After years of war, bad governance, and institutionalised corruption, will the newly elected Sierra Leonian President be able to keep his promises and deliver the country from poverty and social meltdown? Ishmahil Blagrove, Jr. interviews President Ernest Koroma just prior to his electoral victory.
What would you identify as the main problems for Sierra Leone?
Poor leadership, poor leadership that has resulted in bad governance, bad governance that has affected the economy.
I have often heard it described as a winner-takes-all system of politics here in Sierra Leone. Don’t you have some sense of power and influence with which to influence change within the country?
The ruling party has an overwhelming majority. They have a majority such that we cannot stop any legislation from going through; we cannot stop any activity from going through.
If the ruling party has such a powerful majority, how confident are you that you will make any gains or even seize power in 2007?
They have this majority because of the outcome of the 2002 elections; thankfully we accepted the outcome of the election even though the election was rigged. We wanted peace; peace was declared in this country in February 2002 and we had the elections in May 2002, just a couple of months later. If we had rejected the outcome of the elections based on the irregularities, then the APC would have taken responsibility for the outcome. But we accepted and now we have been vindicated because the international community and the national electoral commission, in their recent review of the elections, concluded that both the 2002 elections and the 2004 elections were rigged. So that is why they have this majority but things are now changing. We now have the full support of the international community and the electoral commission is going through certain changes and so far we are happy with the changes they have affected. To the extent that we believe if free and fair elections are conducted in this country the APC will clearly win.
Do you believe the conditions for war are still here?
We still see a situation of political marginalisation, social marginalisation, these were the issues that precipitated the war; and if you have read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, the TRC concluded that whilst we are now aware of the issues that led to the war, the government has still not taken serious action to ensure that we avoid the mistakes of the past. The mistakes of the past are still around, much has not changed and it is a sad story. Something has to be done quickly and the only thing that should be done quickly is to ensure that the 2007 elections become free and fair. I think that will be the turning point for this country.
You mention the TRC; in terms of the situation not being addressed, are you concerned as to what may happen if the elections are not free and fair? If the conditions are not met in terms of improving the standard of living and the social infrastructure?
The question of infrastructure and other things, it is already too late in the day; you cannot fatten the pig on the market day. The government doesn’t have anything to show for their ten years of governance, we have not moved on. Unemployment is on the increase, especially among the youth, the infrastructure is collapsing, parliament was not able to meet last week because of a lack of energy, water supply is reducing, not only in Freetown, but everywhere. These are issues to be addressed by the electorate. What we believe should happen now is give the electorate an opportunity to make a judgement and to really demonstrate that judgement in the ballot box.
How do you propose to address the electorate’s concerns about corruption, bad governance, unemployment, and poverty?
We have a programme that we will launch shortly; we have referred to it as the APC development agenda. An agenda that will take us to the new level of Sierra Leone. An agenda in which every Sierra Leonenian will have equal opportunity irrespective of your background, the region you come from, your religious background, even your political belief. We are not going to accept lock stock and barrel directives from the international community or the World Bank. We believe Sierra Leone should be developed by Sierra Leonians and we believe if we address the issue of bad governance, if we reduce the politics of politics. I call it the politics of politics because in this country now if you don’t belong to the SLPP (Ruling Party) you don’t qualify for anything. You don’t qualify for any job, you don’t qualify for any contracts, you don’t qualify for anything. I have demonstrated clearly I am all in for zero tolerance and in my regime I will not compromise on that. I believe when the signals are sent from the leadership, clear signals sent from the leadership, then the days of old are over.
You’ve mentioned what your party stands for and what your party hopes to achieve, but many people I have spoken to across the country are disgruntled with the entire political establishment and that includes the APC. People are disgruntled and perhaps disillusioned with politics and politicians. How do you propose to address these concerns?
