The go-getter minister

17 February 2009 at 22:28 | 925 views

By Sorie Sudan Sesay, London, UK.

They call her the go-getter Minister simply because she spends most of her time seeking donor support for Sierra Leone which she usually gets.

But in the words of an Iranian diplomat, “Your foreign minister is your IRON LADY” But is she really the Margaret Thatcher of Sierra Leone? Wait and see!

In fact, her colleague Foreign Ministers have nick-named her “The Lady In A Hurry” and in her usual humorous manner has responded, “My country need to catch up with you after so many years of conflict ”

Even before her appointment as Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister in the administration of President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma, Zainab Bangura had been a respectable household name not only in Sierra Leone, but the international community.

A former leading human rights activist, anti-corruption crusader and Presidential candidate as well as an international Civil Servant, Zainab had made remarkable achievements in every department of life.

At present, she is undoubtedly one of Sierra Leone’s most respected and highly connected Foreign Ministers of all times.

Zainab has been unapologetic about her respect and admiration for her President. She shares the belief of many that President Koroma is the best thing that has happened to Sierra Leone for a long time.

Zainab hardly has time on her own lets alone the press though she describes them as strategic partners that are needed in the development process of the country and has respect and admiration for the sacrifices made by media people as well as understanding the challenges that confront their profession.

“I will only rest after my President had achieved his vision for the country,” she said.

The Foreign Affairs chief is currently in London on a short vacation, but she couldn’t rest. Early this week, she was woken up from bed rest to attend to pressing national issue of stranded Sierra Leonean refugees in Holland, Germany and Sweden , in meeting with British Minister of State for Borders and Immigration and the Commonwealth Secretary General.

Information Attache at the Sierra Leone High Commission here in United Kingdom, Sorie Sudan Sesay, managed to squeeze off from the minister’s very tight schedules just minutes as she was about to attend a crucial meeting with the Commonwealth office on Immigration.

She opened up on a number of issues. From her relationship with colleague ministers to what she thinks about the President’s vision. That’s not all, Zainab’s prompt response on Sierra Leone’s success story at the African Union was convincing. It is as revealing as exciting and most importantly, it is a MUST READ.

Relax yourself and listen to Zainab Hawa Bangura as she opens up for the first time in this exclusive interview. Follow me down the path...

What is it like being Foreign Minister of Sierra Leone?
It is very challenging, extremely stressful, but quite an interesting job as well as being a very educative job.
You spend most of your time out of the country, why is that?
Of course you don’t expect me to sit in the office in Freetown.. As Foreign Affairs minister, you are the face and voice of Sierra Leone to the rest of the world. You need to sell Sierra Leone, nurture and build relationships as well as partnership, solicit support for the various development programs of the country. All of these you can only do by meeting and talking to people in their own countries. You also have to represent Sierra Leone in lots of multi-lateral meetings like the ECOWAS, African Union, the Commonwealth, O.I.C, Cen- Sad, United Nations etc.

In addition, Africa is becoming the last frontier for global politics, as various world powers scramble for the building of strategic relationships with Africa, be it the Japanese, Chinese, Indian, South America or the Gulf state. As Foreign minister, your constituency and arena of operation is the rest of the world on the exception of your country. So the most unlikely place for you to be is your country. This is why Foreign Ministers tend to be much closer to their colleagues Foreign Ministers than colleagues Ministers in their own countries. We tend to spend more time with each other and are much closer as a group than all other Ministers.
As you are aware, there were high level allegations of corruption in the past government over donor funds which were said to have been badly utilised. Obviously, you must be facing serious headache negotiating more funds for the country despite under a new administration.
Definitely! This is why one of President Koroma’s first priorities when he assumed power was to re-enact the Anti Corruption Commission to restore the confidence of the International Community on Sierra Leone. He has also continuously and constantly re-emphasizes his commitment to zero tolerance on corruption. He has increased the powers of the ACC in line with international standards in addition to giving the ACC powers of prosecution. These are all confidence building mechanisms to reassure the international community and donors that Sierra Leone is addressing one of the courses of the conflict and committed to addressing the endemic problem of corruption.
How successful had your overseas trips been since you took up office?
First and foremost, our traditional donors have reinstated their support to Sierra Leone. We have also brought in non-traditional donors, established relationships with emerging economies like Brazil, India the Gulf States as well the Scandinavian countries. In respond to my various visits, the India Minister of State for External Affairs just concluded a short visit to Sierra Leone, in which he announced various support for the country. A three man team from the Brazilian Agency for International Cooperation will be arriving in Freetown on the 15th - 16th February.

