A string of events ignited byPresident Ernest Bai Koroma’s 2012 re-election campaign manager Leonard Balogun Koroma gave away the impression that the first gentleman of the republic could not have been unhappy with his campaigner for making the call that the president be granted the gratitude to remain in power after his present and constitutional final mandate might have expired.
Though most of the country, including friends and development partners trained a disapproving stare at Leonard Balogun Koroma, the president appeared to think otherwise as the campaigner,shortly afterwards, got appointment as a full-fledged cabinet minister.
Several months down the road, Robin Falley,a former opposition law maker who cross carpeted to the ruling APC party after facing scrutiny from the law, took cue and began calling on the nation to let President Koroma carry on the mantle of leadership after the expiration of his second term; knowing fully well that the constitution stipulates two terms for any one candidate lucky to win a re-election.
Jobless after the main opposition Sierra Leone Peoples Party denied him symbol for his Kailahun parliamentary seat re-election bid earlier in 2012, Falley got more than having the criminal case against him dropped by the prosecutionas he also got appointed as the chairman of an influential government parastatal; the Sierra Leone Water Company (SALWACO).
Even succession aspirations within the ruling All Peoples Congress party had developed cold feet after the loudest of the lot, former Works minister Alimamy Petito Koroma was sacked; presumably for poor performance. Dismissing the minister’s removal for any reason other than his naked ambition for the presidency, critics of the administration had argued that if the president was going to sack officials of his government on account of poor performance then he might face severe and recurrent absenteeism in the cabinet.
These developments emboldened conspiracy theorists who had maintained that the president’s earlier appointment of a Constitutional Review Committee was nothing more than a ploy to smuggle in a third term instrument.
Nothing done or said to get His Excellency President Ernest Bai Koroma to make a public statement on the worrying debate yielded any results. To the president, mum was the word.
The deadly Ebola virus disease outbreak which crossed over from the neighbouring Republic of Guinea in May of 2014 succeeded in pushing the third term debate out of relevance as the country fought for survival.
While the country was waiting for the official WHO 42-day (no-new-case) to declare Sierra Leone free of the Ebola outbreak, the APC party youths held its conference in October in the Makeni home town of the president and announced its theme as More Time for the President.
Nothing worse could have irked the convalescing nation. This was considered to be the closest thing to an official pronouncement. Tempers did flare in more than a few quarters even if they were far from the earshot of the presidency.
Prominent civil society group, Campaign for Good Governance, in partnership with ITASCAP, on 11th November, held dissemination brief for its first round of the six Afro Barometer finding and created banners in some tabloid the following day screaming No Third Term for President. Those papers sold out swiftly on the account of buyers thinking the presidency had issued a statement. It has since become marketable for tabloids to look for lead stories that deal with the third term debate.
When Newday Magazine sought and got the approval for an exclusive interview with President Ernest Bai Koroma, we might have been as grateful had he answered no other question apart from his thoughts on the third term debate.
Magnanimously, His Excellency did answer all our other questions despite his crowded schedule on the eve of the Ebola free declaration November 7th. This is how it went.
Responding to the question of his position on the campaign for the extension of his leadership, the President had this to say.
President Koroma: They are speaking for themselves, possibly based on their own observations and assessments of the situations. But for me, I am a democrat. I respect the law and will ensure that what is constitutional obtains. I will leave at the fullness of time.
Your Excellency, what lessons has your government learnt from the Ebola crisis which will put the country on a better footing or response were a similar situation to arise?
President Koroma: Well, the lessons are primarily that, in a war, you have to be efficient in collaboration. Every single person in every single aspect of the fight is important. Therefore, we must all move at the same space with equal knowledge and understanding as to what is expected of input and also outcome.
We have also learnt that our health sector has a lot more that need to be improved upon. I have also personally learnt that we have to look inwards in building capacity and relying on your own knowledge and people in effecting a fight of this nature.
Yes, we will have to collaborate with the international community but at the end of the day, we have to provide the leadership and direction for the international community to follow.
Can the government quantify the attendant economic losses excluding the immeasurable human losses?
