By Rafiq Raji, PhD
At the opening of parliament on 10 May, ahead of his inauguration ceremony two days after, President Julius Maada Bio officially announced a free primary and secondary school education policy; effective from September 2018. (Mr Bio hurriedly swore his oath of office rather unceremeniously in the lobby of one of Freetown’s few “posh” hotels in early April for security reasons. A proper ceremony is only now being organised.) The Bio government has also increased the budget allocation to education to at least 20 percent from 11 percent previously. All these are quite laudable, of course; especially as they were campaign promises. In a continent where politicians promise almost anything to get elected but largely ignore the electorate afterwards, Mr Bio deserves commendation for sure. But considering the strained finances of the government, it begs the question of whether it is wise for him to announce such a policy at this time.
Lofty ambitions, little money
The problem is always the money, of course; which Mr Bio is reported to have found little of in the treasury upon assumption of office. The authorities say the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank have indicated they would support the education programmes, at least. They also hope to get more revenue by plugging leakages in the public purse through the ongoing implementation of a single treasury account and a more aggressive tax collection culture. To the government’s credit, revenue collection is already improving. The additional challenge, of course, is how to fund the administration’s new initiatives in tandem with existing priorities that were hardly catered for by the previous administration. Victims of the floods and mudslides in the capital, Freetown, in August 2017, complain of neglect, for instance. So do those of the 2-year long ebola epidemic. And to prevent a reocurrence of the mudslide disaster, mitigation measures are urgently required. These will cost money. Bear in mind, the government did not earn as much revenue as it hoped for in the 2017 fiscal year. Donor receipts also fell short of estimates. Painfully, the little revenue collected even then is believed to have been looted by the previous administration. Of course, with an expectedly more transparent Bio government, there is hope that such pilferage is now a thing of the past. Consequently, international donors are expected to now become more forthcoming.
Mr Bio inherits a surprisingly resilient economy, which the IMF expects would grow at about 6-7 percent over next five years, from 5-6 percent over the past two years. The 2-year ebola epidemic from December 2013 to January 2016, the consequent stoppage of iron ore production and the collapse of the metal’s international market price in tandem, weighed so much on the economy it contracted by a staggering 20.5 percent in 2015. It recovered quite remarkably the year after, recording 6.1 percent growth in 2016. To sustain the recovery, the IMF advises fiscal discipline, accretion of foreign exchange reserves and structural reforms. Excess spending was a problem in the past. In 2016, the authorities overshot the planned budget deficit by almost 60 percent in nominal terms due to spending related to election preparations and security. Measures advised by the IMF to help balance the books like higher but market-based royalties on mineral exports which were not adhered to by the previous government are thankfully now being religiously implemented. So, the IMF is expected to resume the disbursement of its $224 million facility, after stopping it under the previous government when it appeared it was not serious about recommended economic reforms. For his government to get as much external support as it needs, however, Mr Bio may need to renege on some of his populist campaign promises. True, there is a literacy problem in Sierra Leone, with 60 percent of adults unable to read or write. And quite rightly, free education and free meal-at-school programmes would probably be needed to improve the situation. It is doubtful, however, that the government can afford these ordinarily laudable programmes at this time. International donors could help, for sure. To encourage them back, however, Mr Bio would have to tackle corruption head on. This might be a little difficult. With likely culprits in the former ruling and now opposition party, which still controls parliament, Mr Bio may inevitably have to use the rod sparingly. Perhaps then Mr Bio should use the occasion of his belated inauguration ceremony to ask for help from the many international dignitaries that have promised to attend.