A little over a year ago, the APC clinched one of the most dramatic and most unlikely victories in the political history of this country in a run off election that served up the all too familiar menu-controversy, violence, rallying etc-that is now a regular feature of elections in Africa. They snatched power from under the noses of their fiercest rivals when everyone but a few people thought the SLPP was on course for a hat-trick, and when only a few people gave them an outside chance of winning. For all the hell-raising from the SLPP over the outcome of the elections, moments after Christiana Thorpe declared Ernest Bai Koroma winner, he was sworn in as president.
What followed was the usual post-election hullabaloo-protests, blame shifting, more violence and threats of legal actions against the electoral commission. You know the rest. However, when all the post election euphoria finally dissipated and the dust settled, even the SLPP woke up to the reality that Ernest Bai Koroma is going to remain at the helm of things for, at least, the next five years. The rest, like they say, is history.
As is the case with all newly elected presidents, President Koroma came into office with an ambitious agenda that was very much an offshoot of his manifesto, outlining his plans for the duration of his tenure and which even formed the basis of the contracts he signed with his Ministers. That action plan is what he has used as the blue print for his government for the twelve months he has been in office. Therefore, at the completion of a year in office, it is worth taking a look at how workable and un-workable the blue print has been. Granted, people will say it is yet premature for the jury to come out on the APC but I can only point proponents of that view to the Krio maxim: “marrade wae get fo swit na pan di bachelos eve,” and my long standing commitment to that axiom has made the temptation to start reviewing the APC government after 365 days in office irresistible. Thus, here is an attempt to look at the Ernest Koroma leadership so far:
In his bid to earn the trust and win the hearts of Sierra Leoneans, President Koroma pledged to be as transparent as to declare his assets the moment he steps into State House. And through out his campaign, this pledge served as one of his main thrust even his mantra. With the favourable outcome of the elections for him, one can assume, rightly or wrongly, that a lot of people took his pledge into consideration when making their final decision to vote and who to vote for. One can even strengthen the argument by pointing that the people’s hunger for a good leader saw them gravitating to Ernest following his pledge of transparency and openness. I cannot say how those people who voted their hearts for the APC will be feeling right now, having to wait for almost a year to see the president fulfill a promise that he echoed and reechoed so much so that to date, it lingers in the four corners of the nation. I can only imagine how disappointed and despondent they are, not knowing what he declared. The people of this country would have found solace in the adage: ‘better late than ever’ when the president finally declared his assets. But whatever hopes of finding a solace from that exercise they harboured, evaporated when the declaration was done in secrecy without a tinge of transparency. It was as simple a matter of the president handing over a form to the head of the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC), Abdul Tejan Cole, and that was it. The contents were never made public. Nobody, save the president and the ACC boss, knows what the contents are.
This act has rightly left tongues wagging and in its wake, provoked a few questions from certain quarters: Why is the President declaring his assets only after he has taken almost a year in office? Why are the contents not made public? As the questions keep sprouting, there are people who are keen to provide answers. Already, it is held in certain circles that the President’s asset declaration took so long because he needed to increase his assets, how? I cannot say, to a magnitude where at the expiration of his tenure, no matter the worth of the assets he would be seated with, he can conveniently claim ownership, using the form as a proof and therefore will not be wanton for unscrupulousness. There are those who hold the view that the contents are not made public because such an arrangement gives the President the latitude to make addition to his list of assets every now and again. Making it public would have closed that window of opportunity. Yet there is the school of thought that is of the fervent view that there is nothing on that form. The whole asset declaration exercise was just a play act to hoodwink the people and put the lid on calls from both the opposition and the media for the President to declare his asset. If all these conjectures, I call them speculations because I cannot ascertain their verity, are true, then it will not only represent deceit of the highest order, but it will also be disrespectful to the people of this country. That is my view yours might be different. Make your own judgment.
Allied to this pledge is the one that promised not to appoint any Parliamentarian as Minister. But it did not take the President long to go back on this one as he fished Serry Kamal and Kemoh Sesay from Parliament and appointed them Attorney General and Minister of Justice and Minister of Transport and Aviation respectively. The latter will later be relieved of his duty as a result of his involvement in one of the biggest cocaine sagas in the continent. Hang on, we will come to that later.