President Koroma: In terms of figure, we can only make projections. We have recorded the position of the fastest growing economy in the world before the outcome of the Ebola. Our economy had grown from 15 percent in 2012 to 14 percent in 2013 and we were projected at 13.5 percent in 2014 when the Ebola struck. The first quarter of 2014 we did very well but at the end of 2014 we had fallen to under 8 percent.
That is the level to which our economic activities were affected. Most of the mining companies, the iron ore companies shut down. A good number of the service industries shut down. All the flights in the country, about 10 of them, except two, cancelled operations and all the programmes including tourist booking that we had were all cancelled.
In addition, Sierra Leonean movements out of the country were also restricted even when they had justifiable reasons to attend conferences or other gainful engagements outside of the country, Sierra Leoneans were forbidden from visiting. These were the painful costs and experiences the outbreak brought with it.
What is the portfolio of intervention by both local and external sources promised or underway?
President Koroma:Well, again, you have to make the distinction here between pronouncement and effective support. Since the outbreak we appealed to the international community and huge pronouncements have been made by the WHO and other countries in terms of providing support. Some of them have been directly to the country but a good number of the supports have been through global agencies and through NGOs and those ones cannot be quantified by us.
But when we began talking about recovery programmes we have been to the European Union to canvass for regional recovery support. From EU we went to Washington and from there to New York where regional programmes were considered. National programmes were also considered.
But, like I said, most of these pronouncements are, at the moment, still mere pronouncements. What comes in is yet to be determined.
When can the dependants of the fallen health personnel expect the payments promised them?
President Koroma: We have made pronouncement that we are going to make some payments. We have been waiting for the declaration (that the outbreak is over) so that we can get the definitive figure of those that have fallen and then apply it to the support we indicated.
Prior to the Ebola outbreak, and still ongoing, your government made tremendous mark in infrastructural development especially in road constructions. It bears reasoning that this may have led to belt tightening in certain regards. How can this achievement register in the wellbeing of the people who are understandably impatient for improved standard of living?
President Koroma: We have tried to balance our intervention. We know that we have bread and butter issues to address. We also know that the bread and butter issues can be better addressed when there is infrastructure. When the roads are availableand when there is electricity. Those will lay the basis for bread and butter issues.
We have to ensure that the people understand this. We know that improving the living standard is important but whilst we are at it, we should also recognize that it is better to address the issues when we have good roads that will link up the country and goods and services could be moved easily and cheaply too.
Bread and butter issues are better addressed when we have electricity that can impact on the quality of health, the quality of education and the quality of services rendered including the quality of individual economic activities. All of these put together will improve the overall quality of life of the people. It has to be a balancing act which is why we have emphasized that we must have the two pronged approach and this has been going on successfully so far.
Also on the economic front, certain realities in the banking and finance sector are far from pleasant. Most or all the local commercial banks in the country have suspended granting credit facilities owing to huge debts owed the banks which they are having a nightmarish experience to recover from the debtors. The banks are claiming that the judiciary appears to be more sympathetic with the defaulters than the banks that are losing investment and depressing the economy in the process. What is the government position on this?
President Koroma: Well, we know that there are challenges and there will always be challenges in the economy especially accessing finance. And there will also be challenges in the judiciary. We have tried to increase economic activities. That is why we have improved on the enabling environment. With that we have attracted foreign direct investment to unprecedented levels.
We have mining companies opening businesses including commercial agricultural companies and other services. These will fuel the economy and create opportunities for businessmen and also raise volumes of transactions for the banks. In case of the judiciary, we have already addressed that issue by opening a commercial court.
We now have a commercial court quite distinct from the normal court and in the commercial court we have cases of commercial nature tried much more quickly than were the cases. This gives both the claimants and defenders a better opportunity for quicker and fairer trials. We have there judges with the requisite background.
I think in a way that we have started addressing this issue. We hope to sustain it. I have to say we cannot address the problem overnight but we have taken the right steps by putting in place the appropriate structure to address the issues more quickly.
Recently, the APC party youths held its conference in Makeni where they asked for more time for your leadership. Were they speaking your mind?
President Koroma: Well, em, they will not speak my mind. They are speaking for themselves, possibly based on their own observations and assessments of the situations.But for me, I am a democrat. I respect the law and will ensure that what is constitutional obtains. I will leave at the fullness of time.
Your Excellency, thank you for your time.