A three man team from the Saudi Arabia Foreign Ministry is presenting visiting Freetown to look at areas of support. The Kuwait government has also made commitment to support Sierra Leone, and flew in by DC 10 12 Limousine for the MRU support. Japan is going to provide us with Food Aid worth US$2m. Sweden for the first time has included Sierra Leone as a program country for their overseas development assistance. These are all countries on the exception of Sweden that I had personally visited, held discussion with and in some cases signed Technical Cooperation agreement. They have all followed up to the commitments made to me.
As a minister do you get the necessary cooperation needed from colleagues in cabinet?
Yes, we work as a team - we see ourselves as one family with the same goal to help build Sierra Leone and ensure President Koroma vision for Sierra Leone is realized..
Madam Minister do you have time on your own - I mean family matters?
(Wild laughter)... That question should best be answered by my family - they are the best judge for that.  But please do not ask them. My son who has just qualified as a lawyer might want to sue for negligent of motherly duties.

I met a foreign diplomat at a function this week organized by the Iranian embassy who asked of you, “where is your Iron Lady? I was surprised until he told me he was referring to you the foreign minister. He said it is great thing to have you as Foreign Minister and that Sierra Leone must be proud of you. Are you really great?
I cannot make judgement on my own achievement or the way I work. All I do is ensure that the responsibilities given to me by the President are undertaken to the best of my ability.
People say you are one of the most successful and highly connected foreign ministers, are you really?
 I am just doing my best and try to harness my long years of experience in operating in the international arena.
During your tenure, your ministry has seen major breakthroughs- the Indian connection, the Brazilian connection, a break through with the Gulf States and the establishment of about four strategic embassies (Kuwait, Senegal, Brazil and Indian), what’s the secret?
Good networking, good relationships, very good inter-personnal skills as well as wide range of exposure. Strong sense of self confidence and strong conviction in what you want and are doing.

So far, what’s your percentage rating of your government’s performance?
Taking into consideration where we came from, the challenges we inherited as well as the general global situation, I think we’re doing extremely well, that you know (pointing at me) 
In your opinion, what kind of man is President Koroma?
President Koroma is a deeply religious person and a devout Christian, God-fearing man, very committed to what he is doing, hard working, very focused and one who knows exactly what he’s want for Sierra Leone, understands the problems of the country and what his people want. He is a very unassuming person and therefore people sometimes underestimate him and can easily misread him. He is a deep thinker, a man of few words and has the ability to quickly process things and comes out with appropriate decisions in a précised and concised manner. Most important is nobody can ever read him. So you can never tell whether he is angry, happy, please or anything. He is just unreadable. And he strongly feels and believes that he has a social contract with the people of Sierra Leone, which is why he has developed his Agenda for Change as part of commitment to fulfill that social contract.
What do you make of Sierra Leone being elected Vice Chairman of the AU?
 As a Sierra Leonean, I feel very proud that my country is once again being recognized and portrayed in positive light and being allowed to take its rightful place in the African Union. It means as a country we have being successful in laundering our image. It shows we are regaining the credibility that we as a country so do deserve.

There were allegations in one of the press over what they referred to as “your influential role” at the Africa Union, saying you were very influential in ensuring President Ghadaffi being elected as the Union Chairman, please comment
 That sounds crazy. That is a clear demonstration of the ignorance of the writer on the operations of the African Union. I say so because elections are based on a rotational and regional basis.
Rotational it is the turn of North Africa to produce the Chair and so the decision to have Libya as the Chair was taken by the North African countries alone. The rest of the other countries just endorse it. Western, Central and Southern Africa were each requested to each produce a Vice Chair. It was the countries of Western Africa that decided that Sierra Leone should become the Vice Chairman un opposed. So I don’t see how coming from the West, I can influence Northern African countries to choose Ghadaffi. I think some people besides demonstrating their ignorance of the working of the AU tend to give me more influence that I really have. If I had such great influence over Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, I think I will rather use it to get more resources for Sierra Leone. Because these are mostly oil producing countries with a lot of spare money to spend.

Madam Minister, you shy away from the press, why is that?
No! I will never shy away from the press. I have always responded to the press whenever I am called upon. I deeply respect the press and I have lots of friends in the press. Besides, I see the press as strategic partners towards the development of Sierra Leone and in any country. Like them or not, they are an important equation in any country. It is just that I have been given a job to do and I try to limit myself to doing that. I have moved from being an advocate of issues, to somebody that is being asked to deliver some very specific goals.

Tell us what it is like working for the UN and working as a government minister comparatively.
The UN is a well established institution with laid down guidelines, procedures, and processes. They have lots of institutional capacity. Systems have been tested and everything is in place. They have lots of experienced personnel which makes your job very easy as a boss because in dealing with problems you are given various options by specialized and skilled personnel. All you have to do is make the decision.
On the contrary, with government, the biggest problem is lack of capacity - I mean the human, finance and tools to work with. You have to be creative, re-engineer your working tools, which makes it extremely difficult to get things done in government. I inherited a dysfunctional ministry that is cash trapped.

Do you think the President can achieve his vision by the end of his term?
I have no doubt about that. If I do, then I will not be working with him. I strongly believe and I think if anybody can do it, it is him. 

Is he getting the support needed from you and your colleagues?
Like I told you, we are all one team and one family. We are doing our best in our own ways. The most important thing to understand is that, we come from different backgrounds, have different experiences and expertise and that is what makes us a good team. Most important however is that, we are all committed to him because we are aware that he is the only one elected and answerable to the people.