Sierra Leone Telegraph: 5 September 2019:
Dr. Kandeh Yumkella (MP), parliamentary leader of the opposition National Grand Coalition (NGC) party, swapped a career in the upper ranks of international diplomacy for the rough and tumble of politics in his homeland, Sierra Leone.
And even though he’s no stranger to international or national politics (he once served as Sierra Leone’s trade minister), he has come under withering criticism lately by some of his fellow countrymen.
Speaking to the Sierra Leone Telegraph last weekend, Yumkella said: “Being a politically non-aligned centrist in Sierra Leone’s politics is hard to accept by many”.
The criticism comes from all sides. The country’s largest opposition party – the All People’s Congress (APC), expects him to be on their side and speak out against the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party (SLPP) government when the rule of law is not respected, and injustice is perpetrated against their party and members; and the SLPP would also like Yumkella to lend credence to some of their acts.
He almost never wins the argument, as he is either branded as being either close to the APC or the ruling SLPP, which he left to help found the NGC. And to top it all, even some of his fellow NGC members accuse him of either supporting the main opposition APC or the ruling SLPP.
What these critics are missing is that Yumkella and the NGC leadership are taking a principled stance of “putting the nation first”, where the rule of law is respected, where peace and security are guaranteed for all, devoid of tribal divisions and injustices. Such a stance sees NGC building alliances with the government or opposition, as and when necessary, but on the basis of adherence to the above principles.
For many Sierra Leoneans that are used to clear-cut divisions between the red of APC and green of SLPP, this type of coalition-building is alien. For many APC and SLPP diehards, you’re either with them or with their mortal rivals in the alternative camp, there can be no middle ground.
To help shed some light on these criticisms and discussions among Sierra Leoneans, the Sierra Leone Telegraph caught up with Dr Yumkella last weekend in his Constituency 062 in Samu Chiefdom, Kambia District, where we asked him a few questions:
The Sierra Leone Telegraph (SLT): People accuse you of being silent, so why have you been silent for so long?
Hon. Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella (KKY): The whole country will recall that before and during the 2018 Elections campaign, the NGC, I want to believe and you will agree, highly succeeded in raising the level of political discourse to a level hardly experienced before in the history of our country. We in the NGC thus effected a paradigm shift such that all the Political Parties, without exception, adopted our slogans – “Country Fos” and “We Wae Dae Suffer Na We Borku,” etc.
Moreover, as a new Party in Opposition, the NGC’s Mission was and still is to put “Country Fos”. Based on this Mission, our approach was to give the new government an opportunity to govern by supporting it in those areas that are in the supreme interest of the country, and voicing out our strong opposition where Government failed to put the country’s interests first.
The NGC Party is an institution and it speaks when it is necessary, and we have done so on numerous occasions. This is how we have spoken out in parliament about economic mis-management, and provided a critique of the state of the nation during the President’s address to Parliament.
We have unequivocally supported the Commissions of Inquiry (CoI) and participated in events such as Bintumani 3 where we have spoken out on a number of issues.
So, when you compare our robust stance before and during the campaign with our measured strategy to work with the government when and where necessary, the perception that we have been silent becomes understandable. To be clear, no, we have not been silent!
We have been measured and cooperative to give the new Government a chance to govern. The question now is: how long, in the light of what the country is experiencing after one and a half years of SLPP governance?
SLT: People think you are being cagey by being a centrist politician or playing in the middle. They also believe you have a soft spot in your heart for the ruling SLPP party, is that the case?
KKY: It is true that the majority of the members of the “Coalition of Progressives” that eventually formed the National Grand Coalition had their roots in the SLPP for generations. Once on a while and that is understandable , we do have memories of times past in that Party.
What we certainly do not and will not suffer from is a kind of Stockholm Syndrome – an emotional attachment to or dependence on an oppressor for survival. The NGC has clearly demonstrated that it is a Party to be reckoned with and ready to pursue its vision and mission unfettered by no emotions whatsoever.
Depending on who you talk to, some hardliners in the SLPP accuse me of not supporting their party. Others agree with our constructive opposition approach. I also get the same criticism from the APC. Thus, the question is who is right?
As I said previously, we at NGC have a mantra – “Putting Salone Fos” which compels us to examine issues dispassionately and seek the best interest of our country, as opposed to taking sides with any group.
The bottom line is that our country is polarized and split between the two pre-independence parties. Therefore, being an independent is hard to accept by many.
On the other hand, the common man does not listen to alternative progressive agendas and messages, unless the message comes with Le10 thousand and a T-shirt or it is perceived to be from APC or SLPP.
SLT: You are also accused of being neutral on issues?
KKY: Given the current level of dissatisfaction in the country, maybe we have not been vocal enough to match expectations. We have been independent but not neutral. Independence means we have deliberately refused to take sides with APC or SLPP, and have focused on issues. When APC walked out of parliament, we did not walk out with them because we are an independent political party. Perhaps, if we were consulted in advance, we could have considered the reasons why a walkout was necessary.