One of the reasons I came into politics was because I believed there was a need for us to affect a change in the politics of this country. And I believe if we don’t affect changes in the manner in which we govern this country, we will continue to have problems. Politicians will continue to go without being accountable to the people, the APC (All People’s Congress) included. I believe the APC have contributed substantially to the infrastructure and development of this country. I am very proud of that record. And I am also the first to say mistakes were made during the leadership of the APC, mistakes were made in the political management of the country, mistakes were made in the economic management of the country to the extent that the people got disgruntled. And that is why I believe we have to change, we have to affect changes within the APC. And that is one of the reasons I opted for the leadership. I came into the APC on a platform of change and thankfully, I have succeeded in being elected leader and presidential candidate on that platform. And it is on that platform of change that we are going to go into the elections. I believe we have to change the governance in this country, we have to run the country in a business-like manner, we have to be more accountable to the people. We have to ensure that the decision-making process gets closer to the people, a decentralisation process.
Do you intend to put an end to the divisive elements of Sierra Leonian politics, to be more inclusive and to heal some of those old political wounds? In other words, do you intend to have a government of inclusion?
Certainly, I am of the view that there has to be a politics of inclusiveness, at least for now. We are coming from a war, we have to build the peace, and peace-building itself is a process and it should be reflected all across the board. I have made the point in parliament and out of parliament that after July 2007 when I am in State House, if it is Solomon Berewa or Charles Margai that will be the official opposition, either of them will be given official status. That is where we will start, the opposition will be given official status. And I have also made the point that when a announcement is made that I am President, from that moment I am President of the Republic of Sierra Leone and not President of the APC and in terms of jobs, cabinet positions, ambassadorial positions and any job that has to be given to any Sierra Leonian, I can assure everybody that it will be done on merit, because we need people who can deliver. We need people who can run the machinery of state to ensure that the overall situation of the country is improved. I am not going to just limit it to party loyalists, I am not going to limit it to just people who come from the same region. But I am going to ensure that if somebody out there, somebody who is a member of the SLPP or any other political party is qualified for a job, you don’t have to resign your political party, as it is the case now. We don’t have to share the same political views. If I believe in your ability to deliver, your ability to perform by all means you will get the job and beyond that I will also ensure that there will be a kind of inclusiveness amongst political parties, participatory governance. I will ensure that members of major political parties participate in the decision-making process. They will be consulted and their views will be heard and I think we will try to develop a democracy wherein everybody will be part and parcel of governance, not just the ruling party.
How bad is the problem of corruption?
Corruption leads to a lot of the mismanagement that is going on. Now we know that there is still a need for capacity-building in certain institutions, but what is undermining the entire process is the fact that corruption continues unchecked. The fact that it’s like corruption is supported. If you don’t do things that are corrupt, you will not at the end of the day be given the recognition.
How did corruption become so endemic and how did it become so institutionalised?
There are times in the past when efforts were made by the then-government to root out corruption, by removing ministers. But we have not created institutions to sustain this practice and now we have the Anti-Corruption Commission that was put in place in the year 2000, but this commission has not been given enough authority. They still are just limited to investigating; after their investigations, the outcomes of the investigation are then taken to the Attorney General’s office who decides on who should be prosecuted and who should not be prosecuted. And the Attorney General is a minister; he’s a political man and people that are very close to the heart of the government are normally given protection. I believe that we have to ensure that we come out with a robust determination to put an end to corruption. The government and the leadership must be very determined to send the right signals. You only have to send the right signals. When the correct signals are sent from the top, I am sure that everything else will fall into place. We also have to ensure that the civil society becomes very active in monitoring affairs of the state.
You talk about being robust in the prosecution of corruption if you become President. I have spoken with Solomon Berewa and Charles Margai, the other Presidential candidates, and they both said the same thing. Is this a case of politicians saying the right things until you appropriate office?
For me it is not a question of just saying; I have demonstrated that in the city councils and the town councils in which we have control. Like the Makeni town council, when we had evidence that there had been some financial impropriety, someone who was very close to me, I asked to resign. I have demonstrated that. I will continue to demonstrate it. I am determined to root out corruption in this country.
1st October 2007