Bio Unveils New Initiatives in Parliament

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In a remarkable speech to the parliament of Sierra Leone recently, President Julius Bio speaks of bold new initiatives at taking the country out of the woods, reports Lindsay Barrett

Knowledgeable observers of West African political affairs have expressed the opinion that the recent address delivered to the parliament of Sierra Leone on Thursday 10th May by former Brigadier General Julius Maada Bio, the country’s new President, was unprecedented, The speech which lasted for nearly two hours and exposed the disastrous condition in which his new government has found the national economy was a seventy nine page marathon, which unveiled a multitude of specific deficiencies and proposals for addressing them. A careful reading of this document creates the impression that President Maada Bio did not idle away his time while waiting in the wings for more than a decade. He first sought the Presidency on the ticket of the Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP), the country’s oldest political party, about six years ago and had been one of the most outspoken critics of the rival All Peoples Congress (APC) for the entire ten-year duration of its tenure in power. His victory in the recent elections has been touted as a vindication of his consistent articulation of a critical viewpoint on public issues but this address makes it plain that he was not simply an outspoken critic. On the evidence of this remarkably detailed presentation the former military ruler has conducted a comprehensive study of the circumstances prevailing in his country He cites irrefutable details of the economic debility facing Sierra Leone with statistics that are supported by credible international institutions.

For example in the opening section of the address the new leader told the parliamentarians “Mr. Speaker, Honourable Members, real economic growth rate slumped to 3.5 percent in 2017 from 6.3 percent in 2016 largely due to the slow-down in mining activities especially iron ore and diamonds. Growth of the non-iron ore economy also slowed to 3.4 percent compared to earlier projection of 4 percent owing to reduced activities in construction and trade sectors. In 2017, while agriculture sector including fisheries and services grew by 4.6 percent and 4.8 percent respectively, but mining and quarrying plummeted by 16 percent.” Given such a situation the SLPP Government headed by the new President must find innovative solutions in order to stave off what threatens to be a return to social instability and unrest if serious action is not taken. In that light the most substantial sections of the speech are those that deal with critical sectors such as agriculture, education, health delivery, youth empowerment, mining, fisheries, tourism, energy, and economic and industrial reform On these critical issues the proposals put forward under the aegis of the SLPP’s New Direction agenda are sometimes unique and radical and they raise questions over the feasibility of implementation of the New Direction mantra that the SLPP has promoted since its victory at the polls.

It is clear that President Maada Bio felt compelled to make this presentation to the parliamentarians from the perspective of a reformer rather than as a leader of the political establishment. The fact that his party has taken over the leadership of the parliament through the appointment as Speaker of one of Sierra Leone’s most highly respected legal minds and diplomats, former ECOWAS Executive Secretary Dr. Abbas Bundu, might have encouraged the new President to take the plunge. The Rt. Hon. Bundu was a major advocate of the transformation of West African governance from military or authoritarian one party rule to democratic systems when he headed ECOWAS.

Maada Bio’s appearance before the parliamentarians has been hailed by several younger members of the electorate as a courageous act given the fact that several of the strategies and policies that he has announced could encounter resistance from some of the parliamentarians. The major initiatives that he has crafted are notable for being based on principles of sacrifice and discipline and are generally articulated in terms that are inimical to privileged exploitation. For example in agriculture he has proposed a sweeping reduction of imported foodstuff especially rice and suggested that all those who wish to gain political support in the future should also invest in agriculture. He also proposed a reduction of economic dependence on the mining sector as a central factor in the strategic economic agenda of the new order. This is likely to be a tough nut to crack for any Government in Sierra Leone because of long practice and force of habit, but the President’s address contains suggestions for regulatory reform and statutory renewal that may well help to install a new sense of responsibility in those who are charged with the management and exploitation of Sierra Leone’s valuable mineral resources.

In a very detailed exposition on the subject of the potential for tourism in Sierra Leone President Maada Bio made it clear that he has thought long and hard about this subject. Lamenting the waste of the country’s much touted natural environmental assets he proposes that his Government will provide incentives for partnership with the private sector to revive the industry and expand its potential to provide local employment as well as to generate much needed hard currency for the nation’s coffers. On the subject of fisheries he also proposes that partnership with foreign marketers will be given some priority but also discusses the development of local capacity for investment and participation in the badly under-developed sector. President Maada Bio asserted that: “To improve on governance in the sector, the priorities of my administration will be on;

(i) strengthening policy and regulatory framework for the management of marine resources and

(ii) promoting transparency by publicising all fisheries management information such as the revenues, license fees, vessels committing infractions and fines paid by vessels.

Mr. Speaker, Honourable Members of Parliament, it is a necessity that we reduce illegal fishing if we are to increase revenue from the fishing sector. Therefore, the focus of my Government in this regard will be on

(i) establishing an enabling legal and regulatory environment for combating illegal fishing and

(ii) implementing effective and sustainable surveillance systems.

My administration will also take the following measures to promote the attractiveness of our fish products to the European Market

(i) training in basic hygiene practices and sanitary operating procedures

(ii) rehabilitating existing laboratories for improving fish quality and

(iii) strengthening the capacity of the competent authority to certify fish and fishery products for export.

Additionally, to improve on the infrastructure for fisheries development, my administration will

(i) construct a fish harbour with solar-powered cold chain facilities and

(ii) construct or rehabilitate existing fish landing sites.”

The close detail with which the President described the prospects for development of this sector is characteristic of almost every sector discussed in this address and illustrates the personal interest that the newly elected leader appears to be determined to take in transforming the country’s economic profile. However the most far-reaching proposals for transformation are contained in the area of social development especially in the education and health sectors. President Maada Bio paid fulsome tribute to Sierra Leone’s teacher population, but lamented the fact that the nation’s historic reputation as a centre of educational excellence had suffered extensive reversal over the years. He announced that a programme of free education from the pre-primary to the senior secondary levels would be introduced later in the year and also that new terms of service for teachers would be initiated. These will include free training for certain cadres and improved remuneration for those whose service over a long term has been inadequately compensated for. In the health sector he described a situation in which vital services had been rendered totally ineffective but here again he laid out detailed plans for renewal that included extensive rebuilding of institutions of health delivery as well the training of personnel and partnership with the private sector.

The Presidential address has set the tone for the new administration’s effort to rebuild confidence in governance as the instrument of renewal in Sierra Leone in spite of the fact that the nation has recorded a quantum decline in services under the democratic dispensation of just over two decades since the end of the brutal civil war. Implementation of the New Direction Agenda will test the relevance and credibility of parliamentary support for the executive in the new order, but its success will also depend on the extent to which the people of Sierra Leone are able to gain substantial and timely benefits from the initiatives that he has proposed.