Tuesday, 4 February 2014

What I learnt from Sierra Leoneans in 2007


By on 17:09
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“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance, and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence”---Martin Luther King Jnr.

One of the best things that can happen to a people is for them to be able to change their own momentum (Call it Destiny) at any given time that life presents such an opportunity without necessarily being docile. Sometime in 2007, precisely in the month of November while still working with National Mirror Newspaper (Before it was sold off to Jimoh Ibrahim) something very important happened to my psyche at Lungi International Airport, Freetown and till date I still revere that experience. I was given a diplomatic invite to witness the inauguration of the country’s new leader, President Ernest Bai Koroma and there I learnt the greatest political lesson of my life inside that water encircled airport in the afternoon of Wednesday November 13th as our aero plane touched ground.

It all started with an encounter we had with Bai Koroma on a special visit to Nigeria for the inauguration of our newly sworn in President Umar Yar’Adua in Abuja in the month of June. Kunle Hamilton, the gifted elite journalist and founder of the Glitterati mini magazine experiment inside Thisday Newspaper had invited me and four other journalists to meet with this white haired ebony colored man that we all learnt was vying under one of the old political parties in Sierra Leone at the time for the number one position of his country. Please, kindly forgive me if I can’t remember the name of the political party right now but what I was personally told about Koroma was that he was a first timer from the private sector, an Insurance broker. Another great irony was the fact that it was only Bai Koroma who stormed Nigeria on May 29th  2007 at the auspicious  swearing in ceremony of President Umar  Yar’Adua in Abuja to celebrate with the new Nigerian leader and it paid off for him as Yar’ Adua reciprocated during his own inauguration on Thursday November 14th of 2007 in Freetown. As at the time of his visit, there was already a build up to a new presidential election in the over two decades war ravaged West African country.  Neither the outgoing President Tejan Kabbah or his Vice, Solomon Barewa cared to visit Nigeria to celebrate with President Yar’ Adua. On that same 29th of May 2007, both Kabbah and Barewa I learnt were hosting President George Bush of America who was on a special world development visit to the country; therefore, they missed “Big Brother” Nigeria’s special moment. But the next man providence was preparing for the top job was lucky to be around and we were able to interview him.

To start with, Bai Koroma is a very interesting personality that understands the dynamics of economics. He has his fundamentals in Sierra Leon and an alumnus of the prestigious Fourah Bay College, Freetown before his educational exploits in other institutions home and abroad, very witty, intelligent, foresighted and brilliant to be with. But within me, I doubted if he could win that election. Why, by then I had this huge fear around me about the dispensable political demon called “Power of Incumbency”. I was like majority of Nigerians who still suffer from this demon of political development. I was damn sure that Bai was just a playboy who like every first comer in our clime is only ready to test popularity. I thought Sierra Leon was like my own Nigeria; hey boy! I was damn wrong. Those guys there know their political onion and how to use it to maximum effect. I secretly informed my host; Kunle Hamilton that Bai might not have his way with Sierra Leone. Yes, Tejan Kabbah was on his way out of power after a ten years rule that was characterized with severe economic problems arising from incessant coup attempts and years of terrible civil war that has reduced the country to a non-performer in the comity of African nations.  In fact, till the expiration of his tenure in Freetown, Tejan Kabbah we learnt couldn’t even spare himself a space in the Presidential Villa on Siaka Stephen Street, Freetown as he feared coup plotters could mob him there and take political power off him. Hence, he choose to stay on a heavily guided hill top somewhere in the capital from where he ruled the people of Sierra Leone for the better part of his tenure. Now, as it is familiar with most African leaders, Tejan Kabbah was ready to hand over power to his deputy, Solomon Barewa who had assisted him to (Mis) rule the country from a hilltop in ten straight years (except once while there was a coup intervention in 1994 which was arrested by Nigeria’s General Sani Abacha and power returned to Kabbah). The people of Sierra Leone from what I gathered loathed Kabbah and Barewa. In fact it was a popular scandal then that their family members were not just power drunk but equally politically corrupt. For instance there were wild allegations that Kabbah’s first son (I have forgotten his name) was helping dad to do some financial runs and that the boy was generally unloved by natives for his wayward life style. The case of not having a wife was also rampant with the president and several other allegations leveled against the man that cannot be substantiated due to my few days visit to the country.  For his Vice, Barewa, country men accused his family of corruption and even mocked his wife at death. The woman was famously reported to have died abode an aero plane while on a medical trip to a western country to treat herself of an undisclosed ailment. It was just a bazaar of one bad tale or the other for both Kabbah and Barewa. Well, country men were ready to vote them out but in my heart I was not sure they could achieve that. So, after my interview with Koroma, we (Nigerian) journalists ran our various stories on him. In Mirror, I did a political treatise (report) on the guy and his chances, just to please Kunle Hamilton. Other medium like Vanguard, Guardian, Thisday and the rest did theirs. For me, I was very elated to have met a presidential aspirant from another country but it only ended there; nothing more.

