It was an interesting encounter yesterday at the Miatta Conference Centre. Journalists were invited by the Ministry of Information for lunch with President Ernest Bai Koroma to mark his first year in office. A novelty! An idea badly needed for the development of open dialogue between the president and the media.
This is an initiative of the president, said Information Minister Alhaji IB Kargbo (and I am paraphrasing him), to address the nation through you the Fourth Estate. He went on to say that it was designed for the president to interact with journalists and have lunch with them. How brilliant! After all this is a president that owes it a lot to the media for bringing out his voice and face to the people when he was in the opposition.
Brilliant though the concept may be its implementation was highly flawed. I am not opposed to the presence of diplomats at yesterday’s lunch. No! I am not opposed to the presence of ministers either. No! I am opposed to the fact that we did not have lunch with our president, who is a Christian and therefore was not fasting at this time of year. I am opposed to the fact that the interactivity with the president was almost non-existent. I am opposed to the idea that we did not have time to ask many questions. Less than ten journalists did and it was only one round with no possibility of follow-up questions.
I am left with the impression therefore that the organisers of the programme basically took the president from his office to the Miatta Conference Centre to address the nation, as proceedings were being broadcast live. Shortly before entering the hall, a radio station that was live on air preparing for the lunch that never was stopped me for an interview. Among the questions was what it felt like “having lunch” with the president. “Great!” I replied. In expectation.
The last time I had lunch, not with but close to one Ernest Bai Koroma (now president) was almost exactly three years ago. We met by coincidence at Palladio restaurant. So yesterday, I wanted to have an idea to juxtapose how his eating habit has changed. Does he pause in between spoonfuls as a sign of how much he thinks about how many things today? Does he eat fast as if to signify his urgency to attend to state matters or not? I wanted to discern a lot of things from having lunch.
But more important, I wanted a roundtable with the president and make the interaction more interactive and the chat chattier. In stead it was the launch of his first anniversary speech and not lunch with him. Many journalists that went there were fasting, as one of them told me. “I just wanted to have the chance to judge his commitment and sincerity by looking into his eyes at close range while listening to him” the journalist said and left despondent.
There was too much clapping by an assemblage of non-journalists. This affected the recording of broadcast journalists. If you remember vividly when as minority leader Ernest Koroma called a press conference at the APC party headquarters to announce the return of unity to the party, yesterday’s clapping was akin to that. It was even louder and far more incessant with more people trying to prove a point and draw attention. I think that took the “press lunch” fever away.
That said some issues got raised and there was some fun. President Koroma spoke about “that small group” of people who are still in denial that the people had spoken and had chosen him as their leader. I think that was a fine reference, if there is anyone thinking that he is not the rightful president of Sierra Leone. Only that I think the president’s reference ended on a pejorative note. May be I have this impression that the president is a very harmless man that is normally unable to say hurtful things about people, not least fellow politicians. Probably it is because of my spirit of reconciliation which seems to be haunting me in a country where politicians across the board are generally triumphalist. The thunderous applause that followed the president’s reference to “that small group of people” whom he said had been enjoying at the expense of the country was stunning. “Stunning” as in both “fantastic” and “surprising”.
And then the president praised some of his ministers. He even praised his erstwhile transport minister Kemoh Sesay and, as if in solidarity, this also drew a sharp applause. One of those ministers that clapped was one who said to me once that Kemoh should resign or be sacked. What a world politics is!
Then to the non-performing ones who he said would face the door. The deafening silence that accompanied that was also stunning. At that point I felt like clapping, except that journalists do not clap at a press conference no matter how impressed they are. It is a rule that is sometimes thrown over the window even in countries with a more sophisticated media such as when the announcement was made about the arrest of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. There was some clapping after the now famous words “We got him!”
How about the president’s assurance about the act guaranteeing freedom to access information and looking at the possibility of repealing the criminal libel law. The assurance that we will always move forward as a nation and that his commitment will not waver was also impressive of a president who was elected almost solely because the people were getting fed up with the reality of the times and the time. But there is nothing new in that. It was said even more laconically by his predecessors.
And then the president’s biggest strength was weakened. Electricity which without doubt is his biggest achievement, failed the hall. I had hardly realised that darkness could make a noise. When that light went out, not once but twice and for over ten minutes, I felt bad for the president. And when the light came back again, you should have seen the gloom written all over his face.
And you could feel sorry for the minister of energy and power who felt directly responsible for the episode. While her colleagues ensconced into their seats, she was all over the place to salvage the situation. Even if after the embarrassment, she helped sort it out though.
I may not have had lunch with the president, which I hope we will be having and more frequently despite his busy state matters, but the launch of his nationwide speech that I attended, opened him up all the more to a lot of possibilities. But we also recorded his statements and will remind him of in due course. I am still dying to have LUNCH with the president. By Umaru Fofana