An Exclusive Interview conducted by Journalist Alhaji Jalloh (AJ) (Press Secretary Designate to Embassy of Sierra Leone - Saudi Arabia) with Ernest Koroma’s Presidential and Public Affairs Minister and Presidential Spokesman, Hon. Alhaji Alpha Kanu (AAK). The interview was conducted at his State House Office, State Avenue in Freetown.
|Alhaji Jalloh (Press Secretary Designate to Embassy of Sierra Leone - Saudi Arabia) with Alpha Kanu Presidential and Public Affairs Minister
In my continued series, "Face-to-Face With Ernest Koroma’s Ministers’’, I recently caught up with President Koroma’s Spokesman, Alpha Kanu after a Friday congregational prayer at State House. I immediately informed him about this interview, the eloquent spokesman was ever ready. This is what he told me before we started the interview: "We are an open government and always ready to talk to our people. Although I have a very busy schedule, I must talk to you. So go ahead Mr. Jalloh".
AJ - How long have you been involved in national politics?
AKK - Well, I was a parliamentarian since May of 2002. And in 2007, we won the elections and I became a Minister.
AJ - What and who motivated you to join the political bandwagon?
AKK - When His Excellency Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma vied for the leadership of the All People’s Congress (APC) party, I made it a point of duty to follow him into politics so that his dreams, hopes and aspirations.
AJ - Why did you join the All People’s Congress and not one of the other political parties? Have you always been an APC member?
AKK - Yes, I wouldn’t say I have always been an APC member. I first became an active member of the party in 1985 by which time I was just an ordinary member of the APC. But in 2002, I joined the APC because a man I believed is a leadership material, a man I believed had the right kind of integrity and would sort of articulate the hopes and wishes of Sierra Leoneans was vying for the leadership of the APC and I thought with all the other political parties, he stood the better chance of taking Sierra Leone forward.
AJ - Mr. Kanu, you have been a businessman, parliamentarian and now a minister, that’s quite a combination of achievements. How did you plan all of these?
AK - Well some of these things you do not plan. Actually, I studied engineering and I came back home to work. I found out that the private sector had a big vacuum. After lecturing in the University of Sierra Leone for seven years, I came into private business and became a consultant in Mining and Geology. Later on, I discovered that, there were difficulties with aviation in Sierra Leone. We didn’t have a functioning private airline. I was one of the pioneers to set up a local private airline which did quite well and of course; things led one thing to another and later on, you found out that with politics also needed some attention from people who believe they can make difference and as such, I joined President Koroma when he told us that he had decided to go into politics. As he expressed hopes that if given the chance, he would deliver the things that Sierra Leoneans were looking forward to.
AJ - How do you manage your roles as Presidential Affairs Minister and Presidential Spokesman?
AKK - It’s not difficult. Presidential Affairs Minister means that I am at the helm of things on a co-ordinating role between the Presidency and the rest of the cabinet and also the MDAs i.e. the Ministries, Departments and Agencies that normally will have interactions with the President. And the role of Spokesman, I am fulfilling as and when there is need. So it’s not what you call a permanent job. There is an office of the Spokesman which is well manned by the right kind of people and they handle the day-to-day things. I only come in when really there is need for me to intervene. But I have a good staff. So, I pay more attention to the Presidential Affairs side of things during the coordination with all other ministries and all the agencies and commissions under the Presidency.
AJ - Have you brought any innovative changes to the Ministry of Presidential Affairs and the office of the Presidential Spokesman? If yes, what are they?
AKK - Innovation is a broad word. For now, the status-quo in the Presidential Affairs Ministry is such that is an extension of the Presidency. So you cannot innovate beyond what the President himself has programmed. You can suggest things here and there and some of these things are confidential. But as you have seen, the Presidency is working and Sierra Leone is moving. Even the short 10 months that we have been in power, you have seen that the entire team, all the people who make up the Presidency, the President included, have been doing their job very well. And I am sure I have been working to the satisfaction of the President.
AJ - What is you reaction to some former Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP) Ministers who recently said to me in my just concluded "Search for SLPP Ministers" series that, it is not true that your government inherited a "battered economy" ?