One of Ernest Koroma’s most welcome pledges to this nation was the one that promised electricity. He promised to better Kabba’s effort at providing the capital (Freetown) with electricity. The people who have had to live with blackout for the ten years the SLPP had been in power were captivated by the prospect of having to do away with kerosene lamps and drinking ice water not as a luxury. Thus, they swapped the SLPP for the APC. Once in office, President Koroma set himself a December deadline to provide Freetown with light. And light there was in December. The singing and dancing that followed was manifestation enough of how rare a commodity light had been for those who could not afford the small power generator christened “Kabba Tiger”. But it was also a moment for APC supporters as well as those who voted on the conviction that Ernest is the man to savor. Critics said it was not going to last a month. It survived a month and another and another…. Then they shifted to a year. By this time, the average man in the street is confident blackout will soon become a thing of the past. So how then is it possible that the APC was able to achieve such a feat in just three months in office yet for ten years the SLPP could not?
When the APC took over, the Bumbuna Hydro Project, which has been ongoing for God knows how long, it was revealed, it was almost 95% completed but will not be completely completed in less than a year. Thus President Koroma and his team explored a lot of options and came up with the one they thought was the best to save their blushes and at the same time hold the fort until Bumbuna is completed. They entered into a rental agreement for a 15 mega watts power generator for one year at a cost of 25 million US Dollars. Fresh jubilations engulfed Freetonians when the machines landed at the Queen Elizabeth II Quay. “This is indeed a new APC. Ernest Koroma is delivering on his promises” was the general verdict across the country.
However, there were a few people like myself who saw beyond the concurrent and had the premonition that such an arrangement is destined to be cosmetic. Whilst the rent could have made a tremendous contribution to the completion of the Bumbuna Project, it could have also been used to achieve sustainable and longer term options. Yes, one will argue that the people wanted electricity. The truth is the people have always wanted electricity and have waited patiently while it continued to elude them. And I am sure they were even going to be more patient when they realized that the government is putting everything to complete the Bumbuna Project as quickly as possible. The point is, President Koroma increased the anxiety of the people and put unnecessary pressure on himself when he gave himself a deadline. And since he wanted to make an impression, he was desperate to do anything, even if it meant entering into ridiculous and imprudent agreements and to deliver on that promise. Sure he delivered but what are the consequences? The NPA could only accrue about $ 850.000 per month from electricity bills with a running cost of almost 5 million US Dollars. At the moment, international donors are subsidising, though they have expressed their intention to bail out very soon. NPA is currently incurring huge losses. And to make matters worse, in less than a year, the capital has started experiencing blackout again and by the look of things, Bumbuna is not far away from where it was when the SLPP marched out. Most important is the question of what will happen when the one year runs out and the Bumbuna Hydro is still not ready? The lesson in this is that in politics, no matter how determined and desperate you are to achieve, avoid making policy statements or declarations without having all the facts. I think it was a serious political gaffe on the part of the President to set himself a deadline and to put electricity at the top of his government’s priority list. Now expectations are even higher and I am sure he is feeling the pressure even more.
Post election violence
The APC regained power after a lengthy spell on the sidelines on the back of huge support form the youth and the petty traders. What they did not know was that they were signing a pact with the devil. For their support, the youth wanted freedom to do whatever they want to and the traders wanted freedom to display their wares just about anywhere they find productive. And so far, they seem to have gotten that as the government has been struggling to put a leash on them. In the first six months under the APC government, we experienced more acts of violence than we did in the last five years of the SLPP. The violence that marred the post election period gave the most clear of indications of what was to come. Since then, we have witnessed a contagion of riots across the country, from Kono, where youth purporting to be APC supporters invaded mining concessions with reckless abandon to Tongo, where at the slightest opportunity youth will place the whole town under siege to Kambia, where they relish burning houses and terrorizing political opponents. If all of the foregoing did not alarm us, then the after math of the Local Council elections should. The campaing leading to the election was as fraught with violence as the post election period was tainted with controversy. Political tolerance clearly had no place as supporters of the various political parties, especially the APC and the SLPP, are always at each other’s throat.
