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Page added on November 13, 2011
In his first Town Hall meeting inLondon, organised by the Open Government Initiative (OGI), President Ernest Bai Koroma spoke convincingly of his “clearly defined road map” for the country’s socioeconomic development. But he fell short of addressing issues on the youth. For the youth, this was a job poorly done. (Photo: HE President Ernest Bai Koroma at the OGI Town Hall meeting in London, UK)
Wearing a light blue shirt with a dark grey suit, the President of the Republic of Sierra Leone looked relaxed with a strikingly beautiful smile. He commenced his speech by acknowledging and thanking the eagerly anticipatory and excited audience. They were mainly Sierra Leoneans who had travelled from various parts of the UK and abroad. Also in the audience were friends of Sierra Leone, including Mr Simon Hughes, MP in the UK parliament.
The mandate given to him by the people of Sierra Leone was to change the country, President Koroma said. Undoubtedly, he said he was consequently effecting that change. According to the President, part of that change was for Parliament to be transparent and accountable to the people. He reminded the audience that in his speech to parliament in October 2007, he told members of parliament that transparency and accountability must dwell in Sierra Leone.
Almost immediately, the OGI was borne. The Director of OGI, Mrs Khadija Sesay in her statement said their objective was to “strengthen the mechanism for public information flow from the three branches of government, while providing opportunities for a public dialogue on development policies and programmes.”
This was why President Koroma was in London in November; to tell Sierra Leoneans, as Mr Sorie Sudan Sesay, Information Attaché to theUK, put it to “deliver an impressive four-year report card about his government’s achievements.”
Of course, a majority of the audience agree with Mr Sudan Sesay that President Koroma has achieved in four years what many previous leaders inSierra Leonehave failed to achieve in more than that period. So what are these achievements?
Sierra Leone has been a country blighted with severe darkness over the years – made worse by the civil war which hampered efforts to tackle this problem. Although there is a long way to go, the country’s electricity supply has been improving under President’s Koroma’s government. Within 90 days in office electricity supply increased from 5 megawatt to 25 megawatt. He also successfully persuaded donor countries to contribute to the US$42m needed to complete the first phase of the Bumbuna hydroelectric project, aimed at generating 50 megawatt electrical supply.
Truly, a noteworthy progress. His predecessor, former President Kabbah, had failed to deliver this despite numerous pledges when he was in government. Additionally, President Koroma said elderly women were being trained so that they can install solar panels in their villages – which aims to transform lives in those villages by making electricity affordable. This, he said was being done in conjunction with the Barefoot College, an Indian College that offers “basic services and solutions to problems (such as solar energy and water) in rural communities with the objective of making them self-sufficient and sustainable.” He said his plan was to provide electricity to all district headquarters and towns across the country. He also talked about his plans to complete the subsequent phases of Bumbuna, under the project heading “Bumbuna 2,” which will significantly increase the supply of electricity to the entire country.
President Koroma mentioned a number of road networks which his government had constructed. The Kenema-Kailahun, an 87-kilometre stretch of road was one of them. As was the Freetown-Conakry highway, which the President said now takes under four hours to travel. Previously it took twice that time. He said first-class roads were being constructed to transform the country’s road network. President Koroma said that 30 other road construction projects were underway. And his government has instituted a “Road Policy” to ensure quality and safety standards in road construction across the country. This statement went down very well with the audience and was reinforced by a standing ovation. My £500 digital Canon camera fell as I stood to join in the standing ovation. Luckily, it didn’t damage.
A survey carried out by his government indicated that the unaffordable cost of healthcare has been driving the death rates to extremely high levels. Coupled with inadequate health facilities such as drugs and health centres, as well as insufficient medical practitioners, it was no surprise the western media, in recently years, had aggressively dwelled on stories focusing on the country’s maternal and child mortality death rates being among the highest in the world.
Determined to reverse these statistics, President Koroma launched free healthcare for mainly pregnant women and children under five. This scheme is being funded chiefly by the United Kingdom and the World Bank. He said he had seen first-hand candles being used to perform surgery in health centres due to lack of electricity in some parts of the country. But now, things were beginning to improve. Over 40,000 women’s lives have been saved since free healthcare was created in April 2010. According to some reports, mortality rates involving complex pregnancy cases have dropped by 60 percent and the malaria casualty rate for children treated in hospitals has also dropped by 85 percent. Many people welcomed this news.
However, he added a word of caution. He noted that the scheme was encountering a number of problems. “There are people who are stealing drugs from health centres and pharmacies,” he claimed. Adding that drugs that were supposed to be free were been sold in some clinics. Directly teasing the audience, he said that there was likely to be nurses, trained in Sierra Leone, who had left the country for greener pastures and some of them may be in the audience. Sometimes about 30 doctors were trained but on graduation day only two would be present. Most of them had left the country to come toEnglandand theUS, the President said. He said he was determined to expand free healthcare to other vulnerable people including the elderly and the poor, and Sierra Leoneans must help in this effort.
He said that, according to the Doing Business Index,Sierra Leone had shown remarkable progress resulting in the country being credited as the easiest place to start a business in the sub region. In fact, Sierra Leone is the “top reformer” in terms of the ease of doing business, the President boosted.
