President Julius Maada Bio of Sierra Leone, in this interview with Abubakar Hashim, explains how his Government is able to keep the economy going, even at a time when the world, including his country, is battling coronavirus
Sierra Leone has recorded remarkable strides in sustaining economic stability, irrespective of the current worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. How were these strides achievable under your stewardship?
These were possible because of my Government’s commitment to implementing sound economic policies and bold public financial management reforms aimed at correcting fiscal slippages that occurred under the previous administration and restoring macroeconomic stability. We have continued to pursue aggressive fiscal consolidation focusing mainly on enhancing domestic revenue mobilisation and expenditure rationalisation. We also leverage the use of science, technology and innovation in the public financial management space.
While pursuing improved public financial management, we continued work on diversifying our economy to support inclusive growth across our key productive sectors – agriculture, fisheries, tourism and the manufacturing. This was done with the lens of creating the enabling environment for businesses to grow and attract quality private investment to these sectors
All these are complemented by intentional investments in human capital development, especially education, greater private sector and development partner engagement underpinned by transparency and a strong anti-corruption stance.
Irrespective of the current worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, our focus on PFM reforms remains unchanged. In fact, we have instituted additional fiduciary measures for the management of COVID-19 funds.
As you know, we faced the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak six years ago. Building on lessons learnt from that epidemic; my Government was quick to implement pre-emptive measures to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak even before we recorded the index case. These include the development and implementation of the COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Health Plan and the Quick Action Economic Response Programme (QAERP).
The health plan aims to address COVID-19 threats and risks, thereby increasing capabilities to detect and intercept the spread of the virus quickly. The QAERP seeks to maintain macro-economic and financial stability and mitigate the economic impact of the COVID-19 shock on businesses, households.. Our pro-activeness helped signal our consistency in economic management,protection of our citizens and commitment to continuous learning. This has resulted in great confidence in my Government by local and international development partners.
Could you explain to the world the reasons behind the unbroken international financial supports your Government is receiving from bilateral and multilateral institutions in quick rapidity?
Like I mentioned earlier, prudent public financial management and zero tolerance for corruption are central in our governance. Within the first 100 days of office, my Government was able to re-engage the International Monetary Fund and launched a new economic programme. We also have stronger and transparent relationships with other development partners such as the World Bank, the European Union, the African Development, the Islamic Development Bank and the UN Family pre-COVID.
As part of our pre-emptive measures, even before we started recording cases of COVID-19 in the country, I chaired a Presidential Development Partnership Committee (DEPAC) meeting. My Ministers of Health and Finance presented the Health COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan and Quick Action Economic Response Programmes, respectively. The components and funding of the programmes were shared with our partners during a Development Partnership Committee (DEPAC) meeting, creating the platform for open exchange of ideas, participation in and financing of the country’s COVID-19 response plans.
Following that Presidential DECPAC meeting, we have established structures to lead the response in the Health and Economic sectors. The operations of these structures are guided by the core principles of transparency, accountability, inclusivity (especially for vulnerable groups, women and children), collaboration and evidence-based policy making. All of them leverage data, technology and innovation in their work.
The Ministry of Health and Sanitation and the National Covid-19 Response Centre (NACOVERC) are leading the implementation of the Health Response. The NACOVERC has decentralised District Covid-19 Response Centres (DICOVERCs), and the expertise of international partners such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) is mainstreamed throughout. Our plan addresses surveillance, laboratory testing, drugs and medical supplies, risk communication, transport and logistics, case management, finance, ICT and Data Management.The Deputy Coordinator for NACOVERC is the Deputy Minister of Finance II, and he leads the finance and administration pillar of the response.
The Ministry of Finance leads the coordination for the implementation of the QAERP. Under this economic response programme, we are supporting the private sector to build and maintain adequate stocks of essential commodities at stable prices. We are also providing support to the hardest-hit businesses especially Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) to enable them to continue operations, service debts owed to banks and avert lay-offs. The provision of safety nets to vulnerable groups is in progress. We are also supporting labour-based public works and assisting with the local production and processing of staple food items.
The design of our interventions, service delivery approach, open engagement with partners on a foundation of transparency, accountability and prudent financial management are the reasons behind the unbroken international financial supports to my Government. These supports are from bilateral, multilateral institutions and even the local private sector. We look forward to continued engagements to not only fill existing funding gaps but also support for post-COVID recovery efforts.
As current Chair of West Africa Monetary Zone WAMZ, what are your views on the Eco Currency proposal by West African Leaders?
As you may be aware, West African countries have spent years working towards the migration to a single currency for the region. We have had periods during which there were separate road maps for Anglo-phone nations and the Franco-phones and in 2014 we collectively adopted a single road map for the entire ECOWAS once again.
I and the entire WAMZ membership welcomed the initial courageous decision taken by the Member States of West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU) to delink their monetary arrangements from France. I am also fully aware of recent pronouncements by His Excellency Alassane Ouattara concerning the WAEMU, the potential replacementof the CFA Franc by francophone West Africa with the ECO and other related issues.