Men in black
You do not even want to talk about street traders, who had the audacity to display their wares in front of State House, not to talk of Sani Abacha Street, Siaka Stevens Street etc. as far as they are concerned they have the President’s blessing because they voted him into office. If that is not lawlessness enough for you, then how about the ‘task force syndrome’? Now it is common place for a group of black t-shirt wearing gang to brand themselves a task force of whatever and embark on all sorts of mischievous acts. The embarrassment these so-called task forces have caused peace loving Sierra Leoneans is way too much. Since the APC took the hot seat, the lawlessness seems to have gone a notch higher. Say what you may, the regular raids on ‘ghettos’ and ‘potes’ went a long way in the maintenance of law and order in the country. But the seeming respite these destructive institutions have enjoyed since the APC took over has inspired marijuana smoking youth to be more adventurous and graduate to cocaine and other harmful drugs consumers. These drugs, without doubt, are the fuels of violence. Quite recently, there have been several newspaper publications about attacks and murders especially along the Bo-Kenema highway. And suddenly the dreadful act of armed robbery has reared its ugly head again. Though government is aware of the security implications of this state of things, and is desirous of addressing it, conscious of the fact that these factors played a major role in the demise of the SLPP, it has not mustered the political will to address these issues with the high handedness they deserve. But are they going to sit and watch this country slide into chaos just because they want to win the next election? Well I have got news for the President, if things continue this way, there will be no next elections because the country will be rendered ungovernable. Mr. President, you have to do more.
If there are areas where this government has scored high points, then it is the areas of Sanitation, Corruption and Sport. After the National Cleaning Day, a few months ago, you will agree with me, Freetown becomes three times filthier than it was before the cleaning. Rubbish strewn all over the place and garbage heaped in the middle of streets. The pungent stench that escapes those heaps of filth is over powering beyond imagination. You can even see and smell cholera. The resulting traffic jam is agonizing. It becomes even worse if the vehicle you are traveling in lacks the luxury of air conditioning because then you will have to contend with the sickening smell of the rubbish. At first, this government struggled with the issue of cleaning the city, adopting all sorts of methods. Several months down the line, they have finally got it right. The Freetown City Council has made an arrangement that seems to be working. You have to give credit to the Mayor and his staff, including the people that actually do the filthy work of loading the dump trucks and moving the rubbish from one location to the other. Today, every minute of the day, there are waste trucks transporting filth, making sure that filth once deposited is transported to the appropriate dump sites. This is remarkable especially so when it is related to health. Keep it up.
Whilst the establishment of the ACC was the idea of the Kabba regime, it never had the political will to accord the commission all the powers that would capacitate it sufficiently to do its work effectively. During the Kabba era, the ACC could only prosecute its suspects through the Attorney General, which in itself placed a serious fetter on its independence. There were serious concerns over the appropriateness of a government Ministry to prosecute suspects, especially so when most of the suspects are either Ministers or other public figures. These fears were justified when the likes of Momoh Pujeh got away with taps on the wrists for crimes that warrant a considerable period of time behind bars. However, the APC government has finally decided to give teeth to the toothless bull dog that was the ACC. A very ambitious act from the new ACC Commissioner, Abdul Tejan Cole, which recommends stringent penalties for culprits, was successfully passed in Parliament to give the ACC powers to investigate arrest and prosecute its suspects. Whether this new move is going to make a difference in a society that has over the years developed a knack for beating the system remains to be seen. The taste of the pudding, they say, lies in the eating. So let us wait and see.
If I remembered correctly, the last time our national football team; Leone Stars, qualified for the African Nations Cup was in 1996 during the reign of the NPRC. For the Ten years the SLPP took over proceedings, we never even went close to qualifying. But as it is, we are on course for qualification to the African Nations Cup for the third time in its history. We may or may not qualify but the fact that we have done so well so far, I think it is something we should be proud of and we can put that down to the government, the management of the football association, the management of the team and the players themselves. It is obviously not a coincidence. However, it is apparent that much still needs to be done in terms of funding the team because we can not rely on Mohamed Kallon all the time. Government has to come in strongly by providing the necessary financial support needed to develop the team.
