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A profile of Sierra Leone’s Zainab Bangura

10 October 2007 at 08:59 | 2654 views

By Osman Benk Sankoh.

It was a late evening Sierra Leone’s Independence Day party in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. A lot of Sierra Leonean expatriates working with the UN systems in that country were around. The DJ with much unbridled gusto was dishing out intercontinental tracks that kept every one present permanently on the stage dancing. From Congo to California and Manila to Siberia, the DJ was just reeling out the very best of soundtracks that the world could offer.

Soon, it was the turn of our own Emerson Bockarie’s ‘Tutu party’ to be unleashed from the DJ’s jukebox. The atmosphere erupted into an explosive musical volcano as Sierra Leoneans as well as their Liberian hosts and other internationals, ran helter-skelter, grabbed colleagues or companions and moved on stage to display their dancing talents.

On the dance floor that night was a prominent Sierra Leonean who had just relocated to Liberia to work with the UN peacekeeping Mission. Forget at least for a second that she was a presidential aspirant in the 2002 polls, don’t mention also that she has been a civil society activist all her life and also, one very prominent in being among others; a human rights defender, an anti-corruption crusader and even a chartered insurer like President Koroma ; Zainab Hawa Bangura was on stage doing justice to ‘Tutu Party’ much to the envy of those present .Her prized art of dancing that night could have made Beyonce and Shakira look like apprentices.

Amidst the resounding applause she and her team received after dancing to ‘Tutu Party’, the floor was now set to talk about politics back home. Some people were curious to know if Zainab was ever going to enter the presidential race in the not too distant future. Particularly of concern were also rumours that PMDC’s Charles Margai had tipped her to be his running mate.

Well, if they were expecting answers in the affirmative, they were in for a rude shock. Zainab never traded her smiles for clues on her political future. For the young lady who was just beginning her UN career, her major preoccupation was how she was going to make a difference in her new capacity as Chief of Civil Affairs, provide motherly love to her son who was wrapping up studies at the university of Sierra Leone and of course, love and affection for her dear husband.

However, none of the above could stop tongues wagging her name as amongst those fit for governance. Even without being in the political limelight in the run-up to the just concluded polls, Zainab, it was believed and widely discussed, has something innate in her that the country could benefit from.

And so, when it was time for discussions in the court of public opinion on Koroma’s possible cabinet, the rumour mill started flowing left, right and center. While others openly vowed that they were privy to Koroma’s list in which Zainab’s name had already been ticked for the Finance Ministry, others swore on oath that they can authoritatively confirm that Koroma had already earmarked her for the Foreign office. State House sources, according to a local daily also mentioned her as a possible cabinet appointee.

While all this was going on, Zainab, who is so passionate about her UN job, didn’t allow this to bother her. She never commented one bit on these speculations and thus, when she received a call from His Excellency late one evening while in the UK for vacation and exactly a few hours after she was guest at a BBC Network Africa Breakfast show, Her Royal Highness (apologies, a BBC texter) knew exactly where the conversation with the ‘Obai’ was going to end. It was a less than three minutes call but H.E’s request was simple, “Zainab, I want you to consider coming back home to serve your people and in my government as Foreign Affairs Minister,” the President was said to have said and now by her name being on the list of cabinet appointees, it goes without saying that Zainab Hawa Bangura must have consented even though it would have meant holding a mini domestic conference first with her husband and son on whether to serve or not to serve.

Though she always considers herself, “an African Muslim woman, a first generation to be educated in my family,” Zainab, like many women then, started life the very hard way.

Born December 18, 1959, at age 12, she already knew how to perfectly take care of a family. This, it was believed was imbibed in her by her Muslim cleric father and mother, who, though never darkened the doors of school, wanted their only daughter to be a shining light for the family.

In her mid 30’s, she was chasing men with AK- 47s, mortars and RPGs out of power for the restoration of democracy. In her early 40’s, she had a go at the highest office in the land and though, unsuccessful, she left an indelible impression that gone are the days when women were only relegated to the kitchen while politics was a sport for men only.

