Francis Gabbidon Lays Bare Impediments to Direct Foreign Investment in Sierra Leone

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Francis Gabbidon, Lecturer in the Law Faculty at Fourah Bay College

By Amin Kef Sesay

According to Francis Gabbidon, who is a Lecturer in the Law Faculty at Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone and Senior Advocate of Sierra Leone, notwithstanding the natural attractions that the country has as an investment destination foreign investors will none the less need to overcome certain obstacles.

He disclosed that the most visible of these is the lack of adequate social, physical infrastructure and historical under funding, in education, health, transport and telecommunications, coupled with the diversion of scare public resources caused by the unnecessary civil war, corruption and bad governance.

Lawyer Gabbidon maintained that there is no capital market in Sierra Leone. He said Sierra Leone has a small structure hidden somewhere in Freetown called a Stock Exchange which many Sierra Leoneans might not be able to locate or even tell you whether it is functioning.

“I hasten to say that Sierra Leone has no modern and well-structured Stock Exchange. Also we have no Capital Market no Security Exchange Commission or Financial Structures to attract or encourage Foreign Direct Investment (FDI),” he re-affirmed adding that a Stock Exchange  is now seen increasingly as an essential financial structure for any economy.

He pointed out that the Nigerian, Ghanaian and Ivorian Governments have encouraged the establishment of Stock Exchanges in their respective countries which within a short period revolutionized their capitalizations.

The legal luminary noted that the country has no modern Arbitration Law referencing CAP 25 of the laws of Sierra Leone which regulates Arbitration in the country but underscored that this law is very old and outdated.

Gabbidon argued that it is a law that is existing in our law books but has outlived its usefulness and therefore it should be completely repealed and replaced by a New and Modern Arbitration law.

“Investors and businessmen will have no regard for our present Arbitration Law and process as the law now needs a decent funeral. It really serves no useful purpose,” he postulated.

He argued that if Sierra Leone wants to attract foreign investors who will also choose International Arbitration to resolve Commercial Disputes, then the sooner Sierra Leone applies to be a member of the New York Convention the better our chances of encouraging solid and well-funded companies to do business in Sierra Leone as membership of this Convention is a catalyst for foreign investors.

Lawyer Gabbidon furthered that there is no Partnership Law revealing how Sierra Leone has replaced its old company law Cap 249 which lasted for several years. He said the new Company Act is very good and comprehensive.

He said we also have a new Bankruptcy Act which will serve its desired purpose though lawyers and litigants make very little use of it but maintained that what we still lack is a Partnership Law.

Gabbidon highlighted that some business concerns worldwide would like to partner with some local companies or businesses to expand or consolidate their businesses in Sierra Leone or other countries in the Mano River Union. He asked the question: “How can they enter into Partnership Agreements with our local companies if they will be subjected to an old Colonial 1890 Partnership Law?” Providing the answer he said, “Surely this will drive them away as we live in a competitive world. We need a new Partnership Law”.

He also mentioned that the country has no Competition Law or Anti-Trust Law. The erudite lawyer stated that it has been established that Sierra Leone is on a stable path of economic recovery and has achieved some measure of economic and political stability. Moreover there are certain gaps reflected in lack of policies intended to prevent restrictive and abusive market practices, exploitation and unfair treatment of consumers.

In that regard, he argued that there is an absence of rules defining how the various economic actors (the Government, private sector, producers, consumers and civil society) interact with each other in the sphere of economic and non-economic activity.

He said it is further acknowledged that a body of rules (Competition Law or Anti-Trust Law) which responds to the need to level the playing field between existing and future market participants is needed and that those same rules must resolve to protect small and medium sized business from exploitation and abuse by larger companies.

Gabbidon added that the present system of land tenure is an area of great concern to many Sierra Leoneans and also the business community.

“The present system of Land Tenure is discriminatory and unconstitutional. It inhibits commercial and trading activity and is a disincentive to large scale foreign direct investment in the provinces in particular and in Sierra Leone in general,” he asserted.

He recommended that to improve the system further and open up the system of ownership and transfer of land, the Non-Citizens Interest in Land Act should be repealed to encourage local and overseas investors.