The Cocaine saga
Two issues that have served to discredit President Koroma’s government to some extent, at least in the eyes of some, are the cocaine and the salary increase bill issues. On the cocaine issue I can only say whilst I sense a tendency to protect some people and sweep the issue under the carpet, the dimension of his government’s relationship with the international community, especially the US and the UK, is going to take is now very dependent on how he deals with this issue. They are watching closely. His decision to relieve Kemoh Sesay is perhaps the boldest yet he has made since he came into office. The worrying thing however, is him adopting a posture typical of Sierra Leonean leaders-when there is a hue and cry about somebody or something, pretend to take action and when the dust settles, reverse the action. I can see Kemoh Sesay regaining his place in President Koroma’s Cabinet but as sure as day and night, when that happens, the president is going to pay a costly price for it. There is overwhelming evidence that Kemoh Sesay and a number of other people are involved in this cocaine issue. Personally I think the best thing to do is to get rid of them if the President wants to maintain his credibility and is serious about his zero tolerance on corruption. There should be no sacred cows. It was good to make the laws retroactive so as to empower the judiciary to handle this matter properly, but it will be even better if government will commit itself beyond that. The damage this issue has caused our nation will not be fully realized until this issue is not dealt with as seriously as it is supposed to. People might say it has been happening since the SLPP days, but the fact that the plane landed now and an APC Minister is involved gives a different message. This incident does not only discredit the President and his party, it equally discredits all Sierra Leoneans in the face of the world. For the nation’s sake, let this not be another of those incidents that will remain a mystery or as we say in Krio ‘buff case’.
When James Sampha Koroma, the former Secretary to the President left office, he left as a man who resigned his position because he made an unpardonable blunder by tabling a bill proposing an astronomical increase in the President’s salary to Parliament. The proposal, as you would expect, ignited a nation wide uproar, the media, the Parliament and the opposition parties were stunned by this absurdity, but never lost for words when it came to bemoan the decision by government to ask for such an increase at a time when people are struggling with what to eat. 12 days afterwards, a press release was issued from State House claiming the President was not aware of the bill-interesting stuff. This stimulated even more debate as people find it hard to believe that the President was not aware of that bill. In the end, Sampha Koroma took responsibility and called time to his stint with President Koroma’s administration. I have looked at this incident in all possible ways but I still can not see the President not knowing about a bill and yet it makes its way to the house of Parliament. As I continue to ponder, a few questions came to mind: if the President was not aware of the bill, as the press release claimed, why did it have to take State House about twelve days since the first publication (by the Vision) on the issue was made to respond? What if the President actually knew about the bill but did not anticipate the reaction it got from the public? The sacking or resignation of Sampha Koroma is a very cheap political ploy, one that does not require you to have a degree in political science to see through it. The fact of the matter is, the President was absolutely aware of the bill and as a matter of fact it was forwarded to Parliament at his behest. But when it boomeranged, somebody had to take responsibility. And had the president done so, it would have been a kick in the teeth both for him and the party. As a result, they needed to find a sacrificial lamb. And as it was, you can not find a better foil than the Secretary to the President. Of course it will be a difficult thing to ask of him, but with a few convincing promises and for the love of the party, he would do it. So Sampha Koroma took responsibility, all the blame went to him and the president saved face. That been said, if the APC thinks people bought that cheap joke of a political strategy, then somebody better wake them up from their misleading slumber. Some people might have fallen for it, but there are a lot who could not be easily fooled. Claiming not to know about the bill has indeed left the President unscathed politically, but reputation wise, it has dented him. Essentially, he has just told the world that he does not know what goes on in his administration. No wonder…, never mind. In the meantime, rationale minds are still asking: How can a president not know about the tabling of a bill in Parliament that directly concerns him? You tell me.
