Sierra Leone Telegraph: 20 May 2016
Visiting and holding high-level meetings in three cities in two weeks – Kigali and Nairobi in East Africa and Cape Town in Southern Africa, a cascade of appreciative and sustained applause followed one of Sierra Leone’s most recognized and globally respected citizens – Kandeh Yumkella.
The reason for his global popularity may be simple: His vision for Africa and oratorical prowess. His audience believes that among the many voices sharing their vision for Africa or the direction the continent should take, none is more engaging, compelling and realistic than the 56-year old presidential flag-bearer candidate of the opposition Sierra Leone People’s Party.
As he challenge leaders to diversify their economies, and speaks about the importance of sustainable industrial and agribusiness development or increasing the continent’s manufacturing base to lift their citizens out of poverty, the consummate diplomat and former UN Chief Executive, may be echoing the same concerns his country folks have, as he held his audience spellbound with his blunt but visionary and solution-oriented message.
Sierra Leone – A Unique Opportunity
“We Sierra Leoneans have a unique opportunity to have a genuine dialogue about our country’s future before it is too late,” Yumkella remarked, when a member of the audience asked him about Sierra Leone’s difficulties, at the just concluded 2016 Africa meetings of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Kigali.
Sierra Leoneans, starting with the members of his political party – the SLPP, one in which he was born and for which his family suffered, have a serious choice to make about the direction they want their country to take, after the end of the current government led by the All Peoples Congress.
If his compatriots prefer the status quo and are content with mediocrity, Yumkella might not be the leader they are looking for.
He may be in for a tough fight, perhaps the biggest fight yet of his career. But again, those who know him say that, when he began his campaign for the position of director-general of the specialised UN agency, he was dismissed as a light weight. He went on to win and was elected overwhelmingly for two terms.
“All my life, I have had to fight for everything that I have achieved – sometimes people forget that,” says Yumkella.
But the game in a majority of African countries may be different, especially at a time when elections are rigged and leaders try to change constitutions and perpetuate themselves or their party in office for ever. “I think you have to give our country credit. We have had two elections and a peaceful transfer of power.”
“As long as the rules of the game are fair and we are allowed to compete freely, I welcome the challenge,” Yumkella said confidently. “If you know about good governance, if you have a demonstrated track record of delivering and producing results, or making a difference in the lives of people, then you should not be afraid to put your vision and strategy forward for transforming our nation.”
Yumkella has been a member of this foremost body (WEF) since his days as a two-term director-general of the UN Industrial Development Organization, as he and other thoughtful leaders share their expertise and discuss important global issues that matter to the rest of the world.
The high-level invitation-only gathering engages the best and the brightest, the highly-connected, the foremost political, business and other leaders of society responsible for shaping global, regional and industry trends.
As participants enjoyed a sumptuous dinner after a session on Grid Extensions and Mini Grid Solutions, organized by the Tony Blair Africa Governance Institute (AGI), Power Africa Senior Advisors Group (SGA) and the African Energy Leaders Group (AELG) which is one of the initiatives he co-founded, a fellow African remarked about Kigali’s economic transformation. (Photo: KKY Group- Andy Herscowitz-KKY-T Blair -Aliko Dangote – Tutu Agere – Frannie Laurtier).
Hosting a global gathering like the World Economic Forum – Kigali can be compared to Davos without the snow.
Rwanda has seen its economic growth outpaced most countries in the region. This is what happens when a country’s chief executive nurtures “an attractive business environment, cut the red tape and provide tax incentives,” Yumkella said.
Prescription for Sierra Leone
Prescribing a host of solutions for Africa’s prosperity, one that benefits all, Yumkella has been a non-stop advocate for economic diversification, sustainable industrial and agribusiness development for ailing countries like Sierra Leone, a rich country but whose citizens live in abject poverty. “There is no reason why Sierra Leone cannot prosper, given our natural resources,” he said.
With the commodity boom over, we need a major shift to manufacturing and transparent partnership with the private sector that not only yields dividends for all, but promotes the development of productive sectors away from a reliance solely on commodities and value addition – he said, addressing the topic ‘Africa’s Economic Transformation through Value Addition’, at the Frontier 100 Forum in Nairobi.
The invitation-only event brings together CEOs and senior executives from IGD’s Frontier Leader network to offer insight, collaborate, and advance initiatives in key sectors of Africa. The Frontier 100 Forum seeks to lever business solutions to address poverty. (Photo: Yumkella – right; Tony Blair – centre).
Addressing the root cause of poverty takes bold leadership and an ambitious strategy. It involves investing in infrastructure which is one thing Rwanda has done to be able to attract the hosting of a global event like the World Economic Forum.
But more than that, it is also about fighting corruption and ensure policies negotiated by governments are not only clear, but benefit the people rather than the pockets of politicians.
It is also about holding people accountable – one of many things seemingly missing in Sierra Leone and with impunity.
At the 2016 African Utility Week held in Cape Town, debonair in speech and tact, Yumkella’s keynote address challenged executives of the African Utility Industry to help lead the change necessary for an energy revolution in the continent.
“You need good governance, you need to reform and embrace change,” Yumkella said as he underscored that African utilities are in the red.
To help avert failing utilities, he noted that utilities need good pricing. “Let our people understand that power is not free and they need to pay for it.”
Reports from the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimate that Africa has close to 620 million people living without access to electricity.
Away from the UN, Yumkella continues to offer his service with numerous partners around the globe to help solve Africa’s perennial energy-poverty. “I know the energy revolution is powering up and ready to take off. We saw again this week that we have the technology and the innovation.
“Sometimes we are too suspicious of each other; we should embrace energy trade with each other. We must convert commitments to kilowatt hours for real people,” underscored Yumkella as he received the 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award, out of eleven shortlisted candidates all over Africa.
Sierra Leone – A New Narrative
At a recent event, one of his colleagues – another UN Chief Executive said “Kandee (as some pronounce the name Kandeh with their distinct accents) you must be very crazy to leave your job at the height of a very successful career to return home to a country like Sierra Leone, where everything is just simply backward and a hassle.”
In his characteristic trademark smile, Yumkella replied – “that is the narrative I want to change, because we have everything and we can be better than that. Our people deserve the very things that you and I enjoyed out in the west.”
“You know you have our unflinching support and that of the international community” – a stunned and amazed colleague said, for the incredible sacrifice one man is making for love of country.
As both shook hands and reminisced about their lives together in the UN and at high-level meetings, Yumkella, with eyes fixed on his colleagues said: “If all I have preached around the world is true and has helped people out of poverty, and if all that you and many people have taught me and I have learnt about socio-economic development and creating opportunities for all is true, when I become President of Sierra Leone, we all must work together as partners to show one good case where the recently pronounced Sustainable Development Goals work. We must make Sierra Leone – the Norwegian story, where our resources benefit generations of Sierra Leoneans and everyone has a right to a decent life and future.”
That is the future that Kandeh Yumkella craves and hopes he inspires in Sierra Leoneans to choose wisely, as he fights his way to secure the flag-bearer position of his party and prepares to face the sitting government.