Now for example, if the APC, Unity Party (UP) and NGC agree that the National Electoral Commission (NEC) is a clear and present danger to democracy, that shows that strategic alliances could be forged if the values and interests converge. When the SLPP manipulated the rules and violated the parliamentary standing orders and the constitution, we did not support such actions. Further, I have not been neutral about corruption or the Commissions of Inquiry. I have not been neutral about Bintumani-3, and I have not been neutral about the catastrophic corruption of NEC.
The fact is, our country is highly bipolar, so people expect you to toe-the-line behind Tolongbo or PAOPA. To have an independent mind is a sin!
SLT: The Government has been in power now for almost a year and half. How would you rate their performance?
KKY: A year and half is not enough to judge results in full, but it is enough for us to assess which direction the economy is heading. The President recently said that as a nation, “we are facing turbulence.” I would say that we are heading towards a couple of tipping points in terms of the economy, and in terms of governance and stability in the country.
On the economy, the government is struggling to find traction. The government said they inherited a broken economy, and in their own words ”the worst economy since independence”. The facts are that they indeed inherited a bankrupt economy and a kleptocracy.
However, when you inherit such a situation, you should be more prudent with your management and spending; you do not increase the number of Ministers and Ambassadors and go on a hiring spree. You do not immediately launch several major initiatives. What you do, instead, is to first find out how much revenue you can actually collect, how much you want to pump into the productive sectors so that your revenues will grow, and the tax base will expand.
SLT: Can you identify one economic success of the government?
KKY: We would like to recognize a few. In cooperation with Parliament – meaning with the support from APC, NGC and Coalition for Change (C4C)), the government fast-tracked several finance legislations/bills to sanitize revenue collection and income from the extractive sector.
Also, revenue collection may have increased by 30%. That is a laudable effort, although it was soon frittered away through bloated public expenditure and procurement; and now Government is struggling to grow the economy. For example, though they collect about Le200 billion every month, their expenditure on wages alone is also about Le 200 billion.
SLT: Has the Ministry of Finance or any Ministry asked for your opinion as an international development expert, former minister of trade, or as an agricultural economist?
KKY: We want to reiterate that the NGC’s mission is to put the country first. From that prism of enlightened vision, we are prepared to work closely with the government in all areas that will contribute to the amelioration of the livelihoods of the majority of our people.
However, I have also voluntarily engaged the ministry of education to try to help implement the free education initiative in my constituency. Recently, I invited a group to Sierra Leone to engage with the ministry, donors and principals on digital learning technology, content development, other e-learning and pedagogy tools, etc. I hosted that group for a week at my own expense as a contribution to make quality education a reality. Remember that I did similar support for the last regime, though my contributions were later used against me in the elections.
SLT: Given your global track record on energy, does the Ministry of Energy seek your assistance?
KKY: Yes, the Minster and his staff and I interact very often. The ministry staff and both ministers and I have met in a number of major international events where I am often the keynote speaker or facilitator. As I have done always even with the past government, I have introduced them to valuable resources and offer some guidance as needed. I am also working now with them to attract an international conference to Sierra Leone in November this year. We have also collaborated on rural electrification in Kambia District.
I am establishing my own centre in Sierra Leone called The Energy Nexus Network (TENN) to provide advisory and consulting services for developing countries regarding the interphase between energy solutions and other sustainable development goals. I will formally launch TENN in December this year, God willing. The latter creates a platform for further interactions with successive governments.
SLT: Can I take you back to the economy for a moment? People may wonder what ‘Salone Fos’ means in practice. What would be the NGC’s advice to President Bio and his government?
KKY: First of all, the government wasted a golden opportunity to quickly reform key institutions during the first year in office. They rushed to give mostly non-productive jobs in the various institutions to supporters and funders. Almost every ministry and diplomatic mission now has a deputy and the same applies to parastatals. As a result, the new SLPP Government has so far contributed early to the dangerous weakening of existing institutions, much less build new and viable ones.
My advice to the President is stay home and govern, introduce real expenditure controls including the austerity measures the last regime failed to implement; publish all contracts awarded; quickly set up your Council of Economic Advisers; abolish some parastatals and commissions that are not fit for purpose; rationalize import duties and simplify ports and customs procedures; support the private sector.
SLT: This brings me to the question of how you balance your local, national and global responsibilities, how you cope with your political and professional life?
KKY: It is sometimes difficult but so far, I have been able to manage the situation. When I am in my Constituency, I deal with local problems. When I am in Parliament I deal with National and Local issues. When I go global, that is a different ecosystem. I am 100% professional in all my roles, relationships and dealings.
The global engagements give me the emotional satisfaction and opportunity to do what I do best. For example, for the rest of this year I have several global engagements to serve on Think Tanks, Special Global Commissions, and numerous university engagements with MIT, University of Colorado and the University of Lagos. Few months ago, as you know I was at Oxford University. And shortly, I shall be launching the TENN, an energy network that is poised to help build the capacity of the next generation of African energy policy makers.
