THE LOOT OF A NATION: EBOLA, DEBT RELIEF AND WORLD BANK CATALYTIC FINANCE AT CROSS ROADS IN SIERRA LEONE
THE LOOT OF A NATION: EBOLA, DEBT RELIEF AND WORLD BANK CATALYTIC FINANCE AT CROSS ROADS IN SIERRA LEONE.
By: Francis Ben Kaifala Esq.
Following the recent conference on Ebola Recovery at the World Bank, there has been an increased call for debt relief for the three Ebola hit countries. This is coupled with an astronomical pledge of additional funds to help with socio-economic recovery which currently stands as follows: $386 Million from Britannia, $266 Million from the USA, $650 Million from the World Bank, $220 Million from Germany, $500 Million from the European Union, $745 Million from the African Development Bank, $360 Million from the Islamic Development Bank, etc (Source: www.worldbank.org).
It is not surprising that images of mass African deaths on international News media like CNN, BBC and Aljazeera have tickled the conscience of the West so as to make them be enthusiastic to donate magnanimously with the aim of reviving the economies of the three worse Ebola hit countries. The aesthetic rush to provide funding from the West is well timed to reposition them to recapture their colonial interests in these three countries which had almost been lost to China and Arabia. It cannot be gainsaid that massive deaths from poverty, other heinous diseases, civil strife and pollution has for ages been killing citizens of Sierra Leone and the rest of the Mano River Belt in equal measure - but unfortunately, not with equal prominence as Ebola.
There is no doubt that debt relief, if agreed by various creditors, together with various sources of catalytic finance, including those pledged above, will make available to the authorities in Sierra Leone huge capital and wealth (though admittedly not all those monies will be paid directly to government), and ease the burden on the Government so as to enable it redeploy moneys and foreign exchange that would otherwise be used to service debt repayments in the economy, thereby ensuring national growth by financing poverty alleviation drives.
However, the availability of resources in the hands of our rulers, past and present, has not really yielded the desired outcome (See what happened to the GAVI FUNDS). Moreover, our national resources, whether raised locally or from foreign sources have not really been much of a blessing to us - they have mostly been a curse. Wealth has not translated into growth but rather stagnation, underdevelopment and low standard of living. It is for this reason, 54 years after independence, even with various historic debt relief packages like the HIPC, we continue to be over burdened by debt and we are either engaged in or threatened by domestic conflict or political instability - because of the struggle for which of the two main political parties should be in charge of controlling the unchecked wealth, or rather be benefiting from the spoils of decadence and maladministration.
Sierra Leone finds itself in the unfortunate situation whereby most of our recourses are “national assets” and not privately owned. Therefore, as soon as a new party wins an election, it automatically has vested in its hands control of the national resources and the right to deal with it; without much safeguards being in place to ensure that the “interest of the state” is the guiding principle with regard their use. This rather unfortunate undeniable state of affairs presents the ruling party with almost the total right to the wealth of the state which gives it immense political control over the opposition (who are mostly usually poor) and solidify and empower itself, its supporters and stalwarts to maintain a firm grip on the change of power in the future whilst continuing the plunder of the national wealth.
Even with the above, because of the lurking possibility of power changing hands, it is easy for corrupt leaders to exploit crises like the current Ebola outbreak and engage in a series of looting incidents disguised under white elephant projects and false declarations. As they would have little or no incentive to invest in the country for fear of political confiscation and reprisals in the future, they further destroy the economy by siphoning our wealth into offshore accounts and projects.
Our leaders have exhibited predatory behaviours to acquire unlimited wealth and in the process have damaged the economy and left the people poorer and the institutions of state weaker. This is being deliberately done because, in order to maintain perennial looting behaviour and get away with it, corrupt leaders have to ensure that the institutions of state like the Parliament and the Courts are weak, ineffective and hopeless.
To put things into perspective, many have read the last Auditor-General of Sierra Leone’s report which brought out very damning details on the dealings with the nation’s Ebola funds. (See http://www.africa-confidential.com/article-preview/id/6013/The_Ebola_bonanza). In addition, a recent Africa Confidential Report detailed alleged dealings by the president of Sierra Leone and his alleged acquisition of wealth and interests in many influential spheres of business in the Country (http://www.africaconfidential.com/articlepreview/id/11138/The_discord_lingers_on). Recently, the public has been fiercely debating the government’s purchase of 100 buses from China at a unit cost of US$120,000.00! Some quarters of the public believe and claim that similar or more expensive quality buses could cost far less even from Europe, and the entire bus project is a white elephant exercise geared towards veiling embezzlement. There is also public outcry over the NASSIT’s questionable Investments of working class citizens’ money. Anyone familiar with the dynamics of government looting in Africa will not be surprised.
The main reason why this is happening is because our institutions like Parliament, the Judiciary, and the Anti-Corruption Commission have been deliberately left weak. Even with the pouring in of catalytic and debt relief, there can be little doubt that that because our institutions are wrecked, the impact in terms of actual economic recovery that will touch the lives of ordinary Sierra Leonean will be very little. There is little hope of the wealth trickling down to the masses in terms of development and poverty alleviation, so as to put the economy back on track.
The over concentration of power in the executive and their almost autocratic exercise of such power (because of the obliteration of the opposition and poor governance structures), and the similarly international institutional weakness which does not create better systems for tracking of funds and conditions that ensure the structured use of funds and transparency does not help either. The diagnosis being:-
- We do not have adequate democratic institutions that check the powers of Executive.
- The resources of the country whether locally generated or donated are substantially held and managed by the Executive arm of government.
- There does not seem to be much check on the national and/or international level on the use of wealth meant for the masses to make their lives better, thereby making the government swell their pockets, with little trickling down to the people.
There is little or no safeguard against an unsecure leader plundering the economy in the face of unguaranteed future tenure. Whether our leaders stay and invest or plunder and exit, it has mostly been their interest that is paramount to them - not that of Sierra Leone.
Therefore, while there is the justified need for international Financial Institutions like the World Bank and the IMF to catalyse and stimulate the economy which has almost been decimated by Ebola, there is the need for Sierra Leoneans to be proactive in ensuring socio-economic transformation brought by such stimulus foreign interventions. We may miss an opportunity to profit from this because our institutions have remained weak with not much being done to strengthen them, power remains centralized, the government is arrogant, there is no stylized economic planning, the opposition is all but functionally non-existent, there is poor international institutional check and balance to ensure that the resources being galvanized and poured into the country trickle down to the poor and marginalized, and above all, the citizens have not shown a real preparedness for change.
While catalytic finance to booster economic recovery and debt relief are all good for a strengthened Sierra Leone after Ebola, it is institutional reforms and checks, the improvement of governance quality with benchmarks for delivery on promises by elected governments, and the citizens’ preparedness to refuse to accept less from their government that will save more lives, ameliorate the deplorable living condition of all Sierra Leoneans, have a trickle-down effect of the distribution of wealth, and perhaps, avert the continuing spate of the loot of the wealth this beautiful country.
Francis Ben Kaifala Esq. is the Managing Partner in the Law Firm Kaifala, Kanneh & Co., Top Floor, 81 Pademba Road, Freetown; He holds the joint LL.M in Law & Economics from Queen Mary University of London. He is currently a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Texas at Austin pursuing the LL.M in Comparative Constitutional Law, Administrative Law & International Human Rights; He is also Human Rights Scholar with the Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice in Austin, Texas, United States of America. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org