By Sheka Tarawalie.
On the sidelines of attending the UN General Assembly in New York, President Ernest Bai Koroma has, as a priority, performed his first major activity by attending a town-hall meeting organised by Sierra Leoneans in the USA at the College of Staten Island in New York to tender a report card of his two-year-old administration followed by a question-and-answer session.
Speaking extemporaneously at the evening ceremony attended by hundreds of Sierra Leoneans and non-Sierra Leonean well-wishers yesterday 20th September, the President, recognizing that he was coming to Staten Island for the first time since he assumed office, thanked everybody for participating in the electoral process that brought him to power and thereby “making Sierra Leone a leading democracy in Africa.”
“As a candidate for the election and as a political party, we did not underestimate the circumstances of the country. We knew very well that we were at the bottom rung of the human development index, wherein poverty was pervasive….a good number of our people could not afford a decent meal, illiteracy high, maternal and infant mortality rates were terrible, and the economy was not up and about. By the time we took over governance, the entire donor community was not supporting activities of government. But that was what we saw, and that was why we committed ourselves to change. It was on a platform of change we campaigned, and it was on a platform of change we were voted into office. And immediately we took over governance, we had to do something quickly. We had to prepare ourselves to deliver on the promises we had made to the people of Sierra Leone. Therefore, as government, we quickly put in place our priorities - priorities in the areas of energy, agriculture, infrastructure and the social delivery services. I knew that by laying emphasis on the growth sectors, we will be able to accelerate development in the social services. But where are we in the growth sectors?”
The President then went on to analyse or report on what he inherited and what is now.
On energy, President Koroma said he inherited ‘the darkest capital” on earth, but was able to bring electricity to Freetown within his first 100 days through an emergency energy provision. But then he said he knew it was an expensive energy provision, and therefore committed himself to providing affordable and clean energy: “I am very pleased to report today that on the 17th of this month - exactly two years in office – I was able to switch on the lights for the final test phase for the thirty-five year old Bumbuna project,” followed by thunderous applauses. However, the President was quick to say “we are not there yet,” as he has embarked on further electrification projects “to ensure that energy is available to as many Sierra Leoneans as possible” making mention of the soon-to-be-started mini-hydro projects in Port Loko, Charlotte, and Moyamba.
The Head of State encouraged both the private and public sectors to invest in energy, sounding positive that “in the not-too-distant future, Sierra Leone as a country would have access to energy that would lay the basis for sustainable economic growth.”
The President said after ensuring the focused direction of the energy sector, he decided to rearrange his priorities by making agriculture the number-one priority in place of energy. He said this was done because “the future of that country lies in agriculture. It can generate wealth, create employment and improve on our foreign exchange earnings.” He then reported that his government recently signed the African agricultural development programme (CAADP), explaining that a country could only be qualified to sign for the programme after its government would have demonstrated commitment to the sector. He recalled that when he took over, the budgetary allocation to the sector was at its barest minimum. “To show our demonstration of commitment in beefing up the agricultural sector, I inherited a 1.6 % budgetary allocation to agriculture, and within a year I increased that amount to a 7.7% budgetary allocation…. And in addition to increasing the budgetary allocation, we have set up a presidential task force that will determine policy, will monitor the execution of that policy, and also be a forum wherein a report of the progress made in the agricultural sector is channeled ….. Therefore, because of the improvements we have made and our commitments to achieving what the African countries set out to achieve in Maputo, we were granted the facility to sign the CAADP document” which would open doors for support. He however stated that a 10% budgetary allocation is required for full support, revealing that his government has now made a firm commitment to a 9.9% budgetary allocation in the next year.
President Koroma said emphasis has been shifted to ensure that agriculture is not merely seen as a production activity but to address the whole agricultural chain from input to agribusiness. He disclosed that his government has now received the “the biggest consignment of agricultural machinery the country has ever seen,” stating that he is determined to ensure that “agriculture becomes the engine of economic growth.” He said the country has therefore come a long way, “but we are not there yet”, remaining hopeful that “with the strides we have taken, the progress that we have made made, the improvements that we have seen, there is a basis for all of us to have some confidence that in the not-too-distant future, Sierra Leone would become self-sufficient in the production of our staple food, which is rice.”
The Head of State however said agriculture cannot on its own develop on a sustainable basis without the support of a good road infrastructure. “That is why closely associated with the agricultural sector is our infrastructural development,” he maintained, stating that he inherited a system wherein most of the infrastructural projects had been abandoned. But he said his government has been able to revitalize the Freetown-Conakry Highway project and the Lumley-Tokeh Road which had been dragging on due to “terrible contractual arrangements.” He said he inherited a mere proposal for the Kenema-Kailahun Road but has now been able to attract donor support and the contract given to a Korean company that would commence work before the end of the year. He also put the commencement of work on the Lungi-Port Loko Road within the same timeframe, as also the completion of the Bo-Freetown Road, while revealing that the construction of the Bo-Bandajuma-Monrovia Highway will start early next year. He further revealed that government’s attention was not only limited to the construction of trunk or major roads, but also are currently doing 4000 kilometers of feeder roads. He said the work so far done by his government, including constructing bridges (one of which connects Pujehun to rest of the country), within two years “is more than what other governments have done in the past….I am not on a campaign trail; I am not seeking to win votes. I am saying what we have done; and it is there for you to verify.”