SLT: What is your assessment of the Commissions of Inquiry?
KKY: I believe the judges are being deliberate, thorough and fair. There have been a number of startling revelations for sure. The President himself told parliament that the last regime could not account for over $1 billion based on the forensic audits, and the COI and the ACC are also showing us how the looting was done.
The questions for every Sierra Leonean are how and when will we get the loot back? Has this government adequately closed the leakages and expunged the kleptocrats, or are they also leaving some open so they can also benefit from the leakages?
SLT: Let’s talk about political governance. What is your rating of the government’s performance in this area?
KKY: I give them a C-minus. We accept that they did not start violence and intimidation, and we understand that they were also victimized when they were in opposition. But they told us that they will provide us a new direction of inclusive governance. Violence and political intimidation by the APC was wrong, and violence and intimidation now by SLPP is wrong.
I personally and the NGC as a party have said that “do-me-ah-do-you” is bad for the nation. But it is falling on deaf ears. The biggest travesty is that we see the manipulation of the judiciary getting worse. Selective justice is in full swing. The courts changed the composition of parliament by ignoring the petitions filed by the NGC and APC, but they supported the majority of those filed by the SLPP.
Political intimidation in the country by both is on the increase. The heavy handedness of the police continues unabated. The NGC made several efforts in July this year to meet senior officers from both the SLPP and APC to encourage them to dialogue. The initiative is yet to bear fruit.
SLT: Let’s go back to the petition after the election. Do you agree with the ruling of the courts and do you agree that the SLPP MPs should be sitting in Parliament?
KKY: Last week, we held the Parliamentary Leadership Retreat in Bo. An inspirational speaker spoke truth to power. He showed us the laws the APC manipulated, including the Ansu Lansana case that have come to haunt them. He used the metaphor of the Animal Farm and asked whether the SLPP ‘liberators’ have also now become the ‘oppressors’ by applying the Ansu Lansana bad judgment to gain more seats in Parliament.
We the leaders have all pledged under the Bo Declaration to build bridges and collaborate. However, our cooperation depends on how our supporters and stakeholders are treated outside of parliament, especially during campaigns and elections. The first test of the Declaration is the next three weeks in Falaba and Koinadugu.
The second test is at the courts when we file our complaints regarding what happened in Constituency 110 a week ago. The third test is at the Supreme Court where the APC has filed a case concerning the high court ruling on the petition cases. Furthermore, why were the NGC and APC cases thrown out without even a hearing? This is selective justice and it is unjust. But history shows that no regime stays forever.
The very laws you use to oppress others today will be used to oppress you one day. So tit-for-tat has to stop and we should all take the high road. Harmonious relations and peace are built on dialog, justice, fairness and trust.
SLT: Are you worried about electoral violence and the emerging conflicts in Tonko Limba and recently in Constituency 110?
KKY: Indeed, I am concerned. NEC has decided to deny the people the right to choose their leaders. If this trend continues then the citizens may have to resort to peaceful political action to protect pluralism and their right to have their votes counted.
SLT: You recently accused NEC of undermining the democracy for which lives were lost, and for taking Sierra Leoneans for granted. Are you not being an alarmist?
KKY: When NGC says put “Salon Fos” it means things should be called by their names. NEC has no right to cancel a whole election because one polling centre out of 145 had problems. NEC has seen the videos of the incident; the faces of the perpetrators are clear and government functionaries were on the scene. But NEC chose to victimize us for the second time. They should be honest and deal with those who have chosen the path of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction).
We are waiting to see what mayhem will be unleashed on us in Constituency 040 and 043. Meanwhile, we have requested a meeting with the UN, donors and ECOWAS Ambassadors to register our concerns. When our rights are systematically denied as political parties, we would have no option but to consider joint political action, at home and abroad to defend our democracy.
SLT: What lies in the future for NGC and for you?
KKY: It is precisely at a time of national crisis across so many sectors of life in Sierra Leone -education, health, the economy, governance – that we need to put Sierra Leone first and maintain our principled stance of engaging constructively on issues, with the government and with other opposition parties.
As politicians, we have to be honest with the public. Our problems are deep and systemic. There are no quick fixes. For sure, there are wise decisions the government can and should take now, that will yield fruits in the months and years ahead. We are under pressure to end the constructive opposition stance. But what is the alternative in a democracy like ours? We must dialogue, we must share the responsibility with government to find solutions to our deep-rooted problems.
In the end, we trust that such mature, sound leadership is what the people of this country deserve and need, and that they shall eventually elect to govern them. In the meantime, we will commence a dialogue with other political parties to seek common ground and possibilities for strategic partnerships. All in All, we will continue to be independent, constructive and vigilant. (END).
Join Hon. Alhaji Dr Kandeh Kolleh Yumkella on the ‘Good Morning Salone’ program tomorrow Friday, 6th September 2019, on Radio Democracy 98.1 FM, speaking on current issues affecting the people of Sierra Leone. Follow the programme live on Facebook: Radio democracy 98.0