Foreign fishing companies are depriving the country of an estimated £100 million in fees and duties, by exploiting the country’s vast territorial waters as well as the high level corruption taking place on the corridors of the fisheries ministry.
Local Sierra Leonean owned fishing companies do not have the capacity and finance to compete with their foreign counterparts, nor do they have the support of the government to grow and strengthen their business.
It is understood that a report submitted to president Koroma this week, has criticised government officials for failing to observe and implement basic public procurement regulations, and is calling for action.
But critics say that the scope of the investigations was too limited and did not go far enough, and hence the report is another attempt by State House to cover up the massive corruption taking place at the fisheries ministry.
The investigations had focused on the management and delivery of the multi-million dollar West Africa Regional Fisheries Programme (WARFP) by the ministry of fisheries and marine resources (MFMR).
But one of the biggest problems facing the fishing industry in Sierra Leone and the revenue it generates for government is that, rather than ensuring that unregistered foreign vessels and those that are registered but flouting the agreed fishing rules are impounded and their crews brought to justice, officials are accepting bribes and turning a blind eye.
Unregulated industrial scale fishing vessels from China, Korea, Russia, Spain, Italy and several other countries are not only engaged in illicit over-fishing, thus depleting the country’s fish stock, but are depriving local fishermen from carrying out their vocation and hampering much needed fish supplies to local markets.
It is estimated that potentially, Sierra Leone’s waters could be netting the government over $200 million a year in revenue, if not for poor governance, weak monitoring and surveillance systems and corruption.
But according to government’s figures, total revenue from fisheries licenses and royalties will amount to no more than Le40 billion this year (equivalent to just over $7.152 million), with total revenue from all mining royalties and licences estimated at Le200 billion (equivalent to $35.761 million).
The government has budgeted to spend Le.3.94 trillion his year – 2016 (equivalent to over US$660 million), with GDP forecast to grow by a mere 0.1%, after falling to -25% growth in 2015.
Earnings from iron ore export continue to remain weak. Other sectors of the economy, such as agriculture and tourism are not doing too well either.
Development partners are expected to give the government over Le700 billion from existing as well as new loans and Le500 billion of grants to finance capital projects.
Borrowing from domestic banks and non-banking sector through the sale of government securities – treasury bills, this year, is likely to be more than Le500 billion.
Critics say that the Chinese fishing companies are the biggest violators of the country’s fishing laws.
Not only do they send some of the largest industrial scale vessels to Sierra Leone, they are more than likely to flagrantly violate the country’s laws with impunity, because of the Chinese government’s special relationship with the ruling APC party in Sierra Leone and State House.
Local fishermen are struggling to make a living out of the poor catch they are able to make every day, because of over-fishing and the bully boys tactics used in the high seas by foreign trawlers.
The question is what will president Koroma do to improve government revenue from the country’s ocean, as well as stop the poorly regulated industry and corrupt ministry officials from bleeding the nation’s coffers?
According to State House Communication Unit, president Koroma on Friday 12 February was presented with an inquiry report on the failed West Africa Regional Fisheries Programme (WARFP) – a Sierra Leone project in the Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR).
Speaking after receiving the report, President Koroma is believed to have assured the public that the report will be looked at closely and recommendations implemented to the fullest. He said the report will help to create awareness among civil servants to be looking into their activities as well as send a clear message that no one is untouchable. But will he?
The president is said to have reiterated government’s commitment in restructuring the Civil Service by giving it the relevant professionalism in the execution of its mandate. He pointed out that the Secretary to the President in consultation with the Chief of Staff and the Anti-Corruption Commission will work closely on the recommendations.
Presenting the report, the Chairman of the Public Service Commission Dr Max Amadu Sesay explained that the commission carried out a comprehensive investigation into the WARFP – from project inception, management and coordination, procurement processes and consultancy services, the contract award process, to the issue of bank guarantee required by MFMR, assessment of the consultant’s performance, and allegations of corruption among others. This was achieved through robust evidence gathering, he said.
Dr Sesay however noted that due to lack of real evidence to corroborate most of the allegations of corruption, it was difficult for the committee to recommend more severe disciplinary action. The preponderance of the evidence submitted instead points in the direction of weak financial base of the contractor, poor financial management by the contractor and poor contractor performance and delivery, he said.
Critics say that the report smells fishy, and its recommendations are unlikely to be implemented by the government, let alone anyone brought to justice.
What is certain though, is that Sierra Leone will continue to lose hundreds of millions of dollars every year, from its potentially rich fishing industry. And government will continue its business as usual – continuously looking for handouts from foreign donors to meet its huge annual budget deficit.