Sierra Leone Pushes Reform of Economy

Measures hurt W. African nation's poorest

AT the age of 76, when many people are enjoying retirement, Mohammed works around the clock as a watchman in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone in West Africa. The $40 he earns each month doesn't cover the cost of the rice needed to feed his extended family of 11 people. ``Some people can eat only once a day now instead of three times,'' he explains.

Twenty-five years ago, Sierra Leone was a country rich in diamonds, gold, and farmland. Today, the economy of Sierra Leone is in shambles, with shortages of food, fuel, currency, and a deteriorating infrastructure. Last month's 100 percent devaluation of the leone (the local currency) doubled consumer prices.

Cut off by international donors and lenders for its inability to pay back debts, the government of Sierra Leone is struggling to reform the economy and to maintain political stability.

Over the past year, devaluation of the leone by 300 percent has caused hyperinflation. Currency now has so little value that boys outside banks sell plastic bags in which to carry huge stacks of two-leone bills, each worth less than two cents.

``I don't think devaluation is going to solve our problems,'' says Sam Metzger, editor of a Freetown newspaper. ``We don't even have the money to print new money. We have a saying in Creole: `Dig hole to fill hole.' That's what's happening in Sierra Leone - we're just digging and digging.''

Sierra Leone's economic troubles began in the 1970s when oil prices went up. Prices of exports, including diamonds, also started falling, causing a shortage of foreign exchange.

Ironically, diamonds have aggravated Sierra Leone's problems. Farmers have left their farms to work in the mines, decreasing agricultural production. And as diamonds are worth far more on the black market than at the official exchange rate, diamonds are leaving the country through ``unofficial'' channels.

Officially recorded production of diamonds plummeted from 2 million carats in 1970 to 48,000 carats in 1988, depriving the government of its most important source of hard currency.

In Freetown, inflation and shortages have taken a heavy toll on the quality of life. In the night, vendors make sales by candlelight; there is neither electricity nor kerosene for lamps.

At the gas stations, taxi drivers sleep in long lines of cars, waiting for gasoline that is stuck in the port because the government cannot pay for it. The foreign exchange shortfall has also prevented needed upgrades of Sierra Leone's infrastructure.

New European projects are proposed that will revamp the phone system, the road system, and the aging electrical generators. A Western diplomat referred to this trend as the ``recolonization'' of Sierra Leone.

Traditionally, the elite of Sierra Leone have gone into professions such as teaching and have left the business world to expatriates. But Sierra Leonean businessman Michael Carrol says, ``The one good thing about the economic situation is that Sierra Leoneans are being pushed into business in order to survive.''

The people of Sierra Leone lay most of the blame for the mess on the administration of former President Siaka Stevens. Frustration is exacerbated in part by the fleets of Mercedes cruising the streets of Freetown. Local businessman Lloyd During says ``There is no point in a minister telling people in the street to make sacrifices if he's not doing it himself.''

A Western economist says ``even with reforms, the man on the street is not going to see any improvements for two or three years.'' For many, that will not be soon enough. Infant mortality is among the highest in the world, with 270 out of every 1,000 children dying before reaching 5 years. And overall life expectancy has fallen to 35 years.

Since last month's devaluation, people's tolerance seems to be wearing thin. ``A hungry man is an angry man,'' says Mr. Metzger. ``That's what all African leaders are afraid of most.''

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