Despite Economic Progress, Sierra Leone’s Political Future Remains Murky
April 28, 2017
Sierra Leone contested for the title of poorest nation on earth for many years at the end of the 20th century, in spite of the country’s vast mineral wealth. A common proverb has oft-been employed, describing Sierra Leone as, “[a] man that is sitting by the banks of the ocean and washing his hands with spittle”. But since the late 1990s, Sierra Leone has capitalised on its relative stability to bring online many of its vast mineral resources, augmented of course by foreign mining interest of Europe and China. Thus, Sierra Leone’s GDP has far outgrown its Liberian and Gambian Neighbours, totalling USD 6.453billion in 2015. There is, however, great uncertainty in the future of Sierra Leone’s economy in light of the 2018 general elections, which polling suggests could be the country’s closest-fought elections yet.
Koroma’s economic legacy
Sierra Leoneans will head to the polls on March 7, 2018. As is custom in Sierra Leone, electioneering has already started to ramp up, a full year before the elections, as the political parties start to select their flag-bearers for the general election. Over the next few months the political landscape will be come clearer, as past ministers and prominent civil servants vie for leadership, merge parties, and ultimately add their face’s to the ballot paper. As Ernest Koroma’s final term draws to a close, and the leadership contest for the All People’s Congress (APC) comes to a head, it is an appropriate juncture to examine the legacy of the APC’s rule and what Koroma has achieved in his two terms in office.
Elected into power with a marginal majority of 54.62% in the 2nd round, Koroma quickly institutionalised reforms focussing on tackling corruption, developing the tax revenue system, decentralisation, a large scale infrastructure roll-out and promoting investment and transparency in the mining sector. Koroma’s reforms were largely successful. The National Anti-Corruption Strategy launched in 2008, for example, has been heralded as one of the toughest piece of anti-corruption legislation on the continent. Perhaps most importantly, the mining sector reform established a new institutional framework that had an investor-friendly legal framework. This encouraged further foreign investment into the country’s largely untapped reserves of iron ore, rutile, bauxite, as well as the traditionally mined minerals.
However, these reforms were threatened by the outbreak of Ebola in the region, which systematically crippled the country’s economy. In June 2015, Sierra Leone had reported more than 12,900 cases of the Ebola Virus Disease and over 3,900 deaths since the outbreak began. The subsequent state of emergency, combined with international investors apprehension to invest in the Ebola-ravaged country resulted in a -21.50% grow rate in 2015, a sharp USD 800 million decline compared on 2014’s GDP. Once the Ebola outbreak was under control, Koroma was quick to implement his recovery priorities. Focussing initially on health, education, social protection and the private sector, then adding water and sanitation, energy and good governance, the president has attempted to go beyond redressing direct development losses and invest in building greater resilience to similar shocks. The World Bank projected an increase in GDP growth in Q4 2017 of around 3.73%, far from the -21.50% of 2015. Moreover the Bank project that by 2020, this growth will have increased to 10.37%.
A rival power?
With a legacy like this, it would be reasonable to assume that the incumbent APC are set to achieve re-election in 2018. But this is not the case: the rumours that 2018 could be the closest run election are substantiated by a history of allegations against the Koroma administration. Notably, the voter registration process has seen the return of Sam Sumana to the country, the Former Vice President who was controversially sacked by President Ernest Bai Koroma in March 2015 on the grounds that he lied about his academic qualifications, his faith and being involved in anti-party activities. Sumana is rumoured to be in the process of forming his own political party, made up of disgruntled members of the ruling APC party to run against Koroma’s APC next year. Sumana is now suing the Koroma government in the ECOWAS Court, over his controversial dismissal, claiming about $210 million in damages.
Furthermore, there have been intermittent calls for Koroma’s dismissal as allegations of grand corruption and embezzlement have surfaced throughout his administration. Many have accused Koroma’s administration of nepotism and are worried about state capture. Many respondents of the 2013 corruption perception survey conducted by the Centre for Development and Security Analysis (CEDSA) believed that corruption is still a major problem and at the top of the list of potential causes of corruption is individual greed and selfishness. The perception survey did note the anti-corruption commission established in Koroma’s first term is an effective mechanism for fighting corruption. This said, public opinion points towards a mistrust of Koroma and his APC henchmen – a potentially undermining factor for the seemingly robust progress made over the past ten years in the face of adversity.
The lead up to March 7, 2018 is sure to be defined by mudslinging from the incumbent administration and the official opposition; undoubtedly allegations of ill governance and corruption will be flying. Particularly key in this election will be the allegiance of Sam Sumana and his band of disenchanted APC kinsmen.