Seven months later, doing business in Sierra Leone is as easy as 1, 2.. er.. (a[ x] - 3q) +r(2) /7(x)
When news came out in June 2007 that The Business Registration Act passed unopposed, including the removal of the advance tax payment on registration, it was applauded in many circles as a crucial step towards making Sierra Leone more business friendly. Yay! I even bigged it up in the June 07 newsletter. There was even talk that the registration process should only take 24hrs after completed registration is submitted. Fantastic!
So in December I took my “returnee from the Diaspora” self accompanied by my brother-in-law to enquire about this new 3 step registration process and if I could really get through the registration in 24hrs. The dude from the NRA started going through the list of steps we had to go through, it started getting confusing, but even more so when he said we then needed to go to NRA to pay our tax. Hold up… “TAX? WHICH TAX?”… “bu.. but the advance tax has been abolished!” He shot us that look that said “young man, don’ tell me what I know.”
Anyway, we were a bit shocked so I decided to do my own enquiries. It turns out the guy from the NRA was indeed right. Even though, this list of wonderful things that would make Sierra Leone a much more friendly place to do business had been passed in Parliament since JUNE 2007, it had not been gazetted by the President. Until that is done, it’s as good as never been passed.
Well, Mr President, I know you told us about how you want to run the country as a business and even in this interview with Newsweek (just last week) you said “And we have continued to make our country investment-friendly. We are reducing the time it takes to establish a business, reducing the cost of production, trying to do away with the administrative barriers to business.” Please… Gazette! Gazette! Gazette!
So what was it like? Registering this business? First off, whenever I mentioned (to anyone who knew) that I'd be doing this whole looking at the process thing. Their response was almost always "Why don't you get someone else to do it? Why don't you get a lawyer to do it?" Well, registering a sole proprietorship should be pretty easy... and secondly eliminating the need for lawyers in the registration process was also part of this shiny new Acts of Parliament.
So walking into the Registrars office at Roxy building was like walking into a dungeon. I could hear the clicking and clacking of typewriters from the entrance. As I made my way to the first floor I scanned the rooms... not a computer in sight. I was directed to an individual who seemed to have no intention whatsoever to help me. This fellow would not even acknowledge your presence. Anyway, it turned out you need permission from the Permanent Secretary for Ministry of Trade in order to use "Sierra Leone" in your business name. I had thought this would be a tricky development but it turned out to be quite straightforward. The PS asked me to write a formal letter of application, which I did and I collected the approval a couple of days later.
Armed with my letter of approval from the PS I headed back to Roxy building to complete the forms. I had done one form but needed to do a second for another name which didn't need approval so I thought it would be simple enough. I was told they'd run out of forms, so I'd have to come back the next day to complete the application. "no forms?" He said they were usually supplied and they'd run out.. now had there been a computer somewhere...
I also needed to do a photocopy of the first completed form but they didn't have any machines in the building (even though they could make some money from this), so the only option is to walk about 150 metres down the road for access to a copier. Then back again.
With both forms now complete I was told to go make payment downstairs. When I got to the office I was told by the cashier, that I should talk to some guys outside as she was busy. Initially she said I should come back tomorrow.I was like, "we make payment to you right?" She replied in the affirmative. "So why do I need to talk to those guys outside?" With some pressure we agreed I'd leave the forms and the money (for both forms) and come back in the afternoon to collect it. Seeing as one had other things to do, I couldn't make it back that afternoon but came back the next working day.
I went straight to her office, and she confirmed she'd processed the forms and I should ask the guys outside (yes, those guys again). I asked them about the forms.. had they seen it? and they did that thing that's happened to me twice in Sierra Leone. They said no without checking. They said it must have been sent upstairs... so I ran upstairs to my not so friendly friend who was processing the registration. Of course... you know what happened next... he hadn't seen it and insisted it must be downstairs. So there i was running back down the stairs, patience starting to wear thin. I met these guys again and insisted that the forms must be with them. They pretended not to hear me... I told them that I still had enough energy and wasn't worn out yet, if that's what they were trying to do. I just stood there. Eventually, one of them looks amongst the papers on his desk and abracadabra! My forms.
The puzzling thing was that there was only receipt for one of the forms but I was confident I'd paid for both. The cashier insisted I only left money for one but every instinct told me otherwise. I should really have asked her to count the money in my presence. So I had to go pay for the second form (again).
My next step was to go to NRA to go pay my TAX IN ADVANCE, and because of where the business is registered meant a trip to the other side of town. From Walpole Street to Lumley.
I must admit, by this time I was getting really fed up so I decided to find a guy on the inside (by recommendation) who would sort out the papers - for a 'facilitation' fee, not only for himself but for some of his superiors who needed to do some signing (or something). He would call me when it was ready.
I got the forms back 3 days later but now I needed to get a tax clearance and because of some questionable practices in the past, the only person currently issuing this is the Commissioner of Income tax. Again, due to insider help, I was able to get this much faster than it should have been. The commissioner was actually quite helpful and it turns out we must have been at Fourah Bay College around the same time. Young, dynamic individual.
Back to Roxy Building (by now I had a genuine fear of the place) to pay another fee for License and Registration. Now my not so friendly friend was 'off sick' on this day and I met another guy. Now he was a lot more keen.. very helpful.. looked through some of the forms from NRA and said they had not been filled in correctly, he made some changes. He said he'd seen me coming but I'd only go to the other guy. He said he'd sort it our for me, no problem! He asked me to leave the forms and the fee, and he'd make sure everything was processed and he'd call me. I took his number and intended to pester him.
He calls me to let me know my forms where done. It was actually on my birthday.. so what a gift! And off to Roxy I go... he does indeed show me my registration and license. Then he flashes me my receipt but then says the receipt stays with them. Huh? So I said can I see for my own records? He shuffles uncomfortably and mumbles something about Company Policy and how I could get him into trouble. At this point, I'm just confused so I insisted again that he shows me the receipt... then he comes out with a line I'll remember for some time yet. He said he'd taken an "Oath of Secrecy" at which point I nearly exploded. I'm like "Oath of secrecy to see MY receipt? for MY money paid?" He then relented. By then I was honestly too pissed off to make any sense of the receipt.
So there. 24hrs it is not! My experience proves to me that nothing has changed. That Roxy building is one of the most archaic buildings I've ever been in. Not a single computer in site and I just loved the way they'd move typewriters from desk to desk. Laptop eat your heart out! I even heard that everyone has there own [typewriter] ribbon so when it's your turn to use it, you get out your ribbon and attach it.
I know a lot of folks had done some serious work to make sure changes were passed in parliament and I commend them for that but that now seems like a half way job.. I'd like to see the different parties to this DFID, Sierra Leone Business Forum, SLIPA, Chamber of Commerce, Ministry of Trade, Members of the Diaspora apply some pressure so that this new Act is made ACTive changes and we can hopefully get on the road to being more business friendly...and hopefully sort out Roxy Building on the way.