By Lawrence Williams
Finance Minister Sheku Ahmed Fantamadi Bangura (photo) announced on July 31 that the government would remove fuel subsidies effective Aug. 1. He made the announcement while presenting the supplementary budget to the House of Parliament. Accordingly, subsidies have been removed, leading to a 16% increase in fuel pump prices, creating a multiplier effect across all economic indicators.
The government argues that subsidising fuel is not the most appropriate way to go as it has significant implications for revenue mobilisation and economic growth. According to the supplementary budget, the government has forgone NLe708.9 million (US$32.8 million) in the form of indirect subsidies during the first half of 2023, with an additional NLe75 million (US$3.3 million) in direct subsidies to be paid to oil marketing companies for the same period, bringing the total value of direct and indirect subsidies to $36.1 million. The budget shows that, for the period Jan. to April 2023, fuel imports accounted for 34.9% of the $590 million total import bill. In contrast, food commodities accounted for 23.1%. This means that more money is spent on fuel than on food and other essentials.
However, the national budget is significantly affected partly by soaring food and energy prices in the global market, high debt repayment coupled with Leone depreciation, and partly by inflationary pressures in the domestic market, increased government expenditures largely influenced by an over-bloated cabinet created by the president.
Pros of Removing Fuel Subsidies
1. Fiscal Stability:
By eliminating fuel subsidies, the Sierra Leonean government can reduce the strain on the national budget. Subsidies often require a significant portion of government revenue, contributing to fiscal instability. Removing these subsidies can help ensure long-term economic stability.
2. Increased Revenue:
With the removal of fuel subsidies, the government can redirect the funds saved towards other sectors, such as healthcare, education, or infrastructure development. This can lead to improved public services and overall economic growth.
3. Market Efficiency:
Fuel subsidies can distort market dynamics, discouraging competition and hindering the growth of alternative energy sources. By removing subsidies, the government can promote market efficiency and encourage the development of more sustainable energy solutions.
4. Poverty Alleviation:
In some cases, fuel subsidies benefit high-income individuals more than those in low-income brackets. Removing these subsidies can allow the government to redirect resources towards targeted poverty alleviation programs, benefiting the most vulnerable segments of society.
Cons of Removing Fuel Subsidies
1. Increased Cost of Living:
The removal of fuel subsidies typically leads to an immediate increase in fuel prices. This, in turn, can drive up transportation costs, food prices, and other essential goods and services. The general population, particularly those with lower incomes, may experience difficulties in coping with the higher cost of living.
2. Inflationary Pressures:
Higher fuel prices can have inflationary effects on the overall economy. As transportation costs increase, businesses may pass on these costs to consumers, leading to a rise in the consumer price index (CPI). This can further erode the purchasing power of individuals and exacerbate inflationary pressures.
3. Social Unrest:
The removal of fuel subsidies has historically been met with public resistance and protests in many countries. The sudden increase in fuel prices can lead to social unrest and political instability, as citizens bear the brunt of the economic impact.
4. Impact on Vulnerable Populations:
Fuel subsidies often benefit low-income individuals who heavily rely on affordable transportation for their livelihoods. Removing these subsidies without adequate social safety nets in place may disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, leading to increased poverty and inequality.
The decision to remove fuel subsidies in Sierra Leone is a complex one, with both advantages and disadvantages. While removing subsidies can enhance fiscal stability, increase revenue for development projects, promote market efficiency, and target poverty alleviation, it may also result in a higher cost of living, inflationary pressures, social unrest, and negative impacts on vulnerable populations. To mitigate the potential drawbacks, it is crucial for the government to implement comprehensive policies that address the concerns of the most affected segments of society, thereby ensuring a smoother transition towards a more sustainable energy future.