“Caring” leaders do not increase data prices in the middle of an economic crisis

The past week or so has seen a flurry of activity in the motherland: the announcement by the Electoral Commission of Sierra Leone to conduct the 2023 national elections under a Proportional Representation (PR) system; the increase in fuel price; and the government’s scattergun approach to the floor price for telecommunication data services. These are all important issues, but we are focusing on the data saga, despite the government’s U-turn because it exposes the insensitivity of our political leaders and shows how detached they are from the hardship and reality of working people.

Here is what you need to know: First, the government drafted the 2022 Finance Act that includes a “levy of 18 New Leones as the minimum floor price per megabyte of telecommunications data services”. This Act was not invented by some aliens living in another planet. It came from the Ministry of Finance, was debated in the cabinet, and approved by the President. Second, the Act was tabled in Parliament by the Minister of Finance. As usual, our elected officials – who hardly engage their constituents on important laws that affect them – passed it without considering how it would impact communication, livelihoods and our nascent digital economy. Then, the President signed it into law. Meaning that this piece of legislation passed through the presidency twice. The government went ahead to implement the law but later backtracked on the section relating to the floor price for telecommunications data services. This only happened because of public outrage. And the possible realization that the government risks antagonizing young people—students, creatives and entrepreneurs. This being election season, politicians see people as mere votes. So, the outrage was enough to make them budge. Now those in authority are pretending as if they have nothing to do with this – casting blame on each other and pretending that they care. After they were forced to backtrack, government officials and supporters took to social media with the usual empty and hackneyed regurgitation: “A caring government…a listening President”. If they really want to take pride in being caring and compassionate, they should start by making policies that put people at the centre. And governance is not a favour!

You wonder whether the government ever considered the implication of the levy on its flagship education program – an investment in the country’s human capital development. And access to affordable and reliable internet should be central to it.  At a time when governments are increasingly making the internet affordable and accessible, our government was exploring means of making access to the internet more expensive, without regard for the importance of technology and communication in aiding education and driving entrepreneurship and jobs.

At a time of uncontrollable inflation and rising poverty, the government did decide to make life miserable for ordinary folks by increasing the cost of telecommunications data services. It was a deliberate action, involving everyone—from people in the cabinet to the MPs on Tower Hill. They also increased fuel prices which they blamed on global market forces and the Russo-Ukrainian war. But the last time the prices moved down slightly, they were quick to grab credit for it. What is it really with this chronic courage deficit and obsession with unmerited credit? But this is a topic for another day. Here is the deal: while hatching this plan, the government never considered decreasing its entitlement to some of the free “goodies” that come with the privilege of public office and are paid for by taxpayers and aid. Not even a thought that we probably are in the worst economic situation in living memory. We are in an unofficial austerity and the living conditions of people and the operations of businesses say it all. As we have said before, the only people who are not feeling the pinch are the political elite with access to state resources. Hence the detachment from people’s reality.

 

President Bio shake hands with Presidential Spokesman after disembarking an aeroplane while the First lady and Foreign Affairs Minister look on. (Photo Credit: Firstlady Fatima Maada Bio Facebook. 
President Bio and wife greeted at the airport by government officials. Photo Credit: First Lady, Fatima Bio on Facebook.

As the leader of one of the poorest countries on earth (a condition occasioned primarily by corruption bad governance and the continued efforts in neoliberalising an “unliberalable” economy), the President seems unperturbed to give his approval to a legislation that increases the economic burden on the people while he remains comfortable in hiring private jets for his numerous overseas travels and hosting expensive events. If he so cares about the people – as it is loosely bandied around by his supporters – why can’t he cut travel down to only essential trips if he really has to, he can do that from the convenience of a commercial flight with a small delegation. Afterwards, when he was in opposition, he even rode on public transport.  But access to taxpayers’ money means a significant step change in lifestyle, all at the expense of the poor people who toil every day to make ends meet. One set of people cannot be bearing the brunt of hardship and another class is busy wasting resources on themselves. That is absolutely unfair and to make such laws that make life harder for people is just wickedness on steroids.

Members of Parliament seem to have a huge appetite for better conditions of service but little time to scrutinise laws that affect the everyday lives of people. Or they probably do not care, which is why a proposed law with such implications for communication and livelihoods can go into parliament and come out as an enacted piece of legislation. They could not even send it back for amendment. People really have a serious job to do in electing their representatives and making parliament work for the constituents.

Life is tough for folks in Salone. And so, in many parts of the world. But we see the actions leaders are taking to alleviate the misery and hardship of their people. While we acknowledge some of the social services provided by the government, there is growing concern that the government is drifting away from the suffering of the masses. The compassion, care, and concern expected at a time of great need and challenges have not been satisfactory. And the level of insensitivity to the suffering of working people is widening. It is time to recalibrate and be a leader of the people and for the people.

Whatever you are up to this weekend, enjoy your reversed data price and thanks for spending some of it to read us. We appreciate.