The President said he would not make any detailed pronouncement about the sea and air ports, “But I would assure you that before the end of my first term and unto my second term (interrupted by long applause) we would have got something to write home about for our ports.”
President Koroma went on to give a report on the next priority area of his government – social services, admitting that there’s a big challenge in education and health.
HEALTH - He said the indicators, especially in health, are not good, but he would still report that some improvements have been made, including on the infant and maternal mortality rates “but we are still at the bottom,” intimating that more work needs to be done. He therefore said government is working on creating special conditions of service for health service providers and that government is working on introducing a health insurance policy.
EDUCATION – The President said there has been an improvement on the number of girls going to secondary school, but that progress has not been satisfactory, causing a review for the whole educational system: “The 6-3-3-4 system is under review to determine what is good for us, and not what is popular within the sub region”
“In all of what we are doing, we believe that progress can only be made if we anchor all of it on good governance,” President Koroma declared, maintaining that his government started its good-governance approach through the smooth transition he ensured by keeping defeated SLPP ministers in government until his own ministers were sworn in. “For democracy to thrive, there must be the rule of law, accountability and transparency, and there must be a fight against corruption,” he said, before declaring that the Anti Corruption Commission (ACC) has now got its independence through the amendment of the Anti Corruption Act giving it sufficient powers to investigate and prosecute any one. The President reported that the Commission has been retrieving monies from corrupt officials: “The ACC now has more cases in court not because the government is more corrupt, but because they now have a free hand to take anybody to court.”
The Head of State said his commitment to good governance was marred by political disturbances in March 2009, but was able to put the situation under control through the signing of a joint communiqué by the leadership of the ruling All People’s Congress (APC) and the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) . He said he demonstrated his commitment to the communiqué by inviting opposition parties and giving them a platform during the APC convention. He also said he has been making provincial/district visits and always giving the opposition an opportunity to speak in public gatherings: “It is an innovation, and I am the first President in that country to allow something like that to happen.”
OPEN GOVERNMENT INITIATIVE
The President said his government also adopted the Open Government Initiative (OGI), through which government functionaries, including himself and his ministers, “are questioned by members of the public in town-hall meetings like this… It is increasing the level of transparency, the level of understanding between the government and the people, and I believe that it has enhanced the performance of ministers.”
The Head of State said “all of this is paying dividend.” Because of what the government has done thus far, he said, the nation’s rating in the eyes of the international community has increased substantially, with renowned figures, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and international businessman George Soross, not only visiting but becoming both advocates and investors. He said international financial institutions are now giving good score marks to the country even as the International Finance Corporation, in collaboration with the World Bank, has ranked Sierra Leone as “the sixth best place to do business in the West Coast and the best within the Mano River Union.”
The President acknowledged that the country was not earning what it deserved in her natural resources, which was why his government formed a committee to review all existing mining contracts, even as they have now finalized the review of the Koidu Holdings (diamond-mining company) and would now start with the Rutile mining contract. He said the review of the whole Minerals Act is now completed and would shortly put in place a new one.
President Koroma revealed that a lot of progress has been made in further exploration for mineral resources, disclosing that five billion tonnes of iron ore have been discovered in Tonkolili district, “making it potentially the biggest mine in Africa.”
He also revealed that a consortium has made a discovery of oil in the country: “We are not sure of the contents; but the way it has been publicized, we hope and pray that when they go to the next stage to determine the commercial quantity, Sierra Leone will become an oil-exporting country….and we will ensure that this time round, this time round, the oil will not be a curse to the country.”
The President said his government and the country have obviously made a lot of progress. He said the government’s vision is encapsulated and articulated in the ‘Agenda for Change’ – a document that will be widely publicized and distributed.
He said with a view to achieving the dreams of the ‘Agenda for Change’, the government is having a donors conference on 18th and 19th November 2009 in London, seeking to canvass donors for a huge financial support into the country, stating that what could be required for the full realization of the ‘Agenda for Change’ would be in the region of $2.5 billion.
CALL TO RETURN HOME
The President concluded by inviting Sierra Leoneans to return home and be part of the country’s transformation. He called on them to come home and rebuild the country, “as Sierra Leone needs you more than America does…So my appeal to you is to come home, and let’s do it together. Thank you very much”
The President’s speech was followed by a question-and-answer session. He answered all the questions posed to him, including on Yenga, drug trafficking, devolution, tractors, the land tenure system, the depreciation of the Leone, tourism, relationship with Liberia, water and sanitation, all of which were satisfactorily answered as reflected in the responses of the audience.
