Ibrahim Barrie counts himself among the lucky ones. As a lecturer at a private university in Freetown, he receives a fixed salary. And by the standards of his compatriots, also a good salary, he says over the phone. Converted, it is about 500 dollars a month. Enough to support his family, parents, student sister and all layers of the family around it.
In the relatively small, densely populated Sierra Leone, where more than half of the 7.5 million inhabitants live below the poverty line of $1.9 a day, such an amount is unimaginable to most. And even he, Barrie says, can’t figure it out. “All prices have exploded.” Fuel in particular quickly became more expensive. At the beginning of this year, a liter of diesel still cost 75 euro cents, in July the government announced double that.
Barrie: “Fuel is the engine of our economy. If I can no longer pay my rent, how will the market wife? Or the bus driver?”
It broke out on Wednesday. What started as a peaceful demonstration by market women against the high prices ended with violent riots in the capital Freetown and elsewhere in the country. Young people set fire to car tires and attacked police posts. Six officers and 21 civilians were killed, according to the Reuters news agency. The riot police allegedly fired live ammunition. The streets became quiet again after a curfew was declared.
22.44 percent in Sierra Leone. 17.7 percent in Nigeria. In the past few months, especially in West Africa, no country seems to have escaped the high – sometimes skyrocketing – inflation that is squeezing economies around the world. Skyrocketing prices for everything – from oil to sugar and especially petrol and diesel – drove people onto the streets in several countries. Of despair, of anger.
Where their heads of government blame inflation for the consequences of the corona pandemic and the war in Ukraine, citizens mainly see mismanagement, making their economies barely able to withstand global shocks. “Ghana is not at war, lower fuel prices and stop all the excuses,” protest signs erupted in the capital Accra in late June.
Read also about the unrest in Senegal: Unrest in stable Senegal: ‘We have to show our anger’
After just one day, President Nana Akufo-Addo did what he promised he would never do when he took office in 2017: he knocked on the door of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for an emergency loan of, according to the Bloomberg news agency, $3 billion. It will be the seventeenth IMFrescue plan for a country that is considered a success story in the region but cannot get rid of its towering debt.
According to Rafael Ch Duran, a researcher for the international think tank Crisis Group, the problems in countries in West Africa and the Horn of Africa are different, but Ghana faces a common denominator: “Vulnerability to unrest related to food and fuel.” This is because these countries are highly dependent on imports and have high debts, while government revenues are low. This stems from the largely informal economy. And corruption. “Governments therefore have little or no means to help households in this type of crisis with subsidies or prevent their currency from depreciating.”
For example, the Ghanaian cedi lost a quarter of its value against the dollar this year, while inflation rose to 31.7 percent. An attempt by the government to raise revenue with a controversial tax on digital payments appears to have turned into a fiasco after a few months. The finance minister recently acknowledged that less than 10 percent of the intended amount has been raised.
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The plans immediately met with fierce opposition. “Totally misunderstood,” Ghanaian economist James Dzansi calls them on the phone. “People with a bank account now simply don’t transact anymore.” What remains are the people without bank accounts, the most vulnerable – the poor, those working in the informal economy – who therefore depend on payment apps for some payments. Dzansi: “That’s why people are so angry about this.”
The anger was heard when thousands of people took to the streets of Accra in June. “Mr President, where is our money? We are done with you and your government,” read one protester’s placard. It was shared on social media via hashtags such as #FixTheCountry – a hashtag created a year earlier by a protest movement consisting predominantly of young Ghanaians.
In other places too, the latest protests are linked to older grievances, says crisis group researcher Duran. For example, university staff in Nigeria recently took to the streets to demand a significant increase in the national education budget, as promised years ago. Then their wages, which are no longer viable, can also increase. Impossible, says the government now.
“Nigeria is devastated,” the finance minister told a news conference. The Nigerian newspaper Premium Times spoke to government officials and bankers and warned that Nigeria’s foreign exchange reserves are approaching a critical point. If things do not change soon, food or medicine will not be able to be imported in a few months. It happened earlier in Sri Lanka, after which a popular uprising broke out.
Not that governments haven’t taken action against the increased prices in recent months. Otherwise, the UNDP warned, 71 million people worldwide could fall back into poverty. For example, Ivory Coast introduced a maximum price for products such as rice and cement. And in Senegal, which also turned to the IMF for extra credit, more than half a million poor families received 121 euros.
Before reluctantly going to the IMF, Ghanaian President Akufo-Addo cut his own flesh. His and his ministers’ salaries were cut by 30 percent, there was a restriction on international business travel and a ban on the import of 4×4 vehicles for government officials “to stimulate their own industry”.
But Sierra Leone’s government is still on its way, sighs Ibrahim Barrie from Freetown. Those trips are expensive because they involve the whole entourage. Why can’t it be virtual? We are far too poor a country to waste hundreds of thousands of dollars like that.” Sierra Leone dangles at the bottom of all development lists, with an economy devastated by a bloody civil war in the 1990s and the subsequent Ebola epidemic. And corona and Ukraine – the war is now over.
His government could have mitigated the effect of all that misery, says the university teacher. For example, by doing something about the lack of storage capacity for imported fuel. “That makes us so vulnerable to price fluctuations.” But criticizing is not without risk, says Barrie. An opposition politician was arrested last month after hundreds of women protested in Freetown against the high prices.
What the government did: to at least optically reverse the declining value of the national currency, it introduced smaller banknotes last month and removed three zeros from the leone. “Zeros of shame”, the central banker called them, zeros that made printing notes expensive and wallets bulging.
It hasn’t changed reality, says Barrie, waving a new bill in front of his laptop screen. The value of the 10 leone he holds, about 70 euro cents, is the same as when it was 10,000 leone. “What’s the point if everything is still the same?”
President Julius Maada Bio, on a private visit to London on Wednesday, announced an investigation into the unrest on Twitter. “I call on all Sierra Leoneans to calm down.” The next day, the price per liter of petrol was lowered slightly.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper on 12 August 2022