Sierra Leone has not been blessed with an orator of a president. He had a good accent but was probably too boring to listen to. I mean former President Tejan Kabbah. So that when he was hosted by Tim Sebastian on the hard-hitting HardTalk programme on BBC World, his performance was deemed a disaster.
One would have thought President Kabbah would have learned many things on the job, among them the art of speaking. Just as the US president George Bush has been able to do. It was widely reported that when he first became president seven years ago, he referred to a native of Greece as a Grecian and did not know the capital of Syria. That was stunning not least when one considers the saying that there is no peace in the Middle East without Egypt and no war without Syria. In his first two years in the White House, he started sounding brilliant and confident.
Well it is four months since he became president of Sierra Leone. As an opposition leader, I interviewed Ernest Koroma on many occasions sometimes live. Hesitant, lacking in depth on issues, and flip-flopping. So on Thursday, when I saw Zenna Badawi introduce him as her guest on HardTalk, I was apprehensive. This is a programme deliberately aimed at challenging powerful people, sometimes acrimoniously, to solicit answers from them. “That is what I am paid for, to ask tough questions”: so goes the trailer for the programme with its regular presenter Stephen Sackur.
There sat President Koroma with his broad frame and silver hair in the Foreign Office in London. He looked relaxed. The questions ranged from corruption to ecology to poverty. Whoever had tutored him before the interview did a brilliant job. He refused to be drawn into a fight. For example, he was asked whether the Chinese were destroying the country’s forest through illegal logging in the country. The premise of the question was the ban on timber exploitation and export from the country. He emphasised on the fact that the country’s forest needed to be protected. And he stuck to that. Who can dispute that? He showed off on his hitherto most visible achievement as president, the restoration of electricity in Freetown. No mean feat when one considers where we are coming from.
But he almost lost the battle on the question of the country’s mineral resources. Zenna put words in his mouth that diamond smuggling was still rampant. The president hesitated but came out initially strong, denying it. How minimal or widespread? Zenna pushed him.
He would not be drawn into it. She pushed him again and again. Then this, and I am paraphrasing her: you should know these figures and facts as President. She succeeded. Smuggling has been reduced to about 20%, he said. He probably said this to prove to Zenna that he knows the facts. I doubt he did. The next time he should probably refuse to be drawn into such.
Another acid test he passed in the interview, and I probably would have failed it, was the repeated questions around the necessity or otherwise of the UN-backed Special Court. Even though the president almost lost his demeanour at some point in that instance, he maintained his balance.
There is a very huge amount of money spent by the court which can be better used to address the lack of social infrastructure which makes the country the poorest, suggested Zenna.
President Koroma refused to be drawn into the relevance or otherwise of the court, and clung on to the other part of the question. That is what we are addressing now as a government: providing more schools, building hospitals etc. he said, adding that the past (the setting-up of the court) was the past and would remain so.
On the whole, this was a sterling performance by the president on a programme that has left many bruised. And he was smiling all the way. If he matches those words that he said on the programmes, some he had said before such as his zero tolerance on corruption, he will be a legend. But he must be reminded that his words are on tape, on film and in the archives and can be held against him if he reneges on them. As Zenna Badawi said, he was an insurance broker and his people will take an insurance policy against him should he fail.
That will embarrass his family and close friends. Above all, further let down his people who have been let down by every president before him.
By Umaru Fofana