http://www.digitaljournal.com/news/world/anger-over-inflation-freedoms-mark-start-of-s-leone-presidency/article/527981

Anger over inflation, freedoms mark start of S. Leone presidency

Posted Jul 26, 2018 by Saidu Bah (AFP)
Sierra Leone's president, Julius Maada Bio, has encountered strong headwinds since he took office in April, buffeted by mounting concern over inflation and freedom of speech.
Bio came to office on an anti-poverty platform  vowing to fight graft  review mining concessions  an...
Bio came to office on an anti-poverty platform, vowing to fight graft, review mining concessions and provide free primary and secondary education
Saidu BAH, AFP/File

Sierra Leone's president, Julius Maada Bio, has encountered strong headwinds since he took office in April, buffeted by mounting concern over inflation and freedom of speech.

Condemnation has been such that on Monday, police bluntly cautioned the public against making "misleading, disrespectful and inciting statements".

These "have the tendency to create tension, chaos and instability in our society," it said in a statement, which was in capital letters.

"The public is advised to desist from these acts," it quoted police chief Richard Moigbe as saying.

"Violators would be expeditiously made amenable to the law. You have been warned."

The stark notice -- which caused an uproar among campaigners, journalists and social media users -- comes as authorities have cracked down on a wave of protests and dissent.

During an election campaign marred by ugly verbal exchanges and sporadic violence, Bio promised to fight graft, to review mining concession agreements and to provide free universal education at the primary and secondary levels.

- 'Near-collapsed' economy -

Sierra Leone is recovering only gradually from a decade-long civil war and an Ebola outbreak which k...
Sierra Leone is recovering only gradually from a decade-long civil war and an Ebola outbreak which killed thousands. Here, headstones line an Ebola graveyard
Hugh Kinsella Cunningham, AFP/File

The former British colony is recovering only gradually from a decade-long civil war and an Ebola outbreak which killed thousands. Investors are returning, albeit slowly.

"The new government is doing well on tax collection, electricity and the fight against corruption," said Andrew Lavalie, who heads the research body Institute of Governance Reform.

A report commissioned by the government and published last month said "rampant corruption" in the former administration had led to the "near collapse" of the country's economy.

While that government projected the economy to grow by 6.1 percent in 2018, Bio's administration said the outlook had fallen to 3.7 percent, mostly because of the closure of several iron ore mines.

In its first months, the government took measures aimed at restructuring the economy and boosting development, from reducing government spending to providing free education.

Fulfilling one of his campaign promises, the straight-talking retired brigadier declared in May that all primary and secondary school-age children would start receiving free education in September.

A report commissioned by the government and published last month said "rampant corruption"...
A report commissioned by the government and published last month said "rampant corruption" in the former administration had led to the "near collapse" of the country's economy
ISSOUF SANOGO, AFP/File

Easing the financial burden on the heavily indebted country, the World Bank agreed to fund $40 million (34 million euros) of the programme.

Sierra Leone also signed a major agreement to create the African Continental Free Trade Area (CFTA) -- billed as the world's largest in terms of participating countries -- joining 48 other countries.

To fight corruption in one of the world's poorest countries, five officials of the previous government were arrested in the past month.

"This is a war against corrupt officials," Francis Ben Kaifala, the new anti-graft boss, told reporters in Freetown in early July.

- Protests -

But opposition has grown nonetheless, as a rise in fuel prices announced in the new budget earlier this month prompted the first protest since the new president came into power -- a march soon aborted by police, who arrested its leader.

The fuel price hike was announced on July 13 as part of a wider budget released as Bio clocked 100 days in office.

Then on Monday, opposition leader Mohamed Kamarainba Mansaray was questioned after criticising the government in an interview.

"Intimidation over free speech cripples our combined efforts to move this country forward, democratically," Peter SaSellu, who chairs the Institute for Good Governance, said in a statement after the incident.

Leading rights group Amnesty International has warned that the Bio administration failed to restore the right to demonstrate and to prosecute police officers who killed protesters under the previous regime.

Protesters still require permission from the police to assemble -- a right infrequently granted in recent years.

- 'We go to bed without food' -

Sierra Leone is one of the world's poorest countries. Here  a woman and child collect items the...
Sierra Leone is one of the world's poorest countries. Here, a woman and child collect items they may be able to sell from a rubbish dump in the capital Freetown
ISSOUF SANOGO, AFP/File

And on Freetown's run-down streets, residents complain of living standards staying stubbornly low -- or worsening.

Inflation in May stood at over 15 percent, according to the government.

"Prices for rice, flour, sugar and even pepper in the market have gone beyond our reach, we sometimes go to bed without food," Hawa Bangura, a single mother of three, told AFP.