According to him, Individual land owners, purchase of land leases, and mortgages need a system of registration that guarantees certain or whatever interest they may have in land.

He said it is unbelievable but true that foreclosure proceedings in Sierra Leone especially by Commercial Banks are governed by the Conveyancing and Law of Property Act 1881, an obsolete and outdated legislation that should now be given a decent burial.

Sierra Leone, he suggested, now needs its own home grown and modern Conveyancing and Law of  Property Act to reflect modern day Land Law, Mortgage Law and Property Law, proceedings and processes in the country saying that is what countries like Ghana and Kenya have done with great benefits and opportunities for their citizens.

Francis Gabbidon went on to say that President Bio’s New Direction Government has always stressed that its main impetus is to encourage private investment both domestic and foreign as an engine of economic growth. He said apart from the great efforts by the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs other relevant Ministries are not doing much to promote investment in Sierra Leone.

He lamented that the country’s Embassies and High Commissions are not doing effective Promotion and Marketing of Sierra Leone as expected.

Comparatively, he underscored that the High Commission in Ghana is doing very well and have seen that the country’s Ambassador to Turkey has hit the ground running.

The Lecturer expressed the view that the country’s very effective Minister of Information and her able Deputy need to inform Sierra Leoneans and the international community who are the new Diplomats approved by the Bio administration and tell us about their Curriculum Vitae. He said we need more information about our Cabinet Ministers.

“I am reliably informed that the Ambassadors in the USSR, USA, South Korea, Nigeria and the European Union are Sierra Leoneans who have worked or lived in the diaspora for many years (which could be an asset) but what are they doing to promote investment and tourism to Sierra Leone. They should wake up and let’s start seeing results,” he recommended adding that Embassies of Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya and Botswana are promoting and advertising their countries and citizens regularly and effectively in CNN, BBC and FRANCE. “We have to follow suit,” he stated.

Gabbidon said as we cannot offer separate touristic offices in many countries the country’s diplomats should use the newspapers, magazines, Radio, TV and other forms of Investment potentials and Tourism facilities in the respective countries they are accredited to.

He said our diplomats should talk to their Chambers of Commerce Confederation of Industries, Hotels, Tourist Officers and Business forum about Investment and Tourism in Sierra Leone.

He continued that apart from efforts by the Government of Sierra Leone and its diplomatic missions abroad, it would be necessary for Sierra Leone to hire lobbying firms abroad to advertise and market the potentials of investment in Sierra Leone and its benefits.

Also, to promote the great potential of Sierra Leone as a tourist destination, he said, we could also advertise Freetown as a destination for Conferences and big meetings for ECOWAS and Mano River Union Organizations.

He said Sierra Leone is a beautiful country with friendly and hospitable people, and  Sierra Leoneans should explain to others the attractions on our country so that other people can visit us.

Based on what he said, there are a few very effective lobbying firms based in Washington and South East Asia to lobby businessmen, industrialists and captains of industry to invest in Sierra Leone.

“Sierra Leone should also use adverts, TV and Radio commercials to advertise the country. Our diplomats should also lobby in accredited countries in their Chamber of Commerce/Industries,” he suggested.

Gabbidon admonished how we need to beef up the Law Reform Department in Sierra Leone, with more funding, qualified, and experienced personnel and the necessary resources.

He said we need to legislate for: A New Police Act, a Data Protection Act, a Cyber – Security Act, New Tourism Act, Sale of Goods Act and Foreign Investment Act.

The Senior Legal Advocate stated that he has never seen Sierra Leone being rated like other African countries.

He asked: “Are we not yet qualified for Rating Agencies financially and economically rated? Does this not affect foreign investors coming to see what Sierra Leone can offer in terms of investment and trade? Gabbidon said Lobbying firms such as Bell Potinger, Brown Lloyd and James, Hill and Knowlton are lobbying firms based in the USA who do lobbying for Rwanda, Uganda and South Africa.

Also he said Rating Agencies such as Standard and Poor’s; Moody’s Fitch JCR (Japan Credit Rating Agency Ltd.) should start to rate Sierra Leone so that investors can know the country’s potentials.

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