John Baimba Sesay: Sierra Leone Telegraph: 19 November 2018:
Born in 1972, Chernor Maju Bah also popularly known as Chericoco is a Member of Parliament representing constituency 126 in the country’s capital, Freetown. He was, from 2012 to 2017, the country’s deputy speaker of parliament.
Bah rose to political stardom following his election to parliament in 2007 under an APC ticket. He was re-elected in the 2012 elections, winning 68.45% of the votes.
A Barrister by profession, he was in 2018, announced as the running-mate to the presidential candidate for the ruling APC, a decision, he said, came as “a surprise” – but that “…when you do good things, people out there will be looking…”
At present, Bah is Sierra Leone’s Majority Leader of Parliament, overseeing over 66 parliamentary seats of the main opposition All People’s Congress, a role that comes with “challenges.”
In this exclusive interview in his office at the House of Parliament, Bah speaks about the latest happenings in the Houses of Parliament; his reaction to being announced running-mate in 2017; what the APC should do now to prepare to regain the presidency in 2023.
He also discusses recent development on plans to annul an existing contract for the printing of the national passport.
First, he spoke about his transition from his law chambers, seeking justice for clients through the courts, to mainstream politics as a Member of Parliament- enacting laws, representing a constituency through a political party and performing oversight functions.
CM Bah: The transition has been an interesting, but also a challenging one. My legal practice also contributed towards carving my political path. I had always been interested in politics since I was in primary school, but I became more interested when I entered Fourah Bay College.
I am one of those who believe that, good people can’t stay outside and believe that they would make changes from there. You can influence actual change from within. Between 1996 and 1998, I became more interested and more active and since then, I had been planning what to do, because I graduated in 1996 and from the law school in 1998.
In 1997, there were no graduates because of the AFRC interregnum. It was in 1998 when I was called to the bar, immediately I started practicing and then I started working towards actualizing the political dream itself. But added to that also I believe I was destined to be a politician.
John Baimba: Being this politician today, how has it been like?
CM Bah: Still challenging but also very interesting. Now you can see things first hand- you are not being told. That is why most people who have the capacity and spend time criticizing, I have encouraged them to join politics. Because you can say politicians are not doing well and you believe you can do better but yet still, you are outside. The best players must come in. There are still many good people out there and if they don’t join the wagon, their spaces will be filled by people that they may continue to criticize.
John Baimba: There must have been some other great lessons learnt, too?
CM Bah: I have learnt many lessons, more so in those areas that deal with human beings. Man, by nature, is selfish but I believe, that when you go into public office, that nature should change to being selfish not for self, but for the people. I have seen all the sides of politics in the last 11 years; deceit, backstabbing, many negatives.
But generally, also I have seen many good people, I have met with many good people in politics. Some of them are still around, some I’m still with and some have exited. But good people also taught me many lessons that whatever you can do in making sure that you change the lives of people, continue doing it and that is what I am benefiting from, today.
John Baimba: Were you surprised to have been named in 2018, running mate to Dr. Samura Kamara?
CM Bah: Yes, and no. Yes, because nobody told me about it. It was a surprise when I entered the room and heard my name. I didn’t show any active interest because I was enjoying my life in parliament and there were so many contestants for the ticket.
But then also, when you do good things, people out there will be looking and so I believe that it was not a coincidence. So as I say, yes because of that but no, considering also what I had done during the last ten years- my contribution to the Party and Sierra Leone.
John Baimba: Should you come again as a running mate, what should your party do to win?
CM Bah: One lesson is to remind everybody that the party is always bigger than the individual. Secondly, we have to remember that it is better to work as a team, than to think selfish. I believe if we had all worked together, it would have been different.
Today the APC is out of power. So, it is better to work hard, succeed, and then you complain. The effects, when they are negative, you can’t go back. So, it is always good that you think about the bigger picture.
John Baimba: What do you think the party will look like in 2023?
CM Bah: I am sure if we go back to the drawing board, make sure we get our presidential candidate as early as possible; give that individual time to go around the country and do all what is expected of him or her, we have better chances of coming back, in 2023.
John Baimba: So in essence, there is need for a presidential candidate earlier?
CM Bah: Yes, at least like two to three years before elections.
John Baimba: How difficult is it, providing leadership for over 60 opposition Members of Parliament?
CM Bah: Like in public life, you meet all sort of people. Almost all of the members of parliament that I am leading are new, but for few. But there is a good working relationship and sure there are challenges but they are challenges the leader is expected to surmount. I am doing my best to make sure I bring everybody on board and so far, it is not perfect but working well.
The MPs are very supportive and intelligent. Their support to the party is also commendable. Their contributions in Parliament have been tremendous. And perhaps, most importantly, I believe that the support from the party leadership has helped me a lot in navigating through this terrain.
John Baimba: As the leader here, what does it mean for any of your members to go out publicly and take a position on touchy issues, appearing that it is your party’s position?
CM BAH: I am happy you used the word ‘appearing’. We have a structure in parliament. We don’t just go out and condemn colleagues who do those things. There is a system. First and foremost, each MP represents a constituency and they have a right to their opinions.
