The Sierra Leone Web



Thursday 8 November 2001


Mr. President of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture,
Distinguished Guests
Members of the Chamber,
Ladies and Gentlemen:

I have always held this institution of business people in high esteem. So, whenever I am honoured by an invitation to attend and speak at its business luncheon, I do not hesitate to accept with pleasure. This is an auspicious occasion because it is the fortieth anniversary luncheon. Officers and members of the Chamber, please accept my heartiest congratulations.

Talking to business people has always been a source of inspiration for me. It affords me an opportunity to share with you both good, and non-so-good news. For the good news, it is easy and welcoming to all of us. The not-so-good news comes essentially by way of suggestions and advice in areas that require more attention and corporate effort.

The Road to economic recovery

Two years ago I spoke about the impact of the rebel war on the business sector. You were aware of the situation -- the extensive destruction of manufacturing plants and machinery; the deliberate burning of farms and agricultural installations; the closure of banking services in all provincial towns and rural areas; and the suspension mining activities as the considerable loss of revenue from the diamond mining industry.

Today, we are not yet in a position to declare total recovery in these major food production, employment, revenue, and income generation. However, we should acknowledge with appreciation that efforts are being to rebuild factories, shops and supermarkets. New medium and small-scale retail businesses are emerging, and farmers are also returning to their farms. All these positive trends are of course the result of the gains we have made and continue to make in the peace process.

But more comforting still is the resurgence in business confidence as is evidenced by the marked improvement of the country's credit rating as measured by the international edition of The Institutional Investor magazine for September 2001. In the publication's 2001 Country Credit Ratings, Sierra Leone is among the 22 countries whose index rose most last year.

Government is committed to maintaining macroeconomic stability to elicit strong response that is critical for attaining a high level of economic growth. In this context, Government has prepared a medium-term macro-economic framework in collaboration with the IMF and World Bank, and will implement its poverty reduction strategy within that framework.

The continued adherence to prudent macroeconomic and structural policies in agreement with our development partners, the thrust of which is to contain inflation, stabilize the exchange rate, enhance revenue collection, limit our external account deficit to strengthen our foreign reserves position, strengthen public expenditure management, and reduce budget deficit and reduce the external debt burden. These remain the priority of Government.

These structural adjustment measures include reforms in key economic and social sectors including education, health, agriculture, mining housing and infrastructure, development of the private and revitalization of the privatization programme; public service reforms, and addressing poverty issues through targeted programmes, including micro-financing schemes, social safety nets and the formulation of a new poverty reduction strategy within the framework of the IPRSP.

Sustaining these gains would require the adoption of Good Governance Reform measures which include the institutional capacity in support of the rule of law, local government decentralization, the reform of the security apparatus to include the strengthening and streamlining of the police and prison forces, and the structuring and retraining of the army; media reform; judicial and legal reform; initiation of a participatory result-based monitoring of service delivery; civil service reforms, including corporate governance that seeks to improve the operations of state enterprises.

DDR and business activities

As we are all aware, the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) programme is at the heart of that process. The relationship between a successful DDR programme and the expansion of commercial, agricultural and industrial activities throughout the country is obvious. Business activities will definitely increase as DDR continues to accelerate, and as civil authority is re-established in areas previously occupied by the rebels and their allies. I would like to assure you that Government is aware its responsibility to ensure that these and other areas of the country are first and foremost safe and physically secure for people, safe for the reinstatement of administrative and social services, and safe for business. The Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture could help facilitate this effort by encouraging business houses to resume their activities, as far and as soon as possible. The resumption and expansion of business will serve as a good indicator of the gains we have made in the areas of peace and security.

Reintegration of youth and ex-combatants

While on the subject of the close relationship between DDR and the resumption and expansion of business activities, let me say that the disarmament and demobilization segments of the peace process are time-bound. They will soon end. However, the reintegration of ex-combatants poses a major challenge for all of us. Reintegration is a much longer and more complex process. Reintegration of ex-combatants into society transcends reconciliation and the act of welcoming them back home in their towns and villages. It involves job training, job placement, and certain levels of formal education. Reintegration of ex-combatants should be seen in the context of the nation's post-war and long-term economic programme. One of the prerequisites of that programme is of course a sound human resources development strategy.

Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, there is a large number of young men and women out there who constitute a potential work force of this country. Many of them were forced out of society and deprived of their right to proper education, their right to work and earn a living. I would therefore like to take this opportunity to appeal to the Chamber to work with Government and other institutions in supporting and strengthening job training projects. These projects will benefit thousands of young people, the youths as we often refer to them, especially the unfortunate ones who had been made to believe that violence and the possession of guns and RPGs are the only jobs in the world. We must also remember that there are also large numbers of youths who have never seen, touched or used any of those deadly weapons, and who were not combatants. They are also waiting to be integrated into the mainstream of our economic life through education, job-training and job placement. It is definitely in the interest of the business community that we cooperate to ensure that we meet the needs of this important segment of the population of our country.

External resources and the world economy

Mr. President of the Chamber, Sierra Leone is a developing country, and among the least developed in the world. However, whether we like it or not we are part of the global economic and financial system. We have experienced and will continue to experience the shock and after-shock of every major down-turn in the global economy. For instance, one has to look at the troubled international airline industry and the number of bankruptcies in other business sectors in the developed world.

I am sure that economists and financial experts are already trying to assess the possible impact that the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York would have on the world economy. We, and by we I mean Government and representatives of the commercial, industrial and agricultural sectors of our country, should therefore brace ourselves for any fall-out from that sad and despicable event. We can only hope, indeed pray that in spite of this and other world events, pending commitments of our international development partners in the area of financial resources will be fulfilled. These resources will at least help tremendously in stabilizing and even strengthening the Leone against the Dollar.

While recognizing the complexity of the problems associated with the flow of external financial assistance to countries such as ours, and the impact that recent events could have on the global economy, I am optimistic that the situation would gradually improve to our benefit.

Corruption, our "new war," and the generation of domestic income

Mr. President of the Chamber, I need not emphasize the need for us to reduce our dependence on external financial resources. Without exaggeration, and taking into account obvious constraints, we have made considerable progress in generating domestic income. One of the most effective contributing factors in this regard has been the effort of Government to vigorously attack corruption. Let me assure you that personally and in my capacity as President of this country, I shall never relent in my determination and commitment to wipe out corruption and other insidious activities that deprive Government of the resources it desperately needs to implement, among other things, its poverty reduction programme.

Mr. President of the Chamber, ladies and gentlemen, during the past several difficult years, we established our own national coalition in defence of our right to life and personal safety, and against an entity that tried, in collusion with others, to gain unchallenged access to our mineral resources and gain power by launching a vicious armed rebellion. Together we mobilized all our moral and material capabilities, all our institutions, public and private, including this Chamber, to fight what turned out to be a long and gruesome rebel war. Now, we have to do the same to fight corruption, a national scourge that should appropriately be described as our "new war."

In another gathering of this Chamber, I mentioned that we had established an instrument of transparency and accountability in the conduct of national affairs in the form of the Anti-Corruption Commission. We have already seen proof of its efficacy and effectiveness. In spite of its teething problems, I have confidence the Commission's its ability to do the job for which it was established. I would like to take this opportunity to commend the Commission and the Police for holding their ground in the front-line of this "new war."

Of course, the Commission is one and only one of the means available in our arsenal to engage the enemy, an enemy that lurks its vicious head in both the public and private sectors. Each institution, each business concern, and each organization must devise its own means of fighting corruption. The bottom line is that if you do not have the capacity to help generate domestic income, do not encourage or collaborate with others to deprive the Government of revenue that belongs to the State, revenue that should be used for the benefit of the people.

As you are aware, we are trying to initiate other new policy measures to help eliminate corruption and to increase our domestic revenue base. For example there is the plan to transform, with some incentives, the Income Tax Department and Custom and Excise into a unified Internal Revenue Authority. In this connection I would like to renew my appeal to the Chamber and others in the business community to help us deal with the serious problem of tax evasion.

I should emphasize that we cannot separate tax evasion, particularly in the private sector, from the whole problem of corruption in the public sector. Both are inextricably linked with our effort to mobilize domestic financial resources, revitalize the economy, stimulate business, reduce government spending, create employment opportunities with decent income and wages, and reduce poverty.

