From the Editor’s Keyboard

Hail, Obama’s Friend; Salone’s Re-Brander

14 October 2011 at 03:19 | 313 views

By Oswald Hanciles, Guest Writer, Freetown, Sierra Leone.

There has been a lot of debate in Sierra Leone-oriented cyberspace forums across the fiercely-competitive partisan SLPP-APC divide as to what value to put on our Ernest Bai Koroma, President of one of the most impoverished nations on the planet, sitting next to Barack Obama, President of the most powerful nation ever in human history – at a recent New York dinner hosted by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki Moon, who also graced the same ‘head table’ in a hall jammed with about a hundred other heads of states, and/or governments. The APC crowed over the obvious honor as a clear message the U.S. government sent to the world to show its support for President Koroma, especially the manner in which the President handled the recent ‘Bo Fire’ incident, in the wake of violence flaring up after opposition presidential candidate Maada Bio had been allegedly stoned, and SLPP youths burning down the APC party office in Bo Town. Some SLPP supporters dismissed it all as….Coincidence?

Coincidence? Decipher Obama’s Speech then
Can the largely Ivy League super-educated officials that inundate the hierarchy of the State Department and the White House be capricious about such a sitting arrangement of the President of the U.S. in a dinner for all the world’s leaders? Come on!! President Koroma has been doing things pretty right in his country to earn that unprecedented US presidential endorsement. Of course, it would not be lost on the public relations-savvy Americans that President Koroma – with his hulking figure and square ‘Irish Jaw’ I wrote in this Column six years ago makes him look ‘Presidential’; his white hair that bespeaks wisdom and such monarchial dignity that would get Hollywood chieftains to contract him when he leaves office – would gloss any photo-ops; but, American foreign policy and stance is not guided by superficialities, but hard substance. We don’t know for sure why Obama chose to have Koroma seated next to him. If we read the speech made by Obama at the dinner, we could come close to an answer.

Barrack Obama said: “….recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world….(We) also know from experience that those who defend these values for their people have been our closest friends and allies,.”

Again, hear Obama: “the strongest foundation for human progress lies in open economies, open societies, and open governments. …America is working to shape a world that fosters this openness, for the rot of a closed or corrupt economy must never eclipse the energy and innovation of human beings. …..” Those words should have been related to Sierra Leone for Obama to have Koroma seated next to him in a dinner with all the world’s leaders.
Without Freedom of Information law, no ‘Open Society’ in Salone.

Do we have an open society in Sierra Leone? Relatively. There are some 60 newspapers being published in the country, mostly private, completely uncensored, fearless – and rather feared by the governing elite. There are some 40 radio stations soaring with unrestricted freedom. In per capita terms, given this quantity and density of media outlets, unfettered, Sierra Leone could very well earned a kudos as the best place for the media in the developing world. (Of course, free private media that mainly operates on shoe string budgets and are over-dependent on government agencies for advertisements to thrive cannot be exactly said to be ‘free’, can they? Also, the refusal of the political party of President Koroma – the APC - which has the majority in parliament to make into law the Freedom of Information Bill which had been tabled for four years now wipes away some of freedom sheen from our country. President Obama’s words – “for the rot of a closed or corrupt economy must never eclipse the energy and innovation of human beings” – envelops Sierra Leone, and much of Africa, where the energies of the predominant youth would never be unleashed with the absence of a Freedom of Information law that will get people to escape the rack of decadent status quos).

In Spite of Galloping Inflation, Our Economy is Being Well Managed
President Koroma’s handling of Sierra Leone’s economy in the tsunami-ic global economic scenario has been endorsed by this statement issued in late September, 2011, by Jan Mikkelsen, IMF Mission Chief for Sierra Leone: “Following a 5 percent growth in real GDP in 2010, economic activity has remained robust in 2011, supported by continued expansion in agriculture and mining.”. The political opposition would be derisive of the IMF statement. After all, the harsh realities on the ground for the ordinary Salone citizenry are galloping inflation for basics of rice, cooking oil, soap, toothpaste, medicine…etc.

Salone is now of Strategic Interest to the U.S.

The United States is not the richest and most powerful nation in the world because its leaders have been sentimental. After the Second World War, the US government engaged in the Cold War with its primary Super Power rival, the former Soviet Union, and their menacing and mysterious Socialist ally, China – today, there is competitive trade between the US and Russia and China as if they were playing professional basketball. The 19th Century dictum of then ‘British Empire’, ‘We have permanent interests, not permanent friends’, sways U.S. foreign policy thrusts too. President Koroma sitting next to President Obama at that UN dinner table could be because Obama has empathy with Koroma (they both are highly emotionally-disciplined men, as I highlighted in my recently launched biography on President Koroma, ‘Natural Born Leader’), but, there has to be more substance than symbolism in the U.S. moves. What could this kernel of truth be?

