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In the Belly of the Presidential Convoy

Karamoh Kabba, Freetown, Sierra Leone, May 18, 2008

President Ernest Koroma of Sierra Leone. (Photo: Kambou Sia / AFP-Getty Images)

In the last three months, I found myself in the belly of presidential convoys or trailing them across Sierra Leone.

One could safely measure the seriousness of Ernest Koroma's burning desire to raise this nation from the wreckage of self-destruction to his travel readiness both inside and outside the country, by what he says and what he does for the people.

Indeed, signs of progress are visible around the country. The president stated in Loko Masama, where he opened a new bridge linking Pepel, that by early next year energy would not be a problem in the city. He also revealed a plan to supply energy to the big and small towns through solar and small dam projects.

For a nation with equal rainfall and sunlight, these dual tracks of generating energy through light and water clearly make sense. As well, signs of roadwork in the capital city and around the country are visible.

There is reason for Sierra Leoneans not to forget the past, but to remember and learn from history. For the aphorism, that history repeats itself when we fail to learn from it is being defied by the president's unwavering determination to hold his ministers to task, to be accountable to the people, to be transparent in their activities, to be creative on the job, to be innovative in thinking, to deliver and inform the people of their deeds. The president has indeed not forgotten our recent past from which he has learned quite a bit.

Recently, I saw the minister of education, Minkailu Bah, expressing frustration with his department being littered with ghost workers and ghost schools. In a personal discussion, he explained, "I have a situation where one staff member of the school system takes salary as a senior teacher in one school and as a head teacher in another. I invited both senior teacher and head teacher of both schools to my office at the same time. I want to know if indeed it is a coincidence that we have two people with such matching profiles in different schools."

Soccoh Kabia, the minister for health and sanitation, went through his files to show me there was no evidence of wrongdoing when he was accused of having received a letter from Emzor, a pharmaceutical company, to defraud the government. The letter in question merely invited government officials to Nigeria to inspect their manufacturing facilities and capacity. He further stated that contrary to the allegation the contract had not been awarded. Instead, it had been forwarded back to the Ministry of Development from where it originated. "This contract was sent to us because Development did not have a procurement officer at that time. We have since returned the contract back once there procurement officer returned," Kabia said.

In a recent press conference at the Ministry of Information, Alpha Kanu told the press that the president is working on a construction scheme that would embark on the use of local materials to cut down on the cost of using imported materials for construction. He explained that we use a lot of cement to build our houses whereas we do not have limestone to produce cement. He drew an example from the United States, where most houses are constructed with wood, a material that is in abundance there. "Here," he said, "we have good soil to bake red bricks to construct our houses yet we spend all our money in building concrete houses."

Thus, raising a nation from the rubble of 11 years of self-destruction and from the tail end of the United Nations Human Development Index needs a serious minded leader who should be worthy of a social commentator's examination.

These presidential convoys move frenziedly, just as those campaign convoys during the 2007 elections did. One bodyguard commented, "Only that it's just a bit safer now that all other vehicles give way to presidential sirens and blinkers."

But the president runs on unpredictable travel schedules in readiness for any need to meet more delegates or take unprecedented diversions.

In February, in the V.I.P. launch of the Merzuk ferry from Tarr Green, I met the president for the first time. Alpha Kanu, who had met me on a visit to the United States about a month before, introduced me.

Taken aback by the sudden encounter, I managed a few words. Unlike the seeming obsession and fascination with big titles in the past the president struck a chord in me when he simply said, "Show me your works." Of course, that's about all I have to show and quite a bit of my works found their way to his desk in less than 24 hours.

On Bo Coronation field, from a close distance, presidential guards roughened away a woman who had broken the presidential personal space or the deadline, if I may, in deferential and emotional quest of the president. Here, I observed the human side of the president; he frowned at his guards, as if to ask them to leave the poor woman alone, in an indiscretion of presidential security modus operandi.

In Kenema, at the presidential guesthouse, Koroma asked a personal assistant, "What do you want?" further complaining, "We are always together at State House and yet you want attention out here when I hardly have time to meet all these people."

In that, I saw a willing president who is determined to remove the perceived enigma away from the State House; who, according to his presidential and public affairs minister, Alpha Kanu, wants to "bring the State House closer to the people and the people closer to State House."

In Kenema, I became somewhat over-comfortable in the presidential convoy as ministers waited for the president in the pallor of the guesthouse; I joined in and sat down on the only unoccupied chair, only for Alpha Kanu to politely draw my attention to it.

How close I was? I had opportunities of listening to the president in close discussion with his ministers on several occasions, brainstorming with them, not only on how to keep the people's hopes alive and at ease, but also to admonish them to inform the people of the activities in their ministries.

On the April 26 at State House, I was privy to the launching of two outreach programs at State House garden, the Attitudinal and Behavioural Change (A.B.C.) and the Open Government Initiatives (O.G.I.), a joint program with the United Nations Development Program.

The technical team of the A.B.C. is basically telling the people of Sierra Leone to go back to the basics, thus the need to learn their attitudinal and behavioural alphabet. The O.G.I. is charged with helping to create an open society in which government will be more proactive with information than reactionary after the usual publication of insinuations, assumptions, and speculations.

For the country to succeed in defying the poverty in riches paradox at 47—[Sierra Leone just celebrated its 47th year of independence from British colonial rule—as the president rightfully pointed out, much depends on the peoples' change of attitude to change their altitude.

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