinea (173) in the Mano River Union. "We have provided electricity which has been very bad in the previous governments, and we plan to improve on it. We have prioritised agriculture, and increased the agriculture budget from 1.7 percent (which we inherited) to 7.7 percent. "We will focus on human development by improving social services. For this we will push forward our policy of decentralisation and devolution of service delivery to local councils," said Kargbo.

All of these were in line with the country's Agenda for Change, a poverty-reduction strategy.

"People should be patient, because development is gradual, but the president has promised that life will be better for Sierra Leoneans -and we mean it and will deliver." The ACC had recently indicted the country's minister of health and the president had relieved him of his duty as minister while he answers to his charges. The ACC's Commissioner, Abdul Tejan Cole, has told the plenary session of the UN conference on corruption in Doha on November 9th that over 17,000 public officials including the president and all ministers and parliamentarians had declared their assets to the ACC.

Salamatu Bah, a petty trader in the city centre, said "The government is trying, and things are better now than before. I disagree with Emerson's "Tiday Betteh Pass Yesterday", but the argument should not be which regime is the better or worse. We have voted for change and change is what we demand."

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