By Karamoh Kabba
Sierra Leone’s literacy rate is under fifty percent, which President Brigadier Maada Bio, no doubt, piggybacked on, in his bid for president [free education], in a much-contested campaign in 2018 to secure a controversial victory, at least, according to the main opposition All Peoples Congress (APC).
Free education for primary and secondary education in Sierra Leone is the hottest topical issue under scrutiny now and the former Minister of Education Science and Technology, Dr. Minkailu Bah, who doubles as the Tonkolili District Chairman of the APC weighs in by outlining what he referred to as his government’s “partial free education programmes”. He stated that, “when stacked up against what is expected of the much trumpeted free education offer from the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), our partial education programmes weigh way heavier”.
Dr Bah explained that the APC government offered free primary education, free education for persons with disability (PWDs), free girl-child education for JSS(1), paid one term tuition fee for JSS(2) and two terms tuition fees for JSS(3), paid for all public exams fees, scaled-up on Sierra Leone Government (SLG) granting aid and paid 70% tertiary tuition fees subsidy to all students in public institutions who couldn’t access the SLG granting aid etc.
He further explained that his government also supported other education associated benefits programmes as follows; “We scaled-up on international scholarship opportunities, constructed 500 more classrooms with the aim of reducing class sizes, we increased teacher salaries and improved on payment methods as well as the school radio programmes we launched during the Ebola epidemic to keep our children at per with children in other countries,” the former minister stated.
And it is why the people of Sierra Leone bear great expectations in return for their votes in 2018 for free education. The essence of free education is to crunch down on the high illiteracy numbers in the country. Notwithstanding that, very recently, President Maada Bio stated that schools would not be allowed to register more than fifty students per classroom but offered no option for the projected increase in enrolment the free education will attract.
One single mother of three primary and one JSS2 children stated that, “at least, we aren’t asking for too much – we voted for free education, we will accept nothing less than what obtains in other countries or what obtains in global standards for free education.”
That is, according to many parents, the primary school free education in existence must be maintained, free education for secondary level must be scaled-up to include boys and girls, the existing SLG granting aid numbers must not be reduced, the 70% fee subsidy for tertiary education must be maintained, the free education for the girl-child in science in tertiary institutions must be maintained, the free education for PWDs across the board must be maintained etc.
“We have heard that the government intends to introduce a loan scheme for tertiary education, we will have no problem with that only if they keep the existing programmes for our university students. We will still need loans for the remaining 30%,” one free education voter eloquently expressed.
The expectations of the people do not stop at the above, they are also discussing the inclusion and maintenance of all other education associated programmes such as school bus for public schools, school feeding in public schools, school materials including books, uniform as well as additional classrooms and teachers for all the additional enrolment the free education will attract.
Analytically, it seems the SLPP government has a big job cut-out for itself. One SLPP government operative boasted that the free education should be easy, alluding to the fact that “once we stop the 70% fees subsidy to tertiary education and redirect the funds to the free education, we will be home and dry.” But it seems the people are way ahead of him in understanding the issues.
One father of seven school going children, a situation which is not uncommon in the mostly polygamous society of Sierra Leone, stated that “when you calculate the rising prices of rice and fuel and the telling trickledown effect on all other consumables and transportation, I will prefer to pay school fees than to spend tenfold more on living expenses.”
That is why the APC National Secretary General (NSG) thinks that the SLPP has tricked the people. “Once they remove the subsidies on all commodities that affect the social life of our people, they will afford the free education but at a much higher cost to the people in many other ways” as articulated above by the father of seven who envisions a bleak future for his children in Sierra Leone under President Maada Bio’s free education.
The APC governed Sierra Leone for ten years since 2007, but members of the party claim an “international conspiracy involvement in the electoral process to oust them out of power in 2018”. Spokes persons for the APC, on several occasions, had stated “government’s refusal to remove subsidies from basic commodities that cushioned against global rising prices not consistent with the World Bank (WB) advice” for their fall-out with donor partners. Other APC political pundits have advanced a “probable strong trade ties with China in the global trade war” as another reason..
“Owing to our recent past, we will live with the outcome of the elections despite the fact that the numbers don’t add up,” an APC stalwart lamented. He continued, “Indeed, we ran a developmentally oriented and transformative government”.
That recent past he alluded to is the eleven-year old atrocious civil war between 1991-2002 that saw the demise of over fifty thousand Sierra Leoneans and many more as refugees. “What we have now at hand is quite different; is a handful of pyrrhic victory – a paopa victory at all cost and at devastating economic toll on the people,” the NSG concluded.