Perhaps an area of the Ernest Koroma regime that needs the most thorough of evaluations is the area of socio-economic development. I obviously do not have a clue about the economic policies this government has adopted, but I sure know that whatever they are, they are not working at the moment. Surely, President Koroma had a lot of ideas as to how he wants to improve the economy of this country, fix the roads, provide the people with food, clean drinking water, increase employment etc. Admittedly, sometimes I feel sorry for African leaders who have the Breton Woods all over them, formulating policies and twisting their thumbs to implement them, whether they are appropriate for a particular country or not. I think Ernest has landed in that boat as well. The tactless way with which his government barged into the mining sector, represents more than just the government wanting to maximize the country’s benefit from its minerals resources. It smells like a World Bank initiative or should I say directive. How else will you explain President Koroma’s decision to review all mining agreements the moment he became president without even taking time to study these agreements and the business environment. Now the whole mining industry is crippled, investors gradually pulling back and those that are still here are withholding their funds. The industry is merely hanging in the balance at the moment. And whatever is going to become of it is very much dependent on the outcome of the ill-timed review process.
Investors are generally tremulous at the moment, especially so when their companies are being reviewed by people who do not have the requisite technical know how, no disrespect intended. Sierra Leone, we have to accept is not attractive to investors and by frustrating the ones that are here, we are just making matters worse. Already, we have witnessed companies embarking on massive retrenchment exercises thereby increasing an already high unemployment rate. Trust me, high unemployment and inflation are strange bed fellows. They just cannot gel. Yet we wonder why there is a re-emergence of banditry on the highways and armed robbery in the capital. Yes, the problem of food we may say is global. I accept absolutely, but I look around and I still cannot see the government taking steps to ensure that come next year, we will be in a position to produce enough food to deal with whatever global food crisis emerges. ‘Global’, the buzz word in Sierra Leone today, has given our government the perfect excuse to justify non-performance and failure. Mark you, there were a lot of other countries that faced worse problems but they have addressed that and today the food crisis is taken care of. What have we done to ensure the price per bag of rice returns to where it used to be or at least close to that? If you take a look around Sierra Leone today, you will realize that. It is hard to deal with this issue because there seems to be a lack of direction as far as socio-economic policies are concerned-today we are going this way and tomorrow we are going the other way. The whole situation is fuggy.
There is no hard and fast rule that says in the formulation of your economic policies you have to adopt text book examples. You adopt policies that are appropriate for and are achievable in your country. And that is why I think the World Bank is wrong – their one size fits all – approach to economic policies is killing third world countries. Unfortunately, economic dependence has ensured that these countries are in no position to object. If a policy works in Liberia, it does not mean that it will work in Sierra Leone. There are a whole lot of variables that should be considered. As a government, you want to adopt policies that will yield dividends in the short term. Otherwise you will not be there when they come to fruition. The reason is simple. You have a five year term, one of which is largely going to be dedicated to campaigning and electioneering. If you adopt policies that are going to blossom, say after 7 years, you are as good as not trying anything at all because the people want concrete results. They do not dwell on expected results. It happened to the SLPP. They had completed 95% of Bumbuna but as far as the people were concerned, 95% completion is not completion. They want to see light. They want to see it up and running. Mr. President, I think a review of your policies with a view to making them achievable in the short term will do you and your party a world of good.
No Verdict Yet
It is not for me to pass a verdict on President Koroma and his government. As a matter of fact, even if I do, it will not as much as make a minuscule dent on him. The views expressed are largely subjective and therefore do not form a basis for a verdict. However, what I have done is to point out a few short comings to keep you up to speed with what is happening even as you prepare your five years verdict. At the same time, I have sounded a wake up call for the President and his cabinet to be realistic in their approach in governance otherwise they will miss the target completely. I am positive, they are thinking time is flying away too fast. That is the reality of governance in democracy. You do not have the luxury of time that is enjoyed by monarchs and autocrats. From the outside, you think, oh it is easy, and then you present an overloaded manifesto to the people and raise their expectations. Half way through your term, you still have not accomplished one forth of it. Then you start to panic. At the end of the day your achievements are going to be juxtaposed with your promises and the verdict is then given in the ballot box. The best thing to do therefore is to put your priorities right, adopt dynamic policies that are achievable in the short term and in between work on your long term plans. May be and just may be, you will get another chance. But the way things are going right now, I am afraid, is not towards the path that leads to Sierra Leone’s socio-economic acme. To be continued.