Nonetheless, as Chair of West Africa Monetary Zone (WAMZ), I stand with all members of the WAMZ and re-affirm my commitment to the ECOWAS Monetary Cooperation Programme (EMCP) and the Revised Roadmap for the ECOWAS Single Currency Programme..
I acknowledge the daunting challenges facing my country and other member states due to COVID-19. However, macroeconomic convergence is of utmost importance for the establishment of a viable and credible monetary union. Therefore, I look forward to leading members of WAMZ to collectively chart the way forward for the continued implementation of the activities of the Revised Roadmap for the ECOWAS Single Currency Programme.
What is the current relationship with Nigeria in particular and your African neighbours in general?
Like the Republic of Sierra Leone, the Federal Republic of Nigeria is a former British Colony until the latter gained its independence on 1st October 1960 and our country attained independence too on 27th April, 1961. Both countries have a long history and shared common values with strong bilateral relations and decades-long Diplomatic and Trade relations.
Same as Sierra Leone, Nigeria is an active member of sub-regional and regional organizations, and play a pivotal role in ECOWAS, AU and is a member of the United Nations and belongs to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Africa-Carribean and Pacific(A CP) member states, African Development Bank (AfDB), and other international bodies.
Sierra Leone and Nigeria have established strong bilateral relations spanning several decades. These two countries shared excellent ties that have co-existed, even before their attainment of independence.
Nigeria gave tremendous support during Sierra Leone’s 11- year brutal civil war, when many Nigerian troops lost their lives. The outstanding leadership role in the then ECOWAS Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) was phenomenal. Nigeria’s intervention contributed significantly to the end of the protracted civil war in the country, supported the post-conflict reconstruction and helped in the restoration of peace in the country, which was followed by successful political transitions.
Over the years, Nigeria has continued to support and stand by Sierra Leone under every difficult circumstance and provided much needed assistance to Sierra Leone during the unprecedented Ebola epidemic in 2014. Nigeria Supported Sierra Leone and showed solidarity with the Government and People of Sierra Leone during the tragic mudslide and flooding disaster of August 2017 by donating the sum of $1 million with additional food and medical supplies.
In summary, Sierra Leone has received in financial, technical and logistical assistance to various sectors especially Health and Education from the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Sierra Leone continues to be grateful to the Government and the People of the Federal Republic of Nigeria for the brotherly role and support received from Nigeria over the years.
President Muhammadu Buhari and I enjoy an open relationship and we reach each other through various platforms to discuss issues of bilateral and multilateral interests. For example, President Buhari participated in WAMZ meeting which I chaired in June 2020.
Nigerian-owned businesses continue to thrive under my leadership as evidenced in the number of financial institutions led by their nationals. They also own and operate the largest boat service in Sierra Leone.
Diplomatic relations continue unhindered as the level of participation in national events and the establishment of a Nigerian Diaspora Organization in Sierra Leone. This has unlocked the depth of our cultural ties as many Sierra Leoneans and Nigerians likewise have.
Though there are some concerns regarding the operations of very few business interests related to Nigerians, the relationship between Sierra Leone and Nigerian can be best described as cordial, anchored on the tenets of a binding sisterhood.
In specific terms, Nigeria and Sierra Leone have cooperated in the following areas:The First Session of the Joint Commission took place in Freetown 1990; the second Session took place in Abuja in 1993 and the third is expected to take place in Abuja, Nigeria. Both countries have expressed their commitments to revive the Joint Commission between the two countries with a view to deepening their cooperation and strengthening their bilateral relations.
My visit to His Excellency Muhammad Buhari, President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria on May 30th, 2018 renewed the strong ties between our two sister countries and promised to strengthen our long-standing relations.During my State Visit, there were bilateral discussions between the two Foreign Ministers to revive the Directorate of Technical Cooperation in Africa (DCTA) at the Federal Foreign Ministry to support the facilitation of technical aid and supports to provide medical doctors, nurses and teachers in our schools, to enhance the New Direction Agenda of quality and free education.
President Buhari assured me that Nigeria was ready to provide military assistance to Sierra Leone as the country works towards a stable and improved economy under the New Direction. As such, we renewed our commitments to strengthening trade and military cooperation. Moreover, Nigeria declared to support the Youth Commission and the Diplomatic Academy in Sierra Leone and referenced to some of the proposals of the Joint Commission on the harmonization of university fees, Health, Education for Youth and Sport, Agriculture and Defence.
However, our two countries have some new/unsigned Agreements: on Trade, proposed by Nigeria; on Economic and Technical Cooperation, also proposed by Nigeria; on Artistic and Cultural Relations, proposed by Nigeria; on Protection and Promotion of Investments, proposed by GoSL; on Assistance for the Establishment of Foreign Service Academy for Sierra Leone, proposed by GoSL and an MoU in Youth and Empowerment, proposed by GoSL
In terms of candidatures, Nigeria has presented Mrs. OkonjoIweala for the position of Director General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and soliciting the support of the friendly Government of the Republic of Sierra Leone. Also, candidature of the Federal Republic of Nigeria as member of the Governor’s Council of International Agency of Atomic Energy for the period 2020- 2022.