A lot has been written already about the recent ‘press luncheon’ organized by the ministry of information at Maitta conference center in Freetown. I feel compelled to say a few things about the event for two reasons. The first concerns the coverage of the ‘press luncheon’ itself and reactions to that coverage and indeed the key issue of the current state of the mining industry, questions about which, the president did not satisfactorily deal with.
A friend of mine who enjoys reading newspapers would always cynically call to take me up on issues in the papers he disagrees with as if I was editor of all the papers. He would typically start by asking whether this or that was ‘what you tell your students at Fourah Bay College’. For this particular event, he was livid that the coverage of the ‘press luncheon’ was ‘too negative’. He argued that the papers concentrated so much on the blackout that briefly disrupted the program that the real issues discussed by president Koroma were completely lost. My reply was this: ‘May be you are right.’
Let me say this; this is just the way journalism works. Here was a set piece occasion that, I imagine, took several weeks to plan and no doubt, electricity supply to Freetown was the strongest point that president Koroma was going to hammer home in his speech. So when his speech is disrupted by power cut, and journalists decide to make that an issue, who do you blame? As to the question about what we teach our students at FBC; I told my friend that we use the same syllabus, books, videos and ICT facilities that our colleagues in Western universities use to teach their students. That should suffice. The fact is that Journalists are not the most popular people in the world. We know that.
To be honest, I personally protested to the minister of information, the venerable IB Kargbo, that the ‘press luncheon’ was completely hijacked by permanent secretaries, heads of parastatals, ministers and their deputies who abandoned their offices on a working day. Some even went to extra-ordinary lengths to make themselves visible at the event, just because the president was around. The fact that minister Kargbo allowed only one round of six questions and also because some Journalists had to struggle with extremely hungry vagrants and even shield and baton-wielding riot police for food at the basement of Miatta, meant that this was really not what we call a press luncheon.
This next point I want to talk about is the whole question of the state of the mining industry. There was a very pointed question about just what is happening in the mining sector – a sector that is so crucial to the re-vitalization of Sierra Leone’s economy. These days it is very difficult for journalists to talk about some of the issues in this sector without being branded as a sympathizer of either London Mining or African Minerals – these two companies have taken out advertorials in many papers claiming this and that right to iron ore deposits and rail facilities in the north of the country. I come at this as an ordinary Sierra Leonean, deeply concerned about the inertia and greed that appear to have taken a vice-like grip of the industry. Frankly, the unhealthy arguments about who owns which mining plots, which companies are run by international crooks or which government ministers are benefiting from which companies have gone on for far too long without any serious attempt by this government to decisiv
ly deal with the issue.
In his ‘Agenda for Change’ speech to Chatham House in London this year, president Koroma was clear that as a nation ‘we have all the ingredients for take-off…’ but that certain ‘links’ were ‘missing’. He identified one of these links as ‘…the absence of a political will on the part of many of our past leaders characterized by a fundamental fear of change, indifference to the needs of the ordinary people, indecisiveness and a lack of accountability. I am determined to bring a change to this kind of leadership by leading from the front and by taking direct responsibility for the actions of my Government. We also want to break the myth of procrastination by taking prompt action to address any threats to our nation and its people and by implementing decisions of Government as long as these are in the interest of the people and supported by expert advice…’
Any audience will be absolutely moved by a speech like this but as far as the mining sector in Sierra Leone is concerned, I am still waiting for the president to ‘lead from the front…and break the myth of procrastination by taking prompt action to address ant threat to our nation…’ Whole communities depend on the direct benefits of mining and the little mercies that mining companies bring along. For the industry to be as disorganized as it is, in my opinion represents a threat to the very survival of many of our people. The president himself said at the ‘press luncheon’ that he inherited a ‘mess’ in the mines that he was now trying to put right. But how long is this going to last?
I remember my first day in Kono land. I was extremely shocked by the complete lack of basic infrastructure in this land flowing with diamonds. Yes, the war took a heavy toll on Kono but the truth is that even before the war, Kono was a viciously poor place. I wanted to call my friend David Tam-Baryoh who is a son of Kono, to ask him to account for the state of his district. But coming from Pujehun which by all statistics is the poorest place in one of the poorest countries in the world, I imagined what his reply would be. In the end, I did ask the question. David’s reply was; ‘…now you know why some of us are really angry with this government.’ This was Alhaji Kabbah’s government.
We may be sitting in Freetown today with good supply of electricity, some good roads and satellite television arguing about Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United but the grinding poverty in which the bulk of the population lives, means none of us is safe. A good amount of development money comes from the mines but the policies guiding operations in the place are taking unbelievably too long a time to formulate.
I am aware that the government has set up a task force on the issue with some good minds serving, but exactly what are they doing? Many Sierra Leoneans have no idea what this group is doing. This is a fact. Maybe hiding from the people is a deliberate strategy, because I hear that some civil society groups sitting on that panel have taken an oath of secrecy regarding the simple work of reviewing existing mining legislations.
I hope I am wrong, because, it is inconceivable that even un-elected civil society activists can compound questions around their legitimacy by behaving like a secret society cabal, speaking in esoteric language, answerable only to a small group.
As far as the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative or EITI is concerned, the least said the better. The point to make however is that we have less than a year to meet the entire requirements we have signed up to but we keep crawling and giving excuses. I shall be looking at this some other time.
Minister Kargbo promised us ‘open governance’, president Koroma promised ‘decisive and accountable leadership’ to transform the country. The first real attempt at open governance at Miatta was commendable but a little flawed. Could you please specifically deal with the mining sector right now?
By Isaac Massaquoi