Sierra Leone Telegraph: 11 January 2017
President Koroma has made his first visit to Israel since becoming president in 2007, and in less than fifteen months before leaving office. (Photo: Courtesy of epa).
His visit to Israel is as symbolic as it is historic. But policy analysts are questioning why after just one month of returning from a working visit to China to strengthen economic, security, and bilateral relations with the Chinese, president Koroma has now headed to Israel in search of that which he has been promised by the Chinese – cash, security, investments, and technical expertise.
Sierra Leone’s economy is in dire straits, and the Koroma government is in need of cash to pay salaries and run public services. So, every little help from anywhere, would be welcomed.
Since his election in 2007, the ruling APC party has not only strengthened its political relationship with China, but has strongly promoted the interests of the Chinese, including their ‘One China policy’ as well as their claims to territorial islands across the South China Sea.
And in return for the ruling party’s loyal friendship with China, last month the Chinese rewarded president Koroma with millions of dollars in cancelled debts, and promise of more investments in Sierra Leone’s industries, health, education and security.
So why turn now to Israel?
China’s investment in Sierra Leone is estimated at more than $1 billion and rising.
The Chinese are in control of the country’s iron ore mining export, and are looking to expand their investments in the timber, agriculture, energy and fishing sectors.
But there are suspicions that with the 2018 presidential and general elections just over a year away, the Chinese are getting nervous about their investments in Sierra Leone, and are seeking to influence the decision as to who should replace president Koroma as the ruling party presidential candidate in 2018.
Whilst in China last month, president Koroma met big businesses, industrial chiefs and potential investors.
The president has received commitment from the Chinese government for the construction of a $400 million international airport in the north of Sierra Leone.
According to presidential spokesman Abdulai Bayraytay: “President Koroma will hold bilateral discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior government officials.
“His Excellency the President will also be taken on a conducted tour of Israeli defence facilities, participate in a state tree planting ceremony and a visit to the national museum.
“With a view to further attract direct foreign investment to Sierra Leone, President Koroma will meet with leading businesses, including the Israeli Enterprises for Drip Irrigation, and Non-Governmental Organizations like the Israel Aid and the Israel Diamond Exchange.”
Israel is a very rich and powerful nation, and has the potential to provide Sierra Leone with much needed investments in tourism, agriculture, energy, and mining.
But can president Koroma serve two masters – both China and Israel?
How is president Koroma being received by the Israelis?
According to report by local Israeli newspaper – Arutz Sheva; Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu met Wednesday morning with Sierra Leone President Ernest Bai Koroma, who is visiting Israel accompanied by his Foreign, Agriculture, Communications and Water ministers.
The two leaders discussed the possibility of an Israeli delegation going to Sierra Leone to evaluate assistance in various fields: Water, communications, energy and security. The possibility that Israel might enlist other countries to assist Sierra Leone was also raised.
Netanyahu opened the meeting saying, “President Koroma, it’s a pleasure to welcome you and your delegation to Jerusalem. I appreciate our friendship. It dates back to the 1960s and it’s continued since then.
“We had the opportunity to meet at the UN in an extraordinary exhibit of Israeli technology in Africa, and you expressed the interest of strengthening the ties between us. I think that this is fertile ground, literally, and in many ways. Fertile ground in the sense of, obviously, assisting you in your main endeavor which is agriculture, but also in other areas: in high-tech, in energy, in water, the management of crops, the productivity of crops and many, many other areas.
“I have to say that we, like the rest of the world, watched with great concern the great battle that you fought against Ebola. We thought that it was important, I thought it was important that Israel send assistance. We did – a field hospital. We have other assistance that we’re offering in the field of health, like the dialysis center in Freetown Hospital and drugs, medicine. But the most important thing is that you have contained this disease and you’re overcoming it, and we know what a great battle that was and what a burden it still is – the residual effects.
“Equally, I know that you’ve suffered the ruins of a horrible civil war from which you’re recovering now for these last years and we want to part of that assistance, to help build Sierra Leone to a brighter and better future. This is something that you are leading and we’re more than ready to help Sierra Leone rebuild its country and build a future for its people.
“In that spirit, I want to welcome you to Jerusalem. You know that Israel is coming back to Africa in a big way, and Africa is coming back to Israel. You’re in West Africa. We intend to visit it at least once, possibly twice, this year for a gathering of leaders, so this will be an opportunity to meet you again as this one is an opportunity to further strengthen our ties. Welcome.”
“Let me at the outset express profound sympathy to the victims and the families of victims of the recent truck attack here in Jerusalem,” Koroma said.
“Any act of violence, any wanton destruction of lives and properties anywhere demands condemnation by everyone. While I deplore the attack, I believe that the cause to a lasting solution of every conflict is not the shedding of innocent blood. It is in the exercise of restraint and constructive dialogue. This may be long, tiring and painful, but ultimately it is the surest path for a peaceful resolution to conflict. (Photo: Courtesy of epa).
“Sierra Leone and Israel relations pre-date independence of both countries, and like many long-standing relationships, we have experienced some turbulence. But history has taught us that while we may remember, we may do well not to dwell on the dull moments, especially when the lights of the bright movements continue to sparkle.
“I am heartened by your efforts in rebuilding relations with Africa. To this end I applaud your recent visit to a number of African countries and your unique and historic meeting with African leaders in the October UN General Assembly meeting.
“Sierra Leone is grateful to the government and the people of the State of Israel for the support you provided us during our very difficult moment in the fight against Ebola. It is only a friend will support a friend that is in need. And the Sierra Leonean people are most grateful for that.
“We believe that it is about time to rekindle our long-standing bilateral fraternal relationship. My delegation and I are in Israel to strengthen those political and economic ties founded by those before us. We are here to seek greater cooperation in the various fields and aspects of socio-economic development including in agriculture, in water, ICT, defense and security.
“I am delighted to have been exposed to the capacity of Israel. In the past few hours we have had meetings of various sectors and we believe that we are here to cooperate at a government-to-government level and also invite the Israeli private sector to go out there and explore investment opportunities.
“I believe that both countries can work strongly together in the interest of both countries, in our efforts in repositioning our relationship as it was just about independence.
“Let me also seize this moment to extend an invitation to you in your next tour of Africa to visit Sierra Leone.”
President Koroma returns to Sierra Leone on Friday, 13th January, 2017.