Sierra Leone: Ponder My Thoughts - Salone @61: Running to Stay in the Same Place?

A happy 61st birthday to Mama Salone.Reflecting on our 61 years of independence yields a mixed bag of results.

Older folks certainly would not yearn for the horrible roads that made most areas in the hinterland impenetrable, becoming the scourge of our Bedford and Hillman vehicles with crank handles. We would not yearn for those days when we communicated at a snail's pace-a simple overseas call involved lining up outside SLET, something we now do with our mobile phones. We may yearn for the good old days when we were the "Athens of West Africa". However, though the quality of education was worthy of emulation, it was narrow in scope and only accessed by an insignificant number of people. Also we have always faced problems with our health system.

Not all was however bad with the old. Younger folks would not know we had a viable railway system running from Freetown to Pendembu with access to many towns and villages along the route, including my village of Baiima, 7 miles from Pendembu, where according to legend (my uncles told me so) a "Ronso" or "Ndogbor Wusui" (in Mende) stole the big water tank at the train station and ran with it into the hills. They would not know we had provincial airports all over this country (in some areas where we now rear goats and sheep or build houses). How many of our countrymen went through those days when we had industries like Aureol Tobacco Company and Wellington Distilleries and big mining companies such as SLST and DELCO, providing employment to thousands and supporting boom towns-not to mention their impacts on the national economy? Or, how many remember the good old days when tourists would fly from Europe to go to tourist resorts in Toke and other areas? How many remember that at one time we could feed ourselves and export rice and vast amounts of cash crops, especially cocoa and coffee and that the now revered bulgur wheat was considered fit for consumption by only the poor?

I do not intend to dwell on this "old versus new debate" but instead do some benchmarking and compare us to some other countries that had independence around the same period. Mind you, there are others who are still laggards like us. The most pressing challenges faced at independence by many countries were the lack of infrastructure, and overdependence on exports of raw materials, with accentuation of trade over production. Many, including Sierra Leone became locked into cycles of dependencies on our former colonial master and others. But let us look at two, which, despite their problems are worthy of emulation in many areas.

Botswana, a land locked country gained independence in 1964. With some 2.3 million people, it used to be one of the world's poorest countries--with a GDP per capita of about US$70 per year in the late 1960s, but it has since then transformed itself into an upper-middle-income country, with one of the world's fastest-growing economies. The economy is dominated by mining, cattle, and tourism. Botswana had a GDP per capita of about $18,113 in 2021, one of the highest in Africa, a relatively high standard of living and the highest Human Development Index in Sub-Saharan Africa. Botswana's Orapa mine is the largest diamond mine in the world in terms of value and quantity of carats produced annually- over $1.6 billion worth of diamonds in 2013. The country has so far avoided the pitfalls of the so-called "resource curse" faced by developing nations rich in natural resources. A good institutional framework allowed the country to reinvest resource-income in order to generate stable future income.

Botswana has 971 kilometres of railway lines, 18,482 kilometres of roads, and 92 airports, of which 12 have paved runways. There is universal healthcare access for much of Botswana's population and the infant mortality and maternal mortality rates have been on a steady decline. The country consistently ranks near the top of international anticorruption measures, and remains politically stable. Living conditions have improved for the Botswana people, and poverty has fallen significantly to 16% (Sierra Leone's is 60%).

Let us look at another country, Malaysia, a country which learnt about planting oil palm from Sierra Leone. Malaysia (then the Federation of Malaya) achieved independence in 1957. In the 1970s, the predominantly mining and agricultural-based economy began a transition towards a more multi-sector economy. It became a leading sector in development depending on a range of export-oriented manufacturing industries such as textiles, electrical and electronic goods, rubber products etc Since the 1980s, the industrial sector has led the country's growth. Malaysia's economy is one of the most competitive in Asia, and ranks high in the world. Tourism has become Malaysia's third largest source of foreign exchange. Malaysia has some 200 industrial parks and 118 airports, of which 38 are paved. The infant mortality rate has dropped below 6 deaths per 1000 births, and life expectancy at birth is 75 years. The quality of national leadership was a crucial factor in Malaysia's development especially during the stewardship of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysian Prime Minister from 1981-2003.

Others have done it but why can't we? Well, answering this will constitute a whole treatise worthy of more than a Dominion degree, but let me venture to suggest a few reasons. A major one might be the deep divisions in the country and the politics of exclusion, which we have often practised. There is intrusion of politics into most spheres of human activity to the extent that politics and economics have become inseparable. It has become so painfully obvious that our constitution is not fit for purpose but successive governments have been reluctant to institute any changes for fear of losing their advantages by correcting perceived flaws. Sixty one years after independence, we still have severe problems with our transparency and accountability mechanisms. The slighting by successive governments of the private sector and overdependence on doing things through a bloated and inefficient government system have not helped. The oft repeated talk about diversifying the economy is mere rhetoric. We are still overly dependent on our natural resources which have not been well managed over the years. But let me stop there as the list is long. Suffice it to say that 61 years after independence we are still a divided country, with each government looking backwards to heap blame on its predecessor-what I call the "Inheritance theory".

Not all has been bad however. After independence we had a prolonged period of one party governance, a series of coups and a rebel war that devastated our economy. Post war, we rebuilt, rehabilitated, tinkered with governance structures and embarked on a sustained period of democracy. Although we have had our upheavals, we have now had changes in government through the ballot box for the past few elections. Yes, we have been running to stay in the same place, metaphorically speaking but there is room for optimism as we celebrate 61 years of independence in dependence. Let us all put our hands to the wheel and take a leaf from words in our National Anthem (for those who know more than one verse and don't "cham mot").

"We pledge our devotion, our strength and our might,

Thy cause to defend and to stand for thy right;

All that we have be ever thine own,

Land that we love, our Sierra Leone."

Ponder my thoughts and a Happy Independence Anniversary to you all.

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