The election later took place (Permit my forgetfulness of dates and other factors) but it was a hard-nut election. Lady Thorpe, a woman and head of their electoral body in Sierra Leone (Equivalent of our own Jega) had a very tough time conducting that election. For Koroma, the “new man for the job”, it was like trying to cross from hell into heaven as reports had it that deliberate attempts were made on his life on several occassions. In fact he was physically assaulted at a particular pooling booth inside the capital but for God’s act of kindness, he would have been mud. Truth was, like every system that resists change, there was a stalemate and the exercise was to cross for a supplementary election. Don’t forget, the (Election) war was between Koroma, a new comer and the number 2 man of the old order, Solomon Barewa.  On the re-election day, sometime in August of that year, Kunle Hamilton who was the most powerful Nigerian Journalist that determined factors that led to victory in the 2007 Sierra Leonean elections beckoned on me and others to re-publish our reports to coincide with the re-election schedule in Freetown. I remembered I tagged my own report like this “This Foray Bay College Boy might become Sierra Leon’s next president”. It was prophetic, dramatic and full of interesting interpolations.  But I was right even though I only re-published the story for reporting sake; I never believed Koroma could douse the establishment. Few weeks later, I had an invitation from Kunle Hamilton who invited me to his Yaba home where he beckoned on me to wait as he took his bath. We later drove out and off to the Alogomeji Yaba based Sweet Sensation Restaurant. Our Sweet Sensation port of call was as a result of my rejection of taking any hard drinks or whatsoever, Hamilton himself is not a drinker of such mixtures. But I never knew there was truly a “sweet sensation” on Kunle’s mind and he was ready to extend it to me not just by taking me out for a meal but taking me out of town as well. It was while I settled for the meal of Rice and Chicken with soft drink that Kunle Hamilton, beaming with a smile that smacks of an act of either “mischief or something funnier” said “Gbenga, eyan wa lo wole ni Sierra Leone” (Gbenga, our man won the election in Sierra Leone), my spoon of rice dropped and I went hilarious inside the eatery. I couldn’t believe my ears. Kunle added in my native dialect that among all the reports done in Nigeria about Koroma, mine was the best and for that reason, my name has been slated for diplomatic invitation. I was really dazed because that was the first time such a thing was happening to me and Kunle Hamilton was the harbinger. Few days later I forwarded my passport to him as demanded and also informed my employer. But I was shocked when Kunle Hamilton called me 48 hours to our take off that the journey has been cancelled as a result of failure in securing a private jet for friends of Sierra Leone coming from Nigeria and Ghana. I was dazed and disappointed; of course ‘the devil is a liar’ (Abi no be so?). But twenty four hours later the story changed again as Mr. Hamilton called me and ordered me to resend my passport for diplomatic clarification as a new arrangement with Bellview Airline has been made to fly us to Freetown. It was terrific and furious move as I had to rush back and forth to ensure I didn’t fail the emergency text. I was lucky. The next day, Wednesday November 13, we were all at the Murthala Mohammed International Airport on our way to Sierra Leone. There were lots of other big Nigerians travelling down with us; one of them was Lady Stella Okoli, the ambitious entrepreneur and founder of Emzor Pharmaceutical Ltd whom I learnt was on the trip to break new grounds in Sierra Leone. Others are former Lagos commissioner for Information, Dele Alake and some other important dignitaries who were travelling as advance team for Lagos Governor, Barrister Babatunde Fashola and his predecessor and leader of his party, Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu. However, two other men that were new to me were Henry Macauley a Nigerian based Sierra Leonean business man whom I learnt was the real power behind Kunle Hamilton’s journalistic exploits for Bai Koroma. Yes, Henry has since been compensated as he is now the Sierra Leonean Ambassador to Nigeria. I have tried reaching him several times since that experience but he, like every average black man has stopped picking his calls. I am sure it is the same thing with Kunle Hamilton.

