By Dr. Lans Gberie.
The great Dr. Johnson, author of the first English dictionary, once said that no one is on his oath while giving a funeral oration. Judging from the recently published ‘handing over notes’ from Ernest Bai Koroma, this rule must equally apply to retiring Presidents when writing their own report cards.
Mr. Koroma’s ‘handing over notes’ run to 37 pages of spirited defence of his 10-year tenure, written in the formal style of speeches. The tone, though appropriately deferential – it is addressed to an incumbent President, ‘my national leader’ – is sometimes plainly waspish. There is no reflective ‘what life has taught me’ moment of his hero, the late Siaka Stevens (a roguish but greater man). Mr. Koroma is emphatic that he was right in every decision he took, only regretting that unforeseen tragedies – the Ebola crisis principally – stymied his grand transformational plans. He substantively begins his ‘notes’ with a grim description of the impact of that outbreak, though it occurred seven years after he was first sworn in as President
His notes are offered with an acute sense of “the need to continue to deepen our democratic credentials and smoothen the ongoing transition process; especially in view of some prevailing circumstances which have unfolded amongst us after the recent, keenly contested Elections.” But he does not tell us what those circumstances are, and the reflections that this promising statement implied are not in evidence.
Instead, there are vapid boasts: “our country is already on course towards achieving our national aspiration of becoming a socially-stable, middle income country by the year 2030.” This, he said,“is owing to deliberate steps undertaken by my Government.” His administration “was unique in that it was intensely pro-Poor and at the same time, Transformative in its outlook, policies and activities; all implemented with efforts on promoting good governance and respect for human rights.” Transformative appropriately comes with a capital ‘T’, in other words, it is a slogan rather than a description of policy or achievements.
Mr. Koroma claims that education was a top priority of his government, proof of it being that he increased the budget allocation for public education, and built three new universities. He names only one of those universities, the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, “which is the first ever public private partnership in our country’s field of education.” I do not know where this school is or what it does, but I do know one of the other universities, the far more famous Ernest Bai Koroma University. Mr. Koroma modestly did not mention that name, which is so dear to him, presumably in great deference to his successor.
Nor, while on the subject of his fidelity to democratic norms, does he mention the constitutional crisis he triggered by ousting his elected Vice President and imposing a rogue one on the country. He is emphatic that under him “Sierra Leoneans of all categories enjoyed the highest levels of freedoms and human rights.” But the two examples he helpfully provides do him no credit by revealing the limits of his understanding of democratic freedoms in a plural society. Both celebrate his alleged for bearance amidst demands for blood by his votaries. He is very proud, we learn, to have refused to prosecute and jail a “very loudly vocal member of the then-Opposition SLPP” who distributed “weekly video broadcasts” savaging President Koroma and his policies upon that miscreant’s return to Freetown. He also cites his refusal to bang up or destroy another “member of the SLPP Opposition in London who was recorded on video publicly threatening of plans to wage war inside the city of Freetown during the 2018 elections.” “Throughout my tenure, we did not hold any political prisoners or prisoners of conscience and my government,” he boasts.
Aside from the fact that this record is very partial-Koroma did lock up journalists for criticizing him (Jonathan Leigh and David Tam Baryoh)-Koroma ought to know that democracy or freedom is not the absence of restraint or restrictions. Democracy is a positive attribute. The measure of a leader’s commitment to democracy is actively opening up its space; pursuing policies that empower citizens to fully enjoy the great benefits of a free society.
Much of the sections on the health of the economy he has bequeathed to his successor are a mixture of true and false. He disputes, in a coy prevaricating way, his successor’s claim that in his final months in office he relied on bank overdraft facility to pay the salaries of civil servants. Perhaps the transition report will settle this dispute, but the evidence is that the economy has been in a very desperate strait for at least the past two years.
Mr. Koroma almost waxes poetic when he comes to his true passion in public life: that of a very ‘tribally’ minded chieftain who took it as his mission to right supposed imbalances and disadvantages from which his northern political base of support suffered since the days of British colonial rule. Tribal “undercurrent in our body politic requires deliberate and consistent affirmative actions and policies to hold the country in one piece and in harmony”. This is his justification, no doubt, for his sacking of dozens of public office holders who originated from the south and eastern half the country – places he claimed have enjoyed undue advantages in education and national wealth, and replacing them with people from his Bombali and other northern districts immediately after becoming President in 2007.
More pointedly, it is his justification for creating new districts and constituencies in the north. His words deserve to quoted at length for their breathtaking cynicism: “one of my greatest legacies as President to be the creation of two new administrative districts and the de-amalgamation (separation) of all those super-large chiefdoms which were formed by forcefully combining chiefdoms during colonial days,” he said. “During colonial days, many large chiefdoms were created by forceful amalgamation of chiefdoms all over the Northern Province. Indeed, a great injustice has been the disproportionately low manner in which social services were delivered to large swathes of mostly the Northern areas of Sierra Leone; as compared to other parts of Sierra Leone.”
With this cartographical affirmative action, “we have been able to reach more of our people in their communities and get them to participate in the governance of the state than ever before.”This, he said, was also why “we enhanced parliamentary representation by increasing Ordinary Members of Parliament from 112 to a total of 132 across the country.” But the 112 constituencies were created by Christiana Thorpe, who the last time I checked is APC, as chair of the National Elections Commission in 2006 ostensibly based on the 2005 census report.
What sort of lopsided population explosion happened in northern Sierra Leone between that report and the one in 2015 to warrant the creation of over a dozen new constituencies there? The 2005 census was conducted shortly after the war, which affected the south and east – including with respect to population dispersion-far more than the north. One expects that ten years later, the population of those parts should have registered a higher increase, either as a result of natural growth or the return of dispersed people.
If this is a plea by Mr. Koroma to maintain the fraud that his government perpetrated, he is wasting his time. It will be corrected-and Mr. Koroma will be free to call it reverse affirmative action or by some other term he picks up in retirement at the Ernest Bai Koroma University in his beloved hometown of Makeni.