In the last ten years, state-of-the-nation addresses have largely been an affair of who and what have donated or pledged what assistance to the country; without real emphasis on what we have done for ourselves as a sovereign nation state. It has looked to me like a students’ union government that would convene a meeting of their members at the amphitheatre or hall and tell them what embassy or organisation has bought them a generator, given them how many bags of rice and agreed to pay grants-in-aid to some less-privileged students.
And in a country where both literacy and illiteracy are a problem, students’ union governments in my view seem to have an even more difficult task. If everyone educated, if you tell a lie they will tell it to your face. If you tell the truth, they will hold you by your word. Here, a good number of the governed are holed up in their conscience and held up by sycophancy with their utterances sold out to parochial individual considerations. Difficult therefore for a leader to be sure whether or not he is doing the right thing as he is surrounded by praise-singers.
In his 24-page speech to mark the state opening of the second session of the third parliament of the second republic, President Koroma gives an account of his stewardship in the year gone by. He also attempts to trim down his 36-month plan he outlined in his state of the nation address last year to have confluence of neatly carved ideas workable in the next 12 months.
In his speech I notice that he gives a lot of credit to international organisations and friendly countries, without a sound advancement of how we intend to wean ourselves of this donor dependency syndrome. All this happening at a time when there is so much talk about the lopsidedness of foreign aid. Many cabinet ministers have expressed their dismay and frustration to me – not once, not twice – about the ineffectiveness of what ActionAid aptly calls PHANTOM AID. But it would seem that since that is the low-hanging fruit – especially the Chinese one – our leaders continue to pluck it even when it could be potentially infected.
Press Freedom/SLBS Two areas of the president’s speech particularly interest me, or should have interested me, since he does not mention the one and only takes a passing pie of the other. There is no mention of the Ministry of Information. And no-one can deny that this ministry is a pivot and the minister has been every journalist’s – you want him to talk now, he gives no excuses. And he has been a staunch defender of the Government wherever, however and anyhow.
However, I am sure the future of the state broadcaster should have been clarified in the president’s speech. Most of the staff at SLBS that I have spoken with in recent times have had their zeal at work dampened because of the climate of uncertainty that has been hung over their future amidst talk that the United Nations has a plan that will lead to the sacking of all of them and the setting-up of a national broadcaster whose details are as suspicious as they are blurred. What is the state of the bill that aims to transform the institution to a body corporate?
How about the continued existence of the criminal and seditious libel law that is like a sword over practitioners of a profession that is safeguarded by the country’s constitution and several international treaties the country is signatory to? This law, needless to say, is as obnoxious as it is outdated. And it’s one the APC opposed when it was first passed in 1965 when they were in opposition, and President Koroma opposed it just last year before he became president. Will it be ever repealed in our lifetime?
Political (in) tolerance
Ironically, even with that obnoxious law still in our books, President Koroma clearly takes and shows pride in his human rights achievements even though he does not give a proper account of those human rights accomplishments.
“Our nation’s democratic credentials as well as our level of tolerance continue to stand the test of time… the ties of friendship and kinship that hold us together have triumphed over the divisive efforts of extremists in our political parties…” I challenge the president that we do not have an iota of the political tolerance he speaks about. I expected that he would make an impassioned plea for that to prevail. In the last one year, there have been innumerable clashes between supporters of the opposition and the governing parties and I have not noticed any serious stride in addressing that. Just lip service! Whereas supporters of the opposition have been hyper-embittered by the loss at the polls governing party stalwarts have been hyper-emboldened by their victory. This has caused regular friction and clashes; the most recent one being the attack on the SLPP radio station and its closure by intolerant elements in government. If all of this is tolerance, nothing can be intolerant.
But I see where the president is coming from – putting a brave face on all of this. After all he appeals to us as a nation to live in harmony with one another and to work hard and honestly saying “… we now need to re-brand this nation. We should be more robust in articulating these good things about our country and build on our national heritage.” This is different from sweeping issues under the carpet. And there is a lot to be done in the area of re-branding the country, which the president says is the rationale for many overseas trips by his ministers. I wonder which countries these visits have been made to and what the specifics have been. But I dare say we need this, especially when it is juxtaposed with the functioning of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Foreign Affairs On this ministry, among other things, the president talks about establishing diplomatic presence in Brazil, India and Senegal. This is badly needed and I dare say long overdue. Brazil has a crop of leaders who are worth their salt. Their engagement of the West on development and growth issues is breathlessly impressive and has paid off; giving them clout in world politics.