The second man I met on that flight and who has remained very pleasant and friendly to me till date is Ambassador (Professor) Dew Tuan Whley Mayson, a former Liberian ambassador to France, Spain, Canada and Nigeria who is now the country’s special envoy and a former presidential aspirant. Till date, Ambassador Mayson who is closer to Nigeria than his own country, Liberia sends me diplomatic greeting cards every Christmas season since 2007; I don’t know where he got his legendary attitude for leadership.  I call them diplomatic greeting cards because most of the cards are either carrying the emblems of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) or that of any of the UN sub agencies and it is always marked with his personal signature from his Sankoor Air Field, Monrovia address.

Our flight tasked off first to Kotoka Airport, Accra where we picked some VIPs heading for the inaugural occasion of Bai Koroma in Freetown.  We soon embarked on a two hour journey into Lungi Airport, Freetown.  While landing I was full of apprehension as I thought the plane was diving into an ocean. The airport is so small that you will mistake it for an island. My fear was made pronounced due to my sitting slot beside the window which is my favorite side during an air journey.  We got there around 2pm or there about; here Henry Macauley took charge as we went through immigration formalities before we were escorted into the part of the airport where we could either take a commuter boat to land or a helicopter to Mammy-Yoko, the heliport.  From the sight of Lungi Airport, you could see that our own Oweri airport is far better than it the only difference is that the people who live in this country thinks better than our own people here in terms of political discretion. 

Because we were large in number, the helicopter had to take us batch by batch. I and Kunle Hamilton were in the last batch. It was while waiting for our turn that the biggest lesson in political development hit me at Freetown. And it was delivered to me by a half educated luggage carrier at the airport. I had asked the average aged man (I can’t recall his name any longer) a simple question “How did you guys did it by electing a new apolitical man into power?” His answer came short but very punchy and disturbing to my mind “We changed our destiny with our thumb” (He expressed it with the stretching of his thumb for maximum understanding). For few seconds, my mind razed back home and I sadly remembered how our stupid people will collect mundane gratifications ranging from packets of Noodles, text books, small bags of rice down to stinking cash gifts like N200 naira and above?. I wondered in my troubled thought when will Nigeria awaken to the reality of the one day thumb power opportunity that could remove inefficiency and enthrone exigency in Government.  I was in this troubled state of mind when our helicopter touched ground and we were led into it for the seven minute onward journey to Mammy-Yoko Heliport. Apart from the shaky noise of the helicopter coupled with the heavy current of the water under neat the copter, nothing else made us happy until we landed at Mammy Yoko and saw the convoy of diplomatic cars that came to receive us coupled with diplomatic staff that struggled to help us with our luggage. We were driven into the beautiful sights of Lumley Blue Sea and the loving sights of Hotel Bintumani into an estate (Badere, I think) where Henry Macualey and other top guys (Who are now in Power) were baying for sponsoring our pleasure. In fact expensive meals and sumptuous wines were already being served when one powerful woman, Barrister (Mrs.) Sally Katumal, one of the famous human right activists in Sierra Leone sent for us with a single Prado jeep. Barrister Sally Katumal is half Sierra Leonean, half Nigerian and married to an Indian business man. In fact, she is Kunle Hamilton’s paternal half-sister. You see why she found it a task to be the one to host us? On getting to her place, the kind of treatment she gave us was indescribable. Even when I asked for a stout and her house help, Pose couldn’t find one in the fridge, and because evening has come, I tried to advise her not to bother but to my utmost surprise, she sent her driver to go get the drink for me. It was her habit, after  serving us all sorts of assorted meals ranging from fish soup, rabbit meat stew, boil yam, assorted vegetal stew and semovita, she will calmly say “enjoy” with a unique smile that makes her look more Mexican than Sierra Leonean (She is light in completion and charming) our first three days was spent in her house before Kunle Hamilton rushed back to Nigeria via Accra for his mother’s birthday celebration  while I relocated to Henry Macaulay’s guest villa to spend the last night before my return on Sunday November 17th.  Although Barrister (Mrs.) Katumal promised to take us on picnic to the famous Lumley Beach but we couldn’t achieve that before we left because she was such a very busy lady. In most cases, she excuses herself from us saying ‘please can you excuse me, I have a case to defend in court tomorrow’. All through our stay, her black Prado jeep with a chilling air condition and a permanent slot of Luther Dandross songs inside the stereo makes us feel good anytime myself and Kunle Hamilton are going for engagements. On Thursday 17th November, which is the inauguration day, we drove to Henry’s place from where we got our accreditation cards before driving in full convoy to Hotel Bintumani, unarguably the best hospitality edifice in Freetown where diplomats and political leaders like Yayah Jameh of Gambia took a suite. Unlike other African Presidents that came for the inauguration, Yayah Jameh stayed longer in Hotel Bintumani before and after the event. That was where Ambassador Mayson also resided and from there we all headed to the stadium in the heart of Freetown where the event took place with multitude of Sierra Leoneans and friends of Sierra Leone from various countries of the world, although the security was tight but the people had their best of day with expression and celebration. The color of the day was red as that was the color of the new ruling party. Two significant thing happened that day, the ousted president, Tejan Kabbah stormed the stadium to hand over what is known as the “baton of leadership” to the new man, Bai Koroma. For many of the citizens, that was a very historic moment in the life of their country as the man they sacked despite the deluge of allegations hanging on his head was able to surmount the courage to show up and acknowledge his defeat like a sports man. Secondly, Bai Koroma told his countrymen that he was ready to change their fortune but they must help him by changing their attitude towards government and its intention. The import of that statement hit us when the President hosts us during a presidential banquet in the evening of that same day at the Presidential villa, Siaka Stephen Street, Freetown. A large part of the Villa was smelling of rotten soak-away as we later learnt that Tejan Kabbah never touched or cared about the place in the last 8 years or thereabout. The place was in a very sorry state and the new president who thanked us for our support promised to change so many things as he is ready to run Sierra Leon like a private company and that he will be the Chief Executive Officer (CEO).