I cannot end my comments about generating domestic income without reference to a phenomenon that continues to attract my attention from time to time. Indeed, I mentioned it during another meeting with members of the Chamber. I refer to interest rates, specifically to the striking disparity between the interest individuals receive on their savings account, and the interest they are charged when they borrow money from banking institutions for use in establishing or expanding their business activities. Of course I am aware of recent effort by the commercial banks to reduce their lending rates, and to make improvements on rates payable on savings accounts. I strongly recommend that you continue to give the matter serious attention. As you know such improvements in interest rates not only enhance financial self-sufficiency among individuals, they also help stimulate the economy.

Enhancing the private sector

On the Government side, the following policy measures are being implemented to enhance private sector activities and investment:

a) Government has adopted a revised strategy to divest government interests in economic activities that are best suited to the private sector.

b) A Professional Review Team (PRT) has been established by Government to undertake an in-depth study of issues affecting the development of the private sector and the competitiveness of our economy within the sub-region, to attract real and genuine direct foreign investment. The composition of the Team is broad-based, and includes a representative of the Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture. The Review Team has so far undertaken a rapid assessment survey of selected business enterprises during site visits, as well as interviews with key institutions engaged in private sector development. The Team is planning to organize the first national economic consultative workshop on private sector development and investment promotion during this month of November at the Bank of Sierra Leone Complex.

Partnership, corporate social responsibility and the community

Mr. President of the Chamber, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, let me close by recalling what I regard as part of my credo as the principal servant of the people of this country. Call me ‘Mr. Partnership' if you wish, but I still believe that the key to resolving our political and economic problems is partnership at all levels.

If we encourage foreign investment and financial assistance from our external development partners, we must be prepared to encourage and develop the same spirit of cooperation, at the national level. The Government needs you, and you need Government. Our immediate goals may differ, but we have a common ultimate objective, namely, the public good. This is the foundation on which we should build a nation where the majority of our people will no longer be bound by the shackles of poverty.

I want to take this opportunity also, Mr. President and members of the Chamber, to invite your attention to a very important aspect of corporate life, namely: Corporate Social Responsibility. In my view, this is something that seldom features in our boardrooms, and when it does, it is usually perceived in the context of big business enterprises. No, corporate social responsibility must and should be a commitment of all business, be it a one-man show, a small-scale family business, or a big corporation.

What is Corporate Social Responsibility? First and foremost, it is more than just philanthropy, such as donations to the poor or to charities. Rather, corporate social responsibility implies that someone should be a responsible member of society. That covers a host of issues, not the least, environmental, ethical, care and concern, not just for customers, but for the community as a whole that is affected by the activities of a business enterprise. It is also about looking at how the business can add value to the local community and the country at large, while at the same time benefiting itself.

Let me share with you a few examples. First, as I travel around Freetown, I see many services and facilities that are crumbling down as a result of government's resource constraints in coping with a host of its own priorities. Take the round-abouts on our main roads, starting from Ross Road to Cotton Tree, Kingtom, Congo Cross, Bintumani and Lumley Beach. Some years ago, some companies volunteered to take care of them. Today, they have become bushes. Even those businesses that erect their billboards on those locations do not make any effort to beautify them.

Let us look at our homes for the disadvantaged, such as King George's Home, Cheshire Home, and many more. How many of our companies find time to visit them, less donate money to their maintenance?

Take another example from the rural areas. The schools, the hospitals, sports amenities, have all suffered serious deterioration over the years, and yet they are in fact important to the development of business. With a small amount of resources from businesses a great deal could be achieved in rekindling these facilities.

I would also like to take this opportunity also, ladies and gentlemen, to appeal to the business community to bring into the agenda of your respective corporate programmes the concept of social responsibility. It is not only complimentary with government's own effort in addressing national social programmes. It is also beneficial in the long run to businesses in terms of their profitability and development.

In wishing you every success as you persevere at your side of this partnership with government and the people, I should renew my assurance that Government through among other things, sound fiscal policies, do its part to steer our beloved country towards sustainable economic growth and prosperity.

I thank you for inviting me to share these thoughts with you, and for your attention.