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The rising price of life

Bus in Freetown, Sierra Leone

Photo by Annabel Symington under a CC Licence

Last week the price of fuel went up almost 30 per cent in Sierra Leone. Over the past year and a half the government has tried to phase out subsidies on fuel, causing prices to rise steadily. But this is the sharpest jump yet and is bound to significantly impact people’s lives.

What’s amazing is that there are no protests or riots on the streets. People seem to have resigned themselves quietly to the price increase. Many still haven’t realized that the price has gone up because the unit of sale has also just changed, from gallon to litre. Unfortunately, it’s about time the price went up. The government of Sierra Leone has been subsidizing petrol, diesel and kerosene for years and simply can’t afford to do it anymore.

This increase is going to have a knock-on effect on the cost of living in Sierra Leone. Everything from transportation to the price of basic foods is going to go up at a time when people are already struggling to make ends meet. Almost two weeks before the prices rose, there were sudden and acute shortages in the country. Unconfirmed reports that gas companies were hoarding to create an artificial demand started to flood in. Meanwhile, government spokespeople swore they had nothing to do with the crisis.

The city of Freetown descended into transport chaos with long 10-car queues at all gas stations. A fuel hierarchy emerged where the well-connected could get a full tank while the ordinary taxi driver couldn’t.

Perhaps Sierra Leoneans should draw inspiration from Uganda, where fuel prices recently rose by about 25 per cent. Opposition leader Kizza Besigye organized a walk to work campaign, calling on people to protest against the sharp rise. While the protests themselves have attracted a massive government clampdown, the idea itself was workable. Without any popular protest in Sierra Leone, the situation will completely slip under the radar of the international community.

Despite its grizzly post-conflict image in the international media, Sierra Leoneans are a peaceful people and protesting isn’t really part of the culture. Basic service delivery is one of the poorest in the world, yet levels of public patience are surprisingly high.

It’s now been a week since the price hikes and still, all’s quiet. Now, I’m not one to stir trouble, but it seems like this is an issue civil society should be actively pursuing, at least to get a clear understanding of why prices were so low before and why they’ve had to go up. People are owed an explanation at least.  

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