Furthermore, he mentioned that he was making sure that democracy thrives in the country. The Mo Ibrahim Foundation, an organisation that promotes good governance and effective leadership in sub-Saharan countries, showed that this year Sierra Leone had improved in areas such as “Personal Safety” and “Rights,” where it gained the highest ranking. The country now has over 40 newspapers and radio stations respectively. Sometimes he received telephone calls from his supporters protesting at what people had said on radio about him or his government. He would say to them “this is democracy,” so people should enjoy their freedom of expression.
He has received international recognition for his efforts to promote and strengthen democracy in the country. The Commonwealth recently crowned him the “Defender of Democracy.” Impressed by this, President Koroma revealed that the US’ President Obama insisted both sat together at this year’s UN summit inNew York. For this, the President received a second standing ovation from the overjoyed audience.
Indeed, for many of the people I spoke to that attended the Town Hall meeting, President Koroma was highly rated. Giving his “Welcome Address,” Mr Ade Daramy, Chairman of the Sierra Leone Diaspora Network praised the President. He then called on to the stage the Mayor of Lambeth inLondon, Councillor Christiana Valcarcel, who presented an award on behalf of her borough to the President for his outstanding achievement. At the end of the event, I overheard one gentleman telling another that “Ernest Koroma is the best President Sierra Leone has ever had.” This, in some way, showed how impressed some were with the President’s statement. The President said he had a “clearly defined road map” for the country’s way forward. But did he have that for the youth?
There is a section of the audience that was unimpressed with the President. For some reason, he failed to mention what his government was doing in the area of youth development. Children (under 15 years) and the youth, defined in Sierra Leone as someone between ages 15-34, comprise of approximately 75% of the country’s population.
Sadly, children and youth face a major socioeconomic exclusion, leaving most of them extremely frustrated. There is high youth unemployment and underemployment in the country. Despite UN officials saying that youth unemployment requires a special attention, the problem is yet to be given the priority it urgently deserves.
Of course there are some schemes currently ongoing in the country to try and tackle issues such as youth unemployment. Last year the World Bank committed US$20 million to support job creation for the youth. President Koroma has established the National Youth Commission, created to empower the youth to develop their potential for national development. Yet, they don’t translate into action to constructively reduce youth unemployment and poverty.
Actually, President Koroma attempted to address an issue related to children in the street when a question was posed to him by Messeh Kamara, an active youth campaigner, during the “Question and Answer session.” The President’s response was that his government was trying to get children off the street but he failed to show a serious commitment to achieving that goal or outline practical steps for achieving this. Instead, he added that some of the children were being sent in the street by rogues. Unsurprisingly, this left the youth unimpressed and irritated.
Messeh later said: “this is the most unfortunate statement you could expect from the Father of the Nation…what an error.”
The education sector is failing the country’s young people too. Students today are poorly equipped compared to previous generations. Some graduates are coming out of universities barely able to read and write. In fact, for over a month now the country’s main university, Fourah Bay College (FBC), has still not reopened since it closed for the summer holiday – due to strike by lecturers over poor salaries.
A female FBC student, who spoke to me anonymously, said “we are suffering … and the Minister of Education [Dr Minkailu Bah who was a former lecturer at FBC] doesn’t care about the students.”
She said that the minister only cared for himself and this was “sad.” The President in his statement mentioned that he had setup an enquiry that was looking into the education sector. But he failed to provide enough details.
The “Question and Answer” session was cut short after about 40 minutes when ten questions were asked and answered. The moderator, former President of the 50/50 Group, a non-partisan women’s campaign group, Mrs Harriett Turay said this was due to delay caused in commencing the event. Tens of hands had been raised by people who wanted to ask questions. Like them, I was disappointed. I was very keen to raise some of the issues relating to the youth with the President, however, I was not given the opportunity to ask a question. So I pursued him as he came down from the stage to meet the audience. A journey which would usually take a minute took him well over 15 minutes. He could hardly move through the excited and excitable crowed that quickly mobbed him to shake his hands and to express their appreciation.
I managed to push myself through the crowd and got up to an inch close to the President. I asked him why he didn’t mention anything on the youth and what his government was doing about the fact that FBC had still not reopened. He smiled and I was excited. But when he ignored my question I was disappointed. For several minutes I trailed him with my query until he finally left the hall with so many unanswered questions.
A 21-year-old woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said the President looked “really cute.” That was the only positive comment that came from the youth that day.
The President could have made a much larger impact if he had talked about what was being done by his government in the area of children and youth development. But, at this occasion, he failed. It was hard to understand why the President snubbed the issues a large part of the country’s population face.
The President said “Only when we guarantee the future of the [youth] can we guarantee our country’s sustainability.”
He was right. But, is he going to translate this into action? The children and youth want to see more being done for them. Personally, I feel that our leaders are far from doing enough. So, everyone, let’s join the youth movement. Do we really need reminding that the youth of today are the leaders of tomorrow?
By Unisa Dizo-Conteh.
Unisa Dizo-Conteh is the president of Young Leaders-Sierra Leone (www.ylsl.org) – an organisation that promotes youth empowerment and participation in nation building. His organisation serves Sierra Leone’s youth at home and abroad. Dizo will be speaking at the INASLA symposium, in London 18 November, on “Youth and Development in Sierra Leone.”
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