Sierra Leoneans on social media are finding interesting ways to respond to the removal of the fuel subsidy which has caused fuel prices to go up by 62 percent. The fuel subsidy until this past week was paid by the government to companies in the petroleum business to keep the price of fuel at a fixed rate.
11 November 2016, the Petroleum Regulatory Agency (PRA) informed the public that effective immediately prices for Petrol, Diesel, Kerosene and Fuel oil were going up. The new price per liter announced was Le. 6,000, a 62% increase from Le. 3,750. By the close of business on Friday when the announcement was made by the PRA, an image of the press release went viral on Social Media platforms, now the primary mode of communication amongst citizen elites, urban residents, and the diaspora.
It has become commonplace for Whatsapp Groups to be the first place for Sierra Leoneans to receive government news and announcements, breaking with decades of state protocol when the Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation was the go to for government news. Today government officials take photos of State information and pass it on to their Whatsapp groups long before it ever makes it to the official channels. This was no different than with the announcement of the fuel subsidy cut from the PRA.
The last time the government announced it would cut back on subsidies was in 2011, when it went to the metric system; gallon to liter. When the the fuel subsidy was removed back then prices shot up by 30 percent. Then Minister of Trade, William Konteh told Reuters that it would slash government spending on fuel by 50%; from $50 million to $25 million and help the government repay debt to the IMF. This newly announced subsidy cut by the PRA is also part of an effort to reduce spending thereby creating an opportunity for the government of Sierra Leone to adopt “austerity measures”.
On 12 November , just a day after the PRA’s release on the price increase, another message was being shared on Whatsapp. This new unsigned message which unlike the preceding one was a picture of the announcement was just text. This means that no one could verify, ascertain, or know who it was from, and its level of seriousness.
The message called for a March on State House on Monday 14 November 2016, to demand that President Koroma revert to the old fuel prices. The general response to the call for a March was disbelief. People tended to agree with the sentiment expressed vis a vis the price increase but few believed a March would actually happen. Nevertheless the Sierra Leone Police issued a statement about the “March”.
The Sierra Leone Police in its statement said that citizens have a right to hold peaceful demonstrations but that in doing so they should go through the right channels to get a permit.The police called on the organizers to identify themselves and notify the Inspector General of Police of their intent to demonstrate, while cautioning all that it was illegal to assemble for a protest without a police permit. Over on Facebook, “The Sierra Leone Renaissance Movement” which describes itself as a group “open to all patriotic Sierra Leoneans who are ready to imagine, design, build and support a new Sierra Leone”, joined the ranks of citizens responding to the fuel subsidy removal.
On their Facebook Group, The Sierra Leone Renaissance Movement asked people to wear black on 14 November as a protest against the rise in prices. They asked that those wearing black post their photo and use the hashtag #WearBlackMovement. Just a handful of photos were posted although the group reaches over a 1000 members.
The increase of the fuel prices has already had an impact on the lives of commuters. Transportation costs have shot up by 50%. If you’re taking a taxi in Freetown today expect to pay up to SLL 600 more than you did a week ago. Like Emmerson Bockarie sang over 5 years ago now, commuters feeling the pinch of the new prices will most likely agree that when to this fuel price increase, Yesterday definitely betteh pass tiday.
With Reporting original from – Larry Ronnie Tucker