The devil was in the detail of the bill tabled before parliament on Thursday. Act No 4 otherwise titled “The State Salaries, Pensions, Gratuities and Other benefits Act 2003” aimed to increase by more than 500% the monthly salary of the president and his vice president to Le 25 million and Le 20 million respectively. If passed it should have had a 12-year retroactive effect meaning that former president Ahmad Tejan Kabbah would be paid Le 3.5 billion in arrears alone, and Le 2.7 billion for former vice presidents Dr Albert Joe Demby and Solomon Berewa who served under him.
Had the bill seen the light of day, a former president and vice president would get 40% of their salary and more than 50,000 dollars each annually for their house rent and the running of their office. Plus one VIP car, an escort vehicle and another car, with each having a running cost amounting to billions of Leones. I wonder what a former vice president once their presidential ambition is dented (as almost they would all aim to succeed their bosses) would need an office space for.
Also, ministers and deputy ministers would have been entitled to a pension of 40% of their pay if they served for five years, and 80% if up to ten years. Again that was to have a 12-year retroactive effect. Apart from the retroactive clause, I think a pension for ministers who served for the stated period is worth considering. We should probably return to that debate once the current outlandish one is defeated dead.
With the media having gone to town on the issue of the proposed legislation tabled in parliament, State House for once was swift to act. A presidential press release distanced the president from the proposal saying he was not aware of it being brought before parliament at all let alone being in support of it.
“President Koroma is unaware of such an increase, was never consulted on such an increase, and is not interested in such an increase…[because] his interest is in the welfare of the people of Sierra Leone and not in an increment in salary” parts of the release read. With this, the president has asked that debate on the issue be discontinued in parliament forthwith.
This is brilliant! It shows the president has ears to the public and listens to their cry. That cry was in unison and the people were crying their uvulae out and cursing all those behind the bill. But does the move also highlight the ambivalence of the presidency? Yes if they knew about the bill and are playing Mr Bean. And No if they genuinely knew not about it.
It should be said that the bill in question was drafted in 2003 by the then administration of President Kabbah. Several attempts to get his reaction dropped on barren land. I believe the SLPP party, or at least a good number of them wanted the bill passed. Several party officials I contacted on the bill were very “understanding” of it. I asked one of them whether their understanding and sympathy for the bill was because their former leaders would benefit from it. They just laughed it out.
This goes to show why I believe the SLPP uprooted their own hair at the polls because of their apparent insensitivity to the genuine needs of the people. So far there has been no official statement on the matter as they would do when they feel they have a moral high ground.
Having said that the bill having been drafted in 2003 is as ineluctable as its tabling was done with the consent of the present administration. It is hard for anyone to understand how a bill, signed by the current Speaker of Parliament handpicked by the top echelons of the APC party, could have been tabled without prior knowledge of the presidency as they now want us to believe. If that is really true, then the president needs to reinstate the Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs because it clearly points to a vacuum and a gaping hole between his office and the House.
But why did the SLPP government not table this bill in parliament in 2003, fresh from a resounding elections victory? One possibility is that the then vice president was confident of winning in 2007 and since he was intending to be a one-term president he would be bold to push it through without political shrapnel making him a political casualty. If his boss had done it, the probable calculation was that it would smother his chances of success because of the ever unpopularity of such an enterprise.
But why was the APC government also bold to table it as I am sure they were aware of its publication and did not object to it? Such is the perceived popularity of the government that some of those in power feel on pins and needles in getting some things done. Like I mentioned on Friday, in my view there is every reason for a salary increase for the president. His current Le 4 million salary is a travesty. But if the proposed increase is shocking today, you can imagine what it would have been four years ago when it was intended for.
State House also says that they did not recall parliament from their recess for the presidential salary increase; rather for the drugs bill. But both items were on the order paper and the Speaker of parliament is chairman of the salary and pensions committee. How could he, an APC blue-eyed, have looked at the draft and signed it into a bill without regard to State House. With an effective presidential pres secretary who tries to right all things which in his view are wrong, if State House was not aware of this obnoxious bill, it would have been tackled the very day a local newspaper reported it weeks ago.
Whatever the truth of who knew or not about Act No 4, the good thing is that President Koroma has impressed me by distancing himself from it, making the popularly unpopular move, static. But he needs more eyes to watch over his flock. We want to get to the whole truth of the matter which I think is still buried in a spin of pins and pawns, panting and pinching. By Umaru Fofana