“By the time of the next elections, we would have had several more mining companies operating in the country; and, there will be several oil wells pumping oil here. The question will then not be not having enough money for development, but, how to judiciously use the huge sums of money that would accrue into government’s coffers’”: President Ernest Bai Koroma’s prognosis for Sierra Leone in about three year’s time.
On the 10th of September, 2013, inside his cosy office at the Presidential Lodge at Hill Station in Freetown, I faced the bushy white-haired bespectacled President of the Republic of Sierra Leone, H.E. Ernest Bai Koroma. I had positioned myself at a vantage spot almost the entire working day observing with a new sense of discovery as a crowd (take that almost literally) of ministers (ministers of finance, defence, lands, justice, etc.), deputy ministers (information/communication, social welfare/children affairs, etc.), mayors…(Koidu)…., (Inspector General of Police ), directors… trooping in and out of the President’s office…. At about 15.00 hrs., the genial broad chest President with the receding hairline had come out of his office into the waiting room…. in his now trademark dark blue long Fulani robe (with light blue piping), black sandals on his feet, his glasses giving him a slight professorial look….smiling to all who had shot up to their feet in traditional presidential deference….in his tiny well-lit heavily air-conditioned waiting room, with brown soft leather upholstery sofas, stark white walls, carved wooden ceiling, and a man-size polished wooden statue of a scantily clad African strenuously blowing a horn. (Prominently displayed on the wall facing the door into the room was the almost full-bodied photograph of US’ President Barrack Obama standing next to President Koroma inside the Oval Office in the White House. Obama is the only president I have seen to be a few inches taller than the hulking ‘Ernest’). He said he was “going to stretch his feet”, which had been slightly injured as he played squash the previous day with a much younger man. At 18.00 hrs I expected him to be fatigued.
“Don’t you get tired!!!?”
He was relaxed! He essayed his now classic film star-like smile at me. Like Chinua Achebe wrote of the Igbo of eastern Nigeria, he first indulged me in small talk on…..old age and health and our biological peers who are not in this world any more. (The President is just one year my senior; we both attended FBC, University of Sierra Leone, at about the same time; and, we both share the same baptismal name, “Ernest”). I burst out: “How do you manage it….? Don’t you get tired!!?”
He waited seconds for my awe to ebb. He beamed. He said my question reminded him of how he had asked the same question of then President Olusegun Obasanjo in 2005. Hon. Koroma was Minority Leader then in the Parliament of Sierra Leone. President Obasanjo was his friend. He had gone to visit Obasanjo in his private estate in Otta, in south western Nigeria. Obasanjo was engaged in unceasing meetings, and, then Hon. Ernest Bai Koroma had asked him, “How do you manage it? Don’t you get tired?”.
He said Obasanjo then invited him to travel in the presidential jet from Otta to Abuja, the Federal Capital City of Nigeria. They had breakfast in the presidential cabin of the plane. Once onboard, Obasanjo asked one of his aides for the daily newspapers. They brought him a mountain of Nigerian-published daily newspapers. Obasanjo said to the aide: “Bring me the ones that have cussed ‘Baba’ well well” (Bring me the ones that have been most insulting of President Obasanjo). And, the aide gave Obasanjo the two newspapers that heaped insults on him. Then, Obasanjo waved aside all the other newspapers – and read only the newspapers most critical of his government. President Koroma bubbled at that – I bellowed. (When I lived in Nigeria between 1990 and 1995, the newspapers would publish how in the 1970s military Head of State General Obasanjo had spotted a journalist who had written nasty things about him; he physically collared the journalist, and shoved him out of a press conference room. As civilian President in the 1990s, Obasanjo had ‘matured’ in handling the media).
In the vast ‘presidential town’ that passes for their own State House in Abuja, ‘Aso Rock’, then Hon. Ernest Bai Koroma was put up in a villa normally meant for presidents. In the late afternoon, he played a game of squash with Obasanjo. The former military Head of State who got democratically elected as Nigeria’s President twenty years after is an avid player of squash; but eight years ago when democratically elected over-60 year-old Obasanjo challenged then about 50 years old Hon. Ernest Bai Koroma to a game of squash, Obasanjo was roundly beaten. Hon. Koroma has an age advantage over Obasanjo – he is about ten years Obasanjo’s junior. And, Obasanjo told him, “Now that you have beaten me, I would get my ADC to play you”. The ADC was ten year’s Hon. Koroma’s junior. After the game, Obasanjo kept on having almost interminable meetings in the three visitors’ rooms of the President’s quarters – shuttling among them – until 03.00 a.m. in the morning. Even the workaholic Hon. Koroma was fagged out. He told Obasanjo he would want to go and sleep. “Okay, my brother. Try to be here at 06.00 a.m. Time for prayers for me and my staff”.
At 06.00 a.m. prompt there was the daily crowded Christian service at the presidential office before the day would start. “Don’t you ever sleep”, then Hon. Koroma asked then President Obasanjo. “I only sleep when I am flying….”. Former President Obasanjo is an act that our President Koroma is following.
President Koroma’s ‘Second Session’ of work ends at about 02.00 a.m.
After working on average 10 hours , President Koroma would break off for a game of squash to end his ‘first session of the day’. “Do you play squash every day?”, I asked, whistling in wonder. The President enunciated his answer: “I play squash every day”. (One of the leading United States’ magazines, FORBES, in 2011, drawing its reference from authoritative sports and medical research, labelled squash ‘the healthiest sports in the world’). After President Koroma would have his dinner, it would be time for the ‘second session of the day’ – it would be back to meetings and talking with visitors till on average 2.00 a.m. the following day. Well, President Koroma would beat former President Obasanjo in squash, but, in the game of workaholic-ism, Obasanjo still beat him – breaking off work at 3.00 a.m.
It is not only the meeting of dozens of people for an average of 16 hours daily, but, reading, and digesting, tonnes of paper work. “I have to be attuned with diverse issues. I would move from discussing women’s issues; to energy with the energy minister; to finance with the finance minister; then, foreign relations with diverse ambassadors and international experts”, the President explained. “I have to read reports before meetings so I would be prepared abd would make informed decisions”. He pointed to a thick red and black file on his desk. (In between talking about Obasanjo, I had interjected with a question about how much time he would spend with his family. He said that luckily by the time he was elected President in 2007, his two daughters were studying in the United Kingdom – with the elder now a lawyer, called to the bar there; having acquired the enviable degrees of LL B and LL M. His wife, a graduate in Chemistry, and former psychiatric nurse in the UK, also has her desk over-spilling with work ).
Who is fit to be President Koroma’s successor?
We spoke briefly on his “successor”. He said the choice of who will be Leader, and presidential candidate of the APC , in 2018, would “depend on the party”. He said that the populace, and the party, have matured; and he was sure that the choice would not be on “who is my brother”, but, who the party believe would continue the developmental thrust of his Agenda for Change and Agenda for Prosperity. “The people have high expectations today. They have seen what development is like with my presidency. They have seen electricity in their villages. They are getting pipe borne water in their villages. They have roads leading to their villages and towns, and they would want a person who they believe can continue with such development”.
Sierra Leone’s most valuable wealth today
More than our vast mineral wealth, more than the upcoming oil boom in our country, the most valuable wealth of our country at this point in time is the workaholic President who is extraordinarily humble, determined to make physical his vision of accelerated development. I asked how with even presidential powers he is never haughty, and always humble in his demeanor. (The same trait of humility I observed in two of his brothers I have interacted with –Thomas, and Sylvanus [a.k.a. “What-A-Man”]). He bowed his head slightly in the soft light of the shaded lamp that lent a luxurious glow to the room, and said pensively, “It is the way we were brought up – in a Christian home where we prayed morning and night, we were taught that life was not about acquiring material things but to give service to others. We were almost regimented by our father, a primary school headmaster. Every one of us in our family had a time to get up, and do his chores, time for exercise, time for studies, time for Sunday School….”. He spoke of how boys like Allie Fornah – who he grew up with in Makeni, Bombali District, the Northern regional headquarters of Sierra Leone – would derisively refer to them as ‘Mission Children’. The Christian ‘Mission’ values instilled in the boy Ernest yesterday is still with the man ‘Ernest’ today who is on a Political Mission to stimulate one of the fastest developmental pace in the world within Sierra Leone.