Read: over the past one year, African Minerals has invested over a billion dollars in its iron ore concession, and the Chinese have marched in to plant their stake in the shareholding of this company. The Chinese!!? Remember, a couple of months ago, U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, warned about a ‘new colonialism’ on the march in Africa, an oblique reference to burgeoning Chinese investments in the continent. Read also: the petroleum exploration that is being intensified in Sierra Leone’s territorial ocean. Ha!! Our tiny country is of strategic importance to the giant America today. Our country exploded for eleven years in the 1990s. America, and nearly all Europe, ignored Sierra Leone as it was racked by one of the most sordid brutality in modern times. That was not because they didn’t love us; or, because, largely, we are blacks. Sierra Leone wasn’t perceived as of strategic relevance to the U.S. then. Now we are. Iron ore. Petroleum. The US government certainly is not going to allow this country to explode in another nauseous ‘rebel war’ like it did in the 1990s; and, inasmuch as President Koroma is perceived as providing that leadership that does NOT fuel the fires of anger of opposition political parties, or, kindle furnace-like political indignation within his own political party – which could ripple to other West African countries, and threaten the exploitation, and exploration, of petroleum reserves in West Africa - Koroma is ‘the US’ man’.

President Koroma Should End ‘Ethnic War of Attrition’
APC spin doctors today could be as foolish as SLPP PR gurus were hallucinatory in the early 2000s when they peddled the Big Lie that ‘the largest UN Peace Keeping Force in history’ that was stationed in Sierra Leone was a manifestation that the ‘international community’ loved the erudite and resonant voice of President Tejan Kabbah soooo much! The U.S. government is likely to continue to give symbolic, and, other tangible support, to President Koroma’s government if he can continue to preside over a state that exhibits Obama’s values, and, more importantly, does not allow the state to explode, and, potentially, threaten a fraction of U.S. interest.

US interest could be threatened, and the support that the APC leader now has from the ilk of President Obama could evaporate (like it did for the SLPP government a year before the 2007 elections), if the APC continues to belie, and fail to take resolute action on, what I have termed in this Column as ‘The Civil War Mentality’ within the political psyche of most of the governing elite.

The ‘Civil War Mentality’ is ethnic jingoism. One major tribal/regional block gets most of its electoral support from a region that catapults it to power. Its spin doctors rationalize giving out most of the powerful jobs in the country to the ethnic groups that made it possible for it to win power. The opposition SLPP has lampooned the governing APC for the disproportionate number of Northern Province elites (from one or two tribes) in all senior government positions in the country. What could not be much visible, and could be worse, is the alleged alarming ‘ethnic war of attrition’ in the public sector. It is alleged that Mende-speaking South Easterners are being sacked from government jobs simply because of their genes. Or, where they maintain their jobs, they are humiliatingly marginalized. The magnitude of this phenomenon which appears to be causing so much bitterness in South-Easterners is not known yet. Over the past four years, I have studied closely a vital government institution where this ‘ethnic war of attrition’ has reached scandalous and alarming proportions.

J.B.D’s Failure Can be Ernest’s Success

Three months ago I took a proposal to the highest ranking Mende-speaking South-Easterner in the President Koroma government, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Hon. J.B. Dauda – so that he would be the center to investigate such ‘ethnic war of attrition’, and bring it to the attention of the President so that probable injustices would be redressed. Hon. Dauda has not done anything about this. What the APC must realize, and reflect on, is this: the SLPP’s election of Retired Brigadier Maada Bio as its presidential candidate is a belligerent scream from especially the potentially volatile Mende-speaking South-Eastern youth: ‘We are now responding to the administrative war on our people. We are ready for war. We have a war leader!!’.

The ‘Bo Fire’ was just a battle ignited. The Committee set up by the President to investigate the ‘Bo Fire’ will serve little purpose if it fails to address the underlying causes of the fire – this perceived ‘ethnic war of attrition’ against the people of the South East. President Ernest Bai Koroma has to live his avowed role as Father of the Nation to significantly shore up the trust of the people of the South East for the APC government. This cannot be done with words alone. Significant realignment of government policy and political action will be necessary to rob extremists of ammunition to slide this country into war again. President Obama is watching; and more high dinner table international invitations awaits President Koroma as the ‘new friend’ of Obama if he defuses this ethnic bomb in our country. Sierra Leoneans are likely to reward him with a landslide victory in 2012 like they did for President Kabbah in 2002 because ‘Kabbah ended the war’.