The Big Lie Embedded in Political Tribalism

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Author: Oswald Hanciles

President Maada Bio’s “New Direction” policy is going to accelerate development for Sierra Leone – especially when the $2 billion Lungi Bridge is constructed.  That’s a lie!!  Just like former President Ernest Bai Koroma’s “Agenda for Change “and “Agenda for Prosperity”… were also lies.  Not small lies.  But, “Big Lies” – of Orwellian proportion.  In the first part of this serial, I wrote on a central Big Lie in the Sierra Leonean psyche: “Political Tribalism”.  Integral in the Political Tribalism Big Lie is the Big Lie that Sierra Leone can develop with its current relatively rotten and largely unproductive civil service and public service being drivers; with a DNA for stealing of public money.

After the SLPP Leader, President Tejan Kabbah, had declared Sierra Leone’s civil war ended in 2002, he established the Human Resources Management Office (HRMO) in government – to revamp the public sector.  There was also established sometime after that the governance reform office.  I asked a Permanent Secretary who retired from the civil service two years ago – after almost thirty years of service – what changed in the civil service after our civil war. He told me that about a year before the APC lost the presidency in the March, 2018 presidential election, the salaries of permanent secretaries (the administrative heads of ministries) spiked from about Le 2, 000,000 to about Le 20, 000,000 a month.  Those like him who retired on a monthly salary of Le 2, 000,000 are now getting a NASSIT-calculated pension of about Le 1,000,000 a month.  The low salaries of about the highest officers in the civil service had this implicit message: STEAL PUBLIC MONEY.  If the permanent secretaries don’t steal money from government/the public, they won’t be able to feed themselves adequately even on a daily basis; not to talk of maintaining themselves at decent middle class levels.  Owning a house by permanent secretaries at such low salaries would be mere fantasy. Very little has changed.  And what are the ramifications of this system that compels its most senior officers to steal public money?

The permanent secretaries are the administrative heads and financial controllers of ministries.  Ministers who invariably see it as their divine right to enrich themselves must go through the permanent secretaries to steal public money.  Once the ministers conspire with the permanent secretaries to steal, they lose the moral authority to demand high standards from them.   Often, permanent secretaries have to collude with junior staff to steal; thus, they too wouldn’t dare to demand discipline or probity from their junior staff.  Several serving and retired senior civil servants have told me that there is almost no discipline in the civil service; no measurement of productivity.  Civil servants get promoted without regard to their productivity.  About three years ago, I had to process medical papers for my twin brother, a deputy minister.  I pressed the health ministry officials relentlessly. (Anything you want done in almost any ministry in Sierra Leone, you have ‘to run after it’; or else, it won’t get done).  Finally, I kept on pestering the Permanent Secretary; and one day, I met him pecking at his computer keyboard (most of the elderly folks who are at senior positions in the civil service find it almost impossible to use the computer), and he said to me in the Krio language: “Norto say are nor wan do u woke, O. Nar three day done pass so, are nor dae see me secretary.  Ar nor go tuk nartin. U know say dem all get demyone lane”. (Meaning: a lowly secretary to the highest administrative officer in a ministry, the Permanent Secretary, could disobey a PS, and the PS would be too scared to even take action on the secretary).  It was symptomatic of what has happened – is happening – in the civil service.

Retired Brigadier Maada Bio during his first couple of months on taking up office as President of the Republic of Sierra Leone in 2018, started making spot checks in ministries at the start of the working day – to put civil service workers on the spot to get to work on time.   With television cameras in tow, it was shown that he didn’t meet some permanent secretaries behind their desks at the start of the working day.  We don’t know what punitive action the President ordered on those who were not at their desks on time; and what has been done as regards punctuality in the civil service.  Punctuality is necessary; but, what is desperately needed is the measurement of productivity, and reward for productivity; and PUNISHMENT for laziness.

Former President Tejan Kabbah (SLPP) started it (1996 to 2007); and former President (2007 to 2018) Ernest Bai Koroma (APC) continued with it: a system in which ministers and heads of government agencies would sign a “Performance Contract” with the President.   Special offices were created to monitor productivity.   Implicitly, it meant that ministers would be retained or dismissed based on their satisfactory productivity or lack of productivity.  Both presidents engineered public ceremonies of these ministers or managing directors ‘showing their report cards’ to the public.  What I have reliably learned (I worked as media adviser to the President at State House between January, 2012 and March, 2018) is that all of these performance tracking systems were a charade.  Ministers and managing directors would be fired or sustained in office based purely on the whims and caprices of whoever was president – not for productivity or lack of it. At any rate, it would be highly illogical to sign a performance contract with a minister to goad him to perform, and the minister has to work with a civil service that is not bound by such a performance contract; his hands tied by civil service personnel he could not hire or fire.  I find it simply amazing that even after the implosion of our systems in the 1980s; and the explosion into a nasty and brutish civil war in the 1990s, successive governments of Sierra Leone, and parliaments, still have not moved to resolutely overhaul the civil service and public service.

