In the 1990s Ethiopia was synonymous with conflict. It fought wars for thirty years. Wars that battered its infrastructure and dented its international image. The wars which resulted in the secession and independence of Eritrea from the rest of the country were fought in almost all corners of the country – from Tegray to the mainland. It is a country that knows what war does and how tortuous reconstruction and recovery can be. So when the Ethiopian Finance Minister, Souffian Hamad told me that he was impressed by how the west end of Sierra Leone’s capital looked just seven years after the country’s war ended, I had to listen to him.
Souffian was one of thirty-seven Finance Ministers and forty central bank governors and alternate governors who held a 2-day meeting in Freetown. The African Caucus Group of the World Bank discussed how to respond to the second wave of the global economic crisis which is battering the economies on the continent and has left our currency, the Leone, taking a severe beating almost on a daily basis. Something which has ineluctably had a knock-on effect on the life of the ordinary man.
The caucus meeting was the first test of our organisational ability since the return from a brutal and destructive war. It was also perhaps the largest gathering here of foreign dignitaries since the country hosted the heads of state summit of the then Organisation of African Unity. As a small boy who had still not travelled beyond the borders of Kono district then, I cannot remember how the hosting of the OAU looked like. But last week’s caucus meeting was a real test and our score sheet was in my view in high marks, but with some buts.
The look of the Miatta Conference Building was brilliant. The well-festooned hall beamed with colour and the deliberations therein were full of candour. Our ministers were denied the use of their official vehicles for almost a week to tend to the visitors; a typical African hospitality that left some of our big men and women hissing in corners. They were paralysed, someone said. Their drivers were clad in nice uniforms which they must be encouraged not to discontinue.
While rushing up to the translation room to file a report I met a group of well-dressed and seemingly dedicated nurses who had been on hand for any eventuality. And the best way of saying thank you to these nurses would be improved conditions of service. It was indeed an opportunity to showcase our country’s stability and recovery to especially our peers. We are a nation no longer war-ravaged after all. But talking about the translation room brings me to one of the buts. Sierra Leone’s lack of translators is an embarrassment. And in case anyone is listening it is one of the reasons organisers of international conferences shy away from here. Flying translators in to the country from a country such as Togo does not bode well for our pride and history as the cradle of higher education in the sub-continent. Even the translation equipment had to be flown in.
But to the substance of what was agreed. The finance ministers and central bank governors agreed medium to long term measures not least in the areas of agriculture, infrastructural development and the sustainability of peace and stability on the continent. We need those. Developing our agricultural sector will be a huge leap in fighting off hunger and strengthening stability. Our lack of infrastructure is inhibiting development. Farmers grow their crops upcountry and cannot transport them to larger markets.
A statement issued after the meeting urged the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to consolidate the medium-term macroeconomic stability on the continent while at the same time maintaining debt sustainability levels. The countries also called for the scaling-up of funds especially for infrastructural projects and to improve regional integration to remove barriers in trade among African nations. This is a key way forward and something African governments especially their leaders should seize upon. The current collapse of the economies of richer countries that had hardly any relationship with our economies, barring South Africa’s, should serve as an eye opener for Africa to be more serious with intra-African trade.
With donor funds slowing down as a result of bad financial times in richer countries, trade is the answer. With remittances almost drying up because of the same collapse in the West, African governments should be more serious in addressing the issue of jobs back home. So the call by the finance ministers to strengthen trade and remove barriers is a welcome call. But this should not be an inundation of one country’s economic might to eclipse the others’. Smaller countries and their economies should also be considered.
The meeting also called for the continent to reconfigure itself to be able to access key positions in both the World Bank and the IMF. This has been a contentious issue that has drawn on for very long. It will be interesting how the World Bank meeting in the Turkish capital of Istanbul in October will pan out. The African Caucus will then prove whether the huge money Sierra Leone spent on the hosting of their meeting here was not a waste of tax payers’ money at a time when the economic situation poses a threat to our social cohesion.
Talking about the huge money spent on the summit brings me to the vexed issue of the Government’s apparent refusal to be accountable to the people on how much was spent on the Caucus Meeting. The other day I watched the Finance Minister, Dr Samoura Kamara ostensibly deliberately dodging answering a question relating to the issue of how much was spent. This is a must for any Government which talks a lot about accountability and transparency. Anything short of giving us an account of what was spent on what makes mockery of all talk of an Open Government. With that done, By Umaru Fofana