STRESSES OF WAR
Sierra Leone leader hopes Ramaphosa and other African leaders can broker peace in Ukraine
‘We’re trying again with the hope that we’ll be able to get the side of President Putin, or both sides, to really bring this war to an end,’ said Sierra Leone president Julius Maada Bio in anticipation of the upcoming peace mission to Ukraine and Russia to be led by President Cyril Ramaphosa and a delegation of other African leaders.
President Julius Maada Bio says many troubles afflicting Sierra Leone, from high inflation to unrest, originate from outside his nation. Facing a tight run for reelection later this month, he says he hopes an African peace mission can help solve one of those external pressures: the war in Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine are key suppliers of wheat and fertilizer to the West African nation, and the war has driven up the cost of importing those commodities.
“It’s affecting us very seriously because we’re a net importer. Almost all of our essential commodities and food items we get them from outside,” Bio said in an interview with Bloomberg in the Sierra Leone capital, Freetown.
Bio spoke as leaders from six African nations are set to visit Moscow and Kyiv this month. It’s not clear what the leaders from Zambia, Senegal, Egypt, the Republic of Congo, Uganda and South Africa will propose to end the war.
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“We’re trying again with the hope that we’ll be able to get the side of President Putin, or both sides, to really bring this war to an end,” Bio said. Last June, the then-head of the African Union, Senegal’s President Macky Sall, travelled to Russia where he met with Putin in an attempt to free up stocks of cereals and fertilizers for African nations.
It’s not likely the war will end before the June 24 election. But any glimmer of hope might help him.
The vote looks set to be tightly contested between Bio’s ruling Sierra Leone’s People Party and the All People’s Congress led by Samura Kamara, a former finance minister.
The 59-year-old Bio, who briefly ruled the West African nation as head of a junta during the civil war in the 1990s, narrowly beat Kamara, 72, in a run-off in 2018 with 52% of the vote.
This year, the winner is facing the challenge of reviving an economy struggling to recover from multiple economic shocks brought on by Ukraine and the coronavirus pandemic.
Sierra Leone has seen the value of its currency, the leone, drop by 16% this year. An attempt to strengthen the currency by knocking three zeros of the bills has done little to contain inflation that reached 43% in April. Growth in 2023 is expected to slow to 2.7% from 3.6% the previous year, the International Monetary Fund said this month.
Rising living costs have exacerbated social and political grievances across West Africa, including Sierra Leone. Scores of people died in Freetown last August following protests partly fueled by higher fuel and food prices. Bio at the time said it was an attempt to overthrow his government.
“Ukraine and the multiple international crisis has weakened our states in the sense that the economic pressures that are here, the cost of living crisis, it’s an easy excuse for the opposition,” Bio said.
The opposition has denied any involvement and accused Bio’s administration of clamping down on his opponents.
West Africa is also contending with an Islamist insurgency that has spread from Mali and Burkina Faso into coastal states. Three out of the 15 members of the Economic Community of West African States, known as ECOWAS, are currently under military rule, including Sierra Leone’s neighbor, Guinea.
While Sierra Leone has been spared from jihadist attacks, some investors are shying away from the country over regional security concerns as the country seeks investors to grow its mining sector, Bio said.
“If you you think that a government can be overthrown the next day or that the Sahel problem will deteriorate and create instability in coastal states, then as an investor you will look elsewhere,” he said.
Sierra Leone became sub-Saharan Africa’s fastest-growing economy in 2012 as iron ore took over from diamonds as its biggest export.
But the double shock of a commodity price slump and the deadliest ever Ebola epidemic that killed over 11,000 people across mainly three countries in West Africa the following year triggered a sharp downturn.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit in 2020 the country was still recovering from the Ebola outbreak. Russia’s war in Ukraine dealt a further blow to the $4 billion economy. DM/Bloomberg