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Can President Koroma succeed in re-branding Sierra Leone’s image abroad?

The Sierra Leone Telegraph Editorial Team
5 May 2009

A major priority for President Koroma as he embarks on a mission to rebrand the country’s image is to eradicate ‘Sierra Leone’s greatest shame’ – the inhumane settlements of Kroo Bay, Susan’s Bay and all other similar settlements that are languishing in filth, squalor, disease and degradation. Eight years after the end of the war, those make-shift settlements have become the curse of modern Sierra Leone and the greatest shame of our time.

As Sierra Leoneans welcome the appointment of the Reverend Kabs-Kanu, Chief Executive Director of Cocorioko News, as the new Minister Plenipotentiary to the Sierra Leone Permanent Mission - United Nations, this decision is being regarded as one of those ‘putting the cart before the horse’ government policy flaws.

The newly appointed minister’s main task is ‘to rebrand and promote the country’s image abroad.’  For those that understand the concept of product image rebranding, any attempt at the rebranding of a ‘matured product’, before the product itself has been redesigned or reformulated, is a waste of money.

In an exclusive interview with reporters of Cocorioko (1 May 2009), the newly appointed minister, said that his “primary task will be to change the negative perception the international world holds about Sierra Leone.” 

No one will doubt that Sierra Leone has much potential, which if developed, can compete with other African countries as a tourist resort and as a recipient of foreign direct investments. But much work needs to be done to prepare Sierra Leone for this challenge. That work has to start now.

Countries such as The Gambia and Kenya did not have to increase the number of people working in their Foreign Affairs Ministry, with the objective of rebranding their countries’ image, to attract tourists and foreign direct investments. They simply and quietly got on with the business of developing the basic and essential infrastructures that are reliable - electricity supply, well maintained roads, clean and beautified towns and cities, supply of clean and safe drinking water.  Once completed, they invited the World’s top travel and tour operators and travel journalists, to visit and witness the change first hand.

Since the end of the war in 2001, many potential investors and tourists have visited and compared Sierra Leone with other African countries or Caribbean states. The outcome of this comparison is obvious. They have not come back to Sierra Leone, or taken up the opportunity to develop the potential that Sierra Leone offers. So what added value is the Reverend Kabs-Kanu going to achieve, which former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is not delivering for Sierra Leone?   

Surely, a change of perception held by foreign investors and tourists cannot be based simply on whether we have rebranded the country’s image. It is all about what they have been able to see for themselves. This is the challenge for the Government of Sierra Leone, which no Minister of External Affairs or Ambassador can personally deliver, irrespective of his/her charms or skill.   

Reverend Kabs Kanu in his interview mentioned that; “under the wise and exemplary leadership of President Ernest Bai Koroma…. ..Sierra Leone is now the safest country in West Africa and it is very safe for investment, commerce and tourism.”

Well, let us be mindful of getting ahead of ourselves, because the reality is that the government has still got a lot of work to do with regard to violence and armed robbery. The commercial courts are yet to be established; the land tenure and property ownership legislations need to be strengthened; overcrowding in Freetown and youth disengagement needs to be addressed. Sporadic power cuts and the rationing of electricity remains a problem and sanitation in the capital city is poor.

So, whilst this optimism by the minister is a dream that is shared by most Sierra Leoneans, care must be taken not to ‘over-cook’ or misrepresent the reality. As the Global economy goes into deep recession, it is important for President Koroma’s government to get its priorities right.  Those make-shift settlements at Kroo Bay, Susan’s Bay and others, dotted in and around a once beautiful City, are evident of a failing nation, if not symbolic of a failed state.    

Successive governments are guilty of the systematic reluctance to address the immediate need to resettle those communities that are forced to squat in such desperate and appalling conditions. Year after year, those poor citizens sit and wait for the heavy rains and hurricanes to descend upon them, with ferocious and very often, fatal consequences.  

As this year’s rainy season begins, the inhabitants of those settlements are bracing themselves for the suffering that is to come. For many, death may be just a few days away, and it is not a matter of if, but when.  The claim that the inhabitants of Kroo Bay, Susan’s Bay and other similar settlements do not wish to be resettled is obviously untrue. They have been advocating for far too long to be resettled into communities where they can gain access to proper housing, safe running water, and health care.  This aside, the negative impacts of those settlements on Freetown’s economy, its social fabric and the environment are immeasurable.

Any attempt at rebranding the image of Sierra Leone, without first of all resettling those poor people that have been abandoned in such squalor and filth, is doomed to fail. No civilized nation can treat its own citizens with such contempt. The potential foreign investors and tourists know that.

Newly born children are left with the legacy of having one of those settlements named in their birth certificates as place of birth.  Was Tony Blair taken to see the settlements, in order to solicit the help of his good office to resettle the inhabitants? I guess not, because we are too ashamed to let him see how badly we treat our own kith and kin.

It is often said that “to judge the level of civilisation of a nation is to assess how well her government treats the impoverished.” Eight years since the end of the war, it beggars belief, that people living in those communities have not been resettled. The government can commission a Clock Tower with pomp and frantic passion, but cannot make the decision to resettle its citizens living in squalor. Yet, we talk about rebranding Sierra Leone’s image?

What is more ironic about this systemic neglect is that President Koroma would not have won the 2007 elections, if not for the votes of the hundreds of thousands of poor people squatting in those settlements.  So let the President ask the UNDP, the World Bank, the IMF, and the European Commission, everyone including Tony Blair to help in resettling those communities before it is too late.

The newly appointed Minister to the UN stated: “The world needs to know that poverty, etc…are no longer true of Sierra Leone as the country has taken important giant steps towards the noble ideals of peace, reconciliation and regaining her old glory as one of the most peaceful and progressive nations in Africa.”  What is mind boggling about this statement is - if poverty is no longer true in Sierra Leone, then why does the government go cap in hand to international donors to ask for 40% of the nation’s budgetary requirements?

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) assessment of progress in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) disputes the assertion that poverty is over (AWOKO NEWS, 2 May 2009). This latest UNDP Report concludes that, ‘although the economy grew between 6% and 9% a year from 2004 to 2006, poverty still remains a very serious problem in Sierra Leone; with 70% of the population living in extreme poverty.’ The Report also warns that, notwithstanding the current economic growth trend, the MDG target of halving poverty by 2015 will not be met.

The President, his government, the opposition, and indeed the UN Office in Freetown, are all sleep walking into a time bomb waiting to explode, jeopardizing the hard won peace, brokered by the international community, whilst the people of Sierra Leone watch helplessly. 

Whilst the inhabitants of those settlements continue to perish, questions are bound to be asked as to the rationale for appointing yet another high profile public servant, to rebrand Sierra Leone’s image abroad.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry is made up of top level public servants, such as; Zainab Bangura (Minister of Foreign Affairs), Shekou Touray (Sierra Leone's Permanent Representative to the United Nations), Rupert Davies (Deputy Ambassador of Political Affairs), and all the Ambassadors and High Commissioners representing Sierra Leone abroad; this, notwithstanding the role that Tony Blair and his ‘Africa Governance Initiative Team’ play in promoting the country to potential investors. 

Reverend Kabs-Kanu’s expertise and conviction could be better employed by the President, in a more strategic role within the government. In particular, as Coordinator of all government ministries, to make certain that key policy decisions of President Koroma’s cabinet are communicated across all Departments. This will also ensure that government objectives are achieved and performance results monitored by Reverend Kabs-Kanu. But unfortunately, this is another classic example of putting square pegs in round holes.

Sierra Leone will not be seen as truly open for business by potential investors, nor will its true beauty be seen by tourists, if those settlements are not closed.

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