But when it comes to issues that cut across the party, we hang heads and discuss before going out. So, whenever a Member of Parliament goes out of that line, we always call them back.
John Baimba: Much as the matters are in court and not wanting to discuss the details, are the ongoing court petitions against some MPs of your party affecting your smooth operations?
CM Bah: It is. Even outside politics, when you have a matter in court, you are not settled. So, the MPs themselves, I don’t believe, are as effective as they could have been. Be that as it may, they are still doing their best and so far, myself and I’m sure, the party and the general membership, are satisfied with the job the MPs are doing. I believe they could do better, but so far, what they have been doing, has been impressive.
John Baimba: The House recently asked the Executive arm of government, through finance ministry, for a review of conditions of service for MPs. Why all those demands?
CM Bah: Why not those demands? Our parliament is the least resourced in Africa and if that is the case, I’m sure, it is the least resourced in the world. For you to expect maximum output, you must also ensure that the tools, including remuneration, should be adequately enough to ensure that the MPs are in a better footing to perform their functions effectively.
But also, those were just mere proposals. The document was not signed. So, it shows it is not an official document from parliament. The person who took it out to the public, nobody knows. But we have negotiated with the ministry of finance which is something we have been doing since 2007. It is not new.
It is unfortunate, that this one ended this way because of some involvements I’m not too sure about. But since 2007, parliament has always been negotiating and gradually our conditions were reviewed and improvement being made. I’m sure, the same will happen now but the conclusions are far below what was circulated on social media.
John Baimba: And what were the conclusions, taking salaries as example?
CM Bah: Based on the motion I saw, that was tabled and approved in parliament, salaries are not going to be increased by more than 20%. But the public publicity was totally different. But again, don’t forget, that there are many people out there, like commissioners, employees in parastatals and other government offices, receiving 4, 5 times of what the MPs are receiving now.
John Baimba: And parliament is asking for salaries to be harmonized?
CM Bah: That is something we have been calling for since the last parliament. It is not new. We believe that harmonization of salaries will assist government in having proper roadmap, going towards the future.
John Baimba: Has much been done by the House in the area of oversight?
CM Bah: Basically, parliament is growing. I was here in 2007 and when we came in 2012, I saw some improvements. Again, in 2018, I believe that I have seen more improvements. So the parliament is growing.
John Baimba: Reports on social media suggest, you were receiving kickbacks from the last contract awarded for the printing of passports. What is your reaction to such allegations?
CM Bah: It is a shame. One thing I don’t mortgage is my integrity. I have done my best in ensuring, that I keep my head at a level where my integrity should not be something of a doubt. I am sure you saw all the names mentioned as receiving kickbacks and when you put all those figures together, to show how ridiculous it is, they go slightly over a $100,000.
Even though that is not the fee now, because it is less than a $100, (Le.750, 000.00 present cost) but let’s presume it is still $100, you will need to print 10,000 passports a month just for kickbacks and then you print more to keep you running.
Tell me, how many passports do they print a month? Do they print even 2,000 passports a month? What percentage of the population are carrying passports? So, it is a shame, that people will, out of their own greed, just endeavor to smear the images of good people, but fortunately the public is not as gullible as before.
John Baimba: Hon. Bah, what is this whole issue around review or annulment of the existing contract on printing of national passports?
CM Bah: By this morning (12-11-18), those that followed the media and other channels heard the actual story itself, that it was not me, or those that were named, but there are interests that others want to promote.
As I said, the document is a government document. It is not a private document. We are not signatories to the contract. If the government is desirous of reviewing or annulling, it is their wish because they are the signatories to the document and a party to the contract. But they should come with the document to parliament and not a private member who is not a party to the contract.
If a Member of Parliament is interested in reviewing or annulling the document, the procedure in parliament is, you summon the minister to come and answer questions and to let the minister know that you are against the contract and you tell, why you are against it.
For those who were creating the impression as if we are against the suffering masses, that is also a shame. Passport is not a bread and butter issue.
People who go for passport are people who most times can afford their bread and butter. Bread and butter issues are there – those going to school, those paying transportation, looking for food, etc.
We should be working towards getting the biometric ID card that will take us across West Africa, not fighting for passport. Yes, I want the prices to come down, but who am I? I don’t know what it entails, it is the government that knows for they are the ones who negotiated. So, they could go back and revisit the agreement and come back to us.
John Baimba: How have you been working with those MPs from the ruling party, given that though you are in majority, your votes don’t always get the needed results in terms of decision making?
CM Bah: Parliament is about consensus building. It is about agreeing and disagreeing, but making sure, whatever is good for society, we should be under no obligation, but to support. That is supposed to be our responsibility.
So far, we have been doing that but for one or two instances, including the passport saga which I will tell you again, I’m not sure, is a government driven-agenda, because if it was, the Executive should have come up with the initiative. Basically, so far, so good, we have been managing to navigate.
John Baimba: It has been a pleasure talking to you and thank you.
CM Bah: Thank you, John.