Sierra Leone Telegraph: 20 September 2017
Since the announcement of president Koroma’s decision not to attend this year’s United Nations General Assembly Summit, taking place in New York, chins have been wagging and the political rumour mill has been running on overdrive.
Many in Sierra Leone believe that the reason for the president’s absence is in connection with the US government’s decision to ban Sierra Leone’s foreign affairs ministry officials from travelling to the US.
The row between the government of Sierra Leone and the Trump administration broke last month, after president Koroma’s refusal to allow the return of several of his country’s citizens, that have been convicted of serious crimes in the US.
“We received that message through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation in a diplomatic mail that indeed because of non-compliance, Sierra Leone will have B2 Visas for Immigration as well as Foreign Affairs people restrictions on their visa applications,” Abdulai Bayraytay – the Sierra Leone government spokesman said this week.
Heads of States from countries around the world have gathered in New York this week to discuss global affairs, propose resolutions and receive progress reports on their achievements of the Sustainable Development Goals. And Sierra Leone’s president has chosen to stay at home.
But president Koroma’s absence at the 72nd UN General Assembly is highly significant, and will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.
Firstly, this week’s UN Summit will be president Koroma’s last as Head of State. His term of office comes to an end in March next year. He is expected to leave office a few weeks after the results of general and presidential elections have been announced.
Secondly, Sierra Leone is still struggling to recover from the treble shock of civil armed conflict, the Ebola scourge, and the devastating landslide that took the lives of hundreds of people and destroying thousands of homes. President Koroma’s presence at the UN General Assembly, could have helped the cash strapped country lever vital aid from donors. He has missed this opportunity.
According to a statement from State House in Freetown, president Koroma had decided to instead send his foreign affairs minister to attend on his behalf. The statement reads:
“The general public is hereby informed that His Excellency President Dr. Ernest Bai Koroma has mandated the Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, Dr. Samura M.W. Kamara to lead Sierra Leone’s delegation to the 72nd Regular Session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 72) meetings in New York.
“This year’s UN General Debate, which has commenced today, Tuesday, September 19th, 2017 will address the theme: ‘Focusing on People Striving for Peace and Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet’. The debate this year is a platform for world leaders to showcase the development policies they have mapped out and are implementing so far to incorporate the SDGs into regional and national plans.
“The Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation will, among his other functions, represent President Koroma in articulating the annual progress report by the AU Committee of Ten Heads of State (C-10) on the Reform of the UN Security Council, Africa’s consistent commitment to its Common Position in calling for Two Permanent and two additional Non-Permanent seats in the UN Security Council, as well as to enjoy all the privileges and prerogatives of the Council……”
Whilst the statement does not say why president Koroma is not attending, many are now saying that the president is boycotting the UN General Assembly, in protest at what State House sees as president Trump’s heavy-handed tactics in regard to president Koroma’s refusal to accept the return of Sierra Leonean criminals living in the US.
The Trump administration’s visa restrictions on four African and Asian countries – including Sierra Leone, is part of Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda. It became effective on Thursday, September 14, 2017, after those countries refused to accept deported citizens from the United States
According to State House in Freetown, the Sierra Leone embassy in Washington is currently processing 27 ex-convicts who are slated for deportation, to verify their identities so as to issue them with traveling certificates for repatriation to Sierra Leone.
There are speculations that the embassy in Washington previously couldn’t provide the deportees with emergency traveling certificates, because they aren’t bona fide Sierra Leoneans who may have obtained Sierra Leonean passports illegally.
But many of the ex-convicts of Sierra Leonean origin are believed to have entered the United States with travelling documents issued by the government of Sierra Leone.
“Once we have established those that are Sierra Leoneans, we are not going to disown them as a country, because we are also under international law not to make our own citizens stateless,” says Bayraytay.
But does the US ban on Sierra Leone’s officials entering the US apply to president Koroma and his ministers?
“On official assignments, they are still qualified to be issued visas as long as they meet the criteria set by the US Government. It is when they go on business or private visit that is when the B2 criteria will bite them,” says State House spokesman Abdulai Bayraytay.
This morning, the editor of the Sierra Leone Telegraph asked the Head of State House Communications Unit in Freetown – Mr Jara Kawusu Konte, whether president Koroma is boycotting the UN General Assembly in protest at the US government’s decision to impose travelling restrictions on Sierra Leone government officials.
“Not at all. He is staying at home to take care of pressing issues, including the landslide recovery efforts,” says Kawusu Konte.
But could president Koroma have negotiated a beneficial settlement of the deportation matter with the US, so as to benefit Sierra Leone?
When the British government of Tony Blair made a decision to deport hundreds of Jamaican ex-convicts back to Jamaica, the Jamaica government did not out-rightly slammed the door. They agreed to accept the entry of those criminals back to Jamaica on one condition – that the British government will pay for the building of a new prison in Jamaica and fund part of the running costs of the prison.
The British government accepted the offer and funded the building of a new, modern prison in Jamaica. They also paid millions of pounds to the Jamaican government.
President Koroma could have negotiated a similar deal with the Americans, rather than taking his bat home. This is just another missed opportunity that will come to define president Koroma’s legacy. after leaving office next year. (Photo: Sierra Leone has one prison in the capital Freetown. It is over-populated, dilapidated and unfit for purpose.).