The session was opened by the national anthems of Sierra Leone and USA, followed by prayers, while the welcome address was given by Sierra Leone’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Sheku M. Touray.
Statements were made by representatives of the United States Sierra Leone Association (USSLA), the SLPP, and the APC. Minister of Information & Communications I.B. Kargbo introduced the Presidential entourage, which included First Lady Sia Nyama Koroma and Foreign Affairs Minister Zainab Bangura.
The occasion was chaired by Sierra Leone’s Ambassador to the United States, Bockarie Stevens, while the vote of thanks was given by Mr. Samuel Koroma, a member of the Organising Committee.
And here is another report by Betty Foray in New York:
President Koroma Says: 5 Bn Tons of Tonkolili Iron Ore Not Going To Be A Curse
The President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma told Sierra Leoneans on Sunday 20th September, 2009, that the prospected five billion tons of iron ore deposit in the Tonkolili District in Sierra Leone would not be a curse to the country.
He also said Sierra Leone needs her people more than America does as he made an appeal to prompt them to go back home during a town hall meeting at the College of Staten Island in New York.
The President began his address by congratulating the Muslims on a successful Eid Ul Fitri celebration, thanked those who supported him during the 2007 elections that brought him to power and those who supported the process as a whole.
President Koroma outlined the problems his government inherited citing the Human Development Index, where Sierra Leone is still at the bottom. “Sixty percent of our population still lives under a dollar a day,” he said and expressed same sentiments about illiteracy, Infant and Maternal Mortality rates, a bad economy, deplorable roads, combating corruption, indiscipline and bad behavior, and non-cooperation by Donor countries and partners amongst scores of other issues.
“This is why we have committed ourselves to the platform of change; the basis for which we were voted,” the President said when highlighting the gains made by his government in the two years in power. He said his government has committed itself to delivering on the election campaign promises by “quickly putting in place our priorities”.
He said his government was accelerating development in social services and explained how he put premium on the energy sector and delivered on his promise to reverse the status from darkest city/country in Africa to one with consistent electricity. Within the first 100 days in office the President said, his government has improved the capacity of generated electricity from five megawatts to 20 and, he went on, on the 17th September 2009, he switched on the final test-phase of the 35-year-old Bumbuna electric Hydro-project. A resounding applause punctuated him at this juncture and on several others later.
The President said that now that his government has put the energy problem under considerable control, with other major towns and cities slated for near-future projects, his government has shifted its priorities to focus on agriculture.
On agriculture, he was confident that raising the sector’s budgetary allocation from 1.6 to 7.7 billion Leones, coupled with the newly-acquired equipments and, the programmes put in place to boost the sector, agriculture will become vibrant once again and make Sierra Leone self-sufficient and food-secured.
He dilated on development areas like the road network systems, which he said his government was working on to redo deplorable roads on Tokeh Freetown, Kenema Kailahun, Lungi and Port Loko and the Kambia Guinea roads in addition to the feeder roads that link towns and villages and cities.
He talked on his plans on healthcare delivery systems, saying that later on a health insurance would be introduced. He lamented that trained nurses and doctors are lost to the Diaspora and made an appeal for all to come back home and work for their country. “Sierra Leone needs you more than America does,” he stated.
On the Educational system, he said the government was looking at the 6334 system with a view to better tailoring it to make it good rather than go with what other countries are doing, he said.
He also spoke on his enthusiasm for good governance recalling how, as he was sworn as president, he kept former ministers in office so as to ensure a smooth transitional government, serving as a model for emulation. He said his dream is to develop a democratic atmosphere for Sierra Leone.
President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma also spoke on the economy, which he said was getting by with Donor confidence rising. Persons who had no or little interest in Sierra Leone are now coming forward to offer services, he said. He named former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and founder of the Surus Foundation, George Sorus among the host of Foreign Investors and Partners in the nation’s development process. He said Sierra Leone has shot to sixth place for a business-friendly environment in West Africa. “ “We are making some progress,” he said.
He talked about the mining sector’s ups and downs and expressed hope that the five billion tonnes of prospected Iron Ore in the Tonkolili District (said to be potentially the biggest deposit in Africa) will be a blessing and not a curse.
The president was accompanied by the First Lady Ms. Koroma, and the combined group of delegations including the two Ministers of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and Information and Communication, Zainab Hawa Bangura and Alhaji I.B. Kargbo, the Ambassador to USA Mr. Bockarie Stevens, the Permanent and Deputy Permanent Representatives of the Sierra Leone Mission to the United Nations Ambassadors Shekou M. Touray and Rupert S. Davies, the Director General Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Mr. Soulay B. Daramy, the State Chief of Protocol Mr. Alusine Sesay and a host of other officers.
Earlier, the Ambassador and permanent representative Mr. Shekou M. Touray gave the welcome address.
The meeting was attended by all three political party members (SLPP, PMDC and APC), Sierra Leonean dignitaries and friends of Sierra Leone.
Photo: President Koroma and First Lady Sia Koroma.