By Andrew Keili
There is a Mende saying, “Numu bay wufe bu mua vaji ma”. Literally, this means, “One should not be ashamed of his/her bathing bucket”. This is so true. After all, your bathing bucket sees your nakedness all the time, so why should you be shy in its presence? Ah, well we will come back to this!
The past few weeks have been especially difficult for Sierra Leoneans. The shenanigans surrounding the scarcity of fuel and the epileptic nature of the electricity supply in many urban areas have left people exasperated. As we very well know, high fuel prices have a ripple effect on prices of food, other basic commodities and services and the general cost of living.
The Government and its sympathizers have a point when they say a lot of these problems are caused by external factors. What however confounds most discerning people is that the government’s explanation of these occurrences has not been convincing to many and there is a feeling that it is reluctant to be the bearer of bad news.
The recent double whammy increase in the cost of fuel must have been the worst kept secret in the country. The modus operandi for increasing the fuel price has remained the same. First, there are the long lines of vehicles in fuel stations. Next, rumours abound of an impending price increase in a host of media. Then come threats by the Petroleum Regulatory Agency (PRA) against “unscrupulous and unpatriotic fuel companies and dealers who are creating an artificial scarcity”. The ripple effect in cost of transportation sets in and the government eventually increases the price. This time, the electricity supply decided to act up at the same time. The government’s excuse that this was as a result of maintenance on the generators on the Turkish Karpower ship has not been convincing, with many people suggesting there could be unresolved payment problems by government.
The Government of Sierra Leone has not done a good job of explaining things to a restive public, and what is largely a global problem with escalating prices of fuel and other basic imported commodities has been perceived as wholly problems of its own making. All we seem to get are social media stories by government sympathizers of hardship in other countries to indicate that we are not alone in this misery. This “misery likes company” approach has not been accompanied by any effort to remedy those aspects of the situation that are within our control.
I berated a young friend of mine who sent a posting of a long line of vehicles in a neighbouring country waiting for fuel by telling him, “Bo nor to so for campaign for show bad tin na oda country en ask pipul for pass on the message. Na lek way u cam last na class den u tok say oda wan den day na oda class way fool lek u. Tok bot watin una day do for solve di problem”. So we really need to go through this charade of an artificial scarcity every time there is an impending fuel price hike? Why not plan the price hike procedure better?
Some unscrupulous Sierra Leoneans however contribute to some of these problems. The electricity situation will always be unsustainable as long as we have massive theft of electricity by some citizens and others, who either because of monetary gain or sabotage destroy infrastructure like transformers. People who have destroyed national infrastructure have got away with a slap on the wrist. Some communities and even companies have illegal electricity connections mainly in cahoots with rogue EDSA workers or unemployed electricians.
There are still problems with the way we regulate our fuel supplies despite changes in regulating the sector. Between 1982 and 1992, government struggled with ad hoc crude oil arrangements and we witnessed long fuel queues and power cuts. The country experienced severe balance of payments difficulties resulting from the escalating cost of oil imports and stagnating foreign exchange earnings needed to pay for these imports. The Petroleum Unit (precursor to the PRA) was set us in 1992 to address this problem.
In 1999 the government announced its commitment to a liberalization program for the private sector to take over the responsibility of importation of the main petroleum products, as well as the fixing of pump-prices. The PRA was set us with the laudable objective “to licence and regulate the importation, refining, storage, transportation and distribution of petroleum and petroleum products…….”. Prices are supposed to be fixed according to an agreed formula which takes into consideration the Platt price for petroleum products, and the exchange rate. Allowances are made for various levies and a distribution cost to arrive at the pump price.
We have however witnessed more recently a situation in which the government seems to be in a constant fight with the main Oil Marketing Companies (OMCs). The PRA’s laudable grandiose plans for setting up alternative supply systems, opening up the sector further to new players, introducing measures to guarantee price stabilization and continuity of supplies (including syndication in the ordering of petroleum products, acquisition of strategic stocks) and sourcing of quality products have been mired in problems relating to lack of financing, poor planning and a host of other self-inflicted problems. It is also disconcerting that although several major OMCs have closed shop over the years, political bazookas seem to be trained at the main OMC, NP-SL Ltd. for not being of the “right political coloration”.
All has not been well in the sector. To its credit, the government has often subsidized the fuel supply to put a lid on any price increase. This has however lately only been possible by the government itself foregoing some fuel taxes, coercing oil companies to keep prices constant, even where price increases are deserved and often owing these companies. The MD of NP-SL Ltd. recently stated that the company lost some Le55 billion in the first three months of this year.
Despite the recent price hike, there are still long vehicle lines at fuel stations and disputes simmering beneath the surface involving the PRA, OMCs and dealers. There are complaints about unfairness in entitlements in pricing arrangements and rumours abound of another price hike. There seem to be uncertainties relating to adequacy and timeliness of further supplies of fuel because of a host of factors ranging from difficulty in accessing foreign exchange, COVID-19 and the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine.
So, what is the solution? There are obvious corrective measures that can be undertaken by government to ameliorate the suffering of the masses. Implementing plans for mass transportation systems, improving our food security system, encouraging the local private sector, addressing the needs of importers and small businesses and many other solutions could be more seriously explored to address the hardship problems.
One is however particularly concerned about the problems that will not go away as long as there is acute political division in this country. Take the case of electricity sabotage and theft. These can only be sorted out if there is bipartisan cooperation. However, in a polarised atmosphere, opposition parties may not necessarily be enthusiastic about backing the efforts of a sitting government to address such problems.
This brings me to the point raised about the need for national unity. At the start of the year, these issues were well raised in an article by the UNDP Resident Coordinator, Dr. Babatunde Ahonsi, “2022 – A Year to Put Sierra Leone First”, that should be required reading for our politicians. The article acknowledges that the COVID 19 pandemic has caused devastating effects for many developing countries like Sierra Leone, knocking them off the sustainable development track. He gives the sombre warning that “The long-standing weaknesses in the fundamentals of the national economy are likely to be exacerbated in 2022… The full impact of persisting Covid-related disruptions to key global supply chains, rising interest rates and liquidity crisis in major economies across the world would most likely be felt in Sierra Leone in terms of a huge fiscal squeeze, and high levels of food insecurity, youth unemployment and multidimensional poverty.”
He however proffers a solution- “Revenue and economic growth forecasts in the 2022 budget and expectations of a more positive macroeconomic outlook in the medium term would probably now have to be adjusted downwards. In this scenario, the government may have no choice but to institute severe austerity measures and to do a lot more to eliminate inefficiencies and gaps in the allocation and management of public finances…”
He advises- “Therefore, a recommitment to genuine dialogue between the leaders of the ruling party and the main opposition parties to address unresolved political grievances in a mutually satisfactory way before the end of 2022 is an absolute necessity… The country needs more than ever before to return to the path of inclusive politics that builds bridges across ethnic, regional, gender, generational, and disability status divides”.
This is sage advice that needs to be pondered very seriously by government. Pretending as if all is well and relying on untutored minds to blame everything under the sun on the global situation alone will not help the situation. Stating the true facts and making all efforts to address issues that are under its control will go a long way to address the situation. The public may not like bad news but leveling with them and be seen to put Salone first will help. It is disappointing that we have hardly heard from the official organs of government during this crisis. Also, unsubstantiated, inflammatory allegations against OMCs of being “opposition saboteurs” to explain the fuel shortage situation does little to help the situation and cuts the legs off a hapless PRA.
The Mende man is right after all-Government should not be ashamed of us its bathing buckets. We can always see its nakedness!
Ponder my thoughts.