The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 21 March 2013
The meeting, which takes place on 28 March 2013, will include Presidents- Ernest Bai Koroma of Sierra Leone, Macky Sall of Senegal and Joyce Banda of Malawi; and Prime Minister José Maria Pereira Neves of Cape Verde.
Of course, it is normal for world leaders to visit each other while they are in office to discuss policy issues. And it gives them the opportunity to have much needed break from domestic politics – nothing new in that.
But news of the president of Sierra Leone’s visit to the White House appears to have surprisingly struck a rather different nerve, as pro-government media have gone loco. They have gone into the annals of history to discover that Koroma will be the first Sierra Leonean head of state to visit the White House.
They are calling for the people of Sierra Leone to celebrate ‘this success’, for a country of six million, classed amongst one of the poorest in the world – largely due to poor governance, systemic corruption and the break down in the rule of law.
Will president Koroma declare a public holiday to coincide with his White House visit next week?
Observers say that this meeting with Obama raises more questions than answers, about US policy in Sub-Sahara Africa, where the Chinese have carved up massive economic and political capital, based on their market-driven and self-enlightened industrial development foreign policy.
The Chinese, many in Africa believe, are doing things in the continent that are practical,visible and helping development.
What is also clear though, is that America’s relationship with governments in the sub-region has historically, at best been described as lukewarm and arms-length, playing ‘second fiddle’ alongside the former colonial masters of those countries – especially Britain and France.
So what has Obama got up his sleeve this time? Is he about to change America’s foreign policy engagement in the sub-region, or is he simply trying to catch up with reality?
According to statement from White House, “the United States has strong partnerships with these countries, based on shared democratic values and shared interests.”
But how equal is this partnership, many in Africa would ask; and how much sharing of those democratic values with the US is taking place in the sub-region.
President Obama will meet with the ‘gang of four’ to “discuss strengthening democratic institutions across sub-Saharan Africa, and building on Africa’s democratic progress to generate increased economic opportunities and expanded trade and investment.”
White House also says that; “the visit of these four leaders underscores the strategic importance the President places on building partnerships and substantive engagement with sub-Saharan Africa, and our commitment to working with strong and emerging African democracies.”
Obama’s foreign policy in African, since coming to power in 2007, has mainly focused on North Africa, where the US is concerned about increasing threats from militant extremists, especially al-Qaida branded franchisees.
The role that is being played by both Senegal and Cape Verde in providing military as well as diplomatic support in dealing with the crisis in Mali has been crucial.
Hence inviting the leaders of these two countries to the White House is seen as a just reward for their efforts. The presidents of the two economic, military and political giants of the sub-region – Ghana and Nigeria are not invited to the meeting.
British Prime Minister – Cameron visited Liberia last month to discuss democracy, poverty, corruption and the importance of the rule of law.
But like Obama in 2010, he too did not cross the border to visit the former British colony – Sierra Leone.
President Koroma is said to have donated over $2 million as his contribution towards tackling the crisis in Mali, despite the people of Sierra Leone experiencing huge difficulties in feeding their families and keeping healthy.
Sierra Leone will be providing a base for a strengthened West African combat ready military force, that could play a crucial role in dealing with conflicts in the sub-region.
Located adjacent to the country’s Lungi international Airport, and once construction work of the base is completed, it will act as the ECOWAS military command, control and logistics centre.
But critics in and out of Sierra Leone say that president Koroma’s undemocratic credentials must not be rewarded by president Obama.
They say that with evidence of serious electoral malpractice, which gave the president an unfair advantage in winning last November’s elections, Obama ought to be giving the West African leader some lessons on electoral fair-play.
The country’s main opposition party – The Sierra Leone Peoples’ Party (SLPP) is asking the Supreme Court to take a look at the evidence it says it has, in support of their allegation of serious electoral malpractice by president Koroma’s APC party.
European election observers confirmed evidence of electoral malpractice, but did not look into allegations of bribery and corruption in the use of state media, which gave an unfair advantage to president Koroma at the polls.
President Koroma’s involvement in the ‘cash for votes’ scandal leading up to last November’s elections, is said to have not only dented the country’s democratic foundation, but thwarted the rule of law – through naked bribery and corruption.
Political opponents were handed huge sums of cash, land and property, in exchange for their defection to his ruling party, thus undermining the strength of the opposition.
The salaries and non-payroll benefits – such as housing, travel and help with medical costs – received by the Chief Electoral Commissioner , the Chief Justice, the Speaker of the country’s Parliament and other key officials of state, were massively increased – just months prior to the elections.
It is expected that president Obama will underscore the need for president Koroma to stand down from the presidency in 2017, when his constitutionally mandated second term in office comes to an end.
There are serious fears in Sierra Lone that the president is planning to amend the constitution, in order to extend his stay in office.
Having wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on a ‘dead end’ hydro-electricity project, which, had president Koroma conducted a feasibility study and risk analysis upon taking up office in 2007, the country’s debt would not have risen uncontrollably – beyond $1 billion.
That money could have been better spent on education and in supporting local businesses to create wealth and sustainable jobs.
With rising unemployment and poverty in Sierra Leone, continuing electricity outage and lack of safe, clean drinking water in the country, it is hoped that president Obama will have more than a word to say to president Koroma, about good governance, leadership, corruption and the importance of the rule of law.
But perhaps more importantly, the people of Sierra Leone are looking forward to president Obama’s announcement, of the vital support, which the US government has to offer the country, in addressing the most basic human rights: access to safe drinking water, shelter and proper sanitation.