The Changing Face of Sierra Leone’s Foreign Ministry

25 February 2009 at 03:30 | 1543 views

By Saidu Kaye Sesay, in London.

It was New Year’s eve (2009), when I honoured a pre-arranged interview with Sierra Leone’s new Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Spokesman, Abdulai Bayraytay, at his Gloucester Street office. It was "business as usual" for some public officials who had decided to take an early vacation, but not Mr. Bayraytay. Though he was late for the meeting, (let say we blame it on the perennial traffic congestion), he maintained my hope by constantly telephoning to inform me about his whereabouts.

Upon my arrival at the ministry’s lobby, I asked the receptionist about Mr. Bayraytay. In response, I discovered that there were more voices obliging to inform me that he was not yet in, but that should I wait a while, he would be in soon. I decided to wait, whilst chatting with an old college mate of mine; Hajj Wurie of the African and Middle East Division of the Ministry. I was enjoying my reunion with Hajj, when all of a sudden I heard the same voices almost simultaneously announcing the arrival of Mr. Bayraytay.

Abdulai Bayraytay may have just come from the Diaspora, true, he rides an air-conditioned car, complementing his dress sense of westernised suits, but the impression I got was that he was still down to earth. As he made his way through the lobby, I observed him greet each person with a warm hand shake, and at times stooping, accentuating the African tradition. I made a mental note of this because of the notions held of people from the Diaspora that they would return home and transform themselves into demi-gods.

As we walked the flights of stairs to his sixth floor office, Mr. Bayraytay apologised for the lack of an elevator, but informed me that by the time I visit next there would be one. "Through the tireless efforts of the Minister, we can boast of one soon in fifteen years or so and in two years we should be moving to a new state of the art Foreign Affairs Ministry complex at Tower Hill in Freetown", Bayraytay assured.

Once in his office, I asked him what motivated him to go back home from Canada where he has been residing for some ten odd years. The spokesman then went into a didactic mood, first mentioning that he was heeding President Koroma’s clarion call for Sierra Leoneans to return home and contribute to nation building, but above all, that the present Foreign Affairs Minister Zainab Bangura inspired him to return. "I have faith in her and believe in the vision of the president", he maintained. It must be recalled that both Abdulai and the Minster had worked together at the Campaign for Good Governance, a leading non-governmental advocacy organization in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s

Abdulai Bayraytay is not the type that one will normally describe as an escapist. He recalled that as Secretary General of the National Union of Sierra Leone Students (NUSS) he sought refuge in Conakry, Guinea when the AFRC overthrew the SLPP.

He was offered the opportunity to travel abroad, but declined, because "I did not want to betray students. I therefore returned to Sierra Leone to complete my studies, before my family sent me abroad for graduate studies".

Asked to describe his role as Foreign Affairs Spokesman, Mr. Bayraytay disclosed that besides marketing the image of the Ministry, he briefs the Minister on a daily basis on world issues relating to Sierra Leone. He is also tasked with collating correspondents from the country’s overseas missions to the ministry. "The Minister’s policy is to reply to these correspondences within twenty-four hours, and so far, we can boast of success to that effect".

Commenting on the direction of the Ministry, the Spokesman revealed that they are presently involved in active diplomacy in an ever changing world that thrives on human and economic security. "In terms of economic growth, new economies are emerging thus we have decided to open new embassies in India, Kuwait, Brazil and Senegal." Justifying the opening of an embassy in Senegal, he put it down to strategy. "We have well-over ten accredited Ambassadors to Sierra Leone, all based in Dakar. It is therefore convenient to make our presence felt".

On the issue of trade/trade laws, I drew his attention to Barack Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, in which, Sierra Leone was criticised for barely having any laws at all. Demonstrating his versatility, Mr. Bayraytay countered the accusation, pointing out that the book was written at a time when Sierra Leone was coming from the scourges of a devastating war. "Things have changed", he opined. "In 2006, as Senator of Illinois, Barack Obama wrote a letter, appealing for the resuscitation of the Peace Corps Programme in Sierra Leone". Be that as it were, Mr. Bayraytay is confident about the new regime’s attitude towards trade laws. He revealed that the existing trade laws are being reviewed and that presently, businesses are being registered within seventy-two hours. "Because the National Commission on Privatisation has been strengthened, high profile international groups like the Dangote, the largest cement producer in the world, and the George Soros Foundation have decided to invest in areas like agriculture and industries, thus creating jobs for the youth"

Commenting on the accusation of wasteful spending by the Ministry (about 2.7 billion leones), the Foreign Affairs Spokesman insisted that the spending passed through Executive Clearance and then forwarded to the Ministry of Finance. He recalled that when the present president assumed office he embarked on some meaningful trips abroad, for which the Foreign Ministry requested the funds from the Ministry of Finance. "As a Ministry, we do not disburse funds, we only spend but that spending must be authorised", noting that "donors had suspended budget support to Sierra Leone as a result of the reckless and frivolous spending of the former government. The president and her able Minister of foreign Affairs Minister therefore had to travel to restore confidence and donor support. " The outcome, according to him, has been positive with the restoration of donor confidence and the badly needed budget support to the government.

With regards the slow recall and posting of diplomats, especially Ambassadors and High Commissioners, Mr. Bayraytay deride and lamented the dishonesty of some diplomats. Asked to submit their names and those of their dependents when recalled, the Ministry discovered that some diplomats had inflated the list with ’ghost’ relatives. "The Minister had to robustly intervene and decided to offer to purchase their tickets electronically, directly from the airlines. Once this was suggested, we discovered that the lists "dwindled", he said sarcastically, and that the Ministry was able to save well over hundred thousand United States dollars. He however revealed that most of the postings have now taken place except for a few Press Attaches.

Speaking on other developments, Bayraytay proudly pointed to the fraternal role of India which has boosted the medical field with the introduction of e-connectivity, a phenomenon, which enables doctors in Sierra Leone to link up with doctors in India, through the internet, for the interpretation of diagnoses; the training of civil servants between Freetown and the provinces through e-connectivity, as well as the successful hosting of the Mano River Union that brought in the Presidents of Ivory Coast, Liberia and the Prime Minister of Guinea.

Dismissing his critics who accuse him of jumping ships by virtue of his impeccable role as student leader in the restoration of democracy to the country after the erstwhile SLPP government was ousted from power in 1997, Mr. Bayraytay maintained that the decision was taken at an Executive Committee Meeting, and that as Secretary-General of the National Union of Sierra Leone Students (NUSS) then, he was committed to that ideal hence he went into hiding and then into exile after threats on his life and that of his family following his condemnation of the coupists over the BBC’s Focus on Africa Programme. The Spokesman further maintained that as a non-registered APC member, but yet working with the present administration is a pointer to the fact that President Koroma’s government is all inclusive. He therefore took the opportunity to implore Sierra Leoneans abroad to return home and contribute in whatever modest ways to the country’s overall development.

Photo: Left to right: Abdulai Bayraytay, Zainab Bangura (in a working session) and former Director-General Umaru B. Wurie.