India and China are seen as the next generation of world leaders. Some critical thinkers say India has the edge because of the English language and their strong democratic credentials – they are the world’s largest democracy. Their ignorance of our continent, never mind our country, is stunning. A well educated Indian lady I met in Mumbai, on seeing my passport, said she’d only heard of my country on the day before after watching Blood Diamonds. The country also has some of the world’s leading industries like Tata Steel.
The civil war in Ivory Coast surrendered the regional francophone leadership role to Senegal. Dakar is where everything happens. Almost every important country in the world has a diplomatic presence there. Having an ambassador there opens so many doors and it puts us in an important position to broker peace between Gambia and Senegal who have a very frosty relationship at present. Exporting peace to the rest of the continent is what I will call that.
With no prize for guessing, the first ministry the president talks about is Energy. He talks about the increase in electricity in Freetown “from five megawatts to twenty five megawatts”, assuring that the Bumbuna hydro initiative is 98% complete and come April next year, it will be switched on. It will be dishonest of anyone to shrug off the achievement of the president in this area. But he does not tell us what happens after 20 December when the life of the World Bank electricity initiative comes to an end. Will the project continue or what is the fallback mechanism? I wish to warn him that it is better to be born blind, than become blind later in life. The sweetness of electricity, once tasted, must not be discontinued.
President Koroma also assures that work will be commissioned on a mini-hydro on the Bankasoka River in Port Loko to be followed by the provision of a similar project in all district headquarter towns with the help of China and the EU. That is all good, if it can be realised and not become Tejan Kabbah’s Lungi Bridge promise that ended in promise.
That said, the president does not tell us his government’s take on the damning report by the Anti Corruption Commission on his minister of energy and power in relation to the awarding of a contract to Income Electrix, which is said to be flawed. In fact there is not a single mention of such an important element.
Mineral resources There is an absolute need to review all mining licences in the country as has been stated by the president and his minister of mines. This is to ensure that fraud and other backhanders in that sector are exposed and those guilty dealt with. Brilliant! However, the most important regime in realising that is the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI). The president does not mention a word of this. Not even the letters EITI. It will be nice to know the stage at which we are on this, when it will come into fruition, et al. This leaves me with the impression that it is not on the cards, at least for the next one year. This postpones our development as a nation moving from the old ways of doing things. And it will erode our best business climate credentials when the index is drawn for next year.
Tourism occupies only ten lines of the president’s 24-page speech. It was Okere Adams who spent a huge sum of money touring Western capitals with no clearly-explained agenda, under the pretext of wooing tourists to the country. Today, there seems to be no more seriousness on the issue. And if we are talking about re-branding, then we are joking.
But the president’s initiative on culture is, simply, brilliant. Having “A Day of Sierra Leonean Culture” to revamp our feeding, dressing and music habits is a fine way of rescuing our dying traditions. But how does he say so when the gar industry in his home town of Makeni is being eroded by the influx with cheaper Chinese-made cloths that look like our fine Gara? Agreed there is free market but there are protective measures for our local industry as well. Even Western government do that by providing, for example, 2 Euros to each cow to boost the farmers.
In my view the president’s best line is buried where he talks about education. “We have completed a teacher verification exercise to weed out ghost schools and send ghost teachers back to the cemetery”. In speech writing, that line scores 100%. That said, he mentions the poor school-leaving exams (WASSCE) results and says he will set up a commission of enquiry to look into the poor performance. This is good. However, what happens between now and when that commission finishes its work? I would rather the president had allowed all the candidates who failed to meet tertiary-entry requirements to retake the exams at the expense of the state. I know government does this only for first timers, but the last academic year performance was such that if that concession is not made, the number of dropout will be huge as many of the failed students cannot afford the WASSCE fee.
With only 5% of our forest said to be surviving, the president’s speech does not address the survival of nature in the next year. Surprisingly, despite his care and passion shown for biodiversities just a few months ago when he moved towards declaring the Gola Forest into a National Park.
On the while, the speech is a fine expression of intent for the coming year even if some in my view are unrealistic. I pray the president gets the right team and right attitude to implement these plans. By Umaru Fofana