Was This Trip Really Necessary?
Responsible governments are expected to make pragmatic choices on resource expenditure and the depletion of scarce resources at times of economic austerity. It is not as if Sierra Leone is enjoying an economic boom or indeed that the country is riding on the crest of a windfall that makes any expeditious spending remotely excusable.
The government’s official delegation to the UK comes in the wake of criticism of President Maada Bio as having traversed the globe more often than a pilot on duty, if you take his pro rata flight hours into consideration. Many of his critics have understandably gone against the spate of government travels and the size of each delegation which they castigate as another waste of very scarce resources the government can ill afford.
The pretext of a ‘Investment Forum’ notwithstanding, this latest junket has come out with absolutely nothing substantive to show for its overall cost and time away from pressing attention at home. Firstly, the hosts of the event, Herbert Smith Freehills, a private law firm in the outskirts of the City of London, have become the greatest beneficiary for organizing what is seen to have been a glorified validation of its relationship management on behalf of Iluka Resources, formerly Sierra Rutile Ltd the company responsible for mining and sale of one of the finest grade rutile deposits i the World that is found i the Southern tip of Sierra Leone.
With serious questions already hanging over the acquisition of the mines, the sale of government’s equity shares and the disposal of the mines by Iluka Resources during the last government, Herbert Smith Freehills who had been one of the legal advisers to the transaction are in some respect not free or absolved from blame due to their role now as they transition their relationship from the old to the new political dispensation. In the process, the ongoing relationship creates much space for speculations as to a potential conflict of interest, give that at least one party seem to be acting as the judge and executioner.
It is interesting to see how this government flies through the bumpy clouds hanging over the disposal of government’s shares in Sierra Rutile and with the Commission of Inquiry probing such matters by engaging in a cozy relationship with any of the parties to that transaction that the new government’s own GTT report has made such scathing reference of its “egregious infractions” as being wholly questionable. The announcement therefore of IFC loan financing for the mines operations cannot be taken as a positive result of the ‘Forum’ unless they expect this event to be a graduation event for Iluka Resources.
The attendance of DfID in the face of some low level Minister of State, the Foreign & Commonwealth office including the UK High Commissioner to Sierra Leone merely to announce DfID’s budgetary allocations of £30 million to finance investment projects in Sierra Lone is basically another damp squid. That money will be drawn down by DfID locally with very little of it actually falling into the hands of the Sierra Leone Government or indeed paid over to Sierra Leonean businesses and Consultants. The hypocrisy of UK AID in Sierra Leone is such that UK recruited Consultants are usually brought over to work with Sierra Leonean counterparts but with the Government of Sierra Leone paying the Sierra Leoneans paltry sums of under £100.00 per day while the UK Consultants are paid upwards of over £1,000.00 per day.
In the event, the government of Sierra Leone did not need to have made this trip to London and at such expense only to hear an announcement of funds that would be spent on their behalf but not by them, and also considering that such funds have already been allocated during DfID’s spending round for this financial year as from April 2019 and as such, there is “no new money” that was made available as a result of this ‘Forum’ and to pass this off as such would be misleading and disingenuous.
With the much touted ”Town Hall” meeting, a complete misnomer for London, having been cancelled at the last minute, a keynote address at one of the colleges of Oxford University became a mere validation of the academics surrounding the President with no economic benefit to the country.
All in all, the high point of an otherwise lacklustre trip turned out to be the small but effective demonstration by ‘Concerned Sierra Leoneans,’ who managed to catch the attention of some potential ‘investors’ on the exclusive list of invitees to the ‘Forum’ held at Exchange House in the East end of London.
Grahame Smith, a senior economic analyst at the City of London who advises large corporate on African investment opportunities discounted the ‘investment’ potential of such privately organized meets as ‘a cattle market,’ more adept at attracting ‘impostors’ rather than investors due to the high risk quotient in unstable political landscapes. His advice was “for the government of Sierra Leone to create an enabling environment, reduce the prospects for commercial fraud and encourage investment through incentives such as stable financial atmosphere with predictable interest rates and assurances for profit remittances.”
Coming on the back of a failed ‘conference on peace and national cohesion,’ an aggressive stance against opposition interests culminating in a police attack on innocent citizens with teargas and rubber bullets, the government is clearly out of kilter with its timing of such a ‘Forum’ to attract investors to a country that by all accounts is slowly trudging along to becoming a fragile state.
In her reaction to the present trends in the country, Sheilagh Montgomery, a specialist in African fragile economies, noted that “the Sierra Leone government would do much better concentrating on local issues, maintain a stable workforce, create new job opportunities and stimulate the economy through spending on support to SMEs and also supporting the development of agro based industries instead of stoking such a cauldron generated by its fight against corruption that is invariably targeting those who are perceived as being successful in the local political and economic landscape.”
Titus Boye-Thompson, London
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