Our “Big Lie” through the prism of an American

“Much of the written material on Sierra Leone alleges that it is in the midst of “recovering” from its civil war. ….`Recovering’ implies some level of progress.The reality, however, is that efforts toward progress are consistently contaminated by so many antithetical and evil forces, coming from every conceivable direction, wreaking such logistical and mind-boggling havoc that it is wiser and safer to endure them than to risk the chaos that erupts from attempts to defeat them…….
……Sigmund Freud wrote, ‘Men are strong as long as they represent a strong idea.’ However, Sierra Leoneans consistently fail to ‘represent’ — bring forth, realize, implement, display — their ideas. They cannot seem to find their way from the theoretical to the practical…In Sierra Leone, moving beautiful and lofty ideas rarely morph into tangible solutions. The people are experts at envisioning progress, not accomplishing it……The civil war has ended, but there is a new and, in many ways, more complex war being waged between exquisite idealism and rampant corruption.
“……Unfortunately, idealism is pacifist by nature, while corruption is militant. Sierra Leone remains a combat zone where fallen ideals have traded places with the bodies and appendages that once littered the battlefield. Corruption, now, is the weapon of mass destruction.
…..The magnitude of corruption in Sierra Leone is obscene! It is so prevalent in local and national governments, institutions, organizations, businesses and industries (most notably, in the diamond industry), that it has altogether prevented Sierra Leone from meriting even a semi-serious role in global politics or its economy….”

(Hope amid hopelessness By KATHERINE FITZGERALD; SOURCE: WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES, PUBLISHED: SUNDAY, APRIL 5, 2009 AT 2:30 AM; http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/article/20090405/CURR04/304059963).

There was robust debate in Sierra Leonean cyberspace when Katherine “Katie” FitzGerald first had those words published ten year ago.  She is a US citizen; an adjunct professor of philosophy at Jefferson Community College in the United States. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Theology from Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Mass, US., and holds a Master’s of Arts degree in Theology from Emory University, Atlanta, US.  She lived and worked in Sierra Leone for several years.  Do we dismiss her putting Sierra Leoneans on a therapeutic couch?.

Challenge to puncture the Big Lie for President Bio

President Bio is challenged – like former President of Ghana, Flight Lieutenant J.J. Rawlings successfully did as military Head of State; and as elected President –to end the Big Lie of encouraging lassitude in the civil service; and the imperative to be corrupt. While at State House, I had made a formal suggestion to former President Ernest Bai Koroma on one potent way productivity could be spurred in our political service.  Government should go into Development Communications (DC) mode.  Professionals steeped in DC would continually monitor what ministries and agencies are doing.  And, they should be given freedom to publish their findings.  They should collaborate with the learned PRIVATE print and electronic media. If for example, the media turns its floodlight on the fisheries ministry, they would publicize what is positive or negative there – and, the public would not only know what is going on in that sector, but, would be induced to collaborate with the relevant authorities in the fisheries sector to solve or mitigate problems. That way, the presidency can bring the people more aggressively into the development process. President Bio can ignore my advice here. Or, belie it. What is almost sure to happen if he fails to listen to me?

President Bio without going into Development Communications mode will find it extremely hard to win his second term in 2023.If he does, he is sure not to have a person from the SLPP to succeed him.  When the APC government of President Ernest Bai Koroma was in power, many highly educated APC partisans appear to believe their own jingoistic boast: that the APC would rule for fifty unbroken years.  If the Big Lie of Sierra Leone are confronted, and neutralized, the current president can learn from China, or Singapore, and his party may stay in power for a long time.

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Abu Bakarr Tarawally is a Journalist based in Freetown. He works for the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation as a radio producer. He has once served as Editor for a few newspapers in Freetown, including Sierra Express Media, The Exclusive Newspaper and his own newspaper, the Daily Express Publications. He is a teacher trainer, and loves writing and reading a lot. Email: abstarawally@gmail.com. Call +232 88601277 or +2327661303.

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