The VIP Pen he gave us that night is still with me till date with his name on it; I hold both his gift and presidential gesture in very high esteem because true to his word, I learnt he has changed so many things in Sierra Leone. His style and strategy according to our friendly source is that he often changes his ministers and redeploys them every three-three months. The sense behind this is that if you are posted to any ministry, before you start feeling as if you are the owner of that portfolio or that it is your father’s constituency like our own Stella Oduah, Nyesom Wike and Godsday Orubebe in Nigeria, Bai will relocate or sack you depending on your performance quotient. So, once you are in, it is work without partiality or favor. It is simply political professionalism and brinkmanship that is expected of you.

Let me shock you by saying the case of Sierra Leone was worse than Nigeria when we visited. There was no power; in fact we were only lucky that our hosts were big men. The water connections were bad and sanitations was at its lowest ebb up to the presidential villa. But right now, I learnt Koroma has changed everything by running the country with his enormous private sector inclinations and a political brinkmanship second to none. During my visit, I discovered that despite their lively nature, their media industry was poor with major radio stations being owned by either Lebanese investors or United Nations sub agencies. I spoke to one of Africa’s strongest journalists Isha Tejan Cole whose husband, Mr. Johansen hosted me in their hill top mansion in Freetown; Mr. Johansen was the Norwegian Ambassador to Sierra Leone as well as the Managing Director of Leone Cement, the frontline cement manufacturing firm in Sierra Leone. I also met society lady and entrepreneur, Jeneba Sesay whose father was the chairman of the ruling party at the time and Alhaji Alpha B Kanu who was the spokesperson for the newly sworn in President. I met Cole, Jeneba and Kanu at different venues some hours before my flight back to Nigeria. They were all very interesting Sierra Leoneans but the general thought was that Sierra Leon (Selone) needs a change. And today, they got it.

Back to the word of the luggage carrier at Lungi Airport “We changed our destiny with our thumb, can you conveniently say you will learn a lesson from that just like I did? 2015 will tell. 

Gbenga Dan Asabe

Africa's Number One Celebrity Encounter Blog

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