And if failure then was just an added impetus to her aspiration for higher heights, Zainab quickly rekindled her efforts and all of a sudden, what she failed in getting as president quickly came to pass when she started wining and dining with Presidents, Princes and Princesses and even Queens and Kings.

A few days ago, she was (of course, she must be cleaning her closet in the UN now) an egg head with the status of a Director(D-1) working with the United Nations Mission in Liberia where she heads the largest Section in the mission, Civil Affairs with oversight responsibilities on all government ministries in that country and today, Madam Bangura, who established and transformed notable institutions like Campaign For Good Governance(CGG) and the anti corruption watchdog, National Accountability Group(NAG) into household names within and without the country is planning on re-energizing her efforts in being the country’s face on the international scene.

If confirmed in parliament, Zainab will be the second female the country has ever had in that capacity after Madam Shirley Gbujama.

Believed to be the blue eyed girl of the International community, Zainab, just like Koroma himself started life as a Chartered Insurer at the National Insurance Company. She was later to cross path with Koroma again when she joined the former at the Reliance Insurance Trust Corporation (RITCORP). Though the new president was her immediate supervisor at RITCORP, little I am sure, Zainab would have imagined that she was ever going to work with Koroma at a time like this and indeed, as the President’s trusted appointee in charge of Foreign Affairs.

Like Koroma again, Zainab started schooling at the Magburaka Government Secondary School for Girls (Mathora)(which is the feamle companion of the Magburaka Secondary School for Boys, the school Ernest Koroma attended) in 1971 and by 1976, she had attained the status of Senior Prefect.

At The Annie Walsh Memorial Secondary School (AWMS), Zainab, in 1979 won accolades for proficiency and reliability, an enviable record that has always been hugely contested for in that institution.

After her undergraduate studies at Fourah Bay College, the UN diplomat did her post-graduate studies at the Nottingham University and the City University Business School also in the UK. A former Reagan- Fascell Democracy Fellow at NED (National Endowment for Democracy), the qualified chartered insurer also serves as member for various international organizations including the steering committee of the World Movement for Democracy, Foundation for West Africa, OSIWA and the International Crisis Group in Brussels. She also has an outstanding relationship with Transparency International.

Zainab has also served as consultant for notable UN institutions like UNDP and UNHCR among others.
Madam Bangura has also received various awards nationally and internationally on Human Rights, Democracy and Good Governance for her work in Sierra Leone including at the United States Congress in June last year, which also saw her making a visit to the Oval office to meet with President George W Bush.

Believed to be a close friend to Africa’s first female President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the Foreign Affairs designate has travelled extensively in all five continents and also has as friends, several Heads of State and government. This and other extensive international contacts she has are valuable assets she could infuse into her new foreign job.

Madam Bangura first came into public reckoning in 1996, when she, together with other unarmed women challenged the then NPRC regime at the various Bintumani Conferences with her voice being the loudest amongst those calling for the military to go back to the barracks and hand power to the politicians, through the ballot box.

Her role, even as a refugee in Guinea during the 1997 interregnum is all there to see and even read. She was a constant face in the premises of the US State Department and UN headquarters in New York lobbying for support in her die-hard quest for the restoration of ‘constitutional order.’ She was also a major power broker during the various peace negotiations that were held between the government and the then rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) outfit.

Undoubtedly, Zainab, like a child who knows how to wash her hands clean and eat with ‘Obais’, has etched her name both within and without the walls of Sierra Leone. Though only for a short while, she is leaving an indelible imprint on the operations of her Civil Affairs Section, believed to be the most complex and biggest not only in the UN mission in Liberia but for all peacekeeping missions the world over.

She took care of 16 government Ministries and 30 government agencies and public corporations.
Though she will greatly be missed by her UN colleagues, Zainab is surely going to be an asset to the new government in terms of rebuilding the image of the country and resource mobilization in order to meet the great expectations of President Koroma’s victory. Because she has also travelled to every nook and cranny of the country to raise funds and had supported a lot of women’s organizations, Zainab will surely be of help in healing the wounds created by a very bitter just ended electioneering process.
Her pastimes are, reading and regular workouts in the gym.
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s welcome Madam Bangura to our Foreign Affairs ministry!

Photo: Zainab Bangura and US president George Bush.

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