New Internationalist

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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  1. #1 cloud 10 May 11

    Ms Gupta, your article correctly explains that the Government cannot continue to subsidize fuel prices at the past levels but the only solution you offer is to incite people to take to the streets?!
    Nor have you hesitated to use half truths (that no explanation has been given for the increase) as the justification for going the Uganda route. Don't you think the country has suffered enough?
    No Sierra Leonean is happy that prices have increased and that this may lead to increased cost of living. But your solution of getting people on to the streets, presumably so you can send dispatches of yet another African country in trouble confirms the view that some of you will stop at nothing to perpetuate the negative view of Africa.

  2. #2 medkemoh 10 May 11

    I hope You are not suggesting that people should take to the street because of the hike in fuel prices. Bear in mind that Sierra Leone is still a fragile country. While opinion should be tolerated it is imperative for it to be presented in a responsible way.

    The Spike in the prices of fuel is due to so many factors that are beyond anyones control. Its the higher prices of oil that are creating major problems for Countries like Sierra Leone that subsidises fuel like you quiet rightly mentioned. But lets look beyond your hazy article to ascertain the reason why. The fact is if subsidy cost is left uncheck it will threaten economic growth. Increase in oil prices means the govt will have to pay more on subsidised fuels and they just cannot afford that. So it means fuel prices had to be increased to cope with rising international oil costs. I know its a political time bomb in a country where 80% leave on less than a pound a day. But my suspicion is subsidy cost weigh in heavily on the Budget and probably its an attempt to control soaring budget deficit.

    Kemoh Kamara

  3. #3 Sulakshana 10 May 11

    Thanks for your comments. In retrospect I agree that suggesting people take to the streets and protest was a poorly thought out idea. It wasn't my intention to incite violence. I should have researched the ideas better and they deserved more careful thought. I sincerely apologise for hurting anyone's sentiments.

    I do mainatin my position that the government has not explained the situation clearly. That is not a half truth as cloud indicates. A fellow journalist received a text messaage from the Ministry of Information saying that fuel prices had not gone up, when in reality this was untrue.

    This is an issue that deserves a well researched post and I will deliver one. I have no personal interest in sending negaative dispatches from Africa. If cloud would go through my previous posts, he/she will realise that I have written many positive pieces aabout the country.

    I understand that the subsidies needed to go and have said so in the blog post. However people in Sierra Leone do deserve to have it explained to them better than that has currently been done.

    Once again, I am a pacifist and inciting violence was not the intention.

  4. #4 Sulakshana 23 May 11

    Just a quick update to say that the Youth Coalition, a civil society group in Sierra Leone has given the government a 21 day ultimatum to reduce the price of fuel or they will march peacefully on the streets.

    As indicated before my intention was not to incite violence but to encourage a popular movement on the issue. I sincerely hope that the march, if it does happen, will proceed peacefully.

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About the author

Sulakshana Gupta a New Internationalist contributor

Sulakshana Gupta is a journalist currently based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. She manages media development projects for the BBC World Service Trust focusing on governance and human rights and in her spare time travels around the world. The opinions expressed in this blog are her own and do not reflect the views of her employer.

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