AKK - I think we should leave that to the public to decide. We have said that what we inherited was a battered economy. So still is. We are trying to mend it and make things work. When we came to power, they had no budget support from the donors. They had no programme with the IMF. All these things have been suspended because of perceived corruption within the government. And as such, they were running a day- to- day cash basis budget in the country. I mean what they collected is what they spent. And that’s no way to run a country, which means you cannot project your expenditures and your interventions in certain areas. But you can see as soon as we came to power we had been able to restore the budgetary support from DFID and also we now have a programme with the IMF. So it means we are doing the right things. We inherited nothing from them. The country was broke. Even some of the Ministers don’t have proper functioning vehicles which they had broken before they left. We are just struggling, you can see my office, it is not even furnished. I am just trying to manage and get the job done rather than look at cosmetic things. So, we have decided that fixing the economy is more important than looking for comfort here and there. And you can see that since President Koroma came to power, he has been traveling out of the country almost every month. And he wants to sell himself and the country and also to inform donor partners that there is change of leadership in Sierra Leone that was business oriented; that was serious about good governance; that was serious about fighting corruption; that was serious about taking the country out of poverty; that was serious in intervening and reducing the infant mortality rate which happens to be the highest in the world alongside the maternal mortality which is the worst in the world. I can tell you that we are making progress in that direction. The schools are the poorest; we are trying to improve on those. You can see we inherited a country that was the darkest in the world. Within three months, we had the city lights on again. And I am sure you yourself were very happy that you are not disturbed by the generator noises at night anymore because we are providing that service for you. This is what a responsible government does. We are trying to fix the roads with very little money in our hands. If we have more money, in the next 36 months as the President had said, I say 24 months now because it’s almost a year now going; we will be in position to give you our report card for you to check the successes and failures. But I can tell you that we will have over 98% successes because the whole government is gingered-up by President Koroma’s vision of changing Sierra Leone from the poor state it was and from the lowest in the Human Development Index (HDI) of the UN to somewhere in between.
AJ - Some of the erstwhile SLPP Ministers raised concerns that the Ernest Koroma led - APC Cabinet is not regionally balanced. They are claiming that, the cabinet is mainly made-up of North-Westerners. Mr. Minister, would you like to respond to that?
AKK - That is not true, when they say westerners and northerners, they actually mean Mende and Temne. Let me just talk about that. In the cabinet, there are about six or five Temne people from the North and four Mende from the South. So where is the imbalance? We have included ministers from the East and the South and how much more do they want? We have done very well. This is a party and a government that is all inclusive; a party that has tried to bring everybody on board; a party that is against tribalism and regionalism; a party that opens its hands for other people to come in. If they are not in the government today is because may be they do not want to come. But if you look at the MDAs, you look at all the agencies and the departments the people who are found in the jobs are all there. We have not changed many people; we have not even tried to change unless by recalling some of our ambassadors. Of course, we have to recall some and that is expected naturally when government changes. You have to put your own people who can best articulate and project the kind of visions that you have and that is what we have been doing. So tell me what is wrong about that Mr. Jalloh. You take a look at all the civil servants in Sierra Leone, take a look at all ministries and see. Put them in regions, areas and see whether it is true what they are saying.
AJ - Ok Mr. Minister, has President Koroma given you any specific assignment in the area of fostering reconciliation in the country? If so, what is that assignment and how far have you gone with that?
AKK - Very well, yes he has given me a specific assignment, that specific assignment is first of all to make sure I tell who had been in the past regime not to bother or fear anything, they must stay in the country and help develop because as you know, when the results were announced, all of them were running helter-skelter. Likewise they want to run out of the country because they are afraid that their sins will catch up with them but not this government. This government is not worried about what they had done, we are worried about where Sierra Leone goes from here, that is why we ask the people to give a change of driver to the vehicle and the new driver and all the other people who make up the vehicle are very-very much determined to make sure that Sierra Leone goes forward and goes forward as a united country and that’s what we’ve been doing. I also do it on radio programmes, I go up country, I have town hall meetings and all sort of things people appreciate that this is a government that is well inclusive.
AJ - How well do you relate to the Ministry of Information? I’m compelled to ask this question because people say there is duplication in your roles as spokes persons.
AKK - Is there a difference between a government and the President? If there is a difference, then there is no collusion between the roles of the Minister of Information and myself. I speak for one person i.e. the President when he decides he wants to be heard or wants to articulate something. The Minister of Information speaks for the government; he speaks for all of us when we take decisions in cabinet, those things which needs to be made public, to be promulgated, they are done through him or his ministry. That is the difference; a government spokesman is totally different from the spokesman for one man. I handle only one part and that is the Presidency. He handles every body else.
AJ - Before the 2007 elections, it was on record that you promised the people of this country on a radio panel discussion programme that, if the APC wins, the price of our staple food, rice and other basic commodities will decrease. Now that prices are inflating, what do you want to say again?
AKK - I’m glad you ask that question. Immediately we came to power, prices escalated. The prices of oil and fuel have risen, everything else has risen. How do you expect us to be able to maintain the prices or indeed make them lower? what we have done in that case is that, with the shortage of food around the world, there was a real danger that we might come to a time when we do not have enough rice to sell to everybody but the intervention of the president was to contact the Indian Prime Minister and the President of Brazil to give us concession to sell because they had banned the sale of their own commodities outside. Because we got that at reasonable prices, we have been able to bring the price down as it’s approaching Ramadan. Today, rice coming from the government’s intervention is being sold for a hundred & five thousand Leones for a fifty kIilogram bag, while the normal price that was prevailing at the time is one hundred and thirty thousand Leones a bag. I think we have done our best and we are still doing our best, but what we continue telling people is that, let’s provide our own food, we don’t have to depend on other people and by so doing, we are going to be able to make the food prices lower. We are doing well because we are now spending a lot of money on agriculture, we are buying harvesters, and we are buying machines. We approve the purchase of over 60 harvesters for this year because of intervention in this short period we came, we are expecting bomber harvest of something like 72 5,000 tons of rice which we is expecting just a short time. We need to have the machines just to harvest that.
AJ - Finally Hon. Alhaji Alpha Kanu, do you have any message for the people of Sierra Leone from the President of this country, His Excellency, the President, Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma ?
AKK - Yes, President Ernest Bai Koroma is very thankful and appreciative of the fact that the people of Sierra Leone have been able to analyze situations themselves; albeit the opposition’s impression planted on the citizenry that, it is due to the APC government that the prices of basic commodities are increasing. Anybody hearing that now is laughable because the APC does not control the prices of rice that comes from Thailand, Cambodia or Vietnam, they don’t control over the price of oil that comes from Nigeria or from Saudi Arabia and everybody has seen how that has gone. But the impression the opposition gives is that we are responsible for the escalation of oil prices in the world. So people have understood that, if they hadn’t understood, there would have been some trouble already, but our people are patient. So we want to thank them for their understanding because we told them what the situation is. This is an open government that is why we have a branch called the open government initiative. We have open lines to our people, they can call and talk to us, we have radio programmes, we have town hall meetings and the President goes out and speaks to people and let them know and any opportunity we have, we speak to the petty traders, we speak to the big merchants and they know what government is trying to do. So I want to thank them for that understanding. There is a better future for us, because this year we have decided to go into agriculture and next year, we are going into agriculture even in a bigger way and after that, we are going to look at the roads. We are already looking at electricity. We want to make that sustainable countrywide. So by the end of December, we expect the historic Bumbuna Dam to come on stream. It’s been under construction for thirty years. We’ve come within 8 months and we are going to be able to open that as we are a responsible government, government that is determined to work and the people of Sierra Leone know that. Our advise to them is that we are all the same people, we do not need to quarrel to the point that we endanger ourselves. We must be a violent free society; we should be able to resolve our problems. Even if you don’t want Alpha Kanu today, wait till the ballot box and express yourself. That is a better bullet than you causing problems in the country. So let the youth understand that we are trying to work for them by creating job for them. We will create an appropriate technology institute for them and also to try and absorb those who can go into agriculture and that is for the rural youth. We want the women to know that this is a government that is gender sensitive, is a government that has the highest number of female ministers and deputy ministers than any other government that has been here before, we have youths in our government and I tell you we are looking for everybody to come on board and enjoy a better Sierra Leone in the very near future.
AJ- Thank You Mr. Presidential Affairs Minister
AKK- Thank you Mr